Writer/director Rob Zombie’s newest vision of horror, Lords Of Salem, represents a major step forward for the filmmaker. Salem is a gaudy dance between the macabre and the art-house, too violent for the mainstream moviegoer and too bizarre for the common gore-fiend. But Salem is also the director’s best film to date, showcasing his versatility as a filmmaker. Love him or hate him, Zombie’s contributions have, and will always make a major impact on the world of horror, and Salem shares his most creative impulses.
Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a popular DJ at a local hard-rock radio station, receives a mysterious wooden box containing an LP recording by a band called The Lords. Assuming the package comes from a struggling local act seeking exposure, she chooses to play it on the air. The baleful tune awakens something buried deep within the community and causes Heidi to experience flashbacks to a past trauma. Soon, Heidi finds herself tormented by reoccurring nightmares and hallucinations that start to overlap with her waking reality. She begins to sink into deep depression and degradation while being watched over by her sphinx-like landlord (Judy Geeson) and her two sibylline cousins (Pat Quinn and Dee Wallace). Meanwhile a local historian (Bruce Davidson) is convinced there’s something amiss and sets out to investigate.
Rock star-turned-director Rob Zombie has always been a controversial figure and perhaps the most polarizing director in modern horror. With Lords of Salem, Zombie creates a suffocating sense of foreboding dread. Much like Ti West’s Innkeepers, mood and atmosphere is his primary concern. As the film progresses, things grow increasingly strange by the minute. Heidi’s nightmares recall the best of Alejandro Jodorowsky and the surrealistic moments (specifically within the apartment) spring up comparisons to early Polanski. But there’s no confusing his aesthetic with anyone else. With his latest, Zombie was given complete creative control and the end result is a work of phantasmagorical cinema.
Usually when handed carte-blanche, directors find trouble eliminating superfluous elements, but here Zombie shows that he can discipline himself. The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s most patient and mature film. Salem is a textbook study on how to do horror right – largely bypassing the gore galore until the climax and avoiding cheap gotcha scares that directors employ far too often. Salem is essentially a 70’s-style European art-house horror flick culminating with an air of ambiguity – a take-no-prisoners final act painted with moments of crazed inspirations. Salem is an old-school horror flick sporadically interested in experimental decor.
Salem’s chief virtue is, surprisingly, the cast. Rob Zombie has ample affection for his outcasts, and Salem marks the first time the director displays genuine care for his protagonist. Zombie follows his lead from a close distance. We spend a lot of time getting to know and like the vulnerable Heidi, who struggles to cope with demons from her past. Rob Zombie crams the film with a supporting cast of genre stars, including the aforementioned Wallace, Quinn and Geeson, as well as Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips playing the “two Hermans”. Music has always played an essential role in all of Rob Zombie’s films but never as crucial has here. The haunting soundtrack supplied by composer John 5 (Rob Zombie’s guitarist) and music supervisor Tom Rowland is the driving force of the madness. Together they have truly created one of the most effective and unique themes to any horror film. Along with the art direction, costume design and Brandon Trost’s cinematography, Lords of Salem is a fiercely imagined nightmare. While Zombie clearly wears his influences on his sleeve, there is no doubt his brand of terror will carry weight for generations to come.
– Ricky D