Film Review- The Lords of Salem
101 minutes Rated R for you name it, you’ve got it.
This film is best described as a satanic inversion of a nativity play, executed in an expressionist style.
The Lords of Salem signals Rob Zombie’s maturation as a horror director. It’s a film that pivots from the Grand Guignol style of Zombie’s earlier outings into something more atmospheric, menacing, and malevolently beautiful. The film explores the old invective theme of Christian evangelists- that Rock and Roll is the devil- and explores it as lovingly as only a professional rocker can.
This theme has been tackled before, in the hilariously goofy Black Roses, but Zombie plays it straight and delivers a luxurious and vivid horror film.
Zombie’s wife and muse, Shari Moon, plays the skinny, sickly radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne, one part of a trio of late night alternative shock jocks handling the graveyard airwaves in Boston. Shortly after interviewing local historian Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), she comes into receipt of a unlabeled vinyl record, mysteriously titled ‘The Lords’. The record contains one song, which Heidia assumes to be a demo. Playing the records triggers headaches and hallucinations, for Heidi as well as others. Over her objections, her co-workers Whitey (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips) and Herman Jackson (Ken Foree) broadcast the song as a novelty track to all of Boston. Heidi soon finds that she is not alone in her descent into madness.
Direction and Cinematography
Hopefully this is the beginning of a golden period for Mr. Zombie. He imitates and derives his shots from a wide body of better film-makers. Long, still shots like Kubrick, crowded stairway shots like Polanski, subliminal off-corner imagery like Friedkin, references to Melies, German expressionism, and Ken Russell. Zombie steals well from the best. The pacing builds an intense charge of dread and inevitability. And the soundtrack is masterful. A carnal delirium that is hideous and sublime at once.
While the photography is brilliant the writing is a mixed bag that sometimes undercuts the film. There’s emotional development in the conflict between Heidi’s investigation, which Whitey mistakes for a reversion to her drug seeking behavior. The camaraderie between the DJs is also an enjoyable break from the tension of the film. The film’s sub-plot, detailing the ongoing investigation of Francis Matthias, is necessary exposition, but it doesn’t complement the tension of the dream-like main plot. The elderly academic making a parallel inquiry is a device that refers back to characters like Father Merrin in The Exorcist. However, the story of Matthias’ research doesn’t achieve the desperation of the main protagonist’s descent. Some of the dialogue of the antagonist characters is so crude and provocative as to be of comic, rather than shocking effect.
Shari Moon Zombie does a great job conveying the deterioration of an already fragile character. Heidi goes from confident urban hipster to a terrified, barely coherent junkie. Ken Foree has a lot of charisma and I am always happy to see his performances- he makes an excellent ‘straight man’ for horror movies, neither too credulous nor too skeptical. Jeff Daniel Phillips handled his role with an adequate balance of confusion and empathy. Bruce Davison didn’t give his performance enough intelligence, but that may have been more a flaw of the script than the actor. Meg Foster oozes smarm and sympathy as Margaret Morgan, Heidi’s motherly landlord.
Watching films made by musicians is almost always an aural delight. Zombie gets maximum effect from the music, whether it’s the drone of Velvet Underground’s psychedelica or Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. You will never hear “All Tomorrow’s Parties” the same way again. And it’s not just the music. It’s the creaks of an old building, the rustling of the mice. The sounds and the silence of the film are impeccable.
The visual effects are presented like one long Marilyn Manson video. The makeup and creature design is brutal and visceral- alternating between Mario Bava-like giallo, intense diabolism, and ventures into Lovecraftiana. In fact, you could call this movie “The Debut EP at Red Hook” and you wouldn’t be too far off.
Occult Symbology (WARNING: SPOILERS)
This film is a pageant for the antichrist, inverting and paralleling that tale. Or an antichrist, anyways. Instead of a virgin Mary you have an ex-junkie with a sordid past (Heidi). Instead of a stoically faithful Joseph you have the atheist (Whitey), and the three wise men are replaced by the three modern witches. Mathias is an unwitting and secular Herod, and his pursuit of the anointed child results in his severe punishment. And of course, there’s the Unholy Spirit, who manifests in a different form every time. From a labor of spite is the child delivered to usher in an age of license and release. Christianity is depicted as a Pharisee religion, its advocates largely dead, or patriarchal and tyrannical.
Satan can be said to be a constant presence, an inversion of the traditional conception of God. At first, it’s the big Melies Man on the Moon photograph- the one eyed and leering Illuminus, gazing upon Heidi as she sleeps. Then, it’s a shadow. Then, we get a variant of the conventional Infernal Pan avatar. A blind dwarf is the next manifestation. In some ways, this can be taken as a regression through the different historical representations of the Devil- first a modern image (an abstract presence), then a more enlightenment era image (a shadow of the soul), then your traditional renaissance/medieval version (old Scratch), and finally an avatar of the devil more like Dante’s powerless idiot, immobile and enthralled to base desire.
This film can also be taken as a metaphor for how Gnosis destroys, rather than enlightens, the uninitiated. Heidi’s encounters with the absolute gradually unravel her identity, reverting her to her earlier traumas, then to a child-like condition, before she is left as a blank shell. Matthias also is punished for his trespass into the occult.
Another interpretive approach is that the film is about initiation as a process of acceptance of one’s biological being. Heidi lives a life of the mind; she is worried about growing old, about her relationship. The Satanic forces, much like in Rosemary’s Baby, reflect not only a woman’s anxieties about pregnancy but about commitment- what if your friends are evil and only interested in using you? What if your freak baby leaves you a ravaged, white-eyed automaton?
The witches, as portrayed, are deplorable strix of the old continental variety. Unguents and abortions. One has to wonder whether fetal cannibalism was at some point a practice to conceal abortion in medieval Christendom. This film doesn’t portray anyone’s religion in a good light. Only the atheists aren’t assholes, and that may be the point.
The Lords of Salem is a top-flight Satanic Panic film, an occult wonderland of lurid imagery, that deserves recognition alongside films such as The Ninth Gate and The Omen. It’s not quite as good as The Exorcist or The Shining. Nonetheless it is a bitter and dark piece of cinematic chocolate, and the best horror film that I’ve seen to date this year. If you’re a horror enthusiast, this film’s a worthy buy; if you like Satanic themed horror films in particular, this film’s a necessity.
Fair Value of The Lords of Salem: $30.00 for horror fans; $15 otherwise; not for the squeamish or the prudish
G. W. Devon Pack