From the singular mind of horror maestro Rob Zombie comes a chilling plunge into a nightmare world where evil runs in the blood. The Lords of Salem tells the tale of Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a radio station DJ living in Salem, Massachusetts, who receives a strange wooden box containing a record, a "gift from the Lords." Heidi listens, and the bizarre sounds within the grooves immediately trigger flashbacks of the town's violent past. Is Heidi going mad, or are the "Lords of Salem" returning for revenge on modern-day Salem?
Since his introduction to the horror world in 2003 with House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie has split his time between his successful music career and his brutally violent movies. Inspiration has once again swung him back to film with The Lords of Salem.
The Lords of Salem stars Rob Zombie's wife and muse, Sheri Moon Zombie (who has been in every one of Zombie's movies, including The Devil's Rejects and his Halloween remake), as Heidi Hawthorne who, along with Herman 'Whitey' Salvador (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips from the short-lived "Cavemen" series) and Herman Jackson (Damn of the Dead's Ken Foree), hosts The Big H Team, a late-night radio show in Salem, Massachusetts. After the show one night, a wooden box containing a record by a group known only as The Lords shows up, addressed to Heidi. The next night, The Big H Team plays the record on the air. The music hypnotizes women everywhere, but seems to have an especially powerful effect on Heidi. An occult specialist named Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison from X-Men) recognizes the melody as an old witch's song and, after a little research, finds out that Heidi is the target of a terrifying master plan involving a centuries-old witch's coven. It is up to him and the two Hermans to save her before she gets too deeply involved.
In a lot of ways, The Lords of Salem represents a coming-of-age for Rob Zombie; he has moved away from the gratuitous, ultra-violence of his previous efforts, and the result is easily his most story-oriented film. It's actually a very fresh take on the stale old Salem Witch motif, evoking a feeling not unlike the last couple of installments of the Paranormal Activity franchise (incidentally, Paranormal Activity producers Jason Blum and Oren Peli also serve as producers on The Lords of Salem). As usual, Zombie writes the screenplay for The Lords of Salem as well as directs the film, and he proves that he is only getting better at his craft. Because the story is so well written and the film is paced evenly, The Lords of Salem does a pretty good job at building tension and suspense. It's not particularly scary, but the story is so engrossing that the lack of shocks isn't bothersome. For the first hour or so of the film, it's flawless horror filmmaking. Then it gets to the third act.
Now, it's not that the wheels come off in the third act; it's just that Zombie reverts to his dreamlike, surreal House of 1000 Corpses roots. It does make sense, given the fact that the film is all about witches and demon summoning, but it's such a shock to the system for the style to change so dramatically that it gets confusing. Luckily, a voiceover newscast rolls over the closing credits that explains the aftermath of what has just been shown, taking the ambiguity out of the ending and tying everything together again. By the time it's over, The Lords of Salem is a satisfying film - as long as the viewer isn't expecting the blood and gore of Zombie's previous films.
The horror genre is full of auteurs, and Rob Zombie is no exception. For The Lords of Salem, he has moved away from the slasher tropes contained in House of 1000 Corpses and the spaghetti western tributes found in The Devil's Rejects, drawing influence from classic supernatural thrillers like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Zombie and cinematographer Brandon Trost (who worked with Zombie on Halloween II) use lots of long, wide shots and selective framing so that the action isn't always apparent from the beginning of the scene. There is a hallway outside of Heidi's apartment that particularly recalls The Shining, from the faux-hotel corridor to the wallpaper that is eerily similar to the famous Overlook carpet pattern. The mixture of classic themes with modern looks is interesting, and it works well. Although The Lords of Salem is a departure of sorts for Rob Zombie, it still has his fingerprints all over it.
Another trademark element of Rob Zombie's filmmaking is the inclusion of actors and actresses who are legendary in the horror genre. In The Lords of Salem, Ken Foree and Bruce Davison are only the beginning. Zombie also uses Judy Geeson (It Happened at Nightmare Inn, Dominique), Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and Dee Wallace (E.T., Cujo, The Howling) as a trio of satanic sisters who battle for control over Heidi's soul. Meg Foster (They Live) and Andrew Prine (Grizzly, The Town that Dreaded Sundown) both play occultists from the past. Zombie pals Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) and Sid Haig (another staple of Zombie's films, as well as a fixture in many of Roger Corman's productions) also have brief but recognizable parts. The fun game of "who did Rob Zombie cast in this film" continues with The Lords of Salem.
Rob Zombie's movies have always been more disturbing and shocking than truly terrifying, and The Lords of Salem is no exception. To his credit, Zombie has never had to rely on cheap jump scares; his films are usually so over-the-top with unspeakable brutality that they provide more cringing and squirming than actual out-loud screams. The Lords of Salem actually lacks the violence of his older films as well, so it's not as scary. The film relies more on creepy ideas and images to provide the audience with the feeling of dread, and it works - to an extent. There is still plenty of disturbing imagery, especially in the last act when things get surreal, but there's nothing to inspire nightmares. That's not to say that The Lords of Salem is a bad horror film, it's just more a morbid curiosity than a full-fledged heart-stopper.