Some cineastes will not want to admit it, but Rob Zombie is an auteur. He brings to all of his films a recognizable visual style and set of themes. He self-consciously employs the history of the horror genre, doing homage to some of its classic documents and classic directors.
And, like most auteurs, he has a devoted fan-base. They have followed him from the blood-drenched abattoir of House of 1,000 Corpses to the southern-fried fever dream of The Devil’s Rejects. A lot of us even enjoyed his Halloween that significantly reimagined the 1978 narrative even though the last third of the film turned into an almost shot-for-shot remake. We might not have liked a lot of things about it, but we understood why he had to be the one to make it. Rather than another cash-cow reboot, it made the same kind of cinematic sense as John Carpenter doing homage to Howard Hawks and Hitchcock.
Now comes Lords of Salem, a film likely to divide Zombie’s already highly defined fan base. Available on Blu-ray and DVD, many fans will be seeing the film for the first time, given its narrow distribution and brief life at the theatres. Some won’t care for its rather significant differences from the rest of his oeuvre.
Don’t get me wrong, you will recognize this as a Rob Zombie horror-fest if you are even vaguely familiar with his work. It’s stylish and weird. Not quite the bloodbath of some of his earlier films, Zombie dispenses the gross-out sparingly even as he hits some body horror high notes along the way. Music and hard, dissonant clangs drives the aural experience, set to a sound track that covers everything from death metal to Velvet Underground to Mozart’s Requiem.
Still there are very real differences from his earlier outings. Zombie fans, and plenty of horror fans in general, are used to films that offer 90 minutes worth of assaults on the consciousness, one fright or mangling after another until the final tense and over-the-top denouement. In Lords of Salem, Rob Zombie has prepared a different kind of dark fête.
Lords of Salem tells a story of a rock DJ (Sheri Moon Zombie) who receives a mysterious record from “The Lords”. In the logic of cursed objects, this delivery pulls her down a terrifying rabbit hole to hell.
Lords of Salem takes an approach that fans of Ti West will be able to appreciate, even if they don’t think that Zombie exactly pulls it off. Much like House of the Devil and Innkeepers, Zombie employs the slow burn. The roller coaster slowly cranks to the top of the incline for most of the film’s run-time and then drops us into the abyss for the last ten minutes or so.
Critics tended to hate this film and they are wrong. There’s a least a contingent of film writers who are dismissive of Zombie’s work to such a degree that I’m not sure they really pay attention. Add to these the writers who don’t take the horror genre seriously to begin with, and you come up with an avalanche of criticism for Lords of Salem.
There’s a lot going on here that’s worth your time. Beautifully photographed and drenched in creepy atmosphere, it’s gorgeous to look at. Sheri Moon Zombie will never get the credit she deserves, it seems, but carries her lead role with more than aplomb. She’s really a brilliant actor that I’d like to see in other genres. And, on top of that, there’s some interesting ideas bouncing around in this gothic echo chamber of a movie, ideas about the relationship between history and horror and place and time that seem to show up in every one of Zombie’s flicks.
After seeing the film once, a second viewing with Rob Zombie’s commentary proves helpful. It’s a serious chat about some of the decisions he made and why he made them. You’ll even find a few moments of the film that made little sense the first time around making more sense. A bad sign, I know, but I honestly enjoyed hearing a filmmaker as gifted as this talk about his work even when, especially when, that work needs some Talmudic parsing.
The commentary almost, but not quite, makes up for a complete absence of any other special features on the two-disc set. The second disc includes an Ultraviolet download. Otherwise. There are no “making of” featurettes or other treats for the collector.
Let me also note that this review is based on the Blu-ray edition. In fact, seeing the film for the first time deserves the 1080p treatment. It’s a film so visually rich that it needs a high-definition presentation.
Horror fans should see Lords of Salem if only because Rob Zombie made it. This is not irrational fan-worship, only recognition of his importance in the genre. Moreover, his own following will hopefully take pleasure in seeing a very different kind of film from one of the undisputed masters of modern horror. This peculiar little gem will find its admirers over time. Give Lords of Salem a watch.