Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem opens with 64-year-old Meg Foster, grimy, natty-haired, totally nude and writhing around a bonfire with a coven of witches. With that kind of opening scene, you understand pretty early that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill horror flick — at least not these days. Zombie’s been a bit frustrating for horror fans — a filmmaker who is himself an obvious devout fan of the genre, who fills his movies with in-references and knowing nods to other films, yet lacks a clear voice of his own. He debuted with the overtly odd House of 1000 Corpses (2003), a strange little movie that leaned heavily on a mix of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), music videos, pop culture and a plot that’s all over the place. It’s less a good film than an infinitely interesting one — the work of a filmmaker creating a narrative out of a million different pieces of his own fandom. Since then, his films — especially his Halloween reboots — have leveled off toward something more normal, leaving behind much of the strangeness that made Corpses so interesting. Despite this, I always hoped that Zombie would produce a truly great horror film, banking on the idea that his taste was too good, and hoping the potential of his singularly whacked-out debut would rear its head again. Thankfully — and finally — The Lords of Salem is that great horror movie, one made by a director free from expectations and a traditional studio system (the silver lining, I suspect, of Zombie’s Halloween II (2009) having underperformed), creating a unique, cinematic and — frankly — outrageous piece of horror.
There are heavy debts owed to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) (with a small touch of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)), Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980) and The Devils (1971) and Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977). But simply calling the film derivative is a disservice. Zombie’s still a director totally indebted to his influences, but here he’s shoved all of it — from movies to music — into a blender, with the outcome being something wholly warped and skewed, and not quite like the films he’s echoing. There’s a clunky setup (one that relies a bit much on stock jump scares) and a plot of sorts involving a Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a radio DJ who’s a part of a crude, late night zoo crew, who receives a strange record in the mail from a band called The Lords. After listening to the strange music, Heidi begins to have increasingly bizarre visions that seemingly tie into the Salem witch trials. But the storyline exists for little reason other than to push the film into ever stranger fantasy sequences.
I can’t overstate how willfully weird The Lords of Salem can be — and I don’t just mean in the way the film trusts the viewer not to need every movement and intention spoon-fed. This is, after all, a movie with overtly sexual priests, a grotesque baby man, what appears to be a tendriled newborn Satan, some sort of hairy, towering Sasquatch monster and lots and lots of goats. It steps well past the boundaries of good taste, but it’s all agreeably trashy, which is the key. All of its weirdness is warped fun — if you’re not easily offended and can enjoy the inherent, goofy absurdity of it all. The film is a complete departure from not only Zombie’s oeuvre, but from the current popular tastes in modern horror. There’s nothing mean-spirited here, there’s no torture, the characters are all adults and the point of of the film is atmosphere and creepiness that plays out like a demented funhouse ride.
This isn’t to say that Lords isn’t without a certain depth, with its heavy symbolism that goes hand-in-hand with an astute attention to detail — the amount of which you’d be hard-pressed to find in any of this year’s offerings so far. There’s exquisite production design that — while eye-catching — feels natural and lived-in (Heidi’s Georges Méliès-inspired bedroom is a nice touch), while each movement of the camera is deliberate, elegant and purposeful. Even the soundtrack — which is brilliant in realizing the inherent creepiness of The Velvet Underground — is perfect. No, this kind of sexually frank, willfully strange, aggressively self-indulgent and cinematically opulent filmmaking is obviously not for everyone, but even while wearing its influences on its sleeve, The Lords of Salem is its own film — a singular horror movie experience that itself is afraid of nothing. Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug.
Playing at Regal Biltmore Grande