.A Salem radio DJ, Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), is sent a cryptic vinyl from a group dubbed "The Lords" and upon the needle drop descends into a worsening hallucinogenic malaise. A local historian (Bruce Davison) becomes suspect of the track's origin during an on-air interview about his new book detailing the infamous witch trials. At this time the station innocently broadcasts the ominous grooves, sending other select female residents across the town into a trance-like state. Three women in Heidi's apartment building; played marvelously by Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn, and Dee Wallace, entrap the increasingly despondent young woman in a cycle of codependency for her ultimate, sinister fate...
Oh did the negative word spread fast after Rob Zombie's latest debuted theatrically a week ago or what? Curiosity got the best of me and I broke one of the cardinal rules by browsing some of these scathing reviews before seeing the film. In doing so I ran across news that the United Kingdom was already getting a straight-to-video release, non-affiliate Amazon.uk link, and promptly ordered a copy to judge for myself.
To the chagrin of most, Rob Zombie has yet again cast his wife in a prominent role and she finally gets lead status here. Before you grumble, Moon turns in her best performance; however, she's not given much to work with. All we really know is that Heidi is an independent, single woman with a lovable dog who works as local DJ and lives in an old building with an odd lack of other tenants (besides the insidious trio that sets their sights upon her). There's nary any detail about the character's past, family, and her only friends appear to her two fellow broadcasters (Jeff Daniel Phillips and Ken Foree).
Maybe this vagueness was an attempt to convey the possibility of this type of grand doom befalling anyone? If so, the opposite effect is achieved, as it's hard to care for Heidi or her plight since we hardly know her. Or perhaps director/writer Zombie intentionally wrote the part broadly knowing Moon would have trouble with such depth? Of course, whether or not he'd ever admit that considering his circumstances might be another story.
Whatever the case, Moon's failings are evident when contrasted with the fantastic turns of the veteran actresses on hand. Geeson, Quinn, and Wallace quickly transform from quaint old hens to agents of the damned who'll stop at nothing to ensure the rite of several hundred years will come to pass. Their simple scene with a too curious Davison over some tea and increasingly intense conversation is better than the film's much lauded third act. Meg Foster's primal performance as the coven head burned alive by a witchfinder only to haunt a forbidden apartment space is spectacular. She boldly cavorts around in the nude with filthy hunks of matted hair spitting blasphemy with utterly believable relish. All four actresses accomplish this much higher degree of credibility in only a handful of scenes making Moon's Heidi all the more diminutive. Again, that might have been something Zombie was reaching for, but it's so lopsided Moon comes off as easily outclassed. They might be the sole reason to see The Lords of Salem.
And for the better, especially when some goofy looking short/interlude/thing entitled Frankenstein versus The Witchhunter with Udo Kier, Richard Lynch, Clint Howard, and Camille Keaton didn't make final cut. Sorry, but a horror film going this dark doesn't need this crap and thankfully Zombie came to his senses (even though I'd like to see this as a DVD/BD extra). Sid Haig and Michael Berryman also barely appear despite originally having longer scenes. Ken Foree as one of Heidi's radio colleagues makes out the best in terms of screen time. Still, the now RZ veteran's character is again some funky dude with '70s 'tude sporting another bad hairpiece. Yawn.
The following will have major spoilers, so if you don't want any, please skip to the final paragraph.
Okay, about that climax, I've read some a couple reviews that claim the third act is incomprehensible. No, it's not, as it's obvious Heidi is destined to be the chosen recipient of a christening in Hell to become a witch priestess demigod. How does Rob Zombie, a clear longtime lover of the horror genre, approach this opportunity? Some of the imagery is interesting, the best probably influenced by Francis Bacon's incredible Pope Portraits. But Heidi writhing with a Black Metal frontman? Riding atop a stuffed goat against a neon flame backdrop? The entire screen taken up by flashing collages of dimestore religious iconography?
This stuff is old-hat to fans of Zombie's music, recalling his artwork and videos of now decades old White Zombie albums up to his present solo work. It's tough to think of Zombie as a bold screen force when the big reveal of the din and chimeras of Hades includes an idiot in corpse make-up and tacky Jesus spin art. When it's time to get crazy, the creativity never goes deeper than that of a music video. Maybe Zombie was trying to make a statement about the commercialization of Catholicism? But that's just overthinking a letdown that sours the film to a considerable extent. You've probably had bad nightmares that are more frightening.
[end spoilers]So The Lords of Salem is certainly a Rob Zombie film--warts and all. There's some signs of continued development behind the camera. There's some really stupid aspects in front of the camera. Sheri Moon is of course in the feature and the surrounding actors just make her look bad. Just like every past entry in Rob's screen career. I'd love to see Zombie tackle something without his hands ever touching the screenplay or helm a piece that takes him out of his shallow comfort zone. Either wish would probably make his own future work better. Rent this one first and judge for yourself, but I know the same weird infatuation I had with his generally hated Halloween II (2009) (read more about that here, here, and here) simply isn't with these Lords...