Review: The Lords of Salem (2013)

Posted in Articles, Featured Items, Reviews, Theatrical Reviews by - April 24, 2013
Review: The Lords of Salem (2013)

What is likely Rob Zombie’s most accomplished work is also his most frustrating and most unsatisfying film. The Lords of Salem is a glorious piece of crap, one that elicits laughter (in the wrong places) and a chorus of boos and hisses at its end from the audience. The film is made more discouraging by the fact that it contains some of the best performances in any Zombie film yet, particularly Meg Foster as the witch Margaret Morgan. Bruce Davidson, Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace are also noteworthy. Sheri Moon Zombie gives her best performance yet; not as yet enigmatic as Baby Firefly from The Devil’s Rejects, but far more nuanced.  Zombie also manages to instill the film with a thick atmosphere that oozes off the screen and a string of visuals that are impressive, foreboding and intriguing.

The film is akin to Rosemary’s Baby directed by Stanley Kubrick with set designs by Ken Russell.  However, every successful effort is undone by an ending that obliterates all the tone and weight the film sets out to achieve leaving the audience with their heads held in their hands, infuriatingly so.

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The Lords of Salem is the story of Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) who is drawn into her inescapable fate when she receives a package containing the LP from a band called The Lords. Heidi, along with her DJ co-hosts at a Salem, Mass. radio station, Herman ‘Whitey’ Salvador (Jeff Daniel Philips) and Herman Jackson (Ken Foree),  play the record on the air with devilish effects on the listening audience, including Heidi herself. When local author, Francis Matthias (Bruce Davidson) gets wind of the record and begins to research its meaning and origin, he uncovers the curse of a witch, Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster), placed on the decedents of the witch hunter, Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne. For the first two acts of the film, The Lords of Salem sets up the story, the characters and, most importantly, the atmosphere of doom and dread marvelously, purposefully. It presents a downward spiral for Heidi Hawthorne that is unavoidable and depressing. The film drags its audience down this unwavering dismal and depressing rabbit hole.

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Rob Zombie displays a welcomed maturity with The Lords of Salem. His direction is reserved and sure handed, until he falls back upon the music video tropes during the final act. Between the quiet, steady camera work and the brilliant sound track, Zombie effectively sets up a specific and defined mood for the film. He trades in gross out special effects and jump scares for a chilling, unnerving ambiance and a dark, emotionally claustrophobic tone. Sprinkled within his best efforts are clips of bizarre imagery designed to evoke fear and horror. Unfortunately many of these images are silly or too far removed from the story line to be effective. For every chilling, frightening visage of Foster’s Margaret Morgan, he slips in a 10 foot tall Bigfoot creature or a dwarfish devil in a flesh suit out of nowhere. For every, Shining inspired shot of Room 5 down the hall from Heidi’s apartment, the audience is treated with a mummified Catholic cardinal stroking a large pink vibrator. For a film with such restraint, each attempt at shock and awe is more silly than horrifying.

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If there is a single reason to see The Lords of Salem, it is the incredibly brave and provocative performance from Meg Foster. She is absolutely creepy and disturbing as the witch leading the Lords of Salem. She is be far the most frightening and memorable thing about the movie. She deserves recognition for her daring and uninhibited characterization of Margaret Morgan. Her very gaze results in the immediate impulse to bath its filthy gander off your face. She is hideous and mesmerizing, the stuff of nightmares. Even the most horrendous monster and creature Rob Zombie can cook up fails to match the evil presence Foster manages to emanate from this role. It is pure brilliance.

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Meg Foster is not alone with providing Zombie with entertaining and rewarding roles in The Lords of Salem.  Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace as three sisters who watch over Heidi once she slips into her private hell are a delight to behold. In fact, the more of them the merrier; they deserve a whole film dedicated to just their characters. Whenever they are on screen together, the screen sizzles with devious fun. Most surprising is Patricia Quinn (probably best known as  as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) as Megan, the sister with the gift of seeing the fates of those around her. Her snarky attitude is delightful. Dee Wallace is equally charming as Sonny the self help guru with a siren attitude and a violent disposition. Judy Gleeson rounds out the trio as Lacy Doyle, the landlord for Heidi’s apartment who has a smile that alternatively comforts and mortifies. Together they are very much Alexandra, Jane and Sukie from The Witches of Eastwick as elders.

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While Sheri Moon Zombie give her best performance since Baby Firefly, it still lacks the full emotion and depth needed to draw the audience deep into Heidi Hawthorne’s fate. It’s a strong effort, an entertaining effort, but falls just a tad short. While the film displays her addiction to drugs, her loneliness, her isolation, the emotions are rarely displayed in full to back them up. When the film kicks in and her character is in a trance, she begins to stumble with the role. She really shines, however, when in the company of Geeson, Quinn and Wallace in an early gathering and in scenes where she plays off Jeff Daniel Philips. She displays a natural, relaxed chemistry with her fellow actors that is reminiscent of Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

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The Lords of Salem is likely to be a maddening film for most audiences. It fails to deliver on the promise of the beginning of the film. Even more exasperating is how accomplished the direction from Rob Zombie is in comparison to the careless, half-baked conclusion. Somehow the great parts make the bad parts that much more terrible. The disappointment is shameful. Regardless, the film is difficult not to recommend. If not for the incredible performance by Meg Foster, then for the promise that Rob Zombie is maturing as a director. The Lords of Salem may not be a total success, but the film has its merits and its achievements. The film is moody and atmospheric. It is memorable and haunting, disturbing in its visuals. Strip away many of the sillier moments and the film is close to being a masterpiece. So close, but yet so far.

This post was written by Doc Rotten
Doc Rotten is a film critic for Gruesome Magazine and podcast host for Horror News Radio, Monster Movie Podcast, Decades of Horror: 1970s, Decades of Horror 1980s, The American Horror Story Fan Podcast, Hannibal Fan Podcast and The Future of Horror. He was also co-host Dracula on TV TALK and was a contributing reviewer for HorrorNews.Net and Widescreen Warrior. He is also a lifelong fan of horror films, sci-fi flicks and monster movies first discovering Universal Monsters and Planet of the Apes as a young child in the 1970's searching out every issue of Famous Monster of Filmland (and, later, Fangoria). Favorite films include Jaws, The Car, The Birds, The Tingler, Vampire Circus and The Exorcist.

4 Comments

  • FriendOfTheRealDocRotten

    Your trash

    • What about my trash? D’oh.

  • the real docrotten's friend

    your opinion is worth less than what I shit in the toilet if anybody actually wanted to know what you where full of they could unscrew your neck and dip the shit out

    • I aim to serve. But this is bizarre. Woot