by Patrick Bromley
I'm a big fan of Rob Zombie as a filmmaker. Even when I haven't loved every single one of his movies (though I have at least liked them all), there are things to appreciate about them; I'll take something ambitious and messy like his 2007 "reimagining" of Halloween over this month's Evil Dead any day. Zombie is an artist. He has a vision. Yes, his scripts often let him down, but every one of his movies has scenes so brutal and effective that it makes up for bad writing. The Lords of Salem continues that tradition.
Sheri Moon Zombie plays Hedi LaRoq, one third of the team that hosts a popular rock radio show in Salem, Massachusetts. One day, a box arrives to the station addressed to her; inside it is an album with no information other than that it's from a band called The Lords. When Heidi listens to it, she begins to have disturbing visions. Things start to go downhill from there. Though several people in her life attempt to help her -- including her co-host Whitey (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips) and Francis Mathias (Bruce Davison), a local expert on witchcraft and devil worship -- Heidi slips more and more into delirium every day. Is she experiencing a drug addiction relapse? Or is Hedi somehow connected to Salem's centuries-old tradition of witchcraft?
Lost Highway, it demands to be experienced in a theater. Even the song that plays over and over again -- the one by the Lords that kicks the entire plot into motion -- works in exactly the way it's supposed to. It's only five or six notes, and it's impossible to shake.
Zombie's wife, who has appeared in every one of his films, gets her biggest role to date here. She's pretty much the whole movie, and while there are still several moments in which her performance calls attention to itself with unintentional comedy, it's easily the best performance she has given. During the majority of her scenes, I forgot that it was Sheri Moon Zombie trying to act and just accepted the performance the way I'm supposed to with any other actor. For her, that's progress.
Like with all of Zombie's films, the supporting performances are mostly filled out with stunt casting, though much less here than usual. There's Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) as Heidi's co-host. There's Dee Wallace (The Howling), Patricia Quinn (Magenta of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Judy Geeson as sisters who take a special interest in Heidi. There's a weird, blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from Barbara Crampton. And there's a totally unrecognizable Meg Foster as Margaret Morgan, one of the original Salem witches. If I could invent time travel, I would go back to my 12-year old self watching The Stepfather 2 and un-fantasize about Meg Foster. It's rough. Does the casting add anything to the movie? Sure. As horror fans, it's great fun to see all these actors on screen again, even if it does tend to be a little distracting (though much less so in Lords of Salem than in the Halloween films). More than it adds anything, though, it doesn't take anything away -- the movie doesn't sacrifice performance for the sake of kitsch.
Like the Evil Dead remake, Salem makes a case for
possession as a metaphor for drug addiction. It's an effective one, too;
if not for a post-credits coda that makes things way too explicit, the
metaphor would have worked in a more open-ended way (though it's
difficult to imagine a more open ending than this one). Had the movie stuck the landing a little better, the metaphor might have helped to rescue it from some of the witchcraft hypocrisy and devil worship silliness.
Because despite the fact that I love, love, love horror movies, I have very little interest in a) witches, 2) demonic possession and d) ghosts. So it's to the movie's credit that it contains two of these three things and still manages to be good. While still clearly stuck in the '70s, Zombie is no longer aping grindhouse horror like Last House on the Left or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; this time, he's much more influenced by the mounting dread of Stanley Kubrick (one repeated shot is directly out of The Shining, but Zombie isn't being shy about it), Roman Polanski and Italian horror. It's all bold color and disconnected nightmare imagery, from a mutant chicken baby to a group of faceless masturbating priests. In just about any other movie, this stuff would be insufferably pretentious -- the stuff of student films or German music videos -- but Zombie makes everything feel of a piece. His is a specific vision, well-executed. Like it or not (many choose "not"), it is art. That's a rare thing in the horror genre.
Some movies just work on us. If asked to defend the merits of The Lords of Salem beyond its atmosphere and evocative imagery, I'm not sure I could. But the movie wormed its way into my skull and has taken up residence there. Most Rob Zombie movies have gotten me upset. This one left me unsettled. I'd call that a success.