The best way to experience Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem is as the satanic answer to Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. It’s To the Horror. The inverse parallels are striking. Both directors evince only the most casual interest in narrative. Both gesture toward Catholic iconography — Malick to transcend it; Zombie to defile it. Both view human life largely in terms of its spiritual underpinnings. Malick moves toward the holy light, Zombie — as befits his nom d’enfer — the unholy darkness.
Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, is the protagonist, Heidi Hawthorne, and, under a curtain of dreadlocks and behind big glasses, she’s almost as abstracted as Ben Affleck in To the Wonder. Heidi is an ex-drug-addict turned radio co-host on a combination music-and-gab show with Whitey (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips), her hairy sometime-boyfriend, and Herman (Ken Foree, a Zombie regular known to genre fans for George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead). Heidi’s last name tells you much about her Massachusetts roots — and her connection to a witch hunter seen in the movie’s orgiastic prologue (naked middle-aged witches, drawn-out immolations). Yes, the Salem witches are real and not the projection of fanatical Puritans. And they’re baaaaack.
The movie has a gritty seventies’ scare-picture vibe, reinforced by its sacrilegious centerpiece, a vinyl record delivered to Heidi at her station. It has one long song credited to “the Lords,” with a couple of minor chord progressions amid an infernal drone. Played on the radio, it has a hypnotic impact not just on Heidi but several female listeners around the town. Author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) — hitherto a skeptic — takes an interest in the record and pokes around in the historical archives. While he investigates, Heidi has bad dreams.
They’re some bad dreams, featuring, among other things, a disembowelment, the birth and (presumed offscreen) killing of a too-angelic baby, and the requisite goats. Pietàs are blasphemously front and center. Zombie, née Robert Bartleh Cummings, founded the horror-tinged heavy-metal band White Zombie and thinks in terms of grandiosely grisly production numbers. Vile ceremonies unfold in a plush theater to the reverberant strains of a Bach cantata and Mozart’s Requiem. Again and again, Heidi awakens from dreams we take for real with a start — an annoying scare-movie trope but semi-defensible here. It’s all real in a hellish alternate reality.
The Lords of Salem is gloomy, lacks variety, and is not without its flat patches. Heidi is an increasingly dullish heroine, and in the first 15 minutes you’ll know what’s going to happen in the next 80. You’ll know what’s going happen — but not how it’s going to look or sound. It’s always a treat to see Davison, who adds a much-needed dose of amiability — no fruity Van Helsing/Dr. Loomis inflections. More of a trip are three older ladies who pop up in Heidi’s boarding house — clucking hens whose motherliness becomes gradually, unnervingly invasive. Meg Wallace, Patricia (a.k.a. Pat) Quinn, and Dee Wallace have impressive pedigrees and honor their heritage of horror.
One more inverse parallel: I have, in this review, likened Rob Zombie to Terrence Malick, which is — in cinéaste terms — as blasphemous as anything in The Lords of Salem. What can I say? The devil made me do it.