The Lords of Salem
Rob Zombie's ambitious witch horror screened as part of FrightFest at Glasgow Film Festival 2013
Before the UK premiere of Rob Zombie’s latest feature we got a look at the first episode of Norwegian TV series Hellfjord, packed with gags and plenty of weirdness it went down incredibly well with the FrightFest audience.
Zombie’s movies have all been fairly brutal but The Lords of Salem is his most ambitious yet. Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie takes the lead role as Heidi Hawthorne, a DJ in small town Salem, alongside her co-hosts the two Hermans (Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips). The simplest most linear reading of the film is that Heidi receives a mysterious cursed record she inadvertently plays on air, then spooky shit happens. Is she going mad or has the record brought the witches of Salem back to seek revenge? However the film itself isn’t quite so straight forward.
The first 30 minutes are fantastic: there’s a wonderful 70s style and atmosphere, bringing to mind classics such as Rosemary’s Baby or David Cronenberg’s early work. There are also some great naturalistic performances: Sheri Moon is the best she's ever been and Phillips is excellent and totally believable. Zombie also indulges in his passion for cult cinema by casting a selection of horror vets in key roles (the aforementioned Foree is best known for his role in Dawn of the Dead while The Howling’s Dee Wallace, Rocky Horror’s Patricia Quinn and Fear in the Night/Doomwatch’s Judy Geeson play a coven of witches).
However as the film progresses logic and narrative structure become less important. We enter a world warped by hallucination; the final act in particular degenerates into a series of weird distorted imagery, animation and demonic dwarves (that elicited a few unintentional laughs from the FrightFest crowd). Zombie uses sound and imagery in a very confrontational way: it’s purposely jarring and disconcerting (the soundtrack from John 5 definitely deserves praise). Lords thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is, aiming for arthouse rather than grindhouse, and as an attempt at serious filmmaking it is almost successful. The problem is boiled down to one simple question: does it make sense? Zombie has a vision and you assume in his mind it all adds up to something very dark, deep and meaningful, but that meaning been lost in translation and the film comes across as vague and confused. There are great moments of tone and mood, but unfortunately the weaknesses outweigh the strengths. It’s still an interesting film, one the FrightFest crowd were eager to see, and it’s always more fascinating to watch a director challenge themselves and reach for something different, even if it doesn’t quite pay off.