Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem is the biggest jump in quality and ambition you’ll see on a filmmaking CV this year. It would be short-sighted to call it his magnum opus, but its certainly the most unique thing on his CV so far, and a high benchmark for future work.
Zombie’s brand of heavy metal horror first came to light in the brutal, yet faulted, House of a Thousand Corpses where he introduced his highly dysfunctional Firefly family: a group of sadists so twisted it put Zombie on the map as a shock maestro. After that he cleaned up his act, sharpened his writing, and unleashed the epic sequel The Devil’s Rejects. The sequel affirmed him as a horror talent with more to offer than just nihilism and nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong there’s still plenty of nihilism and nostalgia in his style. His Halloween reimagining was a fun thrill ride that lacked the creative flare of Rejects, but for his Halloween 2 he broke out the big guns and showed us a capacity to merge startling art-house imagery and brutal violence. Take this along with his witty dialogue, retro tastes in music, practical special effects, cast of ageing cult stars, and you can see that Zombie has a Tarantino-level of love, and talent, for cinema. Zombie’s latest film The Lords of Salem has been splitting audiences everywhere whilst garnering similarly marmite reviews from film journalists.
In the town of Salem, Massachusetts, former addict Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) works as a late night rock DJ at a local radio station. One late night after broadcast she receives a mysterious wooden box containing a vinyl record. Assuming its from an ambitious band she takes it home and listens to it. Immediately, weird flashbacks and visions plague her. After playing the record live on air, the effects spread and the Lords of Salem prepare to return.
Its a shame that the trailer compacts much of the intruiging imagery into an espresso you’ll probably wish you hadn’t taken. Some of the most striking scenes have thier initial impact nicked by overexposure. Also on the down-side is Sheri Moon’s performance. As support she’s arresting, just look at The Devil’s Rejects, but in the lead it’s a bit of a slog. There’s just not enough depth to her performance to allow any real dynamic between Hieidi and audience.
On the other hand there are some truly fantastic turns from Judy Geeson (10 Rillington Place), Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and Dee Wallace (Red Christmas, Cujo) who channel charm and intrigue into thier murderous matriarchs with absolute glee. Geeson in particular is a dab hand at flipping moods, thus the tone of a scene, instantly. Meg Foster (They Live) utterly transforms herself for a descent into madness, leading Zombie’s pack of ravenous Mansonesque bitch-witches like some demonic ring master. Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips pop up as Hiedi’s fellow DJs whilst Bruce Davison shines as a kindly historian. Apart from Foree and Phillips (and some tiny cut scenes with Sid Haig and Michael Berryman) there’s a disappointing lack of Zombie regulars. But then, it also helps the film stand apart from the American-centric cult nostalgia he so often indulges in.
The new feature is probably a step too far in the arthouse direction for those who dig his rockabilly schlock. Hopefully though, fans will follow him down the rabbit hole, because the trip is well worth it. Zombie masterfully orchestrates the look and atmosphere of the film beyond expectations. The Lords of Salem is a gorgeously grotesque film, easily be likened to The Shining, The Devils, and the films of Jodorowsky thanks to that grand gothic use of epic space, lurid colour, opulent decor, trippy narrative and psycho-sexual elements. Cinematographer Brandon Trost returns to Zombie’s crew after perfectly capturing Halloween 2‘s more psychedelic, elemetns. Brownie points to Zombie for being this ambitious and maintainting an operatic, hypnotic aesthetic across the entire runtime, without use of a single digital effect. Some of the film almost feels like he’s throwing a big ‘fuck you’ to anyone who might have doubted he could go down the high-art route with his usual grungy manerisms. But we’re glad he did.
A mind-fucking, psych-terror descent into musically induced madness helmed by a man with a distinct sense of visual style. The Lords of Salem is horrifyingly beautiful, well-performed for the most part, and the most innovative and intriguing witch film for a long time. It will challenge some viewers patience and probably alienate some old-school Zombie fans, but its undeniably original.
Dir. Rob Zombie
Stars. Sheri-Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn, Ken Foree