I can think of no contemporary horror filmmaker more polarizing than Rob Zombie. Beloved by some and downright despised by many, his movies are unquestionably his own. There are threads running through his first four features (House of 1,000 Corpses , The Devil’s Rejects , Halloween , and Halloween II ) that establish him as an auteur at a time in horror when music video directors signing on to make slick, empty remakes was common practice.
Aesthetically, Zombie’s films are most heavily influenced by 1970s drive-in and exploitation movies: he favors shooting on 16mm for a grainier, gritter look; his actors and sets have a thick layer of grime on them, giving everything a scuzzy, unwashed feel; his portrayal of violence is always brutal and punishing, with nothing fun or funny about it. It is this aesthetic, coupled with dialogue that leans heavily on f-bombs and ugliness, that has turned so many horror fans against Rob Zombie. (Well, that and the fact that he dared to remake Halloween.) While The Devil’s Rejects was warmly received and generally still revered, Zombie’s auteurist tendencies labeled him a one-trick pony. It’s ironic, then, that he would do something quite different with his fifth film, 2012’s The Lords of Salem… and no one bothered to go see it.
Released on only 354 screens in April 2013, The Lords of Salem grossed just over a million dollars (not even enough to cover it’s decidedly low $1.5 million budget) and was out of theaters inside of a month. Like several of Zombie’s films, though, it has gained a following in the years since, including some fans with little patience for the rest of his work but who could appreciate Lords’ slow-burn nightmare and hallucinatory imagery. Whereas previously Zombie was most obviously influenced by Tobe Hooper — he lifted heavily from both The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 for his first two films — The Lords of Salem finds the filmmaker drawing from the likes of Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick and the Italian horror cinema of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Cinematographer Brandon Trost shot the film digitally but retained Zombie’s usual grainy, 16mm aesthetic. The shots are more carefully composed, the lighting and set design more deliberately stylized. This is easily Zombie’s best-looking film, and the photography creates not just a sense of dread, but inevitability.
Because at its core, The Lords of Salem is a tragedy. Its protagonist, Heidi Hawthorne, a radio DJ and a descendant of a Puritan responsible for executing women he accused of being witches in the 17th century, spends the whole film on a trajectory over which she has no control. Her fate was determined over 300 years ago when Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) put a curse on the women of Salem and on the Puritan’s bloodline. Heidi has no real agency over what is happening to her, not the nightmares in her sleep nor the visions when she’s awake. As the film progresses, Heidi is more and more inexplicably drawn to some force she doesn’t understand, but is at its mercy nonetheless. We know that the only thing that can possibly await her at the end of the film is her own doomed undoing, yet we, too, are helpless. Like the other people in her life (most notably Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips as her co-workers and friends), we can do nothing but stand by and watch as Heidi creeps towards her inevitable fate.
In this way, The Lords of Salem can be ready pretty easily as a metaphor for addiction. Zombie doesn’t shy away from that subtext, either, making it literal text by revealing early on that Heidi is a recovering drug addict. Within the story itself, it provides a rationale for the other characters when Heidi begins to behave erratically: she’s had a relapse. From the distance of our vantage point as the audience, however, we know that she hasn’t started using again (at least not at first), making the story that much more tragic. Heidi is holding back her personal demons, but it doesn’t matter: actual demons are still going to have their hold on her. The way she is helplessly drawn to some self-destructive force stands in for drug addiction. Addicts are often not in control. The unseen force (drugs, alcohol, Satan) keeps pulling them towards itself. Now, of course there are many addicts who overcome their demons and seize back control over their own lives. The Lords of Salem is not that kind of story. Heidi can’t beat these demons, either addiction or otherwise. That’s what makes the movie a tragedy.
One of the most common criticisms leveled against Rob Zombie is that he continues to cast his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, in major roles. Now, disregarding my own opinion that they’ve been totally in love for many, many years and it’s kind of beautiful that he writes roles for her — not to mention the fact that he should be allowed to cast whoever the fuck he wants — I’ll make a case that Sheri Moon Zombie does her absolute best work in The Lords of Salem. Building on the strong performance she gave in Halloween, Sheri Moon cuts right to the sadness of Heidi Hawthorne. It’s actually her lack of formal training (as far as I know) that best serves her in the role, as she never hides behind any actorly defenses. She plays every emotion right on the surface, turning Heidi into an exposed nerve: raw and fragile and in a state where she’s easily wounded by the world. Heidi is a woman who knows enough to know that she doesn’t know what’s happening to her, and Moon’s escalating fear as she descends into some kind of hell is both haunting and tragic. Even with its bold nightmare imagery and mounting sense of dread working in its favor, The Lords of Salem ultimately lives or dies on Sheri Moon’s performance. That the movie is this good is a testament to her work on screen.
With Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria looming close on the horizon, we’re sure to be inundated with conversations among horror fans and articles on horror sites about the best “witch” movies. I don’t know how many of them will list The Lords of Salem, but it absolutely deserves to be part of the conversation. That the film was a financial flop and widely dismissed even by horror fans upon release had an unfortunate effect on Rob Zombie’s career. Lords finds Zombie stretching himself as a director, pushing into new territory and attempting something a little more experimental and adult. Its failure caused him to retreat backward creatively, so he followed up this film with 31, which plays almost like Rob Zombie fan fiction and is precisely the movie all of his detractors have accused him of making for his entire career. Had The Lords of Salem been a success, we might be seeing a totally different Rob Zombie now — one more willing to take chances and who challenges his fans by not giving them exactly what they think they want. I’d much rather he be making more movies like Lords and less like 31, because this is the film that I think will stand the test of time and be talked about years from now. It’s my favorite of all his movies. As a witch movie, it’s pretty damn good.
As a Rob Zombie movie, it’s pretty damn great.