The former White Zombie frontman (and one of the few directors in Hollywood who can rock paisley, Bedazzlered bell-bottoms and platform discotheque boots clearly expatriated from Giorgio Moroder’s mothballed wardrobe), Rob Zombie remains a singularly unique visionary in a cinematic genre too often ruled by dirt-dull sequels and imagination-free “product.”
That’s not to say, however, that Zombie’s fifth feature film is a triumph along the lines of 2005’s soul-searing The Devil’s Rejects. That film was an incendiary revelation, a black-as-pitch perfect homage to an unclassifiable 1970s drive-in/grindhouse subgenre that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists in the U.S.
The Lords of Salem, with its dreamy narrative structure and deep references that span the spook-show gamut, is not so much a narrative film as it is a series of micronightmares, each and all bolstered by Zombie’s trippy and unnerving sense of style. He’s off the leash here, and, while the film never coheres (or makes all that much sense), it’s a gas to see this true American auteur run creepy-ass riot over what passes for horror movies in contemporary Hollywood.
Zombie’s wife and longtime cohort-in-horror Sheri Moon Zombie headlines as Salem, Mass., radio deejay Heidi Hawthorne, who receives a mysterious vinyl offering, ostensibly from a band named the Lords. In a nod to Ringu and Throat Sprockets, Heidi and her crew (Foree and Phillips) play the mysterioso 12-inch on the air, to mentally disastrous effect. (The droning, minimalist track here was conjured by ex-Marilyn Manson/current Rob Zombie guitarist John 5; appropriately, it lodges in your head and festers there for days afterward.)
The Lords of Salem’s plot – what there is of it – takes a backseat to the film’s skewed sense of the everyday slipping into the freakishly bizarre. This being Salem, long-gone witches will exact their revenge, while Satan gets unofficial top billing and Sid Haig makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. Also, there’s a squirmy little anti-god, The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Magenta, Patricia Quinn, and a whole lot of goats. Nice.
Moon Zombie has come a long way, actingwise, since House of 1000 Corpses, too. Her psychic meltdown is believable in a way that recalls Catherine Deneuve’s fractured heroine in Repulsion, and, while the script calls for her to undergo all manner of madness, her performance here is by far the most nuanced she’s ever given.
I could go on and on about Zombie’s style-over-substance direction, but why bother? The Lords of Salem is so clearly a project that Zombie has had stewing in his blood-and-black-lace heart for, I assume, ever, that the fact that it’s not a masterpiece seems almost moot. It’s a head trip, to be sure, but it’s Zombie’s electric, haunted head, so my advice is just sit back and goggle.
A longer version of this review appeared in a March 13 blog post. See "All Hail 'The Lords of Salem,'' April 19, for an interview with the director.