"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, October 30, 2023

The Lords of Salem

With the exception of Eli Roth, no other filmmaker in the 2000s has divided horror movie fans more than hard rocker turned director Rob Zombie. People either love or hate his brand of grungy, white trash nihilistic cinema where he identifies with the antagonists rather than the protagonists, be it the Firefly clan in House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and 3 From Hell (2019), or Michael Myers in Halloween (2007) and its sequel (2009). With The Lords of Salem (2012), he created his first traditional protagonist only to place her in an unconventional film. Enjoying the most creative freedom he had since Rejects, he eschewed the gore and extreme violence of his previous films in favor of a heavy atmosphere of dread. Freedom from the constraints of a studio franchise (Halloween) emboldened Zombie to push himself as a filmmaker, creating a fascinating phantasmagorical experience.
Heidi LaRoc (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a disc jockey at a local, popular Salem hard rock radio station where she co-hosts a show along with two others – Herman “Whitey” Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman “Munster” Jackson (Ken Foree). She lives with her dog in an old apartment building and one day spots a new tenant in the apartment down the hall. When she asks her landlady (Judy Geeson) the identity of the new inhabitant, she is told that no one lives there.
One day at work, a mysterious record shows up in an old wooden box, addressed to Heidi, by a band called The Lords. She listens to it with Whitey and the music causes her to have a vision of a 17th century-era coven of Satan-worshipping witches. She finds herself inexplicably drawn to the apartment down the hall and once there, finds herself confronted by disturbing visions, including a nightmarish beast in an otherworldly landscape. Heidi’s mind unravels over the course of the film as The Lords record really puts the zap on her, blurring the lines between reality and nightmare.

Right from the get-go, Zombie does a wonderful job capturing the cool, crisp autumn days in the Northeast via the cinematography, drawing us into this world. He utilizes a warm, amber filter for night scenes and muted colors, creating a grey, cold look for day scenes. For the first third, he adopts a slow burn approach, not revealing too much, gradually building the dread, letting us get to know Heidi so that we care about happens to her in the latter two acts of the film. He populates the film with Kubrickian low-angle shots of hallways and breaks up the story into days of the week, a la The Shining (1980). He also shows a knack for striking visuals as evident in the fiery, apocalyptic inferno that is the 17th century witch trials, illustrating the Puritans meting out their religious brand of ‘justice.’
Sheri Moon Zombie has gotten a lot of flak for her acting prowess and the fact that she almost exclusively appears in her husband’s films, usually in a supporting role, whether it be significant (Rejects) or smaller (Halloween). In The Lords of Salem she is cast in the lead role, the responsibility of carrying the film placed squarely upon her shoulders. Because Moon’s acting ability is inherently tied to her expressive looks and may not have the broadest range, she benefits from Zombie’s ‘less is more’ approach. Heidi doesn’t have a lot of dialogue and, once the effects of The Lords record take hold on her character. She spends most of her time reacting to the strange things going on around her. Sheri does a commendable job of showing a woman plagued by horrible visions of faceless surgeons pulling her intestines out, struggling to make sense of what is happening, and displaying increasingly erratic behavior.
Veteran actor Bruce Davidson is excellent as a Salem witch scholar that figures out the connection between The Lords record and the Salem witches. Zombie regular Jeff Daniel Phillips is also memorable as a disc jockey that works and is close friends with Heidi. There is a nicely understated romantic tension between the two characters, suggesting a longstanding friendship, evidenced by the familiar shorthand between them.

As with his other films, Zombie acknowledges horror films from the past by casting its royalty with the likes of Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, and Ken Foree in crucial roles, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos by Barbara Crampton, Michael Berryman, and Sig Haig. This isn’t simple stunt casting or a knowing wink to fellow horror genre fans, rather actors playing bonafide, lived-in characters.

The Lords of Salem is a captivating film with Brandon Trost’s atmospheric cinematography giving it a much richer look than its meager $1.5 million budget would suggest. Zombie gets the most out of his locations, choosing those that give a real sense of place including, most crucially, the apartment building that Heidi inhabits. Everything has a lived-in look, from the clutter in the D.J. booth where Heidi does her show to Davidson’s bookcase-dominated home.
If there is one erroneous aspect of this film, it’s the reliance on the tired cliché of Satan-worshipping witches. Witchcraft is pagan in nature. While a large number of witches don’t worship any god or goddess, there are those that do…but not Satan. It could be that he is used in film because it is an easily identifiable embodiment of evil, even outside of the Christian faith. Zombie did such a great job in all other areas and seemed to be interested in bucking tradition, then fell back on a stereotypical portrayal that is disappointing, but hardly surprising as this has been done in countless horror films.
Zombie tones down the gore in favor of disturbing imagery reminiscent of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), creating an overwhelming feeling of dread and unease. In that sense, The Lords of Salem is a refreshing outlier in Zombie’s filmography as it dials back the aggressive, extreme horror films of such films as 31 (2016) by shifting gears to more supernatural-based horror, as demonstrated in the showstopping finale. Zombie pulls out the strangest imagery that he’s ever produced and marries it with his trademark downbeat ending, scored to chilling effect with “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by The Velvet Underground and Nico. The Lords of Salem is not a scary movie per se… instead Zombie creates a more chilling, unsettling experience. It appeared that he was maturing and evolving as a filmmaker but when it barely made back its budget, he went back to what he knew best – extreme horror with hillbillies and white trash with 31. That being said, he is still capable of throwing audiences the occasional curve ball as he did in 2002 with the odd career move of making a studio-backed film adaptation of the much-beloved 1960s family sitcom, The Munsters. True to form, by design or not, Zombie’s work continues to fascinate fans and detractors alike.