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Rob Zombie has continually been a director whose works have divided the horror community, “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects” having found lovers and haters in roughly equal numbers (his “Halloween” remake and its bizarre sequel mainly the latter). His latest effort, “The Lords of Salem” is sure to do the same, though perhaps for different reasons, a full-on piece of satanic madness with a focus firmly on atmosphere and shocks rather than sense, packed full of the usual parade of familiar genre faces, including (inevitably) the director’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, plus Ken Foree (“Dawn of the Dead”), Dee Wallace (“The Howling”), Judy Geeson (“Inseminoid”), Meg Foster (“They Live”) and a long list of others.
Sheri Moon Zombie plays Heidi, a recovering drug addict DJ working at a popular rock radio station in Salem with her colleagues Herman Whitey Salvador (Jeffry Daniel Philips, “Halloween 2”) and Herman Jackson (Ken Foree). After receiving a mysterious wooden box with a record inside apparently from a band called The Lords one day, she plays it on air, and begins to experience visions of witches and devilry, seemingly from a past life. As the dreams spill over into reality and her life spirals out of control, a witchcraft expert guest on the radio show (Bruce Davidson, “X-Men”) investigates the record, matters coming to a head with the announcement of a Salem concert by The Lords.
Anyone worried by the presence of “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious” producers Jason Blum, Oren Peli and Steven Schneider can rest easy, as “The Lords of Salem” is worlds, indeed light years away from 99% of modern horror commercial horror cinema. Even Zombie’s most ardent detractors won’t be able to deny that the director has at least tried something different here, and given that he apparently had full creative freedom, the film is a bold, striking piece of work. There’s certainly little here to appeal to fans of teen-centric or found footage horror, the film being heavily inspired by “The Shining”, the grotesque yet glorious excesses of Ken Russell (unsurprisingly “The Devils” was a clear influence) and the more abstract leaning of old school Italian splatter. Most notably, Zombie frequently seems to be referencing Lucio Fulci (“The Beyond”, “City of the Living Dead”), and the film takes place in the same surreal space as many of the Italian maestro’s classics, the laws of logic having been suspended and reality having been superseded by ominous, inexplicable terror.
On the plus side, the film works very well as a nightmarish bad trip, and for better or worse, Zombie makes the leap from his usual US Grindhouse stylings to something a little more European and artistically minded. While there are still a few wacky touches here and there, and his insistence on populating the film with recognisable exploitation stars of the past is at times distracting, the film has a unique and distinct feel that will certainly speak to some viewers. Despite having a relatively low budget, the film looks great throughout, Zombie generating some sinister and creepy visuals that successfully make for an other-worldly feel. The emphasis is firmly on creeping dread rather than jump scares, and though there are quite a few flashes of gore, nastiness and sexual deviancy peppered throughout, the film largely steers clear of the director’s former shock tactics, to impressive effect.
At the same time though, there’s no getting around the fact that “The Lords of Salem” is at times real gibberish, with a meandering narrative and scant regard for cinematic common sense, and it’s this which will likely determine what viewers take from it. There’s some really, wonderfully odd stuff going on here, and what the film might lack in historical accuracy when it comes to witchcraft, it more than makes for in attention to off the wall details. While fans of the sources Zombie is channelling will delight in the films dark zaniness, others will undoubtedly either be baffled or angered, and it’s understandable that it really won’t be to the taste of all genre followers.
“The Lords of Salem” is possibly Rob Zombie’s strongest and most distinctive work to date, and stands as one of the most enjoyably eccentric and original horror films of the last couple of years. Wilfully weird and likely to cause viewers flashbacks to the heyday of good old satanic cinema, it’s a film that’s comfortably aware of its own outlandishness, and is all the better for revelling in it rather than conceding to more mainstream genre expectations.
Rob Zombie (director) / Rob Zombie (screenplay)
CAST: Sheri Moon Zombie … Heidi Hawthorne
Bruce Davison … Francis Matthias
Jeff Daniel Phillips … Herman ‘Whitey’ Salvador
Judy Geeson … Lacy Doyle
Meg Foster … Margaret Morgan
Patricia Quinn … Megan
Ken Foree … Herman Jackson
Dee Wallace … Sonny
Maria Conchita Alonso … Alice Matthias
Sid Haig … Dean Magnus