Unintentionally, Rob Zombie has become the poster boy for a “love it or hate it” kind of attitude in regards to directors within the horror genre. His detractors are many, as are his fans, and it appears that once you are in one of the camps you are unlikely to ever change. Zombie has a distinct style that is easily identified as his own, and because of this it appears that if you hate one of his films, you are likely to hate them all. However something that I find odd is the huge amount of venom that is thrown at Zombie by his haters, they really are very aggressive and seem to take it personally when they dislike one of his films. This kind of hate seems only aimed at Zombie and yet he makes no apologies for the kinds of films he makes and how he makes them. He has a singular vision and if you are not on his wavelength, he could care less. Personally I am a big fan of Rob Zombie and his films and consider his 2005 film “The Devil’s Rejects” to be an out and out masterpiece. However since that film, his films have been a bit hit and miss. There is much to like in each one, but as a whole, no film has come close to the successes of “The Devil’s Rejects”. Studio interference appeared to be the main problem with his two “Halloween” films, so I was very excited when I learnt that for the first time since “The Devil’s Rejects”, Rob Zombie was going to have 100% creative control over “The Lords Of Salem”. Were we in store for another masterpiece?
The film opens in 16th century Salem, Massachusetts where we are witness to the deaths of the master witch Margaret Morgan and her coven of six by a local Reverend who burns these lovely ladies at the stake whilst still very much alive. As her flesh burns around her, Margaret Morgan curses the women of Salem, both now and for generations to come, and curses the Reverend himself explaining that it will be his bloodline that becomes the vessel to which Satan will be reborn. From this intense and fiery opening, we then cut to present day Salem, specifically the local radio station where we meet the DJ’s working there; Whitey, Herman and Heidi. All are having a great time and it is obvious that they have great chemistry working together. They are currently interviewing a very intense member of a black metal band who sprouts off about Satan and his preaching’s, calling God the ultimate oppressor. Heidi and company laugh and joke about it all and do not take it too seriously, which seems to be the norm for this radio show; it’s about entertainment and just having a good time. When their shift is over, all three head home, but as Heidi is passing the reception desk she is handed a mysterious wooden box that had been addressed to her. Inside the box is a vinyl record and a note saying that it is a gift from “The Lords”. Once home she plays the record, and immediately a dark and demonic tune pours from her speakers, putting Heidi in some sort of trance as she is pummeled with images from the past, specifically that of the witches burning at the stake. From here on, Heidi’s life is never the same, as she continues down a dark and deadly path that appears certain to end in her doom. She is constantly barraged with strange hallucinations and images she cannot explain, as she heads deeper and deeper towards her fate. Is she losing her mind or has Margaret Morgan returned from the grave?
“The Lords Of Salem” is another one of my six most anticipated films of 2013 and I have to say that for the most part, the film delivered for me. When Rob Zombie first announced this project, I was a little skeptical but at the same time, still excited. The skepticism came from the fact that I think the subject of witches is a tricky one, especially in terms of making it scary. However when he further explained that the film was going to be more of a slow-burn, mind-fuck kind-of film, this really got me interested. As I have mentioned many times before, I love films that deal with the breakdown of the mind, which is what Zombie promised here and then he elevated my interest even more when he said that one of the main inspirations for the film was Polanski’s “The Tenant” which is one of my all time favourite films. Now that I have had the chance to see the film, whilst I can still see some of “The Tenant” in “The Lords Of Salem”, it appears that more inspiration seemed to have come from Polanski’s earlier film, “Rosemary’s Baby”.
One thing I love in a director is when you can instantly identify the project as one of theirs. Rob Zombie has a very distinct style; his films are always down and dirty, very gritty and almost always handheld. Bravely Zombie wanted to push himself and try something different here and as such the handheld camerawork is gone and in its place is some gorgeously framed symmetrical cinematography. The camera now moves at a slow, deliberate pace (or not at all) and yet amazingly, Zombie does not lose the intensity that was so prevalent in all of his previous films. There is always a constant feel of dread, an atmosphere of doom throughout “The Lords Of Salem” and it is because of this that the film is still easily identifiable as a Rob Zombie film even though his visual style is different. The production design helps enormously here, particularly the wallpaper seen in the halls of the apartment building where Heidi lives. It just looks so creepy as if it could come to life itself at any second.
Detractors of Rob Zombie seem to have a massive problem with the fact that he always casts his wife, Sherri Moon Zombie, in large roles within his films. With “The Lords Of Salem” he has given his wife her biggest challenge yet casting her in the lead role of Heidi. This is an incredibly difficult role as she has to present so many different emotions as well as be part of some of the most insane imagery ever to be put on film and she has to make it all believable. Personally I thought she did a great job here and was very convincing particularly towards the end as she is getting further and further away from reality. Zombie does a great job at making us care for Heidi and feel the helplessness she is feeling as she heads towards her unwanted fate. I also thought Jeff Daniel Phillips was very good as Whitey, particularly with how sensitive a performance he gives as you can really see how much pain he is in watching his friend’s downfall. My favourite performance though was from Bruce Davison who plays Francis Matthias, an author who happens to be on the show when Heidi plays “The Lords” record on air for the public to hear. He is almost playing the Loomis character (from “Halloween” – Rob Zombie’s version) here but he is just so natural and believable. I personally loved little moments from him like when he was nervously laughing whilst having tea with the three landladies. They are moments that mean nothing, but bring a reality to this very surreal film. Finally from an acting standpoint I cannot fail to mention Meg Foster who has a brief but very important role as master witch Margaret Morgan. She is just brilliant here and has obviously committed herself one hundred percent to the role. She is unrecognizable here and just terrifying. There is a scene towards the end when she just says “Welcome” and it sends chills down your spine. The one thing that everyone remembers about Meg Foster are her gorgeous eyes, but prepare to be disappointed because the look she has in this film is so rough and scraggy, that you do not even notice the eyes. As usual for a Rob Zombie film the rest of the roles have been cast with old genre actors from the seventies and eighties with Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn, Ken Foree and even Michael Berryman and Sid Haig (even though they both have about five seconds of screen time) appearing.
While much has been made about “The Lords Of Salem” being a slow-burn film, personally I felt that the film could have been a little slower. It is rare that I think a film is too short, but here I felt that the movie could have benefitted from an extra ten minutes just to let it breathe a little before it hurdles into the insane and intense final third. The imagery that Zombie comes up with towards the end of the film is just so bizarre and yet it is all incredibly beautiful. Although it does sound like a contradiction of terms, there really is a lot of beauty in the ugly images presented in “The Lords Of Salem”; it is a beautiful horror film. One quote that I read from another review that I loved was that it felt like the final third of the film had “been directed by Satan himself”. This sums it up perfectly, I think. While it appears that not all the images make sense in and of themselves, they create or add to the atmosphere present and in this regard are similar to the works of Dario Argento (back when he was making great films). In fact, “The Lords Of Salem” would fit in nicely as a companion piece to Argento’s own “Three Mothers Trilogy” (“Suspiria”, “Inferno”, and “The Mother Of Tears”).
Before I end this review I have to talk about the single greatest element of “The Lords Of Salem” and that is the music, particularly the sounds that come from the record given to Heidi. While it appears that the music is very simple, consisting of five or six notes, I do not think I have ever heard such a demonic sound. It just gets into your head and stays there, so it is very easy to understand why Heidi is affected by it so much. Long after I had seen the film, the music was still ringing in my head and even populated my dreams that night. Every time the music kicks in during the film, it appears the film itself is elevated. I do not know how to explain it; it just has an effect on you. The rest of the music (by John 5) is just as unnerving and plays less like music and more like sounds that just seems to get under your skin. While I wouldn’t call “The Lords Of Salem” a terrifying film, I did find that I was incredibly tense for its duration and this is mainly due to the music I believe.
Overall, I loved “The Lords Of Salem” and consider it the best film Rob Zombie has made since “The Devil’s Rejects”. It is not for everyone and I am sure that some will just dismiss it as absurd or silly, but for me, I love films where not everything makes sense (or at least on first viewing) and I think my love of Italian horror films from the past helped in my loving “The Lords Of Salem”. I have already seen the film twice and I enjoyed it even more the second time around. While I am not entirely sold on the end of the film, I think “The Lords Of Salem” is a unique and beautiful horror experience and I recommend it wholeheartedly.