The film revolves around Heidi (Sherri Moon Zombie), a local radio personality in the Salem, Massachusetts area whose life outside of work is routine and mundane at best. One day a mysterious record shows up in a weird wooden box that simply reads, "The Lords." When the record is played, it reveals a bizarre instrumental that churns ever so slowly into an almost chant that entrances all of the women of Salem and, in Heidi's case, causes her to have flashbacks to the days of the towns long fabled witch trials.
One of the best things the movie has going for it is its slow, deliberate pacing. There are many European cinema aspects to the film, and this is one of them. Zombie is able to build this intense amount of dread around his protagonist Heidi, who is slowly watching her world and mind crumble around her. From mysterious new tenants to horrifying hallucinations, Heidi's sanity slowly unravels as the film reveals she may have a long lost connection to those witch trials from so many years ago.
What might surprise many of Zombie's biggest detractors about The Lords of Salem is that it's not only his least violent film but it's also his least dialogue heavy. If there's one thing his films get called out for more than anything, it's the dialogue in them. Here, everything is taken down twelve notches. As I mentioned, there is very little dialogue to begin with and when there is it's quite sparse and conversational and even feels organic at times. This also allows Sherri Moon Zombie, another heavily criticized aspect of Zombie's work, to turn in one of her most solid performances. The whole movie hinges on her downward spiral and I think she pulls it off quite convincingly. The film also features an absolutely incredible performance from Meg Foster as Margaret Morgan, the head witch of the original Salem with coven who now haunts Heidi in her wake and sleep. Foster really gives it her all and it shows.
As one might expect in a film revolving around witches, Lords of Salem is heavily female centric. Not only is this refreshing in the confines of the typical horror boys club, but it is refreshing within the confines of film in general to see a predominately female cast be the protagonist, antagonist and just about everything else in between. Far too often women in films are used merely as a prop or plot device to trigger some dashing hero to save the day. Here, the women get fleshed out. They all have a story and a purpose.
In regards to my earlier mention about the film having the violence toned down, this is another aspect where Zombie goes European. Having built a reputation as someone who is quite no holds barred when it comes to the violence and mayhem in his films, here Zombie takes a much more artistic turn, relying heavily on imagery and shot composition to build that fear and dread that his usual power violence usually elicits. Taking visual nods from Argento, Fulci and Kubrick, Zombie manages to craft his most cinematically beautiful and horrifying film all at once. Once it gets going, the film relies on its visual cues to tell the story, which is a far cry from the generic state of most modern horror films that wouldn't know the first thing about an artistic endeavor. There were shades of this in Zombie's Halloween II, which I am thrilled to see him embrace even further for this latest effort.
What I hope I have conveyed, more than anything else with this review, is that The Lords of Salem is not your typical Rob Zombie film. Not only does it differ greatly from his other cinematic output, it's unlike much of anything that has existed in the world of cinema in the past 20-30 years. When the film hits its last 20ish minutes, it goes from slow paced, deliberate tension with brief hits of weirdness to a relentless and unexplainable fever dream. It becomes a moving collage of detestable imagery washed in a sea of surrealism. This will surely leave many scratching their heads and others genuinely appalled. Conversely, this is the type of thing that leaves many of us with a smile on our face.
The Lords of Salem is quite possibly Zombie's most mature effort to date. With a more artistic sensibility laced with an expertly film eye, it's a truly powerful film that manages to engage, shock and mesmerize; often at the same time. This is absolutely not a film for everyone. For those that give it an honest chance, though, I personally think you'll find yourself rewarded with one of this year's most brazen and unique films from one of the genres most creative voices.
- Matt Hardeman
The Lords of Salem opens in limited release on Friday, April 19.