No director working today understands horror like Rob Zombie, the musician turned auteur who, with The Lords of Salem, indisputably establishes himself as cinema’s reigning prince of darkness. Zombie recognizes what his compatriots do not: that what truly frightens and lingers most aren’t jolt scares, especially in this age of desensitized audiences, but rather, unforgettably terrifying imagery. Taking a cue from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as well as his own The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie embraces horror as something that shouldn’t simply provide a minor, fleeting jump, but instead should function as an aural-visual experience that gnaws at the nerves, seeps into the subconscious, and begets unshakeable nightmares. To deliver that requires a more methodical tack than most contemporary filmmakers are willing to consider (Ti West remains a notable, if less accomplished, exception), so easy is it to spoon-feed the multiplex crowd with predictably timed shrieks and sudden reveals that elicit scared giggles which can be shaken off the moments the theater lights come up. Zombie’s aims are greater than mere shocks; via alternately grim and surreal panoramas of malice and insanity, and without resorting to cheap squirm-inducing gore, he wants to furiously disturb.
Working from an original script after his two Halloween remakes, Zombie’s fifth feature finds him back in territory most closely resembling that of his initial John Carpenter reimagining. His story set in a modern Salem, Massachusetts of empty gray streets pockmarked by storefronts and residences too old and crumbling by half, Zombie establishes his milieu using fish-eyed-lens widescreen compositions and washed-out cinematography that prizes stasis and slow zooms in and out of the frame—Carpenter-esque devices complemented by narrative-dividing day-of-the-week title cards. It’s a sleekly ominous aesthetic that forgoes Halloween II’s grainy, schizoid visual nastiness, though there’s nonetheless plenty of death-metal verve to the proceedings, scored by Zombie’s bandmate John 5, along with Griffin Boice, to a mixture of skuzzy bass tones and a sparse piano theme. That music also doubles, in demonic-remix form, as a 17th-century tune by Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) and her coven, known as the Lords of Salem, who were burned at the stake in 1696 by Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine), and whose recording mysteriously turns up, in vinyl form, at the radio station of a local DJ, Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), who hosts a wacko metal program alongside cohorts Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree).
This backstory is relayed through the dreams of Heidi, played by Sheri Moon Zombie as a lanky drug-rehabbing beauty of dreadlocks, tattoos, and striped and floral-printed outfits that make her so visually busy that it’s sometimes hard to completely focus on her. Zombie introduces his heroine nodding off in a car’s passenger seat as visions of Margaret cloud her mind, and whether The Lords of Salem thus intends its subsequent tale to reverberate as merely the slumbering fantasies of its protagonist is left open to interpretation. Regardless, that suggestion is in keeping with the hallucinatory malevolence that soon encircles Heidi, all of it emanating from apartment number five at the end of her building’s hallway. That corridor, wallpapered with ornate designs and lit by hanging lamps that bloom fiercely white, boasts a particular Shining-esque quality, yet Zombie doesn’t press the reference any more than he underlines the many familiar genre faces that round out his cast—to the point that only careful end-credit watchers will even notice that Sid Haig and Michael Berryman are participants (as masked characters). Be it in the camera’s movements through that passageway, the transitional fades Zombie routinely employs, or Heidi’s bedroom-wall decoration of the Man in the Moon (from Georges Méliès’s 1902 classic silent A Trip to the Moon), one of numerous celestial paintings and photographs found in the gorgeous set and production design, the action operates in a half-awake, half-asleep netherworld into which Heidi sinks once the aforementioned record by the Lords of Salem spins on her turntable.
Zombie lays out his plot with unhurried precision, and without a burning desire to surprise. When Heidi’s landlord, Lacy (Judy Geeson), first expresses blasé disinterest in the fact that Heidi has seen someone in the supposedly abandoned apartment number five, and later introduces Heidi to her two sisters (one of whom is a decidedly accurate palm reader), it’s as if the director is deliberately bypassing are-they-or-aren’t-they games so he can better focus time and energy on eye-searingly upsetting sights. Those first involve the Lords themselves, cackling, squealing, and disrobing to revel in all their filthy glory around a bonfire, then later screaming in misery as their faces blacken from the reverend’s cleansing fire, and in-between via Margaret licking blood off a newborn and, finding it an unsuitable host for Beelzebub’s resurrection, spitting “Your vile taste sickens me.” Celebrating the primacy of the image as the surest means to unsettle, Zombie delivers a burned-face nun lurking over Heidi as she sleeps on the couch with her boxer shorts pulled down, a licentious priest with his mouth gushing blood, and an unclothed old hag eerily hovering in the corner of a kitchen out of Heidi’s sightline—to quote a Zombie lyric, “Violator/Desecrator/Turn around and meet the hater.”
The Lords of Salem takes its title from the best song off of Zombie’s 2006 album Educated Horses, with which it shares a groove of thunderous wickedness. As the story’s nominal Dr. Loomis, author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) gradually unravels the connection between the Lords’ recordings and Margaret’s witches, but, as with Zombie’s prior films, there’s no escaping evil here, only noble but vain stabs at resistance destined to be met with despair and failure. If Zombie makes a passing nod to presenting sin as an ancestral inheritance passed, his more pressing concern is the legitimate potency of sick, mean, horrifying art, whether it’s Margaret’s “devil music” (which most of the characters accept as merely strange avant-garde extreme rock) or the type of cinema he’s fostering with The Lords of Salem. The film reaches an apparent apex of diabolical majesty when a tranced-out Heidi, her face painted skeletal white, finds herself holding a monstrous midget fetus’s twin umbilical cords at the stop of a regal staircase as soaring opera roars. Yet amazingly, Zombie then finds a way to further upstage himself with an orgiastic montage finale—all scorching white lights, nude female hordes in black animal masks, neon crosses, death-metal dry-humping, and burned-face pontiffs pleasuring themselves in unison—that resembles what the conclusion of 2001 would have looked like if it had been directed by Satan himself. All hail this magnificent madness.