Say this for Rob Zombie: He’s savvy enough to know that in the right context and at the right volume, The Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” can sound as Satanic as any black-metal song. The Lords Of Salem marks the writer-director’s return to low-budget indie filmmaking after his sporadically brilliant, mostly disappointing foray into mainstream horror with the Halloween franchise. The new movie is so comfortably in Zombie’s kitchen that it would’ve been easy for him to coast through it. Sheri Moon Zombie stars as a Boston-area DJ who receives a record in the mail from a group calling itself “The Lords.” When she plays the music on the air, she becomes physically ill, and starts flashing back to the covens of colonial Salem. For a rock star and old-movie buff like Rob Zombie, The Lords Of Salem offers a chance to riff on the notion of rock ’n’ roll as the devil’s music, while recreating scenes from old Hammer witch pictures. Zombie does both of these things—just not always as expected.
The Lords Of Salem draws visual and tonal inspiration from a quartet of master filmmakers who’ve made movies about the supernatural: Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, William Friedkin, and Dario Argento. As with Zombie’s retro-drive-in classic The Devil’s Rejects—as well as his more psychologically grounded spin on Halloween—The Lords Of Salem aims at times for realism, locking in on its heroine’s troubled past and fraught emotional state. But as the DJ slips further into madness, Zombie ramps up the nightmarish surrealism, with images of hideous demon children and ash-faced priests jerking off dildos. And Zombie surrounds his protagonist with pictures from movies, including an enormous poster of the moon from Georges Méliès’ “A Trip To The Moon,” positioning her in a world of freaky pop fantasies.
As has happened more often than not in his movie career, Zombie’s vivid imagination and good intentions don’t carry The Lords Of Salem as far as they should. The filmmaker meanders through a go-nowhere subplot about an occult historian played by Bruce Davison, and the film builds to an extended phantasmagoric climax that drags on too long, then seemingly turns metaphorical before an abrupt, confounding ending. But from moment to moment, The Lords Of Salem is thrillingly weird, with its jarring sound design—layered with witchy cackles and, at one point, a surprisingly disturbing tape of French lessons—and its scenery-chewing performances by Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, and Judy Geeson as a modern coven with sharp tongues and nefarious schemes. Anyone can get gasps with buckets of blood. Zombie has these veteran actresses hailing Satan in pale face paint, and hissing at Davison, “Have you come here to stick your nosy cock inside her head and fuck her brain?” Zombie proves once again that he understands how many different ways there are to give an audience the creeps.