The Lords of Salem

Like his music, the films of Rob Zombie are not to everybody’s taste; while undeniably knowledgeable in his chosen genre, his films are unconventional and draw influences from far wider than the mediocre horror cinema that has become prevalent over the last two decades – found footage, torture porn, sequels, barely post-adolescent casts and an obstinate refusal to challenge narrative and structural conventions.

With his fifth feature, Lords of Salem, Zombie has for the first time directly approached the world of heavy metal music from which he began; long time muse Sheri Moon Zombie stars as Heidi Hawthorne, who along with her colleagues the Hermans (Jeff Daniel Phillips as Herman “Whitey” Salvador and Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree as Herman “Munster” Jackson), they are the Big H Radio Team, filling the airwaves with rock and chatter through the night.

2013_lordsofsalemchurchShortly after hosting local historian Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) talking about his new book about the Salem witch trials, Heidi receives a wooden box containing an LP from an unknown band, The Lords, which when played on air has an unsettling effect on both her and their listeners. Soon Heidi is having nightmares and becomes convinced that the empty apartment at the end of her corridor is occupied, that she is being watched, despite the assurances of her landlady Lacy (an excellent Judy Geeson).

The plot is undeniably derivative, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby crossed with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and the witch cursing the families of those who are burning her at the stake with her dying breath is a trope whose origin likely defies any serious attempt to trace an origin, most notably in James W Roberson’s perhaps better forgotten Superstition, but the pieces slot together comfortably.

2013_lordsofsalemcovenThe presence of Room 5 and the visions of naked decomposing old women are clearly from The Shining, while the red brick houses where Heidi walks alone, her friends unable to reach her, call to mind the affluent district of Georgetown from The Exorcist, but there are images from early cinema, most prominently Georges Méliès Le Voyage dans la Lune, Heidi sleeping restlessly under his moon.

Most importantly, Lords of Salem doesn’t look like a modern film, more like a tribute to the classic horror of the seventies that shaped Rob Zombie’s love rather than his stage show itself, and that is all to the good. He and his band White Zombie may have been the enfants terribles of MTV, but there is no flashy editing in here, rather the long takes, lingering cameras and lens flare of easly John Carpenter, and despite their on-air personas, the characters are not rock clichés, Heidi wearing a kaftan and playing Rush, Whitey with a fondness for Velvet Underground all with an affection for the nostalgic imperfection of vinyl.

Although there are prominent roles for men, like Zombie’s previous work the focus here is on the women, through Mrs Zombie herself, Geeson and Lacy’s sisters Megan and Sonny played by Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Dee Wallace (The Howling), with the supporting cast the court to that horror film royalty, Udo Kier (Shadow of the Vampire), Lisa Marie (Sleepy Hollow), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), María Conchita Alonso (Predator), Meg Foster (They Live) and Zombie regular Sid Haig.

The film does move too slowly to an apparent conclusion and makes less sense as it goes along, but Zombie is still a powerful and innovative filmmaker; primarily with a subdued soundtrack by John 5 punctuated by source tracks, the most astonishing moment is one of the numerous dream sequences, the inclusion of Mozart’s Requiem against visions of sacrilege and profanity. The very fact that it is not flashy or hysterical, nor does it rely on loud crashes or graphic violence, instead unsettling through the undermining of a vulnerable girl, puts it a league ahead of the majority of modern horror, with Zombie’s final disregard of studio convention being the end titles, where rather than a commercial rock song seizing the prime real estate, the sense of gloom and menace continuing as the camera wanders lost among the blank faced buildings.

The Lords of Salem is now available on DVD




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