There was quite a bit of commotion leading up to the release of director Rob Zombie’s feature The Lords of Salem earlier this month; rumors and word of mouth circulating about the various delays of production, curiosity surrounding the film’s approach and questions about Zombie’s track record as filmmaker amongst the hypercritical horror fan set.
The fact that The Lords of Salem quietly opened over six months after its original, planned release date in October in only a small number of theatres nationwide-even heading straight to DVD in the U.K.-does the film a true disservice, for Zombie’s kaleidoscopically hallucinogenic, celluloid fever dream aggressively delivers the morbid goods in a manner consistent to the director’s twisted reputation.
The Lords of Salem was produced in part by Oren Peli, of the Paranormal Activity franchise, yet Zombie’s film doesn’t exactly approach its tale of the occult and arcane with the same sort of faux documentary style. Instead, The Lords of Salem owes much of its visual style to the work of early Dario Argento-specifically the Italian director’s grand masterpiece Suspiria-while the film’s narrative ventures back and forth between a series of historical flashbacks and their impact upon the present day city of Salem, Massachusetts.
Zombie’s wife Sherri Moon plays the role of Heidi Hawthorne, a descendant of the Reverend Nathaniel Hawthorne, who condemned a number of Salem’s most insidious witches to the stake so many years earlier. The Satanic coven is lead by the malevolent Margaret Morgan-played to the utmost, horrific hilt by Master of the Universe and They Live star Meg Foster-a truly blasphemous witch who places a curse upon the town at the hour of her death.
In the present day, Heidi-a popular radio DJ who co-hosts a program with her friends ‘Whitey’ and Herman, the latter of which is played by original Dawn of the Dead alum Ken Foree-receives a mysterious package at her work, a vinyl record from a group called “The Lords of Salem.” The record’s relentless, monotonous groove sparks a curious reaction upon Hawthorne and all those who are descended from Salem’s original witchfinders; a debilitating sickness not unlike drug addiction which slowly begins to consume Heidi from the inside out.
Zombie weaves in a number of subplots in the story, one of which is the character of Francis Matthias, played by Bruce Davison, a guest on Heidi’s radio who becomes increasingly curious (and suspicious) of The Lords’ music and its intentions. Davison’s investigation brings him closer and closer to Heidi’s landlord Lacy (Judy Geeson), who-together with her two friends Megan (Rocky Horror’s Patricia Quinn) and Sonny (Dee Wallace, of The Howling) develop quite a particular “interest” in Heidi and her witch-hunting heritage.
The Lords of Salem handles all of these plot lines within a measured, some might say ‘slow,’ sense of pacing. In others words, this film is NOT for Zombie fans whose interest in the man’s work begins with House of a 1000 Corpses and ends with The Devil’s Rejects. Instead, this film is designed for those who truly appreciate Rob’s interests and influences as a filmmaker and artist; fans who celebrate and curate a similar adoration towards 1970s drive-in/exploitation culture and who can sit alongside Rob he pastes these sinister images upon the screen.
The cinematography of Brandon Trost possesses a voyeuristic approach to the halls of Heidi’s apartment and the curves of her elaborately adorned apartment, moving with fluid ease and grace. This idea of the camera as character is ably assisted by the film’s lighting and color scheme, a saturated and psychedelic palette which hits once again upon the aforementioned comparisons to Suspiria. A moody score from Griffin Boice and Zombie guitarist John 5 also hammers this point home, with the track “Three Sisters” striking a music box melody theme similar to Claudio Simonetti and Goblin.
The Lords of Salem isn’t just a love letter to the Italian thriller, however, but a striking and stand alone vision from Rob Zombie which really stays with the viewer after they’ve left the theatre. There are some truly over-the-top and blasphemous effects going on here, particularly within the film’s final act, where Heidi’s hallucinations and dreams become increasingly more real and dangerous. These images are NOT for the faint of heart, and race across the screen with a fantastically successful force; one which reassures the audience that Rob Zombie’s horror pedigree is safe, secure and in-check.