The Lords of Salem (2012) (101 minutes)
Directed by Rob Zombie.
Written by Rob Zombie.
Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster and Bruce Davison.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start: I love Rob Zombie.
From his early days in White Zombie, his carnival-like album covers, concerts and music videos, right up until his 1st feature film in 2003, House Of 1000 Corpses. The fact it was relegated straight to the DVD bargain-basket immediately in the UK filled me with dread, but I needn’t of worried. Although criticized for its pacing, coherency and direction, there was enough positives in there to shoot RZ up the recognition ladder. This was further enhanced by the excellent and gritty The Devil’s Rejects in 2005, where bright psychedelia was replaced by layers of grime-coated reds and browns, and a sharp, witty ear for dialogue further honed its skills.
Although Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009) failed to thoroughly wow the critics, it further convinced me that this visceral, hardcore approach was the way the man of many talents was headed and where he felt most comfortable.
Then came 2012’s The Lords of Salem; a refined, mature mixture of his previous attempts that has not only made me change my opinion on where Zombie was headed, but also on what I now expect from cinema itself every time I sit down to watch a film with a low-to-modest budget.
The plot’s path will feel like a well-trodden one to anybody with even a basic horror background – Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a radio DJ trying to maintain her sobriety, receives a package containing a recording by ‘The Lords’. After playing it on the air, she begins to sink into a merciless mire of turmoil, drugs and degradation, plagued by disturbing visions relating to a coven of witches executed in the late 1600s.
Riddled with references to 70s/80s cult, satanic horror (Trick or Treat anyone?), but also showing its love and acknowledgement towards more mainstream successes such as Rosemary’s Baby and Suspiria, Zombie’s movie takes it’s time setting up its sinister tale.
Taking his foot off the snappy, cutting dialogue pedal and his mind away from choppy editing, Zombie chooses to make this a more sombre, muted and thoughtful affair. Although criticised for its meandering pace, I can’t help but feel it’s done with every intention in order to mirror our main protagonist’s trance-like state, then when the set pieces do arrive they appear to do so with more gusto and power than if we’d spent the first part of the film at full throttle.
The ambitious camera work is slow-panning, careful and precise, displaying an almost painful symmetry, reminiscent of techniques used with unforgettable success in The Shining. While a trademark grimy feel remains, he also manages to add a ton of Argento style and neon colour to the mix, making this a lot more arthouse than grindhouse. Unfortunately, I fear the majority of today’s horror audience won’t have the patience, pedigree or understanding to join these important dots together.
After the track by ‘The Lords’ is played about a 3rd of the way in, the ‘horror’ aspect of The Lords of Salem turns from a drip to a stream, as local historian (Bruce Davison) becomes convinced strange things are afoot in Salem. Meanwhile, Heidi’s landlord, played by 70’s icon Judy Geeson, and her two cousins (Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace) are becoming a more prevalent presence in her increasingly detached reality.
With the last 3rd becoming a totally surreal lesson in European mood and style, this is where The Lords of Salem is likely to divide audiences, as Zombie feeds us a trip and pushes us straight down the rabbit hole, with the film suddenly vibrating like an early Cronenberg or Polanski. Foreboding makes way for intense, abstract visuals and the carefully constructed soundtrack remains (like the surreal flashbacks to the witch trials) fearless and razor-sharp, with tracks that range from classic Mozart, to Springsteen, to Velvet Underground, to name but a few.
While I doubt this will ever be embraced by the masses to the degree his other films have been, a cult following is a certainty. After the beating he took over his couple of reboots, I for one am glad he went back to the drawing board, re-assessed what he loved about horror and directed from the soul.
He seems to have acknowledged what his strengths are, focused on them and nearly completely left his weaknesses behind.
In some ways Zombie’s most restrained and controlled film. In others, by far his most shocking, ambitious, absurd and best to date.