The Lords of Salem opens with a woman adrift. She’s riding in the passenger seat of a car, her head tilted against the window. She could be either half-asleep, severely depressed, high on something, or all of the above, but we don’t quite know yet. Then we see close-ups of hideous crones who could have marched out of an adaptation of Macbeth so severe that even Roman Polanski might be inclined to blanch. They’re dancing by a fire somewhere out in a wilderness, declaring war on Jesus Christ, as writer-director Rob Zombie unnervingly pushes them closer and closer to the screen. Then a freeze-frame on a goat, later said in the film to be an animal with the power to follow its own impulses, and then the title.
This direct, contained opening confirms again that Zombie’s sensibility as a filmmaker is undergoing an interesting transition. Even his most fervent admirers have often claimed that Zombie’s a promising talent rather than a fully realized director, and while that suggestion has often struck me as condescending, essentially implying that a musician known for his outré theatricality will have to try a little harder to break into the Club of Respected Filmmakers, there’s no doubt that he’s growing as an artist, and at an impressively propulsive clip, particularly considering the low budgets and the previously established properties with which he’s often chosen to work. Zombie’s early films, while distinctive and admirable, are still rooted in requisite horror notions of the world as a big hopeless cesspool, and the atrocities in those films were delivered with a cackling glee that was often unseemly.
But Halloween, of all films, a remake of a classic that’s already been franchised within an inch of its life, saw the blossoming of an unexpected earnestness and of a legitimate despair in Zombie’s work, a despair that was taken to its logical breaking point in the perversely, though unsurprisingly, maligned Halloween II. The Lords of Salem continues this evolution: Tucked into a stylish but potentially routine tale of the occult is a moving story of a recovering addict symbolically succumbing to her demons.
Crones as a manifestation of the internal ugliness we imagine of ourselves, while at the mercy of our blackest self-loathing, aren’t new. David Lynch has practically trademarked this kind of symbology in Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, but Zombie makes it his own, and he appears to be liberated by the challenge of largely reining in his wildly in-your-face aesthetic for the sake of following the lower-key tropes of the satanic-possession film. There’s a sense of contained restless energy in The Lords of Salem that’s introduced by Zombie’s unexpectedly deliberate camera movements and exasperated by the film’s flamboyant sense of chaotically cluttered architecture. With their busy, ugly wallpaper and stifling over-abundance of bric-a-brac, the rooms in this film often appear to be on the verge of swallowing poor Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon-Zombie) alive. And, of course, they are.
The Lords of Salem is composed of a series of riffs structured around a simple truth of recovering addicts that movies rarely acknowledge: The refuge to be taken from containment and order, the reassurance of routine, and the potentially paralyzing fear of an introduction of a chaotic element that will throw you from your new sense of peace. Heidi lives in a shitty apartment and appears to have little social life apart from her dog, but it’s her life nevertheless, dictated by a rationality and control she’s had to force herself to come into gradually, and all that comes crashing down on the reemergence of the Lords, a coven of witches intent on fulfilling a centuries-old vendetta.
Sadly, it’s not difficult to see why the film, the most interesting and disturbing American horror film to be released so far this year, hasn’t attracted more of an audience. Zombie has pared away most of his most commercial (and irritating) tendency as a filmmaker (the jokey sadism) in favor of shocks that are less easily contained and digested. The terror in Zombie’s films has never been fun, and now it’s no longer even purely visceral, as the filmmaker seems to be intent on capturing nothing less than immobilizing personal desolation.
This transfer offers a superb testament to Rob Zombie’s growing formal confidence as a director, as The Lords of Salem often suggests what a Monte Hellman horror film might look like. The image boasts incredible clarity while honoring the simultaneous grit and beauty of Zombie’s dark grimy compositions. Textures are intensely vivid (note in particular the characters’ skin tones and the frequently odd wallpapering in the background) and the blacks are rich and well-differentiated. Equally triumphant is the English: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, which unsurprisingly accentuates the rich, unsettling bass that figures into the soundtrack as well as the active plot. Bold and nuanced.
Fans of Zombie’s films will be disappointed to learn that this disc doesn’t offer a documentary along the lines of the terrific feature-length making-of piece that was included with The Devil’s Rejects, but fans also know that Zombie gives good commentary, which counts for a lot here. You have to pay attention to what Zombie says, as he has a deceptively loose way of imparting important information as if he’s relaying the most frivolous of fleeting on-set anecdotes. Zombie is direct about this film’s troubled production, and he details the various scenes and subplots that were altered or dropped outright with a revealing sense of detail. It sounds as if Zombie was actually forced to discard many of the sorts of indulgences that often mar his films, and that the striking sparseness he arrived at was partially by accident, but that could also be calculated modesty talking. This is a strong listen either way, and aspiring filmmakers should also appreciate the amount of time that Zombie devotes to the tricks of making a limited amount of space look as if it’s a variety of differing locations.
This rich and gorgeous disc damn near rectifies this film’s nearly unforgivably indifferent theatrical release earlier in the year, and in time for Halloween to boot.