It's no secret that I am not a fan of Rob Zombie's films. His music? Fun stuff. His allegedly hardcore horror-flavored image? Not so much. Seems more like a marketing gimmick to me, but that's not to say I think Mr. Zombie is a "poser." I've read enough interviews to know that the guy is a lot smarter than you might think, and he definitely knows his fair share about horror cinema. But after suffering, struggling, and mentally slapping myself throughout House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects, and his two Halloween remakes, I simply had no interest in exploring any more of the man's movies.
Fortunately a few years have passed and I've calmed down about how freaking stupidly awful Halloween 2 was (arggghhh!), so when I realized that Rob Zombie's long-arriving The Lords of Salem was finally available for viewing, I decided to wipe the slate clean and see what the guy could do with a good, old-fashioned occult story about witches gone wild. My open-mindedness was rewarded only halfway; in other words, while The Lords of Salem is certainly Rob Zombie's most compelling, cohesive, and mature horror film thus far, it still suffers from the myriad problems that plagued his earlier films.
The Lords of Salem is about a rockin' indie DJ (Sheri Moon Zombie, of course) who listens to a mysterious band of musicians called "The Lords," which leads her on a lurid, languid descent into witchcraft-related madness. There are several ostensible subplots about Heidi's co-workers (Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips), a local author (Bruce Davison) who starts poking around for clues, and a trio of snooping older ladies who are up to no good -- but Zombie seems single-mindedly insistent on focusing almost exclusively on... well, his wife. Potentially cool ideas are plunked on to the screen and most of them are promptly forgotten about. That's just plain old annoying, truth be told.
Chalk it up to bad editing, confused writing, or just plain old laziness, but virtually everything that's potentially interesting about The Lords of Salem is pushed aside so that Zombie can focus on his (rather uninteresting) main character while dipping his brush into a half-dozen moments, themes, and characters that come directly from the filmography of Dario Argento. It doesn't help matters much that, when it comes to shocks and scares, Mr. Zombie has no interest in composing a complete shot. Numerous visions of demonic creepiness are completely undone due to a complete reliance on the center of the movie screen, and some of the movie's most potentially disturbing moments are ineffective because Zombie either lingers too long on, or smash-cuts away from, something goofy.
For all of those complaints, however, the Zombie spouses and their collaborators do a pretty fine job of setting up Heidi's unpleasant plight while laying down a few simple clues about the impending witch invasion. A few of the stand-alone horror moments (including a pretty eerie prologue) are handled very well, but for all its halfway-compelling ideas and characters, The Lords of Salem simply flies off the rails at the beginning of Act III, which is precisely when it should be doing the opposite. The film displays an irritating devotion to "nightmare vision" scares, which do make sense in a film about a woman haunted by witches, but each successive sequence lowers the potential scariness of the movie. We need to be creeped out for 90-some minutes, not just two or three times in a film that goes from ominous to familiar to downright incomprehensible.
If Rob Zombie has improved as a director, and while I don't care much for Salem I'd argue that he has, it's in the quieter moments, weirdly enough. The man clearly has an eye for horror, which makes one wish he worked more as a director and less as a screenwriter. Reined in by a tough producer and a locked screenplay, Rob Zombie could probably make some pretty bad-ass horror flicks. Left to his own devices, Zombie delivers garish, ugly, confusing movies that may try to evoke the cult classics of the '70s and '80s, but The Lords of Salem works as an indicator that the man may be a better visual filmmaker than I've given him credit for.
Unfortunately he's still "0 for 5" in my book, but his latest effort still stands as Rob Zombie's most compelling and "complete" movie. And yes, I do look forward to his next film.