Sitges 2012 Counterpoint Review: THE LORDS OF SALEM Turns a Satanic Cult into a Snoozefest

Brian Clark, European Editor
Goofy. That's the word that kept popping into my head through the entire running time of Rob Zombie's baffling Polanski rip-off, The Lords of Salem. Not weird, not bizarre, not hallucinogenic, and certainly not Lynchian, as some critics (including our own Ryland Aldrich) have labeled the movie, but just inexplicably goofy. It is a movie that completely and (I assume) purposely eschews logic, suspense and even narrative in favor of what some fans will likely describe as "crazy shit."

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. 
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  • Josh

    In a side note, '...Corpses' is definitely more Spider Baby than anything. The last act of the film is the best. I hear this TCM reference all the time but don't see it. Why? Because it was a family of psychopaths? That hardly makes it a rip of TCM. I have zero interest in his movies after '...Corpses' and I am not a fan of his music but this one, whether it succeeds or not, IS a change in pace and style for him. I don't think you are doing a good job of unbiased criticism by completely ignoring that fact. The references you mention are the same EVERY review mentions so you added nothing new there which is a shame considering this is a horror site. Clearly, you have a preconceived notion/gathered animosity for the guy. As a reader hoping to get a review that told me something, I am disappointed. You threw Messiah of Evil and Evilspeak in there as though we are supposed to be impressed that you know them.I would hope you do! I have to agree with marshottentot, the cynical aspect of this review is hammered over and over ,which is ironic, considering you talk about how the visuals are uninspired overkill. I hope, this film polarizes his regular audience into losing interest. Maybe then he can continue moving in this direction and away from his hillbilly garbage.

  • Brian Clark

    Gah! You want unbiased reviews! Someone should really start a site for objective opinions, but its not here. Really I'm genuinely sorry you found the review cynical though. I'm confused about whether you wanted more obscure film references, or if they would have just added to my posturing, but anyway, I tried to be as honest as I could and technically, we are not a horror film site.

  • Maggie Z

    I think he was more saying that there is a hint of arrogance to your review and when you dropped movie names, you seemed like you were boasting about them like no other horror fan would know them. I don't know them though :P I do agree though with him that if Rob makes people who are his fans angry about this movie then maybe he can stop catering to them and move beyond making redneck crap

  • Brian Clark

    Ah, well I'm sorry if it came off as arrogance. I only meant to show that I was at least familiar with the territory that Zombie was trying to cover, and also to maybe to draw attention to some movies that I really love that perhaps some readers haven't seen. You are of course welcome to take or leave them. He does move beyond the redneck thing in this movie, but I still maintain that it's totally inept and dull, and I'd appreciate people waiting until they see the movie before critiquing my critique of it. I also don't think he's ever been really catering to fans. Dishonest pandering is one thing I'd never accuse him of, but I still don't think his movies are very good.

  • why

    And I seriously doubt, with everything I have, that Zombie could make a film that puts people to sleep. You should be fired.

  • why

    So since The Devil's Rejects didn't do it for you I can't find an ounce of credibility to your review. That was easily his greatest film, and was a brilliant film all on its own. From reading your review it just sounds like your pissed off that Zombie's infuences shined during the film. Who are you again?

  • Brian Clark

    My name is Brian Clark, like it says at the top of the review. And you, why? In any case, this movie doesn't have any ridiculous hilbilly sitcom scenes or montages edited to freebird. Nor does it have a movie critic who solves the mystery using marx brothers movie references. Can you do without that stuff? If so, maybe you'll have an alright time! In all sincerity, would love to here your comments after you actually see the movie.

  • J.H

    I'm with you 100% on your overall analysis of Zombie's work in general. He just doesn't have the chops-despite his influences, and that's the bottom line.

  • why

    The stuff Zombie writes is what makes his movies so terrible....his strong points are atmosphere and execution (of scenes, not death). From what I've read this is not a run of the mill toliet trash talk Zombie film. A quieter, more subtle narrative mixed with those visuals as seen from the trailer I'm sure results in an extremely haunting picture, as only Zombie could deliver. I think it's his hardcore, fuck this, i love rape scenes and exploitative violence fans that aren't going to like it. But they have his other movies to watch. I'll let you know what I think after I see the film, objecctively and totally unbiased.

  • Brian Clark

    I honestly do look forward to it. Calling this narrative subtle (which you are right, a lot of critics have done) is, in my opinion, a cop-out. There is no narrative, besides a bit stolen from rosemary's baby. And I'm fine with that. Like I (I hope) implied, I love Messiah of Evil and a lot of other Arty Euro-horror movies -- as well as 80s satanic exploitation movies, which are most of what he's borrrowing from here. But his images, again, in my opinion, DO NOT justify the lack of narrative or the movie itself.

  • while Devil's Rejects is the only *really* good thing he's done, a lot of the criticisms leveled at Zombie are used as praise when talking about Tarantino. Lords Of Salem looks pretty good to me, and i'm only occasionally wrong at picking movies that i like.

  • Brian Clark

    there is an enormous difference between what two filmmakers do on paper and how they execute it. Tarantino is a much better director, whether all the winky reference stuff does it for you or not.

  • Jen

    Except that at least RZ will cite his homages. Tarantino uses them and only cites them when someone catches it...otherwise, he wants you to believe he's 'such a genius'.

  • Brian Clark

    Points for honor then, but not for good filmmaking

  • MarsHottentot

    Geez, Eugene, we get it!

    I thought H1kC was a cross between Texas Chainsaw and Spider Baby and was 'okay' for what it was. The ending went completely batshit, though, as if Zombie figured his first film might very well be his last so he just threw everything he ever dreamed of doing in a film into this horror clusterfuck that's the final five minutes. On reflection, it's pretty hilarious.

    Devil's Rejects, however, was a brilliant inversion of the cannibal family cliche and had some truly gruesome moments of inhuman behavior - I really don't think the goal was grindhouse trash A-Z.

    The Halloween movies I didn't bother with as the original two are fine with me - I don't need any more.

    This deep into his filmography, it's clear that Zombie doesn't really have an original voice, his is an amalgamation of his influences - that could be said of numerous directors (Tarantino pops to mind), but that doesn't stop us from enjoying their spirited, if derivative works.

  • Garth

    I dare you to repeat that last paragraph after seeing this movie.

  • MarsHottentot

    Well a bad movie is a bad movie, I'm just saying knocking a director for being a 'fanrector' in this day and age is not enough of a criticism - to invoke Tarantino again, I remember we all pilloried the guy in the 90's for this same thing. Now? All is forgiven.

  • EugeneRushmore

    that's too bad, but i'll give it a go anyway when i have a chance.
    some folks think "house of 1000 corpses" is a poor excuse for
    a film as well. i guess rob's stuff is hit or miss depending on the
    viewer. i thoroughly enjoyed 1000 corpses, cheesy elements
    included, which are an integral piece to his films. unfortunately
    everything else he's done has pretty much been a snoozefest.

  • Guest

    that's too bad, but i'll give it a go anyway when i have a chance.
    some folks think "house of 1000 corpses" is a poor excuse for
    a film as well. i guess rob's stuff is hit or miss depending on the
    viewer. i thoroughly enjoyed 1000 corpses, cheesy elements
    included, which are an integral piece to his films. unfortunately
    everything else he's done has pretty much been a snoozfest.

  • Guest

    that's too bad, but i'll give it a go anyway when i have a chance.
    some folks think "house of 1000 corpses" is a poor excuse for
    a film as well. i guess rob's stuff is hit or miss depending on the
    viewer. i thoroughly enjoyed 1000 corpses, cheesy elements
    included, which are an integral piece to his films. unfortunately
    it feels like everything he's done has pretty much gone downhill.

  • LilBoyJim

    With and cats also run

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