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The Lords of Salem

Movie Information

The Story: After receiving a mysterious record in the mail, a radio DJ begins having strange visions that tie back into the Salem witch trials. The Lowdown: Director Rob Zombie’s most atmospheric, moody and downright strange film to date. A heavily symbolic piece of weirdo horror that’s the filmmaker’s best.
Score:

Genre: Horror
Director: Rob Zombie (House of 1000 Corpses)
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Judy Geeson, Meg Foster, Bruce Davison
Rated: R

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

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19 thoughts on “The Lords of Salem

  1. Ken Hanke

    I did the next best thing and pre-ordered the Blu-ray. I just don’t want to go to that theater and it’s a difficult venue for me physically.

  2. Orbit DVD

    Maybe I’ve seen too many faceless priests stroking a dildo, but the whole audience was laughing by the end of it. I give Zombie credit for trying, but the film is pretty dull.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Oh, well. I thought you’d already given up on him. I’m still keen to see it when it hits DVD, but then my taste usually lines up better with Justin’s.

  4. Orbit DVD

    I rarely give up on anybody, and due to the strength of DEVIL’S REJECTS I’ll check out anything he does. However, his attempts to weird out the audience fell pretty flat. Like I said, pretty much everybody was laughing at the end.

  5. Orbit DVD

    I do want to add that Rob Zombie wears the influences of this movie on his sleeve: Russell, Jodorowsky and Kubrick. Those elements I enjoyed watching. I also enjoyed the three witches quite a lot, to the point where I wished the movie was focused on them.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I rarely give up on anybody, and due to the strength of DEVIL’S REJECTS I’ll check out anything he does. However, his attempts to weird out the audience fell pretty flat. Like I said, pretty much everybody was laughing at the end.

    You can judge nothing by the response of one audience — especially, an audience that likely had no idea what they’d gone to see. But really, I’ve seen too many movies that thrived with one audience and died with another. Then too, I sat in a theater that was packed with people laughing hysterically at the Robin Williams’ comedy R.V.. Does that prove it was good?

  7. Ken Hanke

    I do want to add that Rob Zombie wears the influences of this movie on his sleeve: Russell, Jodorowsky and Kubrick. Those elements I enjoyed watching. I also enjoyed the three witches quite a lot, to the point where I wished the movie was focused on them.

    Zombie tends to wear his influences on his sleeve. His animated film is almost all influences (except when it’s being adolescent in its hubba-hubba-ness). Anyway, I’ll get back to you on this when the film arrives — hopefully this coming week (Amazon UK is often startlingly fast.) But bear in mind, you’re dealing with someone who has seen House of 1000 Corpses at least 15 times. I don’t say it’s good, but it absolutely fascinates me.

  8. Orbit DVD

    You can judge nothing by the response of one audience — especially, an audience that likely had no idea what they’d gone to see. But really, I’ve seen too many movies that thrived with one audience and died with another. Then too, I sat in a theater that was packed with people laughing hysterically at the Robin Williams’ comedy R.V.. Does that prove it was good?

    If Zombie’s intention was to make this absurd and silly then he did a good job.

  9. Orbit DVD

    I see your point. Did you catch more than one screening of RV? People laughing at a comedy is one thing, and people laughing at LORDS OF SALEM is another.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Did you catch more than one screening of RV?

    How dumb do you think I am?

    People laughing at a comedy is one thing, and people laughing at LORDS OF SALEM is another.

    Of course it is, but it doesn’t prove anything other than how that audience responded to it. I wish Justin would weigh in on the audience response to it when he saw it the first time at TIFF. But in another sense, I’ve had an audience that was indifferent (apart from some inappropriate laughter) to the 1934 Black Cat and another that was held in rapt attention.

  11. Justin Souther

    I wish Justin would weigh in on the audience response to it when he saw it the first time at TIFF.

    Well, I can only speak for myself, but I never heard any laughter. I was also in a crowd of 1200 for a midnight showing of it, which it probably a better target audience than whoever’s at the multiplex on a Saturday. They actually cancelled the press screening I had planned on going to because the producers wanted its first screening to be in front of an actual audience before it got sold/reviewed. That would lead me to believe that Zombie, et al. understood that this is a film that plays differently depending on the audience.

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