Dir. Rob Zombie
Former junky Heidi works as a rock DJ at the local radio station in Salem, Massachusetts. When she receives a wooden box containing a vinyl record, ‘A gift from the Lords’, she assumes it’s a PR stunt by a band and gives it a spin. Upon hearing the strange, haunting music, Satanic Panic ensues and she begins to experience vivid hallucinations and bizarre flashbacks to her towns violent, blood-soiled past. Is Heidi going mad, or are the “Lords of Salem” returning for revenge on modern-day Salem?
A daring filmmaker with a unique and singular vision, Rob Zombie has never been one to shy away from controversy or despairingly dark subject matter. The Devil’s Rejects focused on the murderous redneck antagonists of House of 1,000 Corpses, essentially rendering them the protagonists and even attempting to generate sympathy for them; daring the audience to side with them despite the atrocities they’d previously committed. His remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher Halloween focused on the back-story and psychology of serial killer Michael Myers, stripping him of mystery and addressing the issues that made him the relentless killing machine he grew up to be.
A deceptively simple story driven along by searing images, dank atmospherics and an omniscient, suffocating sense of dread, The Lords of Salem is something of a departure for the director. Boasting slow-burning tension throughout, it emerges as a real throwback to old fashioned horror, filtered through Zombie’s typically nightmarish, festering aesthetics. While his previous films featured brutal, unflinching violence, Lords takes a much more psychological approach. It’s still far from subtle, but it does demonstrate some restraint, and while the story is arguably not that original, the striking manner in which it's told is disarmingly unique. The ominously pulsating, occasionally blaring score by guitarist John 5, enhances the eerie moodiness without ever distracting from the onscreen action, while the cinematography courtesy of Brandon Trost (Halloween II) and production design by Jennifer Spence, ensure that Salem’s bloody past is consistently evoked in its present day setting. Glowering throughout are shades of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby, Ken Russell’s The Devils and the vivid styling of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno. Strange parallels with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining also abound in the long, slow tracking shots of shadowy hallways and darkened rooms, symmetrical framing, and the shocking murder of the supposed hero, who finally shows up to help in the third act.
With Halloween II, Zombie proved he was able to conjure surreal and morbidly beautiful imagery. These are the kinds of striking visuals that glare out from Lords. The way in which Heidi’s nightmares are woven throughout the narrative is effectively realised, creating a stifling, hallucinatory atmosphere choked with queasy foreboding. The flashbacks to the witch trials are amongst the most gruesome, disturbing and visceral images created by Zombie to date. Imagine, if you will, the opening scene of Mario Bava’s gothic classic Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, stripped of its poetic lyricism, brutally intensified, suffused with feverish cruelty and you’re halfway there. Zombie also channels Goya’s Witch’s Sabbath paintings in his depiction of Satan as the paganistic Sabbatic Goat/Goat of Mendes, imbuing proceedings with a vintage, off-kilter feel, and echoing the likes of Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out and Michele Soavi’s The Church.
While the cast is comprised of myriad genre veterans, emotional engagement is somewhat minimal and some may yearn for a little more character development; but as an example of how it’s still possible to create something fresh and interesting in the horror genre, The Lords of Salem won’t disappoint. Much like his prior film, the focus here is also on a young woman and her slow descent into hellish despair. While the characters are never as fleshed out as they could be, it doesn’t detract from what is essentially a plot driven narrative. As the increasingly strung-out Heidi, Sherri Moon Zombie delivers a suitably nervous performance. When she isn’t wandering around in a confused daze, she’s mining the pits of despair and ably conveying how broken Heidi really is. The trio of witches who keep watch over her are portrayed by Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn, who relish every moment they appear onscreen. Much like the Castevets in Rosemary’s Baby, they are as weirdly maternal as they are quietly menacing, hinting at their diabolical schemes through veiled dialogue and sly threats. The chemistry between the three is intoxicating and only bettered by an almost unrecognisable Meg Foster as the head crone of the ancient coven.
Phantasmagorical, psychedelic and uncompromising; The Lords of Salem blisters with provocative ideas and once again showcases Zombie’s penchant for spinning a compelling yarn through evocative images, sweltering atmospherics and grimy, pulsating tension.
The Lords of Salem is available on DVD and Download on 22nd April courtesy of Momentum Pictures.