What’s the Horror: Badass pissed-off witches and family curses
Does the Dog Die? Heidi owns a sweet golden retriever named Troy, but there’s no need to worry. He suffers no cruelty in this movie.
Gore Factor: Not much – on a scale of one to ten, I’d give it a four. Everything is very stylized here, and what blood there is still manages to be kind of twisted and beautiful.
Character Quality: It’s lacking. Sheri Moon Zombie does her best, but her range is limited, and there’s a lot that isn’t fleshed out among the others. A few character actors give powerful performances, though, and while Sheri Moon is a little one-note, she is quite likeable and sympathetic, and you can’t help but root for her.
Why Do I Like It? Zombie creates tension and dread beautifully in this movie, and the visuals are stunning. It’s more of a mood than a movie with a plot, but it’s a hell of mesmerizing mood in my opinion. It’s lovely to watch, and just feel.
Rob Zombie movies – I either love ’em or hate ’em. It always feels to me like he aims much higher than his relatively independent budgets allow him to go, and he ends up having to modify his original vision down to something that often just looks confusing and half-baked. But when he is able to bring his visions to the screen clearly and entirely, I think he rocks – and not just because he’s also a musician.
The Lords of Salem, which released in 2012, is probably an example of a Zombie film that got lost a bit in translation, possibly because his vision exceeded his budget again. It’s a common theme I’ve heard in the movie commentaries I’ve listened to on other films; Zombie constantly mentions scenes that had to either be cut or reconstructed because he didn’t have the money to pull off what he’d conceived in the script. In 2013, Zombie released a Lords of Salem book that actually fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie, and since I loved the film so much I actually bought and read it, something I’ve never done to compliment a filmv- aside from Pan’s Labyrinth (which, holy shit, if you haven’t seen that movie, please do). Personally, this movie pleased me on such an emotional and aesthetic level that I didn’t care if the plot didn’t pan out, but reading the book was an enjoyable way to get the entire backstory that explained some of the random bits and bobs that popped up in the film without real explanation.
One reason I love Lords of Salem is because it’s about witches. And like one of my other favorite films, the 2018 version of Suspiria, these are not pleasant witches to deal with, which is fine by me – while I dislike the idea that witches represent a means to denigrate powerful women, I also don’t mind them showing up on screen as badass bitches who take revenge over those who’ve wronged them. So, there’s that.
We have two types of witches here – wild, wooly hags of the past dancing around fires and casting spells (as well as getting burned at the stake when their enemy, John Hawthorne, finally captures and condemns them), and seemingly benign, cheerful women in midlife who take a particular liking to the film’s protagonist, Heidi Hawthorne (that last name turns out to be significant).
Now let’s talk about Heidi. Rob Zombie has a stable of actors he uses in his movies, and his wife Sheri Moon Zombie always plays a part onscreen. Her acting range isn’t great, and her character takes center stage here; while another actress may have provided more depth to the role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part as it seems apparent Zombie wrote this script to showcase her. In fact, I read somewhere that Lords of Salem is “a love letter to his wife,” and I have to agree – the role of Heidi plays to Sheri Moon’s strengths, which are an uncanny ability to radiate California-sunshine sweetness in even the most sadistic of roles (such as Baby Firefly), and to project a disarming sense of innocence in a woman over 40 (she was 42 or 43 when this was made) that always makes the audience root for her no matter how psychotic her character may be. Plus, I must admit that I have a massive crush on the woman, and even though the “ugh, another Rob Zombie movie with his wife in it” attitude out there is strong, I for one am always down to see her onscreen. She is gorgeous and also close to my age – she just turned fifty – and she’s all natural, which is obviously rare. In fact, her Instagram reveals her to be pretty much the sweet-natured, animal-loving, healthy-living California girl that she looks like in most of Zombie’s movies – even though they try hard to disguise that quality here.
Heidi Hawthorne is massively tattooed, dreadlocked, and bespectacled – all adornments Sheri Moon Zombie lacks in real life. She is still model-tall and rail-thin, with a great ass – don’t judge me, Rob makes sure we get a good glimpse of her derriere at least once in every film. In fact, the first shot we get of Heidi is when she’s asleep face down naked on her bed, as the camera slowly pans up from foot to fingers. It’s a lovely shot, and my guess is that even now, at age fifty, Sheri can still pull it off.
She’s also fairly normal here, in spite of her alternative looks, which Heidi gets away with because she’s one of three hosts of one of those kooky morning radio shows where they play very little music and create a lot of annoying banter between them. She wakes up like the rest of us, most likely – jarred by the sound of the alarm, shuffling to the bathroom and heaving a weary sigh as she looks at her tired face in the mirror. What we soon learn is that she’s also recently gotten clean, although the movie gives little insight into what extent her addiction had over her, and only provides a tiny glimpse at what her drug of choice had been (there’s one scene of her smoking crack towards the end of the film, after everything’s gone of the rails and she’s essentially given up all hope). This is one area where the book does a better job than the film at describing the extent to which Heidi’s addiction affected her co-workers and the pretty big risk both guys took by fighting to keep her on; her crack addiction almost tanked their morning show entirely at some point in the recent past, so when it appears she’s fallen off the wagon, the level of anger her co-workers show makes a lot more sense with that context. In the movie, one of the DJs in particular comes off like an unsympathetic dick, but once you realize he basically promised the powers-that-be that she’d stay clean, it makes more sense.
The problem is, Heidi does stay clean, for most of the film, and only turns to crack once her life has fallen apart, and she has no idea why. Things start to go off the rails fairly quickly, when Heidi receives a weird record from a band called “The Lords” that is sent directly to her with no return address. Soon, she’s putting the record on the old turntable and giving it a spin, and immediately falls into a trance where she’s transported back to those crusty witches of yore we already saw in the movie’s opening.
Meg Foster plays Margaret Morgan, the badass head of the coven that gets roasted by what turns out to be Heidi’s great-great something or other grandfather – the connection isn’t made until later because Heidi doesn’t use her real name on the air, she goes by the perfectly cheesy Heidi LeRoq. But I digress. Meg Foster is as badass as her character, and she is hella wild in this role. Her voice is gravelly, she still has those ice-blue eyes that made her famous, and she hams it up at every opportunity. So as I said, Heidi hears the music of The Lords and immediately trances into a scene of Margaret Morgan spitting on a newborn baby and screeching about how the coven has failed to birth what I can only assume would be the son of Satan.
The music, by the way, is singularly freaky, and could not better represent what might be some ancient music played by witches using human bones and organs as instruments. The real clip of it is only 35 seconds long, but some twisted person on YouTube actually looped it out to 11 minutes, which would make anyone insane. It’s worth a quick listen though, because it’s oddly effective.
So the skinny is this: when John Hawthorne burned Margaret and her coven members at the stake (in a scene that is horrifying in its accuracy), ol’ Meg put a curse on his entire family line, culminating in eventually using some distant relative of his to be the bearer of the devil-baby they were never able to produce. Enter Heidi Hawthorne.
And that’s basically it. Since Heidi’s on the radio, her team decides to play The Lords’ trippy tune on air, and it sends out a sort of clarion call to all the women of Salem who are direct descendants of witch-burners from times past. It’s clear that not only Heidi is being affected every time the music plays, as we get scenes of other women all over town who are frozen in place whenever it sounds, but clearly Heidi is getting the worst of it. This is another area where the book goes into much more detail than the film, making it far clearer just what’s going on. The music was originally made by Margaret’s coven, and it’s been lying in wait for Heidi Hawthorne herself to get prepped and ready for the miraculous birth. The other women are being called to join in the ritual and ultimately sacrifice themselves as punishment for the forefathers’ sins.
So the rest of the movie is just Heidi slowly being driven into a state of submission and weakness, having terrible dreams and horrific experiences, and becoming more and more despondent as her life falls apart due to forces she doesn’t understand. Throughout the movie there are some stunning visual sequences that represent this descent, and the way Zombie cuts between the slow, sad decline of Heidi and the manic, fiery rage of the ancient witches as they gradually come together is effectively dreadful. It is all manipulated, of course, by the sweet-on-the-surface landlord named Lacey who dotes on Heidi alongside her kooky “sisters” who are actually modern-day members of the same coven, come to escort Heidi to her devilish demise. As Heidi spirals downward, they tighten their grip, feeding her powerful tea and guiding her into mysterious rooms in the boardinghouse Lacey owns, where fantastical scenes play out rather incomprehensively but beautifully. I’m still not clear what actually happens to Heidi in some of these scenes, but what they lack in explication they make up for in mood.
Things get a bit murky as Heidi hurtles towards her inevitable end; there’s a scene that may be the impregnation, by a group of bizarre faceless “doctors,” or it could be another scene where she appears to be connected by umbilical cords to a squatty, grisly demon. There’s a scene where she’s strapped down and attacked by Margaret Morgan and her coven which may be the birth that kills her, and then some sort of resurrection, maybe?, that ends the film. None of it is clear, but it is compelling and fascinating to watch, so when the credits roll and a news radio reports that all the female descendants of the original Salem founders were found dead in an apparent suicide pact while Heidi Hawthorne has gone missing, I’m willing to accept it for the wild trip it all is. And then I watch it again.