Rob Zombie’s fourth directorial effort proceeds in a similar way to that paragraph. It’s repetitious, it’s filled with references and if you just imagine that all of those full stops are clichéd bits of exposition, you’re pretty much there. As the title suggests ‘The Lords of Salem’ is a horror film about witches hailing from the town of Salem. At least that’s the theory. It starts out with a coven of witches laying down a curse and then years later follows a punky Radio DJ called Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) as she becomes the focus of the aforementioned terrible curse.
That’s the set up and it plays out adequately, before we skip forward 30 minutes and you’re ready for the scares to begin, though that never really happens. During the course of the film Zombie throws every ‘horrifying’ image he can at you, but in the end, I was left very much unhorrified. I mean, on paper his set pieces should be able to wrangle out something, but in practice they’re about as scary as they are original. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of homage, but there’s homage and there is just flat out lazy. Zombie is obviously trying his best to push his own creative boundaries here. There is a lot of trippy grandstanding and fantasy touches, but the only scares that are in there consist of a few jumpy moments, yet sadly they just don’t count. Anyone can make you jump. But that’s not to say that he isn’t trying to scare you, there isn’t a lack of invention going on, it’s just a shame that what invention there is, is so bewilderingly uninventive.
But maybe the fact that it’s cobbled together from a lot of older, better works is why it feels so desperately old fashioned. Spooky witch trial talk hasn’t been scary since the 70s and the script is a decidedly damp squib too. When Zombie pulls out all the stops and decides to stick in the c-word, he does it with so much implied horror gravitas that it and the script as a whole, just dies there on the screen. That said, the characters muttering such dialogue are at least having fun with it. The trio of older ladies (Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn and Meg Foster) who come in to their own in the second half do well, if only to highlight the camp absurdity of it all.
On the other hand, someone who is completely unable to extract any joie de vivre from her performance whatsoever is lead actress Sheri Moon Zombi, who delivers a performance that only a husband could love. She just isn’t very good. At all. Which is obviously a problem somewhat. Whilst Zombie may show occasional glimmers of promise and at least makes nods to scaring you, it’s patently clear by now that his wife cannot act, let alone help carry his last three films.
Whilst genre filmmaking can be great and even progressive, Zombie’s boring and trite allusions to successes past do nothing but rehash. It wouldn’t be the worst idea for him to change his pace and do something different. Critics often say that he has one great horror film in him just waiting to come out, however one feels unsure of whether that is truly the case. The 70s were a long time ago and as his effort in 2009 showed, Halloween was better first time around. Until he lets go of the past there is just not too much of a bright future for Zombie as a filmmaker. A scary thought from a rather unscary movie.