Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Patricia
Quinn, Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, and Maria Conchita Alonso
“We’ve been waiting . . . we’ve always been waiting.”
Are you mad? Are you delusional? Or are Satan and his minions real and out to get you?
Were there ever real evil witches in Salem? Is Satan real and out for revenge? Is there such a thing as fate, fate that “leaves you no choice?” Or do we all shape our own destiny, and can we “premeditate the outcome?”
Salem, Massachusetts radio DJ Heidi LaRoc receives a mysterious record that is personally addressed to her, and the only other thing it says is, “a gift from The Lords.” Once she plays the album, which is a thick vinyl record, she begins to experience visions of Salem’s horrific past. Every time she hears the unusual sounds of the song, her visions become more frequent, more detailed, more complex, more real, as though the visions are not visions at all. These uncanny experiences cause the rising of Heidi’s inner demons. The darkness within her soul is released. Is she able to tame her demons? Will she find the strength to shed light on her inner darkness? Will she find out the meaning of her visions? Or will she sink into a bottomless abyss, with no hope for recovery?
Rob Zombie’s latest horror film, The Lords of Salem, has received extremely mixed reviews. People either love it or hate it. Many say it is his worst film ever, while many others say it is a work of genius, his best work to date. I am on the side of seeing it as a work of genius, the best film he has ever created. It is disturbing, nightmarish, nerve-rattling. It has depth that many may fear to look into. It makes one wonder what is real and what is a delusion or hallucination, what is created through inner demons and what is created by actual demons. I believe that the haters of this film had expected one of Zombie’s previous horror flicks to be regurgitated into new packaging, only to find out it is nothing like any of the horror movies out there today, and nothing like the in-your-face gore Zombie is known for.
My rant—how I see this drastically split-review issue: Movie viewers, horror lovers especially, have been desensitized to real fear. They no longer get scared unless they see gore, CGI, and people getting killed and physically tortured. It is a sad truth of the movie-going-masses and of the commercial movie industry of today. How can it not scare you to imagine having no control over your actions, and experiencing complete confusion with what you are seeing and hearing? Believe me, if the Devil, or mental illness were ever to take control of your mind, then you would know real, true fear.
In Zombie’s The Lords of Salem there are absolutely no digital effects used. Imagine that—a 21st Century movie that does not rely on CGI to induce fear or shock and awe in its viewers. No, The Lords of Salem is more like a classic horror film, instilling fear through atmosphere, uncertainty, moodiness, ambiguity, imagery, light and shadows, and awkward-yet-artistic camera angles.
Now, the novel, on the other hand, has all the in-your-face gore and brutality of Zombie’s other horror movies, but it also has the depth and artistic touch that is in the movie. The novel also gives a more detailed characterization of Heidi, more understanding of what she is struggling with internally, as well as more horrific scenes associated with the airing of The Lords song on the radio. To all the haters of this film—read the novel and you will be right back into Zombie’s bloody-disturbing mind with all the gore and killing that you had hoped to see in the film. But that’s not to say that the film does not have its share of blood and gore. It just does not rely on it, or overuse it like many other modern horror films do.
I do have some minor criticisms of this film. I think Zombie could have made Heidi’s struggling recovery from drug addiction more evident early on in the film, like it is in the book. This could have been done with the addition of specific types of props, or voicemail messages, etc. Low cost additions. I also think he should have made it more evident early on in the film, again, like it is done in the novel, that she has replaced her drug addiction with alcoholism. It is also not evident early in the film that Heidi is severely depressed. These aspects of her character could have easily been made more evident earlier in the film and at minimal cost and time in doing so. I was able to pick up on these aspects of Heidi’s character, but I have talked to a lot of viewers who missed these crucial character traits in the beginning, and some missed them all together. Also, I don’t know how happy Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer, would be for the spelling of his name being used to represent Jonathan Hawthorne in the film. Nathaniel changed the spelling of his name for that specific reason—not wanting to be connected to the John Hathorne of the Salem witch trials.
Putting my nitpickiness aside—The Lords of Salem is eons ahead of any of Zombie’s previous films, and any other commercial horror films out there today. While I am a big fan of Rob Zombie’s earlier works, the way this film is written and directed shows the depth of Zombie’s artistic vision. The film opens with an image of Heidi riding along in the passenger seat of a car at night, head resting against the windowpane. Then an image of a goat appears on the screen, but only for a moment. Then viewers are zipped back in time to 1696, where Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne is writing an entry in his diary about a coven of evil witches that he believes are gathering in the woods around Salem and playing insanity-inducing music. To God he swears that he will destroy all persons who pledge allegiance to Satan. The next scene brings viewers to a gathering of witches around a bonfire, chanting, blaspheming “the book of lies” [The Holy Bible], denouncing Jesus, revering Satan, shedding clothes, and getting overly ecstatic in their loyalty to the Lord of the underworld.
That is what this film does; it juxtaposes scenes and images together in a way that implies the meaning, showing the viewer the significance, the connections, rather than slapping people in the face with a spoon-fed-storyline. This film makes you think, makes you pay attention, makes you connect to dots to an intricately woven tapestry of religion, paranoia, obsession, brutality, addiction, mental illness, and the all around mind-fuck—manipulation.
Other wonderful aspects of this film are the on-location scenes and camera shots. Being a frequent visitor of Salem myself, I do think more on-location scenes should have been incorporated, but the ones Zombie chose to use work wonderfully for this story. Salem’s history is seen through its architecture and natural eerie atmosphere. Having shot the film in the fall, when the skies are gray and the trees are skeletal, adds to the creepiness, as do the local cemetery scenes. Some of this, such as shots of the tourist attractions, works as a statement, or rather a question, about the commercialization of Salem’s tragic past, the money made off from other people’s tragedies.
Rob Zombie’s growth and depth as a writer, director, and horror creator became evident with his remakes of John Carpenter’s Halloween I and II, where Zombie created a Michael Myers with depth, as opposed to the invincible killing machine of the original version of the character. What that does is make a purely evil villain more sympathetic, more understandable, more likely for viewers to want to follow. And, again, with Heidi, the protagonist of The Lords of Salem, Zombie has created a character with tremendous depth. Not only does the protagonist have depth, but Margaret Morgan, (played by Meg Foster who gives a most chilling performance), one of the many witches Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne swears to God to eradicate, has depth, has understandable reasons for why she does what she does. And what it is she does . . . you will have to find out for yourself by watching the film—if you dare.