Before starting this review, I’m going to come out and say it; I’m a Rob Zombie fan. Whether it be his albums, films or comic book ventures; you name it, I got it. Ever since I saw White Zombie open up for Anthrax back in 1993, I was immediately hooked. The incorporation of all things horror into his art appealed to the kid in me. This wasn’t a novel approach by any stretch. Alice Cooper had perfected this ages ago. Zombie and his world of ghouls and monsters entered my life in my late teens where this sort of stuff really makes an impression on you. Growing up, Cooper’s peak had passed me by before I could ever fully embrace it like I do now. It’s clearly evident that Alice had that same effect on Zombie. I can’t think of a more fitting artist to carry the torch.
Since he took on film in 2003 with his debut House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie has become the most polarizing figure in horror today. His filmography (minus The Devil’s Rejects) has been endlessly argued about back and forth. The most heated discussions I’ve ever had about film have almost always included Zombie’s contributions to the cinema. I think a lot of this stems from the undeniable boldness of his vision. Regardless of what one may think about his work, a Rob Zombie film is exactly that. He may had to compromise to some extent with his notorious Halloween films but there’s no confusing that aesthetic with anyone else’s. With his latest, The Lords of Salem, Zombie was given the creative control to do whatever he pleased. From the opening frame to the very last, it’s apparent that Zombie has got away with murder. There’s no way in hell any studio would let any filmmaker run this wild and make what’s essentially a 70’s-style European art-house horror flick. Dispose of any and all expectations. Nothing can quite prepare you for what’s in store.
The film is about Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), a local DJ who receives a mysterious wooden box with a vinyl record in it from a band called The Lords. Once the record is played on air, things start to get increasingly more bizarre and eerie for our protagonist. Zombie has put together a cast mixed with some familiar and new faces. As expected his wife and muse, Sheri Moon Zombie is front and centre in this picture. Her on-air team consist of Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips. Their chemistry especially between Zombie and Phillips provide the heart of the picture. Their unrequited affection for one another is a surprisingly heartwrenching characteristic you wouldn’t expect to find in a horror film directed by Rob Zombie. The cast including Bruce Davison, Judy Geeson and Dee Wallace provide strong support. Meg Foster (They Live) and Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) make their long-overdue return to the big screen. Both easily steal the show. Foster is intensely terrifying and Quinn is devilishly great fun.
According to Zombie, a great deal of footage was exorcised from the final product. Sid Haig and Michael Berryman’s screen-time doesn’t even reach a minute. Udo Kier, Daniel Roebuck, Christopher Knight and Clint Howard to name a few, were cut out of the picture entirely. While it would be interesting to see this stuff in the future, I can see why he made the tough decisions. Zombie’s primary commitment in The Lords of Salem is that of the mood and atmosphere of the picture. Any additional subplots and characters might have taken away from the masterplan. Plot is barely existent. There is a narrative drive…it’s just incredibly thin. On any other occasion, I would hold that against a movie and why wouldn’t I? In order to make the viewer invest in what’s happening onscreen, compelling characters and story is necessary. I had the opportunity to watch the film twice to see if this would affect the experience. Despite my better judgement, Zombie’s smoke and mirrors show enraptured me from start to finish.
The Lords of Salem is as densely detailed as his previous films. From the production to the costume design, everything is meticulous to the last detail. Upon second view, I noticed some cool stuff I didn’t process on the first go-around. I’m sure there are more treasures to discover upon repeat visits. The taste on display is of the highest order. There is never a moment when the low budget is evident. This now brings me to cinematographer Brandon Trost, who supplied the wonderfully gritty look on Halloween 2. If there’s one aspect of the film which won’t receive criticism, it’s his contribution. The widescreen compositions are impeccably put together. It harkens back to a time where films contained iconic imagery that would pierce deep into the subconscious. The film is aesthetically gorgeous to no end. The haunting soundtrack supplied by Composer John 5 (Rob Zombie’s longstanding guitarist) and Music Supervisor Tom Rowland is equally mesmerizing. John 5’s score mixes up between beautifully guitar-driven pieces and atmospheric soundscapes which at times echo Wendy Carlos work on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
Like all of Zombie’s work, his previous outing’s influence leaks onto the next. The tragic, inescapable fate of the protagonists, Laurie Strode in Halloween 2 and Heidi Hawthorne are similar thematically. Also, that film’s surreal dream sequences come across as the potential genesis of this latest work’s more visually out-there segments. Without a doubt, The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s biggest, most audacious work to date. First off, the film moves at a slow-burn pace. Everything is very controlled and nuanced. As it progresses, things grow increasingly weirder and nightmarish. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, 2001: A Space Odyssey and early Roman Polanski sprung to mind during the film’s many surrealistic moments. Zombie purposely leaves an air of ambiguity hang at the end that will no doubt frustrate a large part of the audience. Personally, I like my horror with an air of uncertainty to it. The less defined things are, the scarier they can become. The Lords of Salem is as far removed from mainstream horror as it gets.
As I’ve already come across on several occasions, the reception towards The Lords of Salem is sharply divided. You’re either going to love this film or loathe it with a passion, probably more so than any film Zombie has made in the past. There’s no point in arguing the validity of one viewpoint over another because the fact is, no single person’s opinion is greater than the other. Almost every negative thing I’ve heard from others was acceptably valid. Did I have issues with the film? When I sit down and contemplate it, yes. Somehow those issues never entered my mind during my experiences with The Lords of Salem. For 100 minutes, I was taken away to another place and the usual insistence in basic storytelling and character eluded me. In this case, the style is the substance. Another filmmaker that’s accomplished this feat so effectively is Dario Argento (back in his heyday). The Lords of Salem is in the same mindset as Inferno and Suspiria. Cinema is at its most powerful and magical when it can transcend these basic requirements and seduce the viewer in letting go of his or her inhibitions. With The Lords of Salem, Rob Zombie has accomplished just that.