So, from the ‘get-go’ I’ll say that, being a Rob Zombie film…’The Lords of Salem’ is NOT for everybody. However, those of us who have been following the man’s work, both musically and cinematically, it is something of a treat. Rob Zombie is one of those directors that I have a ‘love/hate’ relationship with, and I have from Day One…when I first saw his debut flick ‘House of a 1000 Corpses’ (2003). That one really did set a precedent when it came to the tone that Zombie would infuse all his future works with (with the notable exception of his CSI: Miami two-parter…unfortunately).
The guy knows horror. That is absolutely undeniable, and the genre permeates everything that he IS artistically, sometimes to a fault. Without fail, every one of his flicks have taken certain scenes to ‘the line’ at some point…and mercilessly blown straight through it, going directly for the shocked jugular of the audience. Scenes where MAYBE…just MAYBE, it would’ve been cool to look away from the unsettling carnage playing out on screen, and allow our own twisted imaginations to fill in the blanks…instead of being subjected to his. No bullshit, ‘House of 1000 Corpses’, ‘The Devil’s Rejects (2005),’ Halloween’ (2007) and ‘Halloween 2’ (2009) have all contained elements that even I, a fairly thick-skinned filmgoer, have groaned and squirmed and looked away from, when the camera didn’t. So, when I hit ‘PLAY’ on Zombie’s newest genre offering, I was fully prepared to acknowledge his visual brilliance while cursing his lack of tact.
Happily, I was surprised to find that ‘The Lords of Salem’ is something of a different beast in his filmography. As I took it in, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, in preparation for the crafting of this one, Zombie collected together the ENTIRE works of David Lynch and marathon’d the shit outta them. ‘The Lords of Salem’ is a hallucinatory head-fuck that takes it’s time to tell it’s sordid story, a story punctuated by a slew of dreamy (nightmarish?) imagery and a relentlessly brooding atmosphere.
The plot, written by Zombie, follows a former junkie-turned-radio show host named Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), in the historically famous (notorious?) town of Salem, Massachusetts. One night, a wooden box containing an old LP arrives at the radio station, with her (true) name attached to it. Passing it off as some sort of publicity stunt, Heidi and her wacky broadcasting team opt to play the record ‘on air’. The resulting creepy music has a noticeable effect on all the women who hear it, causing a trance-like state and nightmarish images. Heidi, for a reason revealed later in the film, is hit harder than the rest,,,and thus begins the tragic tailspin of her life. Along the way, a concerned local academic takes an interest in the record and the tunes dark history, while Heidi falls under the influence of 3 ‘sisters’ who have taken up residence in her building, and clearly have nefarious designs for her, and the world at large.
Zombie takes an interesting, almost contemplative approach to the telling of this story, particularly in his compositions and music choices. Lots of his shots are ‘long’ and patient, letting the images linger for maximum effect. Slow zooms, pans and tilts are ‘the name of the game’ here, as opposed to the rapid-fire cutting and frantic camera moves so popular today. In fact, I’d wager that many a Rob Zombie fan may have actually be a little miffed with his unusually subdued styling this time around. Not me. I welcomed it whole-heartedly.
I also welcomed what seemed to be his new-found respect for something resembling subtlety. There were things that cropped up where I SWORE he was going to fall back on his old habits and go for the throat…but he didn’t. Which isn’t to say that there is NO ugliness on display here. To the contrary, there is a good dose of ‘ugly’ on display here, it’s just not cheap like some of his other, past examples (looking at YOU, The Devil’s Rejects Motel Scene!). The thing is that the ‘ugly’ here flows through the undercurrent of the film instead of being blatantly thrust into the audience’s face. Well, that’s not entirely true as quite a bit of messed-up imagery is ‘front and centre’ here…there is just a notable absence of victims being tortured and brutalized to death in full view.
As I mentioned before, I felt a heavy ‘David Lynch’ vibe to this one, especially films like ‘Lost Highway’ (1997) and ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001). On top of that particular aesthetic, I also had twinges of classic horror movies like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) and ‘The Shining’ (1980). ‘The Shining’ definitely came to mind with some of the music cues that Zombie chose to use to heighten the tension. Lots of low frequency rumbles, heart beats and unsettling noises kept the suspense ratcheted up nicely.
Once again, we have Zombie pulling his hottie, eye-candy wife into the fold by making her the lead character, something that she had yet to do in one of his movies, despite being in ALL of them. Lots of people have shit on him for doing this and shit on her for her lack of range. These charges I do understand but damn that woman has a sexy ass…so I let it go (as usual, Zombie shows us a LOT of what he gets to go home to every night, the bastard!). Truthfully, I thought Sheri Moon Zombie did quite a commendable job with the tortured character of Heidi, bringing a sense of vulnerability to ‘her’ that is genuinely trying to be strong and happy, only to find herself being pulled head-long into horror beyond her control. Her interactions with her co-workers (and pet dog!) had a natural feel to them, which helped the blooming weirdness seem even more unsettling when the shit started hitting the fan.
Once again, I have to bring up the imagery and the style. There is some stuff that will creep many an audience member out. Lots of naked, over-weight women (*shivers*) chanting around fires, with bad teeth. A strange, quivering mini-demon creature. Burned bodies (including a crucified baby!). Facially distorted beings that jerk dildos off while Heidi sits among them in a trance. Corpse-like creatures that we, the audience see, but Heidi doesn’t. A strobing montage of Satanic footage that may or may not be contained in her mind. And many others. And most of it worked…at least on me…and on the level on which the flick sits.
There’s a lot more that I could willingly go into, but that just means that I’m taking time away from you, time that you could use to just see ‘The Lords of Salem’, and make up your own twisted mind. Not everything works but the vast majority does. If you’re a fan of Rob Zombie’s work, then you owe it to yourself to see this, as this is the type of horror film I’ve (we’ve?) been waiting for from him. And if you just happen to like horror films in general, especially ones that take a chance or two…then this may be right up your alley as well.