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TIFF Review: Unnerving ‘Lords of Salem’ Is Rob Zombie’s Best Film Yet

Reviews
by Simon Abrams
September 11, 2012 2:10 PM
18 Comments
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The Lords of Salem” is probably goth rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie’s best film, though it does often prove that the cinephile writer/director is a gifted tyro. At the same time, as his most formally mannered and tonally tempered film, Zombie’s latest also proves his versatility. Set in modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, the film follows the seduction of a disc jockey (Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife), whose family was cursed by a coven of centuries-old witches.

Zombie follows his lead protagonist from a marked distance, and makes a point of showing that the fate his characters suffer is a product of their inability to recognize their place within a whirlpool of generic history. It’s a heady thesis, and one Zombie establishes in a number of ways, from his controlled Carpenter/Polanski-esque tracking shots to the evocation of both Kubrick and Lynch, particularly “Eraserhead” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” in the scenes where Moon Zombie’s character is under the spell of the witches. The relatively staid nature of ‘Lords’ makes the context -- within which his frenzied and typically free-associative pastiche works -- a bit hard to swallow. But ‘Lords’ is also probably his most ambitious film, and maybe even his most accomplished, as it’s his most unnerving.

As the lead protagonist of “The Lords of Salem,” Heidi Hawthorne (Moon Zombie) is slowly and deliberately overwhelmed by witches. She’s initially unaware of her relationship to these witches, nor why she’s being singled out by these Satan-worshipping women, who were put to death centuries ago by the obsessed witch-hunter Reverend John Hawthorne (Richard Lynch) during the Salem Witch Trials. But Heidi’s lethargic addiction-like symptoms are initially dismissed by her friend and co-workers Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree, of “Dawn of the Dead” and “From Beyond” fame) since Heidi is a recovering drug addict. So as days pass, marked by austere inter-titles that mark the days of the week, the people that care most about Heidi only mobilize to do something once the witches already have Heidi under their influence.

‘Lords’ is as compelling as it is because it’s driven by a creeping, albeit perhaps over-determined, sense of atmospheric dread. Zombie ratchets up the tension slowly and decisively. Flashbacks of the pointedly ugly and frequently naked witches cavorting in the woods and then noisily being tortured and put to death are effective, in that they bludgeon you until you expect something really sadistic and unusual will happen to Heidi at any moment. So the measured tracking shots that Zombie uses to further draw out viewers' anticipation feel that much more cruel, though again, effective. This wouldn’t matter at all, were Zombie not capable of producing simultaneously mysterious and frightening monsters to leap out at the encroaching shadows of Heidi’s apartment. In that regard, Zombie is still a master. What makes ‘Lords’ markedly, though not vastly, better than his previous four films, however, is that the context within which his brutally effective ability to produce funhouse spooks is utilized.

So the good news is that watching Heidi fatalistically become the witches’ vessel is compelling because Heidi and her friends are rather sympathetic. As in “Halloween 2,” where Zombie sketches out back-stories for characters so that you actually care about whether they live or die, ‘Lords’ gives you a couple of genuinely moving scenes that establish the film’s stakes. A final phone call between Whitey and Heidi is particularly well-directed, performed and scripted, which is saying something, given that Moon Zombie’s range as a performer hasn’t significantly increased since “House of 1000 Corpses.” And while the modern-day representatives of the Salem witches are serviceably one-note (you can’t help but know them immediately when you see them), Francis (the typically charismatic Bruce Davison), a skeptical author and expert on the Salem Witch Trials, is thankfully a believable force of good, as is his woefully under-utilized wife Alice (Maria Conchita Alonso).

The bad news is that Zombie’s still not a strong enough scenarist to provide a totally convincing context for his latest self-referential horror film. For example, the free-associative quality to his allusiveness in the film is sometimes distractingly conspicuous. Were the film not a relatively steady descent into madness, free-associative references to films like the fairly obscure film noir “Kansas City Confidential” and images from the equally cult-friendly Commander Cody science fiction serials would not be as bothersome. But, partly because his film is about the violent resurgence of the past, Zombie makes these allusions aggressively prominent. Footage from “Kansas City Confidential” is used in two different scenes, one in which it’s in the background, and one in which it is prominently used in the film’s foreground. Given the specific scenes that Zombie cherry-picks, these references often make an immediate kind of sense. But it’s still perplexing why Zombie chose that particular film to underscore the point he making in that particular way and at those particular points in his film.

More pressing is the way that the witches, when given a chance to talk, are fairly generic menaces. They don’t do anything especially surprising or memorably cruel. Then again, they don’t really need to, as they mostly serve to usher Heidi to a trippy, oneiric world of “Phantom of the Opera” references, monsters in cheesecloth masks and red pulsating neon crucifixes. “The Lords of Salem” is a product of Zombie’s better creative impulses, so it’s ok that it also features several of his worse indulgences, too. [B+]

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18 Comments

  • Pearl Polanski | September 9, 2013 2:47 PMReply

    The beginning minutes were a direct ripoff of the silent Swedish movie Haxan (1922) and from there it went downhill fast. I'm usually very scared of horror flicks but this movie was laughable. Extremely laughable! The only frightening thing in this movie was the acting, especially by Rob's non-talented wife Sheri Moon Zombie. I've seen better acting at high school plays. She's like John Lennon's Yoko Ono. She really sucks. If Rob Zombie didn't make movies you were never see her on screen.

    I was expecting much much more. Salem, Ma. is one of my favorite places to visit in the fall and I eagerly anticipated this movie's completion. Salem has quite the macabre ambiance and unfortunately The Lords of Salem was a shameful representation of that. There was such potential and it was all pitifully wasted. I have still photos I took in Salem that are way more frightful than The Lords of Salem. It's no wonder that the Massachusetts Film Commission has chosen not to add it to their list of movies filmed in the state.

  • Gaby | September 6, 2013 8:54 PMReply

    This movie was horrible , it seemed very interesting at first but then somehow I seemed to loose interest very fast and the movie ended up being very boring and extra long i ended up turning it off . I was very disappointed in rob zombie. two thumbs waaay down for this movie.

  • Asashii | April 29, 2013 12:45 PMReply

    what a horrible acted, laughable, terrible dialog, terrible script- movie, and this is coming from a rob zombie fan, and the plot was so cliched and has been done a thousand times and a thousand times better!!!!

  • Cam | April 28, 2013 4:14 AMReply

    The movie started off alright and could of gone somewhere but somehow the last 15 minutes had had very little point and was more like one of his music videos than a theatrical release the movie didn't follow through with any of it's cool ideas, it's almost like he was trying to make a good modern horror thriller and got bored and started making some sort of 70's Satanic Exploitation flick, i've liked all of rob zombies films to date but this film sucked balls

  • Kelt | September 15, 2012 10:35 PMReply

    Seven words in and this 'review' lost any kind of legitimacy. If your opinion of Rob Zombie's music is that it's 'Goth' then chances are you don't even know what the hell his movies are about either. "It's another RobZomRomCom..."

  • Huffy | September 11, 2012 11:15 PMReply

    " goth rocker-turned-filmmaker"

    Eh...I don't want to nitpick but at least get what genre of music he did right. Zombie isn't even close to being goth.

  • gunndle | September 12, 2012 11:59 AM

    But Zombie has long, dark hair - HE MUST BE A GOTH!

  • RNL | September 11, 2012 9:02 PMReply

    The Halloween 2 director's cut is pretty brilliant.

  • Rastapopoulos | September 11, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    The Devil's rejects is a masterpiece.

  • Myles | September 11, 2012 4:09 PMReply

    I thought the film was great for the first 2/3, but then it took a turn for the worse, and sadly is only "unsettling" for me. Though I have never discussed a movie as much on the drive home. Worst part of the movie were the moronic questions afterwards and Zombie's nonchalance towards the rare good question.

  • justin | September 11, 2012 4:04 PMReply

    Hasn't made a good movie yet? Please see THE DEVIL'S REJECTS and get back to me.

  • rotch | September 11, 2012 3:51 PMReply

    I believe Devil's Rejects is a great film and can't wait for this one.

  • Terry Grant | September 11, 2012 3:39 PMReply

    I have to agree with the other comments here, in that you kind of make it seem as though he's actually made a decent film before.
    - "the free-associative quality to his allusiveness in the film is sometimes distractingly conspicuous"
    J*sus H, we're talking about the guy that made House Of 1000 Corpses.

  • yer | September 11, 2012 3:03 PMReply

    "Rob Zombie's best film" isn't saying much..

  • Are You Stupid? | September 11, 2012 11:30 PM

    Which is why the author wrote a full page review rather than only the four words you quoted.

  • Bobmorton | September 11, 2012 2:44 PMReply

    Come on! This movie fucking sucked.

  • BEF | September 11, 2012 2:41 PMReply

    Yes! I hope this gets a better distributor than Anchor Bay. I worked on a film they picked up on Sundance and it's straight to VOD and DVD. I don't think I've ever seen the Anchor Bay logo in theaters, but always on spines.

  • Archer Slyce | September 11, 2012 3:12 PM

    I don't think Anchor bay has any theater distribution network/business or whatever it's called ... on the other hand it may mean a descent DVD/Blu-ray edition with nice bonus features. That said that's a very descriptive review I have to say, which is not my kind... plus I tried to avoid as many spoilers. But more than ever I'm really looking forward to see this one.

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