Rob Zombie’s The Lords Of Salem

Rob Zombie’s output has been hallmarked by a series of grungy, profane exploitation throwbacks with in your face violence and a loud, mean grind-house aesthetic. As much as I love *that* sensibility (I’m a hardcore fan of his films), what makes The Lords Of Salem so special is that he tries something different than he’s used to, ditches the comfort blanket of Manson-esque killers and brash, lewd dialogue in favour of mood, atmosphere and the kind of pacing you’d find in early 70’s fright flicks that valued aura over gore. This shows that although pretty much married to his trademark style (the third Firefly Family film is in production as we speak), he knows how to branch out successfully and has made a fantastic piece of slow burn horror with Salem. Set both during the infamous witch trials and in the present day, it focuses on quiet, introverted radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie). Now, if you’ve seen Sheri in the Firefly films you’ll know that the words ‘quiet’ and ‘introverted’ are a far cry from what she’s used to, but she’s brilliant here as a damaged recovering addict haunted by devilish forces. Plagued by sinister neighbours (Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace and a freaky Judy Geeson), hallucinatory visions of evil and a mysterious music album mailed right to her radio station, it soon becomes clear that the demons of the past have come back to haunt Salem and have chosen her as a dark avatar. Zombie lovingly casts his films with carefully chosen icons of 60’s and 70’s genre cinema, and as such we get the likes of Ken Foree, Richard Lynch, Richard Fancy, Udo Kier, Maria Conchita Alonso, Michael Berryman, Sid Haig and more. Stealing the show is electric blue eyed Meg Foster in a blood freezing turn as Margaret Morgan, leader of the original Salem coven generations before. Foster hails from stuff like John Carpenter’s They Live, The live action Masters Of The Universe and recently Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return, but she’s absolutely terrifying and almost unrecognizable here as a freaky old hell hag with a raspy voice and gruesome saggy tits, truly a memorable villain. This is a film that takes its time building up to outright horror, alternating between dimly lit, spooky scenes from the original trials and the mounting tension of present day, including a subplot where an investigative scholar (Bruce Davison) tries to unearth evil and warn Heidi before it’s too late. Jarringly surreal visuals abound here, from neon palettes to a grandiose nightmare sequence involving a demon baby and some seriously strange architecture. It all builds to a searing finale that some may find to over the top or garish, but fits the story and ends the tale on a feverish note of hellish commotion, colour saturation and horrific spectacle that plays like Ken Russell by way of Dario Argento with a dash of David Lynch at his craziest. This is my favourite film in Zombie’s career so far, for its mood, unique visual language and rhythmic pacing, but also for his willingness to blast through the cobwebs of uncharted stylistic territory and bring forth well wrought, fresh artistic style and a damn great horror film too.

-Nate Hill

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