By Shane M. Dallmann
The latest from Rob Zombie has finally hit theatre screens, and while Anchor Bay apparently gave this a bigger push than usual (by their independent standards), my wife and I still had the theatre all to ourselves after driving a greater distance than usual just to see it. Maybe, just MAYBE, this wasn’t something to open against OBLIVION? Or even PAIN AND GAIN?
Still, it was nice to see that Zombie didn’t attempt to resurrect the Firefly family (let alone Michael Myers) yet again… THE DEVIL’S REJECTS was a definitive ENDING, and that was also the idea for his first HALLOWEEN, but we saw how well that worked out. Anyhow. The setting is modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, and Zombie’s wife/regular Sheri Moon Zombie toplines as Heidi, part of a highly-rated morning radio team along with Jeff Daniel Phillips (the Geico Caveman, aka “Uncle Seymour Coffins” in Zombie’s H2) and a toupeed Ken Foree. Heidi’s already having a strange day, as her landlady (great to see Judy Geeson again) denies the existence of a new tenant in Room #5 of her apartment building… a tenant that Heidi clearly saw for herself… or did she?
You get the idea. Heidi then receives a mysterious package at the radio station (under her real name) consisting of a vinyl record from a new group known only as “The Lords” (“They must be local, so let’s call them The Lords of Salem,” suggests Foree). But when Heidi chooses to play the mystery track on the air, a chain reaction of disturbing images and events is set off–naturally, they’re tied to the prologue and flashback sequences involving an evil cult of Satanic witches (led by a completely unrecognizable Meg Foster, I was to discover). Unsurprisingly, Heidi’s bloodline and destiny are directly linked to a witch-burning in Salem’s distant past…
Bruce Davison co-stars as the author/historian who just happens to be interviewed on the radio show on the morning the fateful track is played, and he, too, is compelled to trace the source of the music. Meanwhile, his wife is played by Maria Conchita Alonso, who is seen in the bathtub at one point, presumably in honor of her role in FORT APACHE, THE BRONX, where Zombie undoubtedly saw her first. They’re fun to watch. In fact, most of the cast is. Sheri Moon Zombie is quite appealing and sympathetic in her first legitimate lead role (her character has a troubled past, of course, but she’s neither a psycho or a traumatized, guilt-wracked mother)… but, of course, this BEING a Rob Zombie film, we are again given several lingering looks at her posterior (I’ve heard all the “Moon” jokes, so don’t even bother). Phillips and Foree join her for plenty of entertaining and empathetic banter, and Geeson is joined by Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace for a perfect “you just KNOW these nice old biddies are up to no good” trio.
If that reminds you of ROSEMARY’S BABY, it’s no accident; nor is it a coincidence when Foster invokes the “bathtub hag” from THE SHINING in one of several hallucinations openly derived from the Kubrick film (good timing… I’m going to see ROOM 237 next). The horror setpieces and photography are both skillfully accomplished, but they eventually start to wear on the viewer with too many “whoops, just a dream!” moments and obvious attempts to stir up controversy with plenty of blasphemous images (one scene set in a church is just BEGGING to be complained about–that said, it’s far more effective than anything in THE LAST EXORCISM PART II).
Zombie’s penchant for cameos and fondness for vintage film materials are both generously indulged… the television screens and apartment decorations give you everything from A TRIP TO THE MOON to Commando Cody, and amongst the cameos (silent and otherwise) you’ll find Sid Haig, Michael Berryman, Barbara Crampton, Brandon Cruz and Camille Keaton. In other words, if you’ve ever liked a Rob Zombie film (and I have), there will be something for you to enjoy here.
Unfortunately, the mechanics of bringing this story to a conclusion are particularly clumsy, and while I wish I could say that the intense imagery assault of the last 10-15 minutes succeeded as a non-narrative “trip,” I was all too aware of the fact that Zombie was essentially trying to resurrect Ken Russell, and I remembered how much more I enjoyed THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. Nor did I lose track of the fact that Zombie had unceremoniously disposed of some likable characters; and by “disposed,” I don’t mean that they were assigned a dramatic exit of any kind–all they got was an abrupt “Sorry, you aren’t in the movie anymore” moment.
In the end, all I can give to THE LORDS OF SALEM is a sincere “nice try.” Hopefully Zombie’s next film will find a way to satisfy.