I still enjoy Rob Zombie’s first two films, including House of 1000 Corpses, something that never seems to be taken seriously by most people. The Halloween remake left me cold (I didn’t see the sequel) and The Haunted World of El Superbeasto is the sort of film that makes me think God abandoned us a long time ago. In other words, Zombie has been an inconsistent filmmaker but one who is also very smart.
Lords of Salem is a film that combines his good and most of his bad techniques (thankfully the third grade level humor that was Superbeasto’s purpose is gone). It’s genuinely creepy and is expertly made. But it also has very few moments that link all the creepy scenes together. There’s practically no character arc, no story, and no ending. It all makes for a difficult film to analyze. I’ll get this out of the way – if you’re interested in seeing it, then you should. But as to whether this is a good or bad film…well, read on .
There are some great, haunting moments in the film. It plays more like some midnight art film at the Waverly than something that will get a theatrical release these days. There are scenes of priests forcing characters to perform oral sex while spewing black bile from their mouths, scenes of naked witches and a grotesque child birth (which look like outtakes from Ken Russell’s The Devils), a moment involving a hairy dwarf creature, and a bizarre ending that simultaneously pays homage to Fulci and the sort of Renaissance depictions of Judgement Day.
Zombie’s really grown as a filmmaker, and there are some great moments that require a lot of skill to execute properly. The scenes I described could easily elicit laughs in the hands of a filmmaker who didn’t know what they were doing. But Lords of Salem is appropriately creepy. It is not shocking in the same way House of 1000 Corpses is, but the images are bound to stay with everyone who sees them.
Still, there is no characterization in the film at all. One question that kept running through my mind is why these events are happening to the main character. Heidi (Sherri Moon Zombie) has no internal struggle, no emotional problems, nothing along the lines of a Rosemary Woodhouse. Now, the film does explain what is happening (something to do with her ancestry and a curse) but that does not address anything about her specifically. It’s the purpose of a protagonist – we must know why these things are happening to them. But Zombie’s attention was elsewhere.
Think about Rosemary Woodhouse or Carrie White. Their ordeals were a reflection of their internal struggles with burgeoning motherhood and puberty, respectively. Their external supernatural threats were something that came from within.
Lords of Salem was missing that, because Heidi is such a blank slate. Yes, there are moments that establish her as a recovering drug addict, but these moments have no pay off. Indeed, the events of the film may as well happen to anyone, regardless of the plot point about the curse.
It’s that flaw that prevents the film from achieving a “horror classic” status. It needs a strong protagonist to make us care about it. I have a feeling the ending will confuse more than frighten, actually. Unless you are aware of what Zombie was trying to do going into the film, then you’re going to come away scratching your head. If people are coming out of a film asking, “what’s the point,” then something somewhere has gone wrong.
Rob Zombie said that one of his goals in making this film was to create the sort of psychological horror piece that Roman Polanski or David Lynch used to make. At that, he succeeded.
But he forgot that some of Polanski’s stuff was downright stodgy, and Lynch’s technique of inserting unsettling images and moments into a film has lead to some pedestrian efforts. Zombie didn’t care. He wanted to make a seventies psychological horror film, and he was going to make one, mistakes and all. Zombie’s maturing as a filmmaker, and that is very clear with The Lords of Salem. There are some moments that have been missing from most mainstream American horror efforts, so I am tempted to praise the film for at least trying to be scary rather than merely shocking. But I cannot, because there’s nothing to link those moments together. Zombie had too many things he wanted to incorporate, and as a result, sacrificed cohesion. Hopefully next time he’ll be able to step back and pick out the best bits of his material, rather than commit all of his ideas to one project.