The Lords Of Salem is a strange, strange movie. No it’s stranger than that. Nope, decidedly odder. No even weirder. Look no matter what is going on in your head right now I can pretty much guarantee that The Lords Of Salem is stranger than you think it is.
On paper it seems pretty simple, a popular DJ plays a record that unleashes a curse over 300 years old, while simultaneously falling into the clutches of a coven of Satanists. But that does nothing to convey the tone of pervasive, perverse wrongness that drives the film.
It’s also as ambitious as any American horror film as I can think of. A dreamy tone and style that obviously recalls (and explicitly references) the surrealistic Euro horror of Mario Bava, Polanksi and Jean Rollins, but an equally apt point of reference is the late seventies early eighties American Surrealism seen in films like Let’s Scare Jessica To Death and Messiah Of Evil. Lords Of Salem has the same feeling of paranoia and dread, the same sense of immensity of evil, the same daring assaultive imagery, the same narrative confusion and the same druggy pace. There are some almost implausibly ambitious visuals and ideas in the film. And though Zombie reach is not always within his grasp I’d say at least 75% of what he goes for he gets. And that’s a fair number for any filmmaker. Of Lords Of Salem perhaps there is no better compliment I can pay it than the fact that it’s the first horror film I’ve seen since The Strangers that is genuinely hard to watch at times. Part of this is because the film is without a doubt pushing some of my personal buttons (if you have any sort of religious beliefs be prepared to be deeply uncomfortable for some sequences), but so much of the imagery in Salem is genuinely strange and perpendicular to most American horror that the viewer will either reject it outright with laugher, or really let it fester within them.
The film more than anything feels like a step forward for Zombie. A genuine evolution. Simultaneously completely a piece with his films and unlike anything he’s ever done. I hope the skeptics of Zombie give it a chance. It contains his usual signatures, the deeply saturated tactile palette, the strong sense of place, environment and relationships, his love of cinema history (though unfortunately the Frankenstein Vs. The Witchfinder trailer that was shot for the film was cut). But gone are the profane dialogue and white trash patois and though the film has one of Zombie’s typically sprawling casts the cut I watched was whittled down to a core of about half a dozen characters. And while one would be lying if one called the film restrained, the violence is used much more sparingly (and to much greater effect) than in Zombie’s past films.
Sheri Moon Zombie has evolved tremendously as a performer and carries the weight of the film effortlessly aided by Ken Forree, Jeff Daniel Phillips and Bruce Davidson all doing the kind of subtle work that Zombie’s detractors like to say he can’t do. Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace and Judy Geeson bring a sense of understated menace to their rolls, while Meg Foster swings for the bleachers and lands somewhere in the parking lot.
The Lords Of Salem is a film made by a director who is truly pushing himself. I have been an apologist for Zombie for his entire decade as a working filmmaker and I can think of no better reward for my faith in him as a director than that.