Sitges 2012 Counterpoint Review: THE LORDS OF SALEM Turns a Satanic Cult into a Snoozefest
Only, none of the shit is actually very crazy, especially if you've watched a White Zombie music video before, and the only images anyone's likely to remember from the film are the few that actually provoke laughter. I personally liked the faceless man walking his pet goat in the cemetery. I would have actually liked to see more of that guy, but, like every other supernatural thing in the film, he disappears after about three seconds, never to be seen or heard from again.
The film opens with a puritan man in the 1600's writing about a coven of witches that is bumming him out something harsh. Naturally, the movie soon cuts to said coven as they meet around a fire, getting naked and dancing around while praising Satan. It is as silly as it sounds. I kept waiting for the moment where the witches sacrifice somebody or actually summon some sort of demon ... but nope, they just scream and dance naked. The color palette and tone reminded me of the introduction of another demonic-possession movie, Evilspeak. But in that movie's opening, some guy gets decapitated by angry townsfolk after swearing demonic revenge on the world, which is much more ominous than extremely old naked ladies jumping around, begging Satan to come visit them.
From here, we meet present-day Rock DJ Heidi (Sherri Moon Zombie), right as she's waking up. We will see her wake up many more times through the course of the movie, to the point where it might be worth starting a drinking-game down the line when the movie hits DVD. When Heidi plays a mysterious record by a band called The Lords, sent to her anonymously, she starts seeing strange things, and eventually gets worried that the ancient witch coven may be trying to possess her.
That's about it for plot, except for some shallow attempts to copy Rosemary's Baby and something about Heidi's former meth-addiction, which, like everything else in the movie, proves completely inconsequential. For example, at one point, halfway through the movie, a bunch of CGI rats come out from under the door of a room which we've been led to believe is evil. The music swells, the rats look around ... and then move on with their rat lives. There are a frustrating number of scenes that play out exactly the same way.
And so, if you can get past the threadbare, anti-logic narrative, enjoying the film is a question of giving into Zombie's wacky supernatural dream (or are they???) sequences. Unfortunately, these play like a not-terribly-original marriage of scenes from Ken Russell, Kenneth Anger and David Cronenberg, only Zombie somehow manages to strip the images of all urgency and wonder, partly because none of them really pose a threat, and partly because few of them are particularly scary in the first place. The hallucinations hit a low-point towards the end when a face-painted metal head inexplicably shows up ... I guess to help with the possession. In short, you'd be much better off re-watching the end of The Sentinel.
To Zombie's credit, the film's music, as usual, is unique and effective, though the tracks here are far too disjointed to really create any kind of unified mood. He makes great use of the New England exteriors as well, which makes it a shame that so much of the movie goes down in Heidi's apartment where he basically just redoes visually what Polanski and Kubrick have already done better. He also films Sheri Moon Zombie's butt really well, and I don't mean that in a snide way. In fact, if anything in the film actually comes across well, it's Zombie's sincere affection for her wife, which, for me, made up for her sometimes uneven (though never terrible) performance. As usual, he puts a number of cult character actors in the film, including Sid Haig, Dee Wallace and Maria Conchita Alonso, but the only person who really elevates the movie is Bruce Davidson, whose energetic performance injects some much-needed life into the movie.
To be clear, I'm not some rabid geek with knives out for Zombie. I've been rooting for him as a director ever since I saw the trailer for House of a Thousand Corpses. Here was a guy who clearly loved a lot of great movies, and whose superstar musician status seemed to have earned him the caché to go wild and deliver extreme cinema for a new generation. Then I saw the movie. Rather than the beginning of a new era of horror, it felt like a limp retread of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with more lame jokes and guns. I went into The Devil's Rejects with an open mind (and slightly lower expectations) and was again disappointed; the film was far too deliberate and calculated to work as a grindhouse entry, and simultaneously way too shallow and obnoxious to hold a candle to the films of Sam Peckinpah and Arthur Penn, which Zombie seemed to be channeling. I never did get through those Halloween remakes.
This movie, like his others, makes me think that Zombie probably has a really cool DVD collection, and that I would probably enjoy talking to him about movies and maybe watching a double feature of Messiah of Evil and Rosemary's Baby. But for whatever reason, he can't seem to capture in his own films what makes all those great movies of yesteryear work. I'll admit that I had a bit more affection for this film than his others, though it is, I think, a worse movie. But something about the combination of ineptitude and the sincerity with which he depicts Heidi's downfall made me smile when I looked back on it. That's not to say I had an easy time staying awake during the movie itself, though.