Over the last twenty years, musician/filmmaker Rob Zombie has carved out one of the most dedicated fan bases and intense filmographies of any director in the horror genre. Loud, violent, flashy, and vulgar, Zombie has been going against the grain of mainstream horror throughout the new millennium, earning his place in the pantheon of the 2000’s Splat Pack. After breaking out with his most well-known feature, The Devil’s Rejects, and his notorious Halloween duology (which I’m actually a big fan of), Zombie needed to return to his roots and do something original. And this something was an idea that he had been kicking around for over half a decade based on the Salem Witch Trials. To this day, The Lords of Salem is the real stand out of Zombie films, no murderous clowns, no slashers, and unfortunately, no Bill Mosely or Sid Haig (the latter was drastically cut from the final film). But that’s what makes some films interesting, right? When a director steps out of their comfort zone and experiments with newer subjects, you never know what you’ll get.
This film focuses on Heidi LaRoc, a local rock DJ in present day Salem, MA, played by Zombie’s wife and muse, Sheri Moon. After a regular broadcast with her co-hosts, Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips), and Munster (Ken Foree), Heidi receives a mysterious wooden box that contains a record from a group called The Lords. Later that night at her apartment, Heidi gives the record a listen. The sounds trigger a vision from the past; a coven of witches delivers a baby, and believes it will be the spawn of Satan. To their dismay and anger, the child is normal, and the vision ends. Now just imagine if she played the record backwards?
The next night, Heidi interviews author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), who is promoting his book on the Witch Trials. The station plays the Lord’s record, which causes all the women of Salem, including Heidi, to go into a trance. Matthias, who finds something peculiar about the music, begins his own plot to trace the music and find out why it was delivered specifically to Heidi. After work, a dazed Heidi is invited by her landlord, Lacy (Judy Geeson), to have a drink with her and visiting sisters, Sonny (Dee Wallace) and Megan (Patricia Quinn). A combination of the record’s effect, Heidi’s history with addiction, and a menacing palm reading from Megan, leads Heidi to turn in early for the night. But her troubles are only beginning when she has a surreal nightmare where she’s drawn to a vacant apartment in her building and another vision of witches and demons awaits her. That’s right folks, she’s living in a house of witches. From there, it’s a week of agony where nightmares and visions blur into reality, slowing breaking Heidi down for the coven’s sinister plan.
From a production stand-point, The Lords of Salem marked the lowest budget Zombie had worked with at the time, estimated at $1.5 million. With that said, this is Zombie’s most interesting film. Cinematography was helmed by future Seth Rogen collaborator, Brandon Trost, who lends a tight, intimate, almost Giallo approach to the film. This is the first Zombie film to be shot digitally. What you don’t really hear praised about this film is its use of color. There’s impressive use of red, orange, and yellow which provides a very foreboding feeling, visually conveying the coming of an early Samhain. Yet, within the apartment building, color is so sparse that it feels like you’ve stepped into an old black and white picture from the golden age. I would love to see a cut of the film that just plays in black and white to compare. Shots are fluid, and any movement either hovers or glides with a sense of dread.
Compared to Zombie’s previous films, Lords of Salem is very toned down. As opposed to in your face gore and violence, this film shows Zombie is more than capable of traditional horror. There’s something about turning on light or panning the camera to reveal there’s something else there in the room, to give you that extra feeling of paranoia. We’re also presented with an array of creatures: from a shadowy bigfoot like being, to faceless priests and doctors. There’s even a unique portrayal of potentially the devil, shown as a dwarf-like being covered in open sores where tentacle-like appendages protrude from. We get these very Eldritch horror elements from Wayne Toth, Zombie’s go to effects wizard, and it is some of his best work.
Casting wise, Sheri Moon gives a subdued and vulnerable performance, demonstrating that she’s more than just Baby Firefly. Geeson, Wallace, and Quinn give a collectively great performance as the witches, and they share some pretty good banter. They are pretty funny together and show that there is still some humanity under the vengeance. After all, it is a Rob Zombie movie, so the villains do get the best lines. Speaking of the villains, They Live’s Meg Foster is pretty commanding as the ancient witch, Margaret Morgan, the one who set the plot in motion centuries prior. While she’s used sparsely, you remember every unnerving second that she’s on screen, even when she’s just standing in the background. Rounding out the main cast, Bruce Davidson feels at home in this crazy town and is genuinely compelling as the closest thing the film has to a hero.
Back to the plot. Francis Matthias has traced Heidi’s ancestry. He discovers that she’s a descendent of a reverend who burned Margret Morgan’s coven, thus confirming that Heidi’s in danger. Upon reaching her residence though, Matthias is lured in by the sisters who promptly kill him (while Heidi listens during a drug relapse). Heidi is then brought to a local venue to host a live performance by the Lords. Here, the three sisters summon the original coven back with their music, and trigger all the tranced women in the audience (the only attendees) to submit before them. As a surreal series of blasphemous images flash, Heidi gives birth to a Lovecraftian crawfish creature (definitely a standout spawn of Satan), to which the coven kneels before, as the Velvet Underground plays us out.
I love this movie for what it is. It’s the true definition of an underrated gem as well as the outlier of Zombie’s cinema output. I’ve heard stories about the production, and I understand a lot had to be cut out or dropped, but it doesn’t detract from the overall feel. Zombie set out to make a film like “if Ken Russell directed The Shining,” and I think he delivered on a promise. The Lords of Salem is a surreal, nightmarish feast that, though graphic, is far from his usual exploitation throwbacks. It’s a shame he hasn’t gone back to these types of films, or at least more female- driven horror, because Zombie classical influence has potential. Part Mario Bava, part Suspiria de Profundis, and part Stevie Nicks, more people need to see The Lords of Salem. But we never do get this one answer...why the goat?
Follow HorrOrigins Social Media Pages