By Cleaver Patterson.

Having watched The Lords of Salem (2012) one really has to ask what the point behind such a film is? That’s not to say that every movie has to have some deeper meaning. Indeed some films, particularly horror, are often more entertaining if taken at face value without constantly looking for subtle messages. However, when the finished piece of work becomes so nauseating that the viewer is unable to see beyond its gratuity and offensiveness to its entertainment value, or to any other redeeming values, you do begin to question the justification behind making it.

Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), a former drug addict, has cleaned up her act and now helms a late night radio show with fellow DJs Herman Whitey Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman Jackson (Ken Foree). Leaving the studio one night after their show Heidi finds an ornate wooden box waiting for her at reception, inside of which is a vinyl record and a note proclaiming it to be ‘A gift from the Lords’. Believing it’s a PR stunt by some would-be rock band she takes the box home and plays the record. Before long however Heidi starts experiencing strange hallucinations, and begins to realise that there may be a connection between the music on the record and the dark history of Salem, Massachusetts, the town where she lives.

The Lords of Salem is a visually exquisite exercise in the bizarre. Brandon Trost’s cinematography marvellously captures the bewitching, otherworldliness of Salem, whilst there is no denying director Rob Zombie’s uncanny ability to juxtapose normal, everyday settings with startling abnormality to disturbing effect. A fleeting image of the darkened corridor outside Heidi’s apartment engulfed by a swarming, tidal wave of rats, is as lasting as that of the entrancing gabled houses which line the quiet streets of one of America’s most historic and fabled towns.

However any beauty Zombie, the modern master of cinematic weirdness, manages to conjure, such as the climactic scenes set within a baroque theatre against the strains of Mozart’s Requiem, are quickly debased by scenes that focus unnecessarily on elements of an equally debauched or blasphemous nature. Some might say, considering the film’s subject matter of witchcraft and Satanism and Zombie’s penchant for such dubious delights, that a degree of occult-tinged hocus-pocus is to be expected. One has to question though if this excuses a vision of priests bringing themselves to full sexual arousal, the depiction of which you can’t help but feel is included merely to shock. Many such scenes, which litter the narrative with unexpected frequency, are reminiscent of another great purveyor of celluloid controversy, Ken Russell, whose film The Lair of the White Worm (1988) took an equally louche attitude to godly concerns. In fact, on closer inspection, one could see Zombie as something of Russell’s heir apparent, albeit with an even more irreverent lack of self-restraint.

The Lords of Salem‘s most glaring shortcoming however is its wholesale borrowing of ideas and influences from other genre classics: The Wicker Man (1973), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Black Sunday (1960), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), even Shakespeare’s Macbeth in its many forms – the list could go on. In fact anything with even the slightest hint of witchcraft seems to have been inspirational fodder for Zombie to feed upon, and he admittedly, for the most time, manages to get away with his wholesale plundering by giving it his own sick twist.

The line-up of acting talent on show is surprisingly starry considering this type of film. The younger cast members, including Moon Zombie, Phillips and Foree, may not be so well known outside of Zombie’s rather limited niche market. However the supporting cast is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Bruce Davison, Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn and Lisa Marie amongst others put in faultless appearances, which manage to sustain an air of semi-believability in an otherwise preposterous and farfetched narrative. One performance that stands out from the rest, with its effortless style, is that of British stalwart Judy Geeson, despite her inclusion in this satanic hokum being both surprising and somewhat bewildering. After a screen-break of almost ten years, one has to ask why this accomplished and respected actress chose such a vehicle for her comeback – perhaps it was the film’s sheer unorthodoxy that was the very thing that attracted her? Considering that Ms Geeson made a successful living during the 1960’s and 70’s in such horror and sci-fi obscurities as Berserk (1967) and Doomwatch (1972), her involvement in The Lords of Salem could be seen as a subtly disguised compliment by Zombie to the past glories of this ‘B’ movie queen’s faded career.

A film whose fleeting moments of inspired surrealism are weakened by an overwhelming sense of degradation and depravity, The Lords of Salem is a curiosity best watched with brief rapidity and forgotten just as quickly.

The Lords of Salem was available on DVD and Download in the UK from April 22, 2013.

Cleaver Patterson is film critic and writer based in London.

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