So if you’re here for the short answer to the titular question, the answer is this: No.
(SPOILERS AHEAD. Don’t say you weren’t warned.)
That isn’t to diss Lords of Salem, which despite every negative review and “Oh my God it’s a train wreck” warning aimed in my direction, I really enjoyed. But I’m not your average reviewer or moviegoer (or at least I’d like to think so). When things start to spin and Rob Zombie eschews more traditional narrative form to go abstract, weird and just plain gross, I’m willing to take that ride. And while I’ll admit the ending wasn’t satisfying, I end up feeling like the journey was worth it, for a number of reasons.
1. Zombie goes old school. The modern, enlightened America knows that the Salem witch trials were a bunch of self-serving, misogynistic, superstitious men taking out their own insecurities and hostilities on the women and girls around them. Zombie takes the traditional horror approach: Sure, the bulk of the women were innocent victims, but there was this one coven that was pure evil and really wanted to unleash the power of Satan on the earthly plane. It’s not very PC, but it’s that PC mentality that ends up biting everyone in the ass in the end. Francis Matthias (nice to see Bruce Davison), an author and authority on the witches of Salem, never once believes that any of these coincidences – the Lords of Salem references, Heidi Hawthorne being a descendant of witch-killing Pastor Hawthorne, the haunting tune (call it “Colonial industrial,” a mix of Francis Scott Key and Nordic dark metal), etc. – are anything more than coincidences … right up until one of the witches bashes his skull in with a skillet. Heidi’s pals, Whitey and Herman, believe Heidi has merely succumbed to pressure and returned to her addict ways, not suspecting something supernatural is at work. Zombie uses our enlightened, modern prejudices against us here. It’s a trick a lot of horror uses, sure, but Zombie does it smoothly, serving his tale well.
2. I don’t need to know everything. You know the main reason why the Dexter series finale sucked so much? The minds behind the scenes felt the need to explain everything. Instead of leaving us with the image of Dexter in his boat, his sister’s dead body next to him, waiting for the hurricane to swallow them whole, never knowing for sure if Dexter survives or not, we get that cheesy bullshit coda with Dexter now playing the role of the loner logger, which runs counter to everything the series set up as well as being just plain stupid. Viewers were given too much, and it left a nasty taste in our collective mouths. In Lords of Salem, I don’t mind that I’m not always entirely sure what’s going on. That’s sort of the point. Heidi, her pals, Matthias, the average Salem citizen has no clue what dark cloud hangs over their fair village. Zombie is putting us in an uncomfortable place of being lost in the dark, right there with the characters. The imagery is terrifying, not of this earth. It is a mix of heresy, putridity and the potential for violence. I don’t need to know who or what that midget, Frankenstein’s monster, turkey-looking thingy is. It ain’t good, that’s for damn certain. The harbingers with the dark, rotted cloth faces? I don’t think they’re here to welcome Heidi to the neighborhood. I find comfort in the fact that Zombie allows his viewers the opportunity to let their imaginations take the reins and run with it.
3. That scary hallway. A significant part of The Shining‘s appeal is how fully Stanley Kubrick incorporates the Overlook Hotel as a character in the film. Roman Polanski – while largely an overrated, obnoxious rapist – managed a similar vibe with the Bramford in Rosemary’s Baby. Heidi’s apartment building isn’t so scary, but her particular hallway is ominous, a portent of bad things to come. It’s creepy every time Zombie shows it. It isn’t quite as important to the tale as the Overlook or the Bramford, but it’s a nice touch and a centering point for Lords of Salem.
4. I get the feeling if the director was David Lynch instead of Rob Zombie, Lords of Salem would have been hailed instead of jeered. OK, maybe that’s an overstatement. But it seems that Zombie’s fascination with white trash culture – something that is part of all of his on-screen work – gets derided because he isn’t viewed as having the intellectual and spiritual take that Lynch is known for while mining the same rural mindset for Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, etc. I’m not saying Zombie is better than Lynch or vice versa, but it feels like their views on the nasty secrets of small towns are not all that dissimilar. I think the real gap is in the perception of critics, some of whom may be a bit on the snobby side.
Sounds like I enjoyed the film, doesn’t it? But in the end, I would still argue that Lords of Salem isn’t Zombie’s finest, not because Lords is sub-par, but because Zombie has made two better films: 2007’s Halloween remake and 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects. In Halloween, Zombie takes the original’s skeletal classic and adds some meat. It’s not the be all, end all of horror movies, but it’s worthy. The Devil’s Rejects is Zombie’s finest to date, creating a film where there is no rooting interest, the anti-heroes unworthy of victory or salvation, and the “heroes” just as irredeemable and low.
But I think Lords of Salem, while not Zombie’s finest film as a whole, may be his best effort as a visual storyteller. I respect that he continues to improve at his craft, and at the same time, I look forward to see what he does next.