The Lords of Salem. Of course, it's not really the fashion to be enthusiastic about horror movies in general, but even in the forgiving, self-selecting world of horror lovers, Rob Zombie's fifth film has been greeted with more than its share of hostile befuddlement. So apparently, there's something wrong with me, because I pretty much straight-up loved the movie, and while there are a few nips and tucks I'd have made if it were my movie, part of what makes Zombie one of the few irreplaceable horror directors to work in the English language in the last several years - decades! - is that even when his movies are as strained and ineffective as his Halloween II in 2009, they are always very clearly films that come uncut from one man's very distinct mind, without much if any dilution. If that means that The Lords of Salem suffers from the odd bum shot, or a sort of dreadful metaphysical freak-out near the end, with sophomoric symbolic imagery and cheap animation, it benefits far more from the total sum of its gorgeously spooky fairy tale imagery that owes so much to the early-'80s work of hyperstylist Dario "Inferno" Argento, we might as well credit the movie with being a fourth entry in the Three Mothers trilogy.
Certainly, Zombie opens himself up good and wide to the "you're just stealing shit" attack in a movie that quotes, sometimes obliquely, from a whole mountain of classic horror touchstones; I excuse him primarily on the grounds that he does it so well, and anyway, his entire career has been more or less as a pastiche artist in the Quentin Tarantino mold (the "I will make the kind of movies I like, that nobody else makes any more" post-modernist, though I am not in the least ashamed to admit that I think The Lords of Salem is better cinema than Tarantino's last couple of movies): House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects were his Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, Halloween and Halloween II were his '80s slasher films, and this one is pretty overtly his Italian horror movie: style on loan from Dario Argento, plot from the "gate to Hell" pictures typified by Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead.
The film is set in present-day Salem, Massachusetts, where Heidi LaRoc (Sheri Moon Zombie) is one of the stars of a late-night radio program dedicated, as far as we can tell, to the pursuit of the dementedly odd. One Monday, she receives an odd package of a vinyl LP in a wooden box, credited only to The Lords, with a distressing, cacophonous soundscape that just barely reveals the presence of a melody underneath all of the noise. It puts Heidi in a fairly bad mood, but she's willing to play it during the show's nightly "Smash or Trash" segment, and this just happens to be the same night that their guest is author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), plugging his book about devil worship and witchcraft in America, and something about the music, and the phrase "The Lords of Salem", coined by one of Heidi's co-stars, perks up his memory. He throws himself into investigating, but it's not going to be of much use to Heidi, whose week is just going to get worse and worse at that music burrows deeper into her head, and the odd sights she's spotting in the old boarding house where she lives turn out to be the first flush of a witch cult preparing to bring the spawn of Satan into the world using the girl and the shrieking music as their tools. Yes, Rob Zombie has made a movie in which rock n' roll really is the music of the Devil, and who's better-suited to do it?
Not much of a plot synopsis, but it's not much of a plot: if you've seen one "Satanists trick an innocent woman into carrying the fetus of their dark master" movie, it's pretty damn easy to get ahead of The Lords of Salem, and I'm frankly not sure that Zombie wasn't planning on you doing exactly that; it has the feeling of a movie where the plot is kept deliberately simple and clichéd so that the writer doesn't have to spend a lot of time explaining it. What's there is more of an excuse than a story: a spine to hang delirious (literally, in places) imagery, only some of it actively horrifying. Indeed, I don't believe I'm insulting Mr. Zombie if I suggest that he's got here an art film in horror clothes, creating a sense of oppressive grandeur in some of his scenes, tapping into a primal mood in others - his staging of a witch's coven that opens the movie is a triumph of taking the iconography we associate with such things and casting it in such a frenzied, brutal tone that it feels acutely dangerous and nauseatingly fleshy in a way that caught me, at least, completely off guard - and generally working up a state of epic evil in strictly domestic spheres: the whole movie takes place in a boarding house, a cramped radio booth, or a couple of other locations in a small city. Much of it isn't scary, and much of what might be scary is treated with such aesthetic solemnity that it feels more like the careful, objective analysis of a nightmare than being caught up in the nightmare itself. But it's also stunning, overwhelming, and even beautiful (the cinematographer, Brandon Trost, does thing with lighting here that manages to be deeply unsettling and abstractly lovely in the same breath - a room lit with a single red neon cross leaps to mind), and though the effect isn't quite like the classical feelings one gets from good horror, the way that the images dislodge the film's extremely carefully-built reality is as disconcerting as anything in a more traditional "boo!" machine.
The reality is what, especially, I didn't expect: what Zombie conspicuously (I though) failed to do in his Halloween movies works exceedingly well here, as his creation of a baseline "normal" is precise and deeply convincing. Sheri Moon Zombie is not a good actress, even though she's certainly better here than in any of her other collaborations with her husband, but she physically embodies the role of a middle-aged woman endeavoring to keep herself trendy to perfection; that is, maybe, by favorite single thing about the movie's "real" material, the way that it sketches out such a specific niche for its characters (self-consciously cutting edge radio, the least cutting-edge medium in America), and following through on every aspect of their clothes and their lives to effectly establish them in a way that feels authentic and convincing. Even though there's never a point where the film isn't moody and foreboding, the distinction between the normal and paranormal elements of the film (and what is horror, if not the contrast between the normal and the paranormal?) work perfectly, far better than any of the weak tea that passes for cinematic horror these days.
That there are unmistakable imperfections is certainly a disappointment, though they're more the result of Zombie's ambition outstripping his film's limited scale (it's not a movie where a big freakout scene makes sense, particularly not such a heaving, crazy freakout as the one that feebly ends the film). I do not take the limp storytelling to be an imperfection; even if it's not intentional, the parts of the film that work are so far divorced from the stock-issue modern witches and paint-by-numbers Satanism that I honestly couldn't care less about those things. Taken as a whole, and even more taken as a series of high-impact moments of creepy mood-setting and jarring evil, The Lords of Salem is the film I've always wanted Rob Zombie to make, for it's with this film that he finally makes good on the promise of being one of America's most distinctive horror directors to securely become one of its best.