I attended a special screening of this film in Los Angeles along with fellow Screwhead Casey Moriarty and afterwards there was a Q & A with writer/director Rob Zombie. The Q was an embarrassing ordeal of praise and shoutouts but Zombie was game for the A. And while no one asked any questions about the movie we’d just seen (Drew McWeeny ignored my puppy dog stares), there was one salient takeaway. An aspiring filmmaker asked Mr. Zombie what he’d like to see from aspiring filmmakers. Mr. Zombie replied that he didn’t care what he saw so long as it was something he hadn’t seen before. Too often we film fans can telegraph the drama before the film is underway, even know the dialogue before it is spoken. The Lords of Salem certainly does not fall into that trap. It’s a weird flick, but it’s a different kind of weird than you’ve seen before, even from the notoriously weird Rob Zombie.
The titular Lords of Salem were a coven of witches in the late 1600s, whose haunting music entranced the women of Salem and drove them to not-so-Christian behavior. Burned for their Satanic rites, the witches left a curse on the town, and thus we skip to the modern day with Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), a late night Salem DJ. Heidi is a recovering Heroin addict and having trouble sleeping. One night she is presented with a vinyl record by a mysterious group named The Lords. Hearing their sound, not so much music as a call to something monstrous, she – and several women throughout Salem – reacts adversely. Heidi’s insomnia worsens over the course of the week and she begins to have visions. Is she hallucinating or is there something rotten in the state of Massachusetts?
The Lords of Salem is a surprisingly retro horror film that benefits from Zombie’s no holds barred freakiness. There are shades of The Exorcist and a definite influence from Rosemary’s Baby. Its beginning takes its time introducing us to Heidi and her slow walks home while threading the shrieking ecstasies of the 17th century Lords between her waking hours. Don’t be alarmed if you cannot follow just what is going on, as Lords is more concerned with haunting your brain. I will refrain from giving more away as much of the shock comes from the major twist and the imagery that follows it. Onanistic priests, vermiform birth, and wicked witches are in her future.
The further the film goes on, the worse Heidi’s mental state becomes, and thus dreams and reality interweave. Most refreshing is Zombie’s steadfast use of practical effects. The film was made in 24 days and everything appears on camera. It is an old fashioned kind of filmmaking that takes real skill and should be encouraged. And unlike Evil Dead, this skill is put to the service of a completely original idea.
Is the movie scary? It’s odd, it’s very odd. Zombie’s films thus far seem to include some very solid ideas and sequences scattered around slapdash narratives but Lords proves that the director is maturing. The film is shockingly restrained in places and that improves its impact when the truly bizarre starts to happen.
Zombie admitted in the Q & A that while he would have liked to be more historically accurate to Salem witchcraft, the banality of the truth quickly sent him off the rails, and that is definitely where this picture goes. Unfortunately, by the end Heidi has gone so far off the rails that we enter 2001: A Space Odyssey territory, except as an interminable musical number.
Our Hollywood genres go through cycles and horror these days has thankfully left torture porn and is easing quietly out of the “found” and webcam footage stuff, though I assume we still have twenty more possession or The Conjuring type movies to go (and for a while I didn’t think we’d ever stop churning out Japanese remakes). The Lords of Salem, like Zombie’s previous work, is not accessible to everyone. Does every sequence work? No. I have a threshold for old naked screaming witches. And Sheri Moon Zombie, while giving a varied performance in the beginning, is reduced by the end to, well, pretty much a zombie, a blank slate for the sequences to unfold upon. However, the film moves outside our carbon copy horror tropes with ingenuity and, even better, it gives its audience something new to be afraid of.
Even if you don’t like this movie, this type of movie is why we like movies. The images stay with you for you to figure out and make your own nightmare.
The Lords of Salem (2013)
Directed by Rob Zombie
Anchor Bay Films
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