The 13th Floor

Quit Your Witching: In Defense of Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM

Following the special preview screening of 31 — Rob Zombie’s latest horror show, about carnies being carved up by killer clowns –criticism once again resurfaced concerning his previous effort, the 2012 experimental witchcraft piece THE LORDS OF SALEM. Zombie himself even acknowledged its status as a film most people don’t seem to care for during a pre-taped Q&A that followed 31. While his catalogue deals almost exclusively in polarizing films, THE LORDS OF SALEM stands out as the one I see getting bashed the most by both fans and critics alike.

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To refresh, THE LORDS OF SALEM focuses on Heidi (Sherri Moon Zombie), a radio DJ and, as we come to discover, descendant of Salem witch hunter Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne, who killed a notorious witch and her coven centuries earlier. When Heidi receives a mysterious record from a band known only as The Lords, she plays it on her show — inadvertently unleashing a curse upon the town’s modern female descendants. Zombie’s not exactly reinventing the wheel here, but it’s an entertaining premise nonetheless. In fact, I would argue that LORDS OF SALEM is Zombie’s greatest work so far. Here’s why:

When INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS first came out, card-carrying Tarantino haters were praising it because it didn’t feel like a Tarantino film. For me, the fact that it doesn’t feel like a Tarantino film, along with some questionable casting choices, is exactly why it’s his weakest effort. With LORDS OF SALEM, Zombie captures a rare sweet spot: The film’s greatest asset isn’t necessarily that it doesn’t feel like a Rob Zombie film, but that it’s so incredibly different from anything else that he’s ever done… as I’ll explain in more detail later on.

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Rob stays true to himself while branching off into new territory — gone are the sinister rednecks and bloodthirsty clowns; in their place are devilish witches, likable characters, and black metal mayhem. Zombie grew up a mere 35 minutes from Salem, and it’s obvious that this was a real passion project for him, as he draws upon his home state’s dark history. Shooting on location, he uses every last drop of atmosphere he can pull from the infamous township, showcasing it as an overcast Fall Wonderland, unassuming of the horrors that are about to be released.

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What I appreciate so much about LORDS OF SALEM is that it is a film largely driven by visuals. After sticking to a more traditional approach with his HALLOWEEN films, Zombie really comes back into his own here — building upon his background as an artist and music video auteur, and unleashing a sensory experience that plunges us into his own personal hell.

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The images he creates are like a waking nightmare:  grotesque, weird, and dirty, and sometimes you don’t really know how to interpret what you’re witnessing. Flames and black goats are par for the course in these things, but I particularly enjoyed Zombie’s featureless, mummy-like priests and doctors, a demonic nun, a pint-sized terror, and a beastly representation of Satan. Considering the tight schedule and even tighter budget he had to work with, these practical effects are even more impressive. The film feels like something you could watch on IFC in the days before they added commercials… and that’s a good thing.

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Additionally, this could very well be the strongest complete cast that Zombie has ever worked with — and he’s had some pretty solid ones. The compelling stable of characters is bolstered by Bruce Davison’s occult aficionado, Judy Geeson’s spunky landlord, Meg Foster’s evil witch queen, and SEINFELD favorite Richard Fancy as a witchcraft expert — not to mention Dee Wallace, Ken Foree, and Jeff Daniel Phillips, who are all welcome additions in anything, as far as I’m concerned.

Sherri Moon Zombie seemed to up her game for this film as well, making Heidi likable and sympathetic. Much has been made about her acting in her husband’s films, and I won’t rehash that here. While there are a few miscues, and the role would probably have a greater impact in a more seasoned actress’s hands, she turns in what is arguably her best performance since Baby Firefly.

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The cast’s considerable talent is on full display thanks to a decidedly un-Zombie roster of characters that are surprisingly subdued. After HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, it’s refreshing to know he’s able to write people who are, for the most part, just normal. When witch hits the fan, it makes the gruesome proceedings all the more effective.

Unlike in his other films, Zombie doesn’t need to sell us on these characters being scummy, crazy, or stereotypically redneck, and the dialogue benefits greatly from this. There were more than a few times — especially during Foster’s scenes, and Davison’s investigation into the coven — where I, as a writer, really admired the words that Zombie had crafted together for them. Frankly, I haven’t felt that way about anything else he’s done. Sometimes, actors make dialogue shine; other times, it stands up on its own, no matter who is speaking it. In these instances, though, the two elements come together seamlessly, and it’s both fun and disturbing to watch.

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I’m not going to say, “Oh, it’s awesome, for those who can actually get it”… because that’s pretentious, and lame, and there’s a special place in hell for all who dare utter that phrase without any irony. The truth is it’s not for everyone — whether you “get it” or not — and it’s certainly not a film without its flaws. It may be the director’s most divisive work, but it’s also his most creative and out-of-the-box film to date.

For that reason alone, it has solidified itself in my mind as Rob Zombie’s genre masterpiece. No matter what he does from here forward, LORDS OF SALEM will forever stand as one of the more intriguing entries in his filmography… giving us a glimpse at what he’s truly capable of, as both an artist and a filmmaker.

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