The Lords of Salem
Directed by: Rob Zombie
Distributed by: Scanbox
Rob Zombie, a musician to divide the fans and a filmmaker to divide the fans, but always a man who pays his dues and respects to the artists and filmmakers that inspired him on his own ventures.
The Lords of Salem is a film that like all previous Rob Zombie pieces will divide the audiences, although this little gem will perhaps be the one that stands high above the previous ones. There’s a potent value in Zombie returning to his own universe and leaving remake city behind. The Lords of Salem will become a seminal work in this director’s catalogue.
Radio Dj Heidi Hawthorne [Sheri Moon Zombie] both works and parties hard. Together with her colleagues Herman “Whitey” Salvador [Jeff Daniel Philips] and Herman Jackson [Ken Foree] she is part of Salem’s most popular radio show. One day a vinyl record addressed to Heidi containing raw primitive ambience of a band calling themselves The Lords of Salem, is delivered at the station. No press release or explanation is given with the record, just the record in a wooden box with a cryptic logo on the front. The sound of the record evokes strange visions and nightmares of ancient witch trials. Before the night is over there are ghosts lurking in the corridors of the house Heidi lives in, and the ritual is just about to begin once again.
Zombie knows how to tell a story. If you ask me, he’s matured into one of the greatest indie horror storytellers out of the US in a long time. He knows that taking time to present the unique universe, establishing characters, breathing mystery into the narrative and delivering realistic twists and shocks are key to making it work. Neither is he a stranger to flipping conventional roles on their heads and offering alternative angles to the classic protagonist/antagonist roles, which gives an interesting dimension to characters. As said, Rob Zombie plays for keeps and he’s building up quite a catalogue of work in the last few years.
Right off the bat, Zombie sticks it to us with two short but important presentations (well three if you count the initial shots of Heidi driving to work) as Reverend Jonathan Hawthorn [Andrew Prine] puts ink to paper swearing that he’ll spend the rest of eternity destroying all who pledge a legion to Satan. Cut to Margret Morgen [Meg Foster] and her coven of Six. They chant, hail the unholy father and prepare to desecrate their false bodies… slipping out of their tattered robes they dance round the fire, scream hysterically and rub the dry hot soil against their aged naked bodies. A tone is set that is almost hypnotic. Hypnotic and uncanny and I’d go as far as saying that this is the initial attack, because the movie can be seen as being about the several hundred year battle between Margret Morgen and reverend Jonathan Hawthorn more than it’s about Heidi, after all their arc is one that spans decades and only now is the time right for the witches to take their revenge…
The ordinary world is set up delicately. We learn of Heidi’s living conditions, life at work, local celebrity and all that jazz. The dog is a great way to bring realism to the presentation of Heidi. When she tells him to get down off the table it’s obvious that Zombie has a vision for this character, and she’s not just a sloppy slacker but also someone who has some integrity, and holds some rules about things. A few scenes later he adds some dimension to the character when she goes to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting - Although if she really was trying to stay away from drugs, she’d probably want to stay away from the booze too…
But with this paradox there’s also an opening to interpret the film as nothing more than Heidi’s decent into madness… the horror may well just be imagined. For all we know the nightmares and visions may just as well be hallucinations from drugs, the witches’ figments of Heidi’s imagination and the finale a simple orgasmic death splutter.
The uncanny seeps in delicately in a great scene somewhat reminiscent of J-Horror storytelling… the threat of the piece is already in the room but as Heidi never reacts to it, it becomes more of a threat to the audience than the protagonist. It kind of plays along the line of Hitchcock’s classic “bomb under the table” trait where the audience knows of a threat that the victim is oblivious to – tensions builds! Room 5 is also important to establishing the threat. Strange noises, strange sights and odd events that we see and experience with Heidi, are dismissed when Landlady Lacy [Judy Geeson] tells her that there is nobody living in Room 5. From that moment all it takes is a single shot of the corridor leading towards Room 5 to threaten the audience.
Subplots to be found come in the shape of co-worker Salvador who acts as something of a helper and a weak love interest, and historian Francis Matthias [Bruce Davison] who in contemporary times investigates the arc of Reverend Hawthorne and Margaret Morgan bringing important backstory to the story. His investigation brings a framework to the film from which the legacy of The Lords builds off. Ok so with all this in place we need an inciting incident. When the strange record of pagan ambience is delivered to Heidi, the real horror starts. AS the music taps into her subconscious, the decent starts – just as one can presume that the listening women also are snared up by the guttural sounds that the The Lords vinyl evokes. An enchantment hidden away in the audio and that’s what brings all the Witches into the final climactic reveal at the theatre.
It's great fun to see how Zombie uses and blends his influences to come up with some really effective tricks – and the Black Metal beat is awesome and who doesn't love a La maschera del demoino (Black Sunday) reference. Mixing stuff like The Shining, The Devils, Suspiria and a fair deal of Carpenter, Cronenberg and Michael Winner’s underestimated The Sentinel. You could add any number of alternative European psychotronic flicks could be added to the list of possible influences, as Zombie has, on record, stated that he finds European genre of the 60-80’s to be more open minded and freaky.
The subplot with the mystic audio that Heidi is given is great, if not genius. Not only a haunting chant, but also a gateway into the flashbacks portraying the Witches’ coven fronted by Morgan as they chant and meet their deaths at the hands of Hawthorne’s team of executioners. A fine detail that’s presented is also that the audio affects other women in the town. There’s a montage that show’s how other women are affected by the audio and in an extension of that I’d also imagine that they too start to have hallucinations and vision similar to that of Heidi. This due to the sound waves of the primitive chants that evoke something hidden away dormant within the women of Salem for decades. And when on the topic of audio, I don’t think anyone’s actually used the dynamics of audio in the same way since Dario Argento screamed his noise performance with Goblin at the images of Suspiria. Holy Crap does Zombie and his sound designers hammer this baby down hard, going from deep rumblings drones to high pitch screamed dialogue. It’s fantastic and I really love what Zombie and John 5 have done with the audio.
Let’s talk about cast. So many times do genre directors get great stars of the past to do a bit part where they just walk on and off. Just enough to wet the appetites of genre gourmands, giving them the opportunity to go, Oh look there’s so and so… Now Zombie does this too, and part of the hype built up beforehand was the massive list of former genre actors who where going to be part of this project. Some have gone missing completely (one can only hope for a special edition at some point so that we get to see Udo Kier - who starred in Michael Armstrong's seminal witch hunter movie The Mark of the Devil very early in his career, Clint Howard, Camille Keaton and the late Richard Lynch’s scenes). It is great to see Ken Foree work his magic, as it is the brief cameos of cult icons like Sid Haig and Michael Berryman. But the absolute delight - and possibly a huge part in why this film is sooo tainted with eighties horror atmosphere - is the coven of Witches. Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace as you’d never expect to see them. Not forgetting Meg Foster. Holy screaming crap, that’s one creepy witch indeed and I’m totally sticking this performance as one of the greatest eerie antagonists in a long time.
It’s obvious that The Lords of Salem is a personal film. It’s also very obvious that this is a movie done in the precise way Rob Zombie wanted it to be made, and that can only be applauded – if nothing else it’s a rather delightful and somewhat unique little film he’s come up with. It has some great shocks, some awesome visuals a couple of delightful mind expanding moments and definitely tells a seductive and sinister story. The only bone I have to pick is the way Zombie tells stuff during the end credits that I’d have loved to see in a closing scene. I find that this would have taken the edge off the Psychedelic dreamy rock video montage that climaxes the movie and wrapped it up more in a conventional fashion. I dig the ending, but at the same time I find that spending so much time to establish the ordinary world, characters and the pending threat, I feel kind of snubbed when it finally comes – even if paint FX, nineties music video aesthetics and vector based CGI images may just become the next retro cool way to go!
The Lords of Salem is a rockin’ rollin’ flirt with witches, satanic cults and the fever dream genre moods of EuroGoth and classic old school horror! Rob Zombie has matured into a great filmmaker and a force to rely on.
The Lords of Salem is evoked on Swedish DVD ad Bluray release on the 17th of July!