As a director, Rob Zombie has been less consistent than as a musician. Right from the beginning, with House of 1,000 Corpses, he wore his influences from the grindhouse days and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre proudly. It was also an unfocused mess, indulging in almost free-form association with whatever horror film felt most applicable at the time. Since then he's tightened up his focus, sometimes to great effect (The Devil's Rejects), or embracing hillbilly horror to the detriments of anything else (Halloween).
The Lords of Salem is a huge step forward for Zombie. It's doesn't have the violent propulsion of The Devil's Rejects, but a slow and steady burn of gradually escalating horror that ends in images that would be hilarious if they weren't built up to with such skill. Zombie also proves, for the first time, that he can indulge in his influences without sidelining the narrative of his own film. Were it not for a few design effects that push the body horror into a bit too silly direction, this would be an excellent film. Instead, we'll just have to settle for very good.
The movie opens with a reverend writing about the witches of Salem and how they need to be stopped. One touch I enjoyed is that the witches are a viable, and ghastly, threat from the beginning. Their hair is like spider webs, bodies crawling with lesions, and voices in full command of the dark power that they want to call forth. Many witch narratives have to deal with the fact that they're based on an old myth designed to demonize and enfeeble women. Rob manages to deal with the problem by taking the myth literally but giving the power of choice to the women, making darkness something of their own free will instead of a symbol thrust on them.
So it's a foregone conclusion that when the film jumps to radio DJ Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) a few hundred years later that fate does not have a kind plan in store for her. But this is where Rob's patient direction, combined with a surprisingly nuanced performance from Sheri Moon, combine for an unsettling formula. Much of the film is a slow burn styled after The Shining, complete with title cards for each day as it passes, as she starts to suspect something is wrong with her after a whispy tenant moves in to a neighboring unit.
Some of this is directly in the visual style with plenty of low angle shots throughout her cramped building. A lot of it is in some very unsettling sound design, with a low drone fed through distortion constantly seeping in through the speakers. The drone echoes in several places, most prominently in a song by a group called The Lords that seems to by hypnotizing women across the state. For those of you who missed this in the theater, as I did, it's the kind of design that will make you appreciate a good sound system or pair of headphones that much more. There were some moments I almost had to stop the film because the body horror and sound design were making me incredibly nauseous. I say this as a positive, because the movie genuinely chilled me most of the time.
There's still room for some fun in this bleak Zombie universe. The light spots come from the show that Heidi cohosts along with Whitey (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips) and Munster (Ken Foree). This is a wonderful example of how Rob is able to integrate his love of old movie genres in the text as Heidi is close to one of those old "woman in peril" films, Whitey a grungy low-paid grindhouse star, and Munster an easy stand-in for Shaft's bulkier cousin. The silly sound effects in the background are too much, but they've got such a fun and easy repartee with each other that the film could have been about the day-to-day of running their show and it probably would have made for a great comedy.
But those thrills are backed up by an intense use of rape imagery that treads a very fine line between silly and disturbing, and succeeds. The men that haunt Heidi's nightmares are decayed beyond recognition, the only usable part of their body left is an erect but distorted phallus. The women are worse, the slimy pus of their sore-addled bodies wielding knifes that carve into Heidi's sex organs to claw and desecrate their unholy savior. The climax of all this is a fever dream that uses a subdued version of Zombie's acid artwork and holy imagery in a way that is bold and grotesque. It's a stunning finale.
There are two parts of the film that don't hold up as well. The first is a trio old women that are MacBeth's witches. Their role in Heidi's fate isn't entirely clear, but their operatic approach to the slightest whisper threatens to throw off the slow burn that punctuates most of the film. Then there's the investigative part of the film where a professor who is a guest on Heidi's show looks into her background to find out what's going on. Since Rob handles the other horror so well, the professor's scenes serve as superfluous exposition and little more. If there's one scene I could excise from horror films for the rest of my life, it would be where the curious person sits and types on the internet.
Those two issues aside, I loved The Lords of Salem. It's the other kind of horror film that Rob Zombie has hinted at his entire career and, left to his own devices, left an indelible mark on me with its images and sound. Even if the rest of his career is filled with more films like House of 1,000 Corpses, with this and The Devil's Rejects he's created two stone-cold horror greats.
Screenplay written and directed by Rob Zombie.
Starring Sheri Moon Zombie.