Lords of Salem, The (2012) (2nd viewing) d. Zombie, Rob (USA)
Rob Zombie’s sixth feature generated a strong outburst of mixed emotions during its highly anticipated midnight screening at SXSW earlier this year, which I dutifully chronicled HERE. I admired the man for so wholeheartedly embracing his own artistic ideals, but bemoaned that we were subjected to a movie that jangled pell mell down the narrative hill, crumbling and dissipating in dramatic power as it went. In spite of my frustrations, I was eager to revisit the film – something I have yet to cajole myself into doing with his Halloween reboots – to see if it yielded more sustenance with expectations allayed (and a few more hours of sleep under one’s belt).
The answer is yes; Lords is unquestionably a better experience the second time around, especially when listening to the director’s commentary, even if it never quite makes it into the “wholly satisfying” column. There’s a lot to like, a lot to admire, but there’s also a lot left to be desired. (I’m a poet, don’t ya know it.)
Where the live-wire performances provided much of the juice for his Family Firefly outings, Zombie’s greatest strength here is his instinctive visual approach to the material. On paper, the plot is staggeringly simple: DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Sherri Moon Zombie) plays a mysterious record and falls under spell of revived centuries-old witch Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) who wants to birth the spawn of Satan through this comely modern day vessel. Seriously, that’s not just a thumbnail – that’s the whole plot.
There are (very) minor subplots about Bruce Davison’s historian, Heidi’s relationship with her co-worker (Jeff Daniel Philips) or her struggles with addiction, but mostly it’s about watching our heroine sink further and further into a Hell-stewed stupor, which is about as interesting as it sounds in spite of the writer/director’s fevered improvisational nightmare set-pieces. There’s no denying these are impressive, all the more so when one learns how little time and money were available, but they do not add up to a cohesive whole. It’s lazy to say that they could be rejected visuals from one of Zombie’s music videos, but there are times when that’s exactly how it feels.
If at any time one felt that Heidi could somehow overcome her literal and figurative demons, or if we believed that one of the “good guys” looking to provide aid had the slightest chance in actually doing some good, it would go a long way toward alleviating the dirge-like tone. But this is not the universe in which Zombie operates. His villains are the heroes; Evil will always win out until it is done in by a greater Evil. It would be interesting to hear the director speak to this pervading philosophy of pessimism, but as he is the sole voice on the audio commentary, he instead focuses on the trials of the shoot – most of which involve working around the untimely death of actor Richard Lynch partway through shooting.
Again, one cannot help but admire the moxie and resourcefulness displayed as Zombie talks about repurposing scenes or shooting against a single furnished wall while the crew was frantically tearing down the set around him outside the frame. The finished film looks fantastic, a major achievement under any circumstances but especially so with the knowledge of the miniscule time and funds and resources.
Zombie’s audio track only further stokes my impassioned ambivalence about the man and his art. The notion of a brave creative soul surviving with his integrity intact within the Hollywood machine is an inspiring one, especially for genre fans. I desperately want to like his films, but his different-drummer march seems decidedly out of step with my own. But it’s not that he doesn’t know what he’s doing – he clearly and unapologetically does. Should I condemn him for refusing to conform to established patterns?
I applaud the artist and sporadically enjoy his output, but as with the five features that have gone before, there’s no saying whether Lords is a “good” or a “bad” film – it’s purely “A Rob Zombie Film” and one like no other that has gone before. Personally, I find it a movie that I admire without enjoying, applaud without smiling, experience without feeling. Be curious to hear what you think.
The Lords of Salem premieres on DVD/BR on September 3 from Anchor Bay Entertainment. Pre-orders can be placed HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine