CONTAINS SPOILERS AND SURPRISES
The principal surprise being a Rob Zombie movie that doesn't stink the room out like a dysentery-ridden camel that's been dead for three weeks. This is Zombie's fifth live-action film (there's a cartoon thing called The Haunted World Of El Superbeasto that somehow never made it onto my rentals queue) and saying it's his best really isn't saying anything at all: House Of A Thousand Corpses was a tedious Texas Chainsaw Massacre ripoff riddled with trash culture references, and its sequel The Devil's Rejects was a vile piece of shrieking nihilistic garbage which only managed to not be the worst film of its year because Guy Ritchie made Revolver. Zombie also remade Halloween, which was borderline tolerable in the bits where he was pretending to be John Carpenter and barely watchable when he wasn't, and followed it up with a tawdry and ugly sequel that really marked the point where someone should have taken him aside and punched him.
Maybe they did, because The Lords Of Salem is actually the best thing he's done by a long way. It's still only middling fare, and there's stacks wrong with it, but set against Zombie's other films it's a revelation, as if Fred Olen Ray or Al Adamson had suddenly made The Exorcist. Dreadlocked hippie rock chick Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) receives a mysterious 45 rpm single from a band known as The Lords at her late-night music/chat/unlistenable rubbish radio show: it catches the attention of author Matthias (Bruce Davison) who connects the song to the local witch trials of the 17th century and the curse laid down upon the women of the town. As Heidi sinks into a stupor of evil, it becomes clear she's been selected for the ancient coven's Satanic ritual.....
While the rock video imagery looks cheap and silly (Sheri Moon Zombie astride a goat, a graphic disembowelling, the visualisation of The Beast), much of the film is actually pretty well handled, with a pleasingly 70s retro feel about it. Not just in its casting of familiar genre favourites including Judy Geeson, Ken Foree, Dee Wallace and Meg Foster, but in its lack of mobile phones, moronic teenagers and CGI, and occasional nostalgic glimpse of lens flare. Zombie's ability to give the movie a subtle, mature feel sits oddly with the shocking verbal blasphemies and his strange obsession in naked old ladies. And despite what the movie says, you can't just type someone's name into a genealogy website and automatically get their family tree for the last four hundred years - tracing your family history just doesn't work like that, and anyway Matthias goes about it completely the wrong way.
For all that's wrong with it, I liked The Lords Of Salem far, far more than I'd expected. But that's based entirely on Zombie's abysmal track record of four damn near worthless feature films; it's odd, and a little annoying, that the first film he's made that doesn't reek is the one that goes straight to DVD while obnoxious rubbish like The Devil's Rejects got a national cinema release. Even so, The Lords Of Salem isn't great: it's messy, good and bad in equal measure, with silliness and shock material that doesn't work shuffled in with some genuine creeps and a nicely downbeat ending. In the end it's worth a C+ or a B- at best: as a rental it certainly doesn't make for a wasted evening, and I almost wish I'd been at FrightFest Glasgow for it, but it's not a film I'm ever likely to come back to.