The Lords of Salem (2012)

Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn, Meg Foster, Maria Conchita Alonso

Directed by: Rob Zombie

Rating: 1 2 3

Witches in Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem

Thirteen years ago, Ian and I visited Salem. It's an odd, slightly schizophrenic place, cheerfully assimilating its grizzly history of misogyny and murder to create a Disney-on-Halloween witchy-themed tourist world, yet never denying that its popularity is based on prejudice, torture and a truly reprehensible miscarriage of justice.

Likewise, Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem has a bit of split personality, unsure whether it wants to be a cheesy, Hammer-esque witchsploitation flick or a disturbing portrait of mental breakdown.

‘Witchcraft is nothing but a psychotic belief brought on by a delusional state of mind.' So states witch trial expert Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) when interviewed by DJ Heidi Laroc (Sheri Moon Zombie) on the wacky late night Salem radio show she shares with bearded love interest Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and smooth operator Herman (Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree).

Or is it?

Later that night, Heidi is sent a mysterious record by an unknown band called the Lords. Encased in a wooden box like a coffin, it sounds horrible – scratchy, discordant and ominous, like something you might find at the back of a cupboard in Boleskine House – and its unsettling tones have an anguished, mesmerising effect on her, and on other women who hear it when she plays it on her show. As if the record has unleashed some dark force, weird things start to happen, including the appearance of a wizened papier-maché witch hanging in her apartment – although that may just be part of her somewhat eccentric décor…

Sheri Moon Zombie as Heidi The Lords of Salem

The fact that Heidi is a recovering drug addict introduces an element of tension between Satanic forces and mental disintegration reminiscent of the (far superior) Lovely Molly: is Heidi possessed, or is she suffering a breakdown? Her hallucinations echo the images on the walls of her so-cool-it-hurts apartment (which looks as if someone let Andy Warhol loose in the Black Bramford), while anyone susceptible to paranoia would be freaked out by the trio of foul-mouthed gossiping ladies downstairs, wine-swilling, palm-reading Charlie's Angels gone bad, with cigarettes and bus passes and a brew constantly on the go. Plus it's only when Heidi, at the end of her tether, starts using again that things go seriously awry.

Sadly, however, this tension is not fully explored: in the end, it's all about the Dennis Wheatley-esque goats, cackling witches and low budget, badly made monsters. Oh well…

Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace and Judy Geeson play a trio of witches in Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem

Like House of 1000 Corpses, The Lords of Salem is a bit cheap, sloppy and disorganised, particularly at the end, when it descends into rubbish rock video mode, like something the late great Ken Russell dreamed up in the '80s then dismissed for being crap. But it's also surprisingly compelling, largely due to the rather nice performances by Sheri Moon Zombie, who, with her tattoos, dreadlocks, woolly socks and hipster specs and the fact that she isn't a teenager or a mom, makes an off-beat, likeable heroine we can root for, and the witchy trio, played gleefully by To Sir, With Love's Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace (aka the mum in E.T.) and Patricia Quinn, aka The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Magenta.

Another saving grace is the great use of music. Far from drowning us in abrasive nu-metal (the film in fact begins with our DJs taking the piss out of Norwegian death metal), the score contrasts the eerie tones of the Lords' signature tune with the haunting, druggy tones of the Velvet Underground and the powerful presence of Mozart's Requiem, which adds much-needed gravitas to a scene that is otherwise embarrassingly ludicrous, featuring cinema's most disappointing incarnation of Satan (as a flaccid, upstanding roast chicken, in fact). Which just goes to show, as if we didn't know, that while the Devil may not always appear in the greatest movies, he always has the best tunes.

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