Having essentially emasculated one of cinema’s greatest bogeymen by giving Michael Myers a troubled back story in his Halloween remakes, you’d be forgiven for not expecting too much from Rob Zombie’s The Lords Of Salem. Usually more interested in cribbing over-the-top theatrical aesthetics from his favourite horror movies and exercising a visual style and tone from Seventies exploitation flicks, The Lords Of Salem sees horror’s greatest magpie deliver a surprisingly restrained, atmospheric little creepshow that genuinely chills, building a growing sense of spooky disquiet right up until its final act where sense and subtlety go straight out of the window and Rob has his wife ride a goat (nowhere near as erotic as it sounds or should be).
Opening with a flashback to 17th century Salem with a coven of naked crones led by Meg Foster dancing around a fire, flicking themselves off and cursing the local preacher (and crucially his descendants) who will sentence them to burn at the stake, the film fast-forwards to present day Salem where recovering drug addict and local DJ, Heidi (Rob’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie), receives a very odd record in the mail from a mysterious group dubbing itself The Lords. Playing the record on air, Heidi enters a trance-like state, experiences flashbacks to the bad old witch-hunting days and becomes violently ill. As does half the female population of town who are unlucky enough to be listening to her show and become entranced by the otherworldly music.
As Heidi battles her own demons (drug addiction, a tendency to wander round without pyjama bottoms), she finds herself plagued by disturbingly sexual, demonic dreams which start to bleed into her waking life while a local amateur historian (Bruce Davison), who foolishly believes there’s no such thing as witches, investigates the origins of the disturbing music on the record. Meanwhile, Heidi’s landlady (Judy Geeson) and her ‘sisters’ (Dee Wallace & Patricia Quinn) fuss over her, dispensing cups of very odd herbal tea, as Heidi finds herself increasingly under the witches’ malevolent spell. And they have a very special destiny for her to fulfil…
While it’s far from subtle and leaves you with the overwhelming impression that Rob sure does love his wife’s buttocks (they get so much screentime they should have got a supporting credit right above horror legend Ken Foree), The Lords Of Salem wears its influences on its heavily tattooed chest, drawing visual and tonal inspiration from the likes of Stanley Kubrick, William Friedkin, Roman Polanski, Ken Russell and Andrezj Zulawski. But if you’re gonna steal, sorry, pay homage, you might as well pay homage to the best. So Zombie takes a pinch of The Shining, a thimbleful of Possession, a spoonful of The Exorcist and grates in some Rosemary’s Baby before sieving the bubbling stew through Ken Russell’s phantasmagoric brain to give us his very own nightmarishly surreal vision of deformed babies, evil crones, midget demons and rapey priests all set to the most jarring, unsettling soundtrack you’ve heard since Eraserhead.
The performances for the most part are pretty good. Davison is strong, if inconsequential, as the ill-fated local historian trying to avert the apocalypse while Geeson, Wallace and Quinn are wonderful as the aging spinster/modern-day witches and Foster is unrecognisable as an the demonic old hag. Never the greatest actress, Sheri Moon Zombie actually acquits herself pretty well, gamely putting herself through the wringer for her husband’s artistic vision though given her rather relaxed attitude to clothing, it’s disappointing that, during the frankly bonkers fantasy scenes that climax the film, she’s fully clothed when she’s called upon to ride a perplexed looking goat. If there’s one shot in the film, or any film for that matter, that calls for pointless and graphic nudity, it’s when your leading lady straddles a goat and rodeos around on it like a demented lap dancer.
Overlong with a pace like treacle, The Lords Of Salem still manages to be a freaky little frightener that will genuinely disturb and delight you and may just be the purest distillation of what goes on inside Rob Zombie’s head. Though I’m willing to bet that in Rob’s head his wife was naked on that goat.
We are currently seeking Film contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Film contributor, click here.