“Boring crap!” “Idiotic!” “A stupid piece of shit!” “Rob Zombie’s worst film!” “Made no sense!” These are just some of the criticisms lobbed at Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem (of course I’m actually spelling them right and writing them in their grammatically-correct form). But are these criticisms valid? Or are they grossly misguided – the product of watching too many inept horror films?
Heidi Hawthorne (Sherri Moon Zombie) is a radio DJ for WIQZ, a Salem-based radio station. She’s also a recovering drug addict. One night a package arrives at the station addressed to her: an LP from a group called The Lords. Listening to the strange record causes Heidi to start experiencing hallucinations and nightmares. Could this simply be the product of depression and her drug-ravaged brain? Or is something from beyond reaching out for her, namely the spirits of a coven of witches burned at the stake a few hundred years ago?
The Lords of Salem is the oddball in Zombie’s filmography. His previous efforts, especially The Devil’s Rejects, all have a grindhouse aura about them. In The Lords of Salem, Zombie presents a film much more European in mentality, specifically the Italian gothic horror films of the sixties. While watching, I could perfectly imagine this film being directed by Mario Bava or even Dario Argento. While it may lack the stylistic flourishes of Italian horror/gothic cinema, its temperament is very much in line with them, right down to the emphasis on the visual over the logical. Certain scenes even harken back to certain Italian horror flicks such as the scene when the witches are burned (the opening of Black Sunday) or the birth of the Antichrist (the orgy scene in The Antichrist).
While Zombie’s previous efforts emphasized brutality, splatter and action, The Lords of Salem places a heavy emphasis on atmosphere and tone, both which are geared to match Heidi’s outlook on the world. As she suffers from depression, colors are muted to present the dulled impact of the world on the depressive’s psyche. It’s always nighttime or twilight; even the few daytime scenes have a dull and melancholic air about them.
Many complain that Zombie’s characters are cut from the same cloth, namely the redneck/backwoods/trailer trash cloth. Here, Zombie offers us different types of characters filled out by his usual trope of actors. Horror fans still bitch, though, especially over Zombie’s frequent casting of his wife. While Sherri Moon Zombie is no great actress, she plays her part well enough and, as per usual, shows off the goods for those interested.
The Lords of Salem has been unfairly trashed and maligned by a horror community too used to wallowing in swill; they can’t smell the flowers because their noses are buried in cow dung. Time will prove them wrong, though: I’m willing to bet The Lords of Salem will be recognized as a minor masterpiece in the years to come. So how about watching it – or watching it again – before there’s a bandwagon to jump on.