Having opted for a sensory-assault approach to shocking moviegoers in his first five features, director Rob Zombie performs a somewhat surprising 180 with The Lords of Salem. A slow-burning tale of possession that favors malevolent atmosphere over the loud, trashy dialogue and jarring, rapid-fire editing that had previously become Zombie's trademark, his sixth feature behind the camera does score points for its moody cinematography and singularly grotesque portrayal of witchery, but stumbles due to an uneven lead performance by the director's wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, and unintentionally hilarious special effects that undermine his efforts to create an air of blasphemous dread.
Back in 1696, Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine) condemned a coven of witches led by Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) to death, burning them without remorse in the woods surrounding Salem, MA. Just over 300 years later, the small town has become a beacon for anyone interested in the supernatural. Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), Herman "Whitey" Salvador (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips) and Herman Jackson (Ken Foree) are the hosts of a popular Salem radio show with a playful occult slant. One day, after interviewing noted author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) on the air, Heidi receives a package containing a record from a band named the Lords. The following day, when Heidi plays the record on the airwaves, a strange spell falls over the locals. Later, as the Lords announce they will be performing a concert in town and the typically carefree Heidi grows increasingly withdrawn, Matthias senses that the sins of the past may be returning to haunt Salem. And he couldn't be more right -- something wicked has returned to this cursed town, and with each day that passes, Heidi slips ever deeper into its sinister grasp.
Rob Zombie has always been the kind of filmmaker who's worn his influences on his sleeve and, despite his change in approach, that tradition continues in The Lords of Salem: With its gently foreboding piano and eerily melodic acoustic guitar, composers Griffin Boice and John 5's restrained score recalls Fabio Frizzi's work on films like Lucio Fulci's The Beyond; meticulously framed cinematography by talented Brandon Trost (Crank 2: High Voltage, The FP) evokes memories of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining; and a profane denouement invokes the psychedelic darkness of Kenneth Anger. Unlike Fulci, Kubrick, and Anger, however, Zombie puts everything up front in his films. Essentially, what you see is what you get, and it's that lack of subtext or gradation that prevents his films from working their way under our skin. His cloying attempts to shock with scenes of perverse priests performing sodomy and rotting clergymen stroking phalluses in unison are just about the most juvenile, obvious attempts at transgression, and will be laughed off by anyone but the most religiously indoctrinated. The same goes for his beastly creations, such as a dwarf abomination. This is bush-league black arts, calculated and transparent, and no amount of corpse paint can obscure that.
Perhaps if Zombie would have cast an actual actor in the lead rather than his wife, the rest of this noble misstep may not have felt so amateurish. Surely there are worse actresses out there than Moon Zombie, but while she's fairly sympathetic as the dreadlocked DJ and recovering drug addict, she simply doesn't have the range to pull of what's demanded of her as the Lords' curse on her bloodline begins to take hold. His insistence on casting her front and center is one of The Lords of Salem's most egregious flaws, and only offers further testament to his shortcomings as a director. Somewhat surprisingly it's Jeffrey Daniel Phillips as Heidi's spurned love interest (and obvious Rob Zombie stand-in) who provides the film with any genuine emotion, though Bruce Davison's jovial author proves the easiest for the audience to get behind. Meanwhile, Meg Foster is chilling as lead witch Margaret Morgan, while Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn, and Dee Wallace -- pure evil with a plate of chocolate-chip scones -- provide proof positive that a little subtlety goes a long way in creating an air of unease. Sadly, genre legends Michael Berryman and Sid Haig are wasted in thankless cameos.
No one will fault Rob Zombie for trying something different with The Lords of Salem, but different doesn't always mean better, and despite the more restrained approach taken here his weaknesses as a screenwriter forestall any growth he may have experienced as a director. In his quest to become an auteur, Zombie seems to have forgotten that film is a collaborative medium. There's little room for ego unless you're a genuine master, and an experienced co-screenwriter would have smoothed over some of The Lords of Salem's rougher edges. Too languid to be campy fun and too silly to be taken as deadly serious as intended, Zombie's moody shocker finds the part-time singer still floundering to find his voice as a filmmaker while offering clear-cut evidence that it takes more than a deep love of the horror genre to become a great horror director.