Review: The Lords of Salem (2012)

There’s a moment in Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem that sums up the entire movie for me.  Our protagonist, Sherri Moon Zombie, is being mad by a song they played at her job as a radio show host. (On a vinyl record, no less.) She goes to the kitchen to get food for her dog. As she turns on the lights, she fails to notice that there is the corpse of a naked woman standing in the corner.  I would have failed to notice it too as it was easy to miss on the far right corner of the screen, if not for the scary musical sting.  “What am I supposed to be scared of?” I wondered.  “Is there something in the frid-… oh, the dead body standing there.”

This reaction summed up my entire viewing experience: utter confusion.  Was this moment supposed to be scary? Surreal? Symbolic?  Or was this supposed to be funny?  Taken one way, this scene could be seen as a prank on viewer who were expecting a jump scare.  I actually did an online search after viewing The Lords of Salem and found the answer to be inconclusive.  Answers range from being a dark comedy to trying to work in the style of Stanley Kubrick.  The movie closes on a shot that was so campy it seems intentionally destined to become an animated GIF on Tumblr.  Surely this was supposed to be funny, right?

The Lords of Salem was meant to be Rob Zombie’s return to his roots after fighting with Hollywood over the two Halloween movies.  (As a side note, I have not seen any other Rob Zombie film unless you count the music video for “More Human Than Human.”)  Every shot oozes his personality.  In one shot, Sherri Moon Zombie has a mental breakdown in front of a black-and-white painting of 30’s movie serial character, Commander Cody.  I didn’t buy that this was an element of Sherri’s personality so much that Rob thought it looked cool.  A peek into the director’s brain, if you will.  The are other classic pulp movie references sprinkled throughout.

Rob Zombie even had a movie adaptation commissioned, as in interviews he mentions loving those trashy books. The book, incidentally, was based on an earlier draft reveals that we could have gotten a gorier and potentially scarier movie.  (Not counting flashbacks and deaths reported via newscasters, there is really only one death that happens in the movie… and it’s partially off-screen.)  What we got, instead, was a movie that has you questioning motivations.  A demon shows up at one point, and it looks so silly that I start to wonder if this is a direct homage to the awful creature feature effects of years past.  Some online pundits blame the movie on Blumhouse’s lower budget, but the final product feels like it was exactly what Rob Zombie was aiming for.  The theme can be confusing, but the somber tone — switching from flashbacks to Salem witches to the modern city streets in autumn — is consistent.

Besides, this movie looks great.  The non-horror shots are grungy and moody and are one Gin Blossoms song away from being a 90’s slice-of-life drama.  The horror scenes are bright and garish.  Kubrick gets mentioned a lot as an influence, but when Sherri Moon puts on her juggalo make-up to enter an opera house that redder than red, it’s hard not to think of Dario Argento movies. This might be a more apt point of comparison, all told.  After all, no one comes into an Argento movie looking for a plot.  Come into The Lords of Salem with the same attitude: you’re here to look at all the pretty pictures.

Rating: 3/5 stars.