No one will ever argue that Rob Zombie doesn’t know the horror genre. Arguably, the heavy metal madman shows a better grasp of B-movie aesthetics than his contemporary colleagues. Still Zombie’s work has consistently polarized audiences and critics alike. Though The Devil’s Rejects has justifiably earned consideration as a horror classic, Zombie’s Halloween remake and sequel divided fans. And 31 and Three From Hell felt like big steps backwards for the filmmaker. With his re-imagining of the 1960s cult television hit, The Munsters, just around the corner, it seemed like a good time to re-visit one of Zombie’s more misunderstood works – The Lords of Salem.
In Salem, Massachusetts, a DJ and recovering addict, Heidi LaRoc, receives a cryptic album from a band calling itself, ‘The Lords’. When the station plays the album, the strange music has an unnerving effect on Heidi. Suddenly Heidi finds herself struggling to maintain a grasp on reality as she descends into a waking nightmare. And she loses her grip on everything around her, a very real coven of witches takes an unusual interest in her.
The Lords of Salem Finds Rob Zombie in an Ambitious Mood
One thing that quickly becomes apparent in The Lords of Salem is the sheer scope of Rob Zombie’s ambitions. This is a far cry from the cartoonish and MTV-frenetic editing of House of 1000 Corpses. Specifically, Zombie trades in the visual aesthetics of 70s Grindhouse horror for a visual style more aligned with Stanley Kubrick and Ken Russell’s work. In fact, The Lords of Salem really feels like Zombie trying to tap into the same surreal religious horror imagery that Russell did with his controversial 1971 movie, The Devils. And this is where Zombie falls short of a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino. Whereas Tarantino has always been able to stitch together his influences into something wholly unique, Zombie still looks like a filmmaker doing a homage to his favourite pieces of work.
…The Lords of Salem really feels like Zombie trying to tap into the same surreal religious horror imagery that Russell did with his controversial 1971 movie, The Devils.
Fortunately, Zombie does a pretty good job showing off more maturity than we had previously seen in his work. There’s several beautifully framed shots in this movie that are haunting for very different reasons than the shocking gore of The Devil’s Rejects. In addition, Zombie paces his story quite well – The Lords of Salem never lingers too long on any one moment. Horror fans will find several truly unsettling images alongside a handful of good jump scares. John 5 and composer/producer Griffin Boice’s score – including The Lords’ secret album – is downright unnerving. And Zombie’s climax is dizzying array of shocking imagery that fits with what’s proceeded it even if it’s also clearly a Zombie-fied version of Kubrick’s 2001 finale.
The Lords of Salem Suffers Somewhat From Zombie’s ‘Hit or Miss’ Casting
Another recurrent problem rearing its head in The Lords of Salem is miscasting. Like Tarantino, Zombie likes to work with the same actors – an eclectic group of veteran B-movie character actors. However, Tarantino has always had a knack for finding the right roles for his cast. In contrast, Zombie frequently opts to try and fit a square peg into a round hole. Case in point, Zombie again casts his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, in the key role of radio DJ Heidi LaRoc. Contrary to what some horror fans claim, Moon Zombie is talented but her range is limited. And this role just extends past that range even if Moon Zombie does better with the material than expected. There’s an earnestness in her portrayal of a recovering addict pushed back to drugs by otherworldly circumstances.
Contrary to what some horror fans claim, Moon Zombie is talented but her range is limited. And this role just extends past that range even if Moon Zombie does better with the material than expected.
Zombie rounds out his supporting cast with familiar faces. Both Ken Foree (The Rift, Death Spa, Leatherface) and the very underrated Jeff Daniel Phillips (3 From Hell, Satanic Panic) fit into their roles perfect. Similarly, Meg Foster seems like she was born to play the Salem witch Margaret Morgan. Other cast members are hit and miss, not so much for their performances but more from simply being shoehorned into a role that doesn’t fit. As much fun as it is to see Dee Wallace (The Howling, Cujo), she feels wildly out of place here as one of three witch sisters. On the other hand, Bruce Davison (The Manor) feels like a breath of fresh air exuding a natural charisma whenever he’s on screen.
The Lords of Salem Has Aged Better Than Its Initial Reviews
Contrary to mainstream reviews, The Lords of Salem is a surprisingly good effort from Zombie. In fact, it’s one of the shock rocker’s better movies, showing off a bit of maturity. It suffers from all of the usual complaints about Zombie’s work. There’s the miscasting in key roles – Sherri Moon Zombie doesn’t have the necessary range for the character. And Zombie isn’t as good as Tarantino at re-working his influences into his own distinct style. But The Lords of Salem is a persistently unsettling movie boasting strong visuals and a gonzo ending that defies description. At the very least, it represented a unique leap forward in Zombie’s work that hasn’t been followed up on in his subsequent movies.