Outlandish, deranged, surrealistic, and opening in only 350 theaters, Rob Zombie’s “The Lords of Salem” made its debut in limited release this week. Zombie’s films usually produce a divided audience. There are two camps: those who absolutely love his films, and those who absolutely loathe them. Seldom is there ever a middle ground. His infatuation with focusing on lower class, sadistic rednecks has received some animosity from those who claim he has begun to repeat himself. Those folks are about to eat their words because Zombie has crossed that frontier with an aggressive entrance into abstract territory.
Before getting into the film itself, let it be stated I am a fan of Zombie as a director. A huge fan as a matter of fact, but that was not always the case. I still regard his 2007 remake of “Halloween” to be an extremely flawed picture and one of the biggest missed opportunities of his career. On the other hand, I have held an ongoing fixation with the immensely underrated “Halloween 2,” and his masterpiece “The Devil’s Rejects.” Whether viewers support him or not, most have come to the consensus that his knowledge and wide understanding of the horror genre is immeasurable. Prior to “The Lords of Salem,” Zombie has always taken the raw and unrefined approach. Most of his films were shot on the grainy 16mm, with a definitive oversight towards handheld camera movements. However, Zombie has taken a different slant this go around, discontinuing his tendencies of becoming routine and branching out towards unfamiliar material.
“The Lords of Salem” is not a conventional horror film, or at least not in what we have come to accept as the traditional horror film. If your idea of good fright fest consists of linear plot progression and a few dispensable jump scares, then Zombie’s intention may seem completely foreign and off the mark in its purpose. Nevertheless, Zombie wears his influences on his sleeve, and if you have followed the genre from a historical standing, these influences will not be hard to pinpoint.
“The Lords of Salem” follows Heidi, a radio DJ living in the town of Salem, most infamous for The Salem Witch Trials. Heidi is a lonely soul struggling with a history of addiction problems, most notably, heroin. It is not until she plays an anonymous vinyl record from “The Lords” that her perception of reality becomes askew and things get weird. Although before we are taken into modern times, the film opens with its grim, and more than likely, grossly amplified depiction of the Salem Witch Trials. We are then dropped dead center into a blood-chilling congregation of witches undergoing a sinister ceremony. This is where we first encounter lead witch Margaret Morgan, played by Meg Foster, who grandstands one of the most repugnant and committed performances for a horror film in recent memory. Not holding herself back at all, she shapes a performance worthy of bountiful recognition that is guaranteed to have audiences turning their heads in unnerving revulsion.
As previously stated, Zombie lets his influences bleed through, channeling some of horror’s landmark films. Made most apparent, is the bearing resemblances to late 70s and early 80s Italian horror cinema, predominantly the films of directors Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. These directors constructed some of the closest manifestations of nightmares on film. Their works lack acute attention towards sensible plots, and are more focused on an excessive visceral experiences. Films such as “Suspiria” (1977) and “The Beyond” (1981) are deeply seeded and engrained into the constructs of Zombie’s vision, and as much as the film feels like a throwback to that era, it is extremely refreshing to revisit them today in our boringly de-saturated horror market.
As was the case with “Halloween 2,” cinematographer Brandon Trost and Zombie are a match made in heaven. These guys have developed a collaboration for the ages. Creating some of the most mind-blowing imagery on only a shoestring budget, their compositions are beautiful, breathtaking, and frequently coincide along the iconic photography of Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980). Another one of the film’s bright spots is Zombie’s selection of nifty vintage tunes. Featuring classic rock artists like The Velvet Underground, Rush, and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Zombie’s films are always accompanied by an awesomely-assembled soundtrack. The Devil’s Rejects inventively utilized Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.” He does the same here with “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” In the score department, John 5 generates a theme that sounds like it was composed from the depths of hell. You will know when you hear it because it is downright scary.
As the film progresses, Heidi is observed on a daily basis. She is put through the wringer of dreadfully frightening tribulations that hint towards a backslide into prior drug usage. It is challenging to predict what exactly is going on, but foreboding explanations lay cryptically hidden underneath all the wicked imagery and madness. Is her lethargic state administered by the returning Witches of Salem, or has she fallen into a downward spiral by a taxing substance addiction? The film makes sense. It is not spoon-feeding you all the answers. For that, I tip my hat to Mr. Zombie because ambiguity and vague interpretation is an aspect of the genre that has been sorely missing over the years.
“Salem” is more than likely going to be criticized for both its unconventional plot progression, and lackluster attempt to develop its characters. I do not think that this film is trying to rest in the veins of a character study piece. It is more than often focused on mood, and the macabre aura of its exposition. Regardless, Sheri Moon Zombie establishes a character who we know enough about to care for. My only real criticism stems from Richard Lynch: because of his death, a good chunk of footage had to be excluded from the final cut. It was said that Richard originally played “Reverend John Hawthorne.” These scenes dated back to the 1600s. His character would have been responsible for the hunt and gruesome manslaughter of the Salem witches. Although the film still works in its current format, an additional 20 minutes put towards this historical fragment would have been beneficial. It is hardly a fair assessment of the film itself, but had those scenes been included, they would have really brought the final product full-circle.
“Salem” is an almost apocalyptically bleak film. There is a sense of dread and gloom as it slowly trudges to its finale. Before closing, the film explodes into a wonderful hallucinatory spectacle, recalling the works of Ken Russell, which will rattle the viewers’ senses and provoke feelings of panic and anxiety. The people in the theater were petrified, shaken, confused and maybe even a little irritated. I could not help but applaud and smile from ear to ear because this was the horror film I had been patiently waiting for. Zombie has also publicly stated that this will be his last horror film for some time. While that may sound displeasing, his next film, centered on our own 1974 Philadelphia Flyers entitled “Broad Street Bullies,” has me more thrilled than ever. He has proven his effectiveness in handling 70s-centered material, and from his extremely engaging recent outings, I have no doubt he will pay respect to the team’s legendary and fear-inducing status. He has been on record for saying, “It’s ‘Rocky’ meets ‘Boogie Nights’ and it’s from a great time period where the story was more than just wha
t was going on out on the ice.” Color me interested, but I digress. Rarely do I ever visit the multiplex to see horror films due to the lifeless and repetitive climate of the brand. From now on when Zombie’s name is attached, you can bet I will be there opening day. I am giving my approval on this one.
Robert Gabe is a second-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RG770214@wcupa.edu.