Notable Festivals: Toronto (Midnight Madness), SXSW
The disappointing reception of 2009’s HALLOWEEN II was a real setback for director Rob Zombie’s career. While he was working (harder than usual) to get his next film off the ground, Zombie diversified into several other formats, like episodic television and stand up comedy specials. All the while, his off-days were spent in the lab, tinkering away at his next feature project: THE LORDS OF SALEM (2012). His reputation was tarnished by HALLOWEEN II’s failure, so he had to look to the independent sector for his next film, meaning he needed to do more with less. Towards this end, he enlisted the help of cutting-edge horror producers, Jason Blum and Oren Peli, who had previously shepherded PARANORMAL ACTIVITY(2007) and INSIDIOUS (2010) to significant success. Zombie was well-aware that his next project came with high stakes, which translated to a scaled-down, focused approach. All the ingredients were ripe for Zombie to mount a textbook comeback.
THE LORDS OF SALEM takes place in the infamous, eponymous Massachusetts town, a place rich with folklore about the supernatural. Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a dreadlocked ex-addict, a late night radio DJ, and a descendant of Reverend Hawthorne: the man who put a coven of alleged witches to death during the Witch Trials. Unbeknownst to her, the head of the coven—a nasty witch named Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster)—has put a curse on Hawthorne’s bloodline. One day, Heidi receives a mysterious box at the radio station where she works. It contains an unlabeled record that, when played, lets loose a wave of unearthly and demonic music. Heidi soon becomes haunted by the music, affected to such a fundamental degree that she slowly withdraws from the world. As horrifying supernatural visions plague her into relapsing with her drug use, it becomes increasingly clear that she’s a player in a larger plan that’s been centuries in the making- a plan that will require her to bear the Antichrist.
Zombie has always put his wife Sheri Moon in his work, but THE LORDS OF SALEM is the first instance where she’s front and center, and carrying the entire film by herself. The role of Heidi is a far cry from the previous roles she’s played for Zombie, requiring her to be bookish and quiet while still possessing the director’s requisite grunge. She’s been tattooed to high heaven, each piece of ink becoming a visual signifier of her drug-fueled past. In terms of her entire career, this is probably Sheri Moon’s most compelling performance. Meg Foster plays Margeret Morgan, the evil head of the witch coven. She turns in a fearless performance that requires her to contort her face into nasty expressions and appear totally nude—a courageous choice on her part considering her age. Bruce Davison plays Francis Matthias, a writer and local authority on Salem’s witch history. He’s kindly and mellow, like a sedate version of HALLOWEEN’s Dr. Loomis, with both serving as a source of exposition and investigation. Davison’s performance brings a warm, paternal presence to the film, lulling us into a false sense of comfort and security before it’s cruelly ripped away.
Jeff Daniel Phillips, a bit role character performer who previously cameo’d in Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II graduates to full-on supporting role as Whitey, a fellow radio DJ and Heidi’s best friend. Gloriously bearded and sufficiently sarcastic, Philips is convincing as a burnt-out townie who doesn’t care about anything except his friends. Ken Foree, a regular in Zombie’s repertory, plays Herman Jackson, a third radio DJ with a smooth and silky voice. If you’re at all familiar with Foree’s other work, you’d know that the role isn’t a stretch for him whatsoever. Horror film icon Dee Wallace plays Sonny, a witch disguised in the form of a wine-guzzling self-help guru. This is her second performance for Zombie, in addition to her second performance in a modern-day “satanic panic” film after appearing for director Ti West in his 2009 film THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. Another Zombie regular, Sid Haig, purportedly had a cameo in the film, but his part was ultimately cut—a decision indicative of the director’s newfound discipline and restraint.
HALLOWEEN II’s Brandon Trost returns as the cinematographer, helping Zombie transition from traditional celluloid film to digital photography in the form of the Red Camera. Despite its digital origins, THE LORDS OF SALEM ably replicates the aesthetic of film, as well as Zombie’s grainy, dark, and oppressively grungy style. The added flexibility to manipulate the image that’s part and parcel of digital acquisition allows Zombie and Trost to give the film a uniquely lurid look—the colors are nearly bled out of the frame, save for bright splashes of red, and the highlights bloom in a way that’s reminiscent of Janusz Kaminski’s work. Zombie’s camera-work is reserved and deliberate, incorporating a mix of long, slow dollies and locked-off static shots to tell the story. The film is at its most unsettling in the vortex that is the hallway of Heidi’s apartment complex. Production Designer Jennifer Spence finds the perfect wallpaper and plasters it all over the walls to create an irresistibly foreboding feel. The result is a slow, creeping dread that’s eerily reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980).
Musically, THE LORDS OF SALEM is a huge departure in Zombie’s work, mostly because it doesn’t feature the participation of musician Tyler Bates. Instead, Zombie enlists the help of Griffin Boice and John 5 to create an unsettling, pulsing score—an electronic texture punctuated with the haunting melancholy of piano chords. They’re also responsible for the titular vinyl record that Heidi receives, sounding every bit as ungodly as you would expect a satanic record to sound. Zombie utilizes a variety of different source cues, veering from old rock, to soul, to choral classical music and back again. He makes great use of Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs”—an obvious bid to redefine our perceptions of the song and make us forever associate THE LORDS OF SALEM with it. However, his attempt falls short in light of the fact that Gus Van Sant used the same song to much more striking effect in his 2005 film LAST DAYS.
As I wrote before, Zombie’s direction is much more restrained and patient than his previous work. He shows true confidence in that he doesn’t use flashy camerawork or over-stylized visuals to create a compelling, disturbing experience. His old-fashioned aesthetic is informed by the subgenre of “satanic panic” horror films that came out in the 1980’s—a niche that similarly influenced West’s HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (the two films exist in my mind as sister projects, despite being totally unrelated to one another). Despite the major deviation from his previous aesthetic, several of Zombie’s aesthetic hallmarks remain: lurid neon, Halloween makeup/costumes, and countless references to film history (Heidi has the iconic image of the moon with a bullet in its eye from George Melies’ pioneering silent film A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) plastered as a giant mural across her bedroom wall).
THE LORDS OF SALEM is a noticeably personal film for Zombie. Besides taking place in his home state of Massachusetts– not far from the town he grew up in– the film’s indie sensibilities point to a strong passion on Zombie’s part to bring the film into the world. However, due to the film’s limited release, THE LORDS OF SALEM was hampered from attaining its true potential. It’s garnered something of a small cult status in the wake of its release, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that cult grows larger over time.
Zombie’s evolution of style is indicative of a maturing director whose confidence in his craft is secure enough to eschew the unnecessary flash of his earlier work. The film’s patient, leering tone is its most effective asset, representing a marked shift in Zombie’s style that will hopefully play out over the course of his future work. In the end, THE LORDS OF SALEM is something of a triumph, with Zombie showing a clear evolution of his talent and re-positioning himself as a leading director of independent horror alongside such counterparts as Ti West and Adam Wingard.
THE LORDS OF SALEM is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Anchor Bay.
Produced by: Jason Blum, Oren Peli, Andy Gould, Steven Schneider, Rob Zombie
Written by: Rob Zombie
Director of Photography: Brandon Trost
Production Designer: Jennifer Spence
Edited by: Glenn Garland
Music by: Griffin Boice, John 5