I certainly couldn’t have predicted the amount of panache musician Rob Zombie would bring to his cinematic work. He became established through the band White Zombie before branching off on his own, channeling a love for grisly schlock-horror that followed him from hard rock stardom to the writer-director’s chair. His first two features, “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” fit into the niche of visceral horror thrills that entertain as much as they horrify, two grisly thrill rides that combine the hard-rock weirdness Zombie has worked with throughout the years with interesting Southland narratives.
In his latest film, “The Lords of Salem,” Zombie heads in the complete opposite direction, combining slow burning gothic spookiness with tales of witches and Satanic worship in Salem, Massachusetts, and he fails pretty spectacularly. Zombie’s vision and cinematographic sensibilities are still here, but the spark of scary-good entertainment is gone. “The Lords of Salem” is an unremarkable supernatural wash.
Heidi Hawthorne (Mrs. Zombie herself, Sheri Moon) is a troubled former drug addict who MCs as a member of the “Big H Radio Team,” a trio of local rock radio personalities including friends Whitey Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Munster Jackson (Ken Foree). Hawthorne receives a mysterious package in the mail from a group that calls themselves “the Lords,” a group of Salem witches and Satanic worshippers from the 1800s, which contains an ominous recording that has a strange effect on Hawthorne and kickstarts her descent into the occult.
I’ll say this about director Rob Zombie: all of his work has a clear sense of style, being steeped in schlock horror, that compliments his cinematic talents. Unfortunately, those sensibilities don’t work well with “Lords.” His sense of style simply doesn’t translate well to a film so portentous, serious-minded, and slow, clearly taking many cues from the worn pages of “The Exorcist” and other horror classics. The only sense of eerie in “Lords” comes from Moon Zombie’s spirited performance, one that hides many layers of self-doubt and checkered history. The rest of the cast is on occult horror autopilot.
And that’s what I can say about “Lords of Salem” as a whole. This was Zombie’s chance to break into a different mold of horror, one more serious and ripe for scares that claw at the memory and rest in the subconscious; he gets the chilling build-up yet forgets the pay-off. Slow burning portentous horror is not Rob Zombie’s strong suit, as “Lords of Salem” proved to me that Zombie should stick to thrills instead of chills.