It’s entirely coincidental that I’m posting a review of a movie about the Salem witch trials on the fourth of July. Mostly, it’s due to laziness and the fact that I have today off. After I fell asleep during The Devil’s Rejects, I was pretty much ready to write off Rob Zombie and Sheri Moon Zombie. I’ve never even seen his Halloween remakes and don’t particularly want to because I really love the original and I really hate the idea of humanizing Michael Myers. But then I started hearing interesting things about Zombie’s (Mr. Zombie’s?) latest movie, The Lords of Salem. I read an interview with Sheri Moon Zombie in Rue Morgue magazine and she sounded more insightful than I’d given her credit for. I decided to give the movie a chance and, while it was a mixed bag, it was worth watching.
The movie opens in the 17th century with Reverend Johnathon Hawthorne (Andrew Prine) writing a diary entry decrying the witches of Salem. There are shots of goats and witches doing witch stuff and it looks like the naughty engravings in the book that Xander checked out in that one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The movie then moves to the present time and follows a week in the life of Heidi, played by Sheri Moon Zombie. Heidi is a d.j. at a local radio station in Salem and a recovering addict.
I think some people will find the character one-dimensional but I found myself partial to Heidi. Part of it is entirely personal. She dresses and lives exactly the way I wanted to when I was in high school and imagining myself as a grown-up–except I never wanted the white-chick dreads or the junkie past. I was utterly surprised by this so I found myself liking her more than I suspect someone who didn’t feel this way would. Anyway, as I said, she’s a d.j. and works with her friends Herman “Whitey” (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman “Munster” (Ken effing Foree! Yes, Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead. Prepare to do this a lot with this movie.) A weird package shows up at their station one day. It’s an old wooden box with a record inside it and it claims to be made by a band called The Lords. Heidi and Whitey listen to it and the music is unsettling. Personally, I liked it, although I also have the entire Suspiria soundtrack on my MP3 player. The music is weird and leaves Heidi visibly shaken.
They play the album on the air, coincidentally after an interview with Francis Mathias (Bruce Davison) about his new book about the Salem witch trials. They all appear shook up after hearing the song and you see women across the city fall into a trance-like state as the music plays.
Heidi begins to have creepy visions and dreams. She finally falls back on using drugs. Luckily, her landlord and her landlord’s sisters are there to take care of Heidi. Right? Or do they have completely creepy ulterior motives?
Yeah, they’re really witches working to get Satan’s revenge on the citizens of Salem that burned the original coven. They do this by turning Heidi into a tacky anti-Virgin Mary. Oh and the descendants of the original residents of Salem responsible for the death of the coven all die in a mass suicide.
The good. Well, I love almost any movie about creepy witch covens so there’s that. The narrative is tighter than Rob Zombie’s previous work. I’d say he’s best at creating creepy imagery and composing interesting, even beautiful shots. It’s so weird how my favorite shots by Rob Zombie are usually of a character exploring a new location. He does Alice through the Looking Glass well.
Compare these with this shot from House of 1,000 Corpses.
The music is also really good. Aside from the score created by John 5 and the creepy music from the record, there’s a mix of classic rock and classical pieces. The score gets under your skin and the classic rock helps flesh out the characters.
Now, here’s the mixed part of this review. Rob Zombie creates creepy images but then goes too far and shows too much. You know how they say that less is more in horror movies? The suggested is usually creepier than showing everything. Zombie shows everything and that’s really, really disappointing when the devil’s emissary is some weird deformed cherub with crab-claw hands. You know what’s scary? NOT THAT. Pretty much anything but that is scary, especially when Heidi is holding its weird dong-like protuberances and having a seizure. Some of the movie turns into Hot Topic teenage satanist juvenilia, like when there’s a guy dressed like a mummified pope and he’s masturbating a fake neon red dong. NOT SCARY. Not even funny or interesting, just kind of sad. The hypocrisy of the pious would have been easier to expose with more measured imagery. Also, the devil’s plan just seems really petty. Is that really the best vengeance the prince of darkness could come up with?
I know that Sheri Moon Zombie does some voice work but I’m not sure if her performance is up to carrying a whole film. Honestly, I didn’t feel a lot of chemistry between her and her d.j. coworkers. The funny moments between them felt forced. Other moments just felt flat. That being said, her performance is way better here than in House of 1,000 Corpses. I honestly feel if she did some more work as an actor that she could carry a movie herself. She’s worlds ahead of more popular artists, like Kristen Stewart. That actually does mean something to me because Sheri Moon Zombie probably earned way less than Kristen Stewart gets for her “Who beefed?” level of acting. Life isn’t fair. And her performance did interest me enough that I was genuinely sad Heidi starts using again.
There are definitely creepy moments in the movie but any genuine fear is tempered by Zombie’s overindulgence. He lacks restraint in his creative vision. As a visual artist, I sometimes want to use every color in my box of markers. I have to actively fight this urge because if you mix all the colors you just end up with brown. I wish that Zombie had someone that he worked with creatively to reign in some of his ideas because I think he has potential. Sadly, when an artist reaches Rob Zombie’s stature, I don’t think there are a lot of people willing to say “No, this doesn’t work.” In the end, I can only recommend this movie to people who really love witch/cult movies. If you want to watch a really good Satan-y movie, watch House of the Devil.