Rob Zombie’s magnum opus The Lords of Salem (2012) finds the filmmaker at the pinnacle of his not-overwhelming powers.
I bet writer/director Rob Zombie was as surprised as anyone that The Lords of Salem (2012) turned out as well as it did. He probably also thinks that it’s better than it is, so in case he’s reading, I want to be clear. It poses no threat to The Exorcist (1973). But The Exorcist III (1990) has a fight on its hands.
The movie takes place in Salem, Massachusetts, and, to no one’s surprise, there are witches in it. Not the granola-eating, hairy-armpits kind (Rob Zombie’s description, not mine) but the hail-Satan, afterbirth-licking, baby-munching kind. The ones who dance around bonfires and do things with goats.
The story centers around Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), who is, to quote an incidental character, “a very sad girl,” but why she’s so sad isn’t immediately clear. Yes, she’s an addict, but she’s in recovery. She’s making her meetings. She’s staying clean. Instead of spending her money on drugs, she’s buying French courses on audio cassette. You get the impression that she’s planning for a trip that she has always wanted to take.
Hail to the Queen, Baby
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She lives by herself and Troy the dog (Troy) in a residential building on Hamilton Street—a corner building, actually, which puts her on a crossroads, which is about as devil-worshippy as a place can get. Her apartment, number 2, is the number of the devil, so I’m beginning to notice a pattern here. She prefers LPs. She collects toy robots. There’s a mural of A Trip to the Moon (1902) on her wall.
She’s one third of the Big H Team on WIQZ Salem radio, where she goes by the handle Heidi LaRoc and spins FM-friendly Rush cuts for ladies’ choice. She has an almost-but-not-quite romantic relationship with Herman “Whitey” Salvador (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips), her co-host, or else they have some history and now they’re trying to be friends, or friends again, or whatever they’re calling it when he has permission to crash on her couch. She makes pancakes for them. He puts on “Venus in Furs.” Something is going on with these people.
Pretending not to notice too much is the third Big H and second Herman, Herman Jackson (the great Ken Foree), who’s looking out for their mutual interests and helping to keep the act together. He’s their surrogate father, especially Heidi’s. Whatever lack of love or familial support that she might have experienced in her life before isn’t a problem for her now.
But she’s having disturbing dreams at night, which are following her into the waking world. She doesn’t realize when she’s drifted off. She isn’t certain that she has. She’s losing sleep, and it’s beginning to show.
Other odd things are happening, too. For one, she meets the tenant in number 5, the apartment down from hers at the end of the hall. There’s distinctly a figure in the open doorway but not enough light to make out a face. Whoever it is slams shut the door in the middle of her introducing herself. Yet according to the superintendent Lacy (Judy Geeson), there is no tenant in number 5. Nobody has rented it. Lacy, as we come to learn, is a witch.
Then there’s the record from a group called the Lords, which arrives at the station addressed to Heidi. For a laugh, she and Whitey take it back to her apartment. But it won’t play for Whitey, only for her; she has to drop the needle herself. And forget three chords—this is just three notes, repeated over and over and over. The effect is unsettling, as well it should be for an album that comes in a wooden box. But there’s also something hypnotic about it, a queasy, trance-inducing quality that seems to trigger unconscious thoughts. But not for Whitey. Only for her. And later for thirty-two other women in Salem when the Big H Team puts the Lords on the air.
Author and radio guest Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) also finds the Lords disturbing, but not because they’re activating his programming. He works part-time at the wax museum, maybe as the curator, although maybe as the greeter—we’re never told, so we can’t be sure—but in any case he knows his local history. And the name “Lords of Salem” has a sinister connotation going back to the witch trials of the Salem colony. He spends the movie annoying his wife Alicia (Maria Conchita Alonso) and piecing together various clues.
The witches, of course, are miles ahead of him. Lacy, having interpreted the omens, summons her cabal of Sonny (the great Dee Wallace) and Megan (the great Patricia Quinn) to see to the completion of an unholy prophecy, which is rapidly nearing its final stage. Thus the Weird Sisters are back in the toil-and-trouble business, and not since the Three Mothers have they been so on brand. They even talk about fate. What more could you want? (Besides a little more classical accuracy.) If only these three were the only witches here.
But this being Salem, there are many other witches, and Rob Zombie gives us a baker’s half dozen. The movie opens on the superwitch Margaret Morgan (the great Meg Foster), chewing up the scenery with her coven of six in the year of our Lord 1696, in case 1666 was too much of a giveaway, in one of the worst false starts that I’ve seen since disco. Before we even get to the titles, we’re made to endure a desecration of the flesh that looks like the Platonic ideal of B-roll, complete with literal, unironic cackling. How many negative judgments of this film were formed by those who never made it past the prologue? Because I wouldn’t feel obliged to stick around. It’s a Rob Zombie movie, not a Clive Barker one.
Margaret Morgan and company have earned the displeasure of Heidi’s great-something grandfather (Andrew Pine), the Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne, town patriarch and decider of who gets the torch. He not only wants to end their lives but also really hates their music. They’ve been gallivanting naked in the woods outside Salem, conjuring up a Sasquatch-looking thing called Beezlebub (Roger Morrissey), not to give it a long-needed manicure, but to mate with it and breed the spawn of Satan, which isn’t as easy as it looks in the movies, or maybe something isn’t ready yet, because what they give birth to is healthy and human. Then the entire project goes up in smoke when the Reverend Jon burns the coven at the stake, but Margaret Morgan isn’t done making problems. She’ll bide her time among the dead to plot her revenge on the daughters of Salem for wearing the yoke of the oppressor god and wait for the Hawthorne bloodline to produce the perfect devil-baby vessel. I wonder who she has in mind.
And that, in a word, is the premise of the movie. It’s like Rob Zombie had been saving up the plot that he didn’t include in his previous movies and packed it all into a single script. This is by no means a criticism. We could use more of this sort of thing down at the local stadium multiplex.
It’s also a handsome devil of a film, well lit, well framed, and of a piece with its tradition. The long yet claustrophobic halls from The Shining (1980). The saturated colors from Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The faceless surgeons from Jacob’s Ladder (1990). Rob Zombie even quotes from himself with the black-mass makeup from House of 1000 Corpses (2003), not that his fan base would notice. Or care. He’s stage-managed the look right down to the cameos from the likes of Barbara Crampton and Michael Berryman. It is, I’d argue, a mature piece of work.
As for the acting, it’s as good as it needs to be and often better than you’d expect. Sometimes the characters get away from their actors and start behaving inexplicably off-tone, but I’m inclined to blame the writing for that. The writing also falls into the tedious pattern of ending a scene with a quiet scare that only the audience is aware of, which amounts to showing us something creepy in an ostensibly unexpected place. It starts with Margaret Morgan in Heidi’s bathroom, and it just goes on, and downhill, from there, until you can predict when one of them is coming. These would be more effective if we had fewer of them. One feels like a decent number.
There’s plenty of baroque horror, too, or maybe it’s closer to Wagnerian horror, because whenever Heidi encounters what’s haunting her, the movie goes psychotically operatic and won’t settle for no if we don’t want to join it. She experiences the supernatural as dream imagery, mostly because she’s dreaming when it comes, but also because that’s just how she experiences it or how the movie chooses to show it to us. This can be an effective technique—see Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980)—but Ken Russell wasn’t on this shoot, and since narrative is an inevitable casualty, it’s not the best choice for conveying story information. Consequently, these sequences can devolve into gibberish, and the climax is more surreal than is good for it. A second viewing helps, I’ve found.
But getting back to Rosemary’s Baby, to which The Lords of Salem owes a decent-sized debt. If there’s one stark difference between these two films, it’s the agency of their respective protagonists. Because while Rosemary follows bad advice, and the people around her work to keep it that way, nothing besides a more assertive personality is preventing her from avoiding the outcome. That’s not the case for Heidi Hawthorne. She has no say over what happens to her here, even less so than usual for a woman in a horror movie. She didn’t choose her Hawthorne birthright, and she has no control over the devil’s designs. She didn’t even break the rules from Scream (1996). And she’s trying to do right by rightful authority by rejoining the squares in the sober world. Yet the movie doesn’t care about her moral condition. She has lines to read and no room for improv. It’s her fate in the sense of being inescapable, just like it was for Antigone.
The old gods help us, but Rob Zombie has made a Greek tragedy.1
1. Having just seen Hereditary (2018), though it pains me to say it, Rob Zombie got there first.