The story is pretty slight. One third of a popular radio team in Salem, Mass., Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) becomes affected by strange visions and mysterious ailments after listening to a song that is delivered anonymously to her radio station by a group called the Lords. As these things turn out, the song is tied to the lore involving a coven of witches (headed by an amazing and unrecognizable Meg Foster) who were burned at the stake in 1696. It slowly becomes apparent to her and a local writer (the underrated Bruce Davison) that the curse put upon the women of Salem during this episode might actually have some merit.
Unlike Rob Zombie’s previous few efforts, The Lords of Salem isn’t a traditionally plotted affair. The movie kind of floats forward, slowly drawing the audience in, much like the music that lulls Sheri’s character to her fate. Much has been made about the film’s Italian genre influences and those are most definitely front and center. There are liberal nods to Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead with a dash of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday thrown in for taste. Almost admirably, Zombie also lifts plot elements of Uli Lommel’s anti-masterpiece, The Devonsville Terror, for sharp-eyed fans of under-the-radar genre cinema. But the stew he creates here is wholly unique and, gulp, even a bit arty.
Much of the credit for the film’s compelling, if not traditional, narrative belongs to Sheri Moon Zombie, the perennially maligned wife of the director who is generally much better in his movies than people will have you believe. Here she plays a haggard, functioning drug addict who is tenuously on the wagon through a chunk of the film’s running time, wherein you buy the notion that every second of her character’s life is a hellish struggle to the next second. Also great are Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace and Judy Geeson, who play members of a coffee klatch that seem to have gone to the Minnie Castevet School of Neighborly Manners.
However, the narrative functions second to the style of the film, which is lensed beautifully by Brandon Trost. Shot wide, the autumnal colors and beautiful Massachusetts scenery are captured perfectly to make the film a must-see in your October rotation. This is all counterbalanced by his grotesquely beautiful work in the more nightmarish moments of the film, including the final, phantasmagoric sequence which — while coming short of disturbing me to my core — did make me back it up a few times so I could answer the rhetorical “Did I just see that?”
Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray of the film looks really terrific and compliments the gorgeous cinematography extraordinarily well. Its only extra is the full-length commentary by Rob Zombie, which, lately, was substituted for the feature-length making-of docs that accompanied the DVD releases of The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween.
With The Lords of Salem, Rob Zombie clearly draws another distinction between popular genre filmmakers such as James Wan and himself. Wherein the former recycles many familiar horror tropes to new audiences and remains committed to tradition, Zombie clearly wants to dig deeper and walk a more personal line. Bravo for that. — Patrick Crian