THE LORDS OF SALEM represents a filmmaker venturing into uncharted territory, and it is glorious. Though it is his fifth theatrical film, THE LORDS OF SALEM marks the first totally original material Rob Zombie has brought to the big screen since HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. After all, he followed up CORPSES with a sequel, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, which was different in tone but still continued the story of the characters from the first film. After that, Zombie gave us his two HALLOWEEN pictures, again adding his own spin on the material, but dealing with established characters. Flirtations with other material, like THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO not withstanding, this is something new. It’s surreal and experimental, a dark personal journey, courtesy of Mr. Rob Zombie.
In this latest film, Rob casts his wife/muse, Sherri Moon Zombie in the lead role as Heidi, a celebrated radio DJ in modern-day Salem, Massachusetts One night, after finishing her show with her two co-hosts (DAWN OF THE DEAD alum Ken Foree and a very Rob Zombie-looking Jeffrey Daniel Phillips), Heidi receives a delivery from what she assumes to be a local band. It’s a vinyl record, encased in a wooden box. The only identifying mark is a weird symbol on the album and the band’s simple name, the Lords.
Eventually, the album gets played, first privately and then over the airwaves. It’s a repetitious dirge that won’t be performed on AMERICAN IDOL anytime soon, but doesn’t sound too unlike Can or Amon Düül II. Each time Heidi hears the album, it affects her in strange ways. She goes into a trance and begins seeing nightmarish visions – some of them distortions of her own reality, some of them depicting nasty scenes from four hundred years ago and some depicting a nightmarish future to come. As Heidi’s sanity begins to decay, her landlady (Judy Geeson) begins to take a deeper interest in her, as do the landlady’s “sisters.” In the middle of this is an expert on the Salem witch trials (Bruce Davison) who knows something isn’t right about that music he heard on the radio. He continues to investigate as Heidi slips further and further into the abyss.
THE LORDS OF SALEM may be Rob Zombie’s most personal, character-driven film yet. By focusing on Heidi’s plight, he places his film in a select company of films that featured tragic heroines at the center – films that include THE HAUNTING, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE SENTINEL and even the fairly recent HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. It seems a more modest production, which may catch people off guard. One can easily see where the film probably once contained much more material than it does now (several actors had their roles excised altogether). But more does not necessarily mean better, and I believe that Zombie has made a wise decision in trimming the fat from this film and making sure we were following Heidi through her week-long ordeal.
Rob Zombie proves once again that he’s not just a fan, but a skilled artist behind the camera. Some of the shots here, the way he uses negative space in Heidi’s apartment building, create a dreamlike atmosphere of uncertainty that permeates throughout the film. It’s a beautiful film to look at and a haunting one to experience.
His way with cast members has also improved, as he squeezes some of the best performances these actors have given in ages. Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn are incredible as Geeson’s sisters. Meg Foster is unrecognizable as the vile and evil witch whose burning sets the wheels of the story in motion. And you have to give props to Sherri Moon Zombie in the lead. She has grown witch each film and she carries this film with ease. To witness her emotional and psychological breakdown is completely believable and quite moving.
Rob Zombie is still able to give us several of his personal touches. Like Quentin Tarantino used to use 1970s music for his films, Zombie cherry picks several tunes from the 1960s and 1970s and uses them to eerie effect. Hence, the music of the Velvet Underground takes on a whole new meaning here, all of it to the betterment of the film.
There are a few stumbling blocks along the way. Some of the surreal images Heidi experiences in her trance drew some unintended chuckles. He combines the macabre beauty and absurdity of images often attributed to the occult, at times recalling Benjamin Christensen’s HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES. In just a couple instances, the images come off a little more silly than strange.
Still, THE LORDS OF SALEM is evidence of a filmmaker that continues to explore different corners of the horror genre and make them his own. Rob Zombie takes this stuff very seriously and we need more people like him.
This review also appeared at Film Geek Central.