It’s been 10 years since Robert Bartleh Cummings, better known by his catchier moniker Rob Zombie, unleashed his first big-budget film into the world. With its over-the-top gore and violence, “House of 1000 Corpses” (2003) promised viewers that whether they liked it or not, Zombie’s take at horror would be purely exploitation, or nothing at all. Subsequent films kept that promise, inevitably alienating audiences with weaker constitutions while gradually boring those looking to experience something beyond his standard stock of shocks. Luckily for everyone, “The Lords of Salem” (2013) finds middle ground by combining Zombie’s usual cache of disturbing imagery with a subtler, yet still mildly flawed, approach to storytelling.
In modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, professional DJ Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) takes life one day at a time as she struggles to move further away from her former life as a drug-addict. When a mysterious record made by a band named “The Lords” finds its way to her, she has no choice but to confront the lingering terror not only of her own dark past, but also of her hometown’s blood-stained history. It seems that the victims of Salem’s infamous witch burnings are ready to reap their revenge—all they need to do so is Heidi.
“The Lords of Salem” carries forward several elements distinctly found in previous Rob Zombie films. First and foremost, his horror stories are particularly American, this time with its playful re-imagining of the Salem witch-trials. Second of all is the usual line-crossing violence and blasphemy. Those of you not comfortable with burnt carcasses and cannibalism best stay far away from this one. On the other hand, those of you not comfortable with annoying live-radio sound effects and piss-poor dialogue better stay even further. A third typically Zombie-ian element in this film is its cringe-worthy exchanges between characters, which are as flat and stale as three-day old pita bread. The concept of real witches is always fun and fascinating in its historical references. It is a pity, though, that whenever anyone opens
their mouth to talk about them, viewers may have to fight away the impulse to mute their TV screens.
In fact, the idea of muting this movie during the dialogue sequences may not be so bad. Despite most of the characters having nothing interesting to say, the surprising thing is that technically, it’s a beautiful film and definitely worth the watch. Zombie has clearly evolved in the past decade as a film-maker. His shots are clean and well plotted, rather than explosive and random. “The Lords” heavily relies on its sophisticated atmosphere and style, and oftentimes the narrative is moved forward as the scene’s visual set-up pushes it along and hardly even a word is spoken. Since the final 15 minutes play out like an experimental music video anyways, I’d say it’s perfectly reasonable to go into this film with lowered expectations for the script and higher standards for everything else.
Visually, Zombie hits all the right notes. The soundtrack isn’t bad, either. It’s just too bad that the dialogue is terrible enough to risk sullying all “The Lords of Salem”’s strong points. Thankfully, the operative word here is “risk.” Even though this movie teeters, it steadies itself in the end and comes out stylishly strong. Of course the films of Rob Zombie can only appeal to a select few, I can almost guarantee that anyone with the faintest interest in seeing this movie will not only be made a convert, but will also look forward to whatever else Zombie has in store.
Overall Rating: 8/10