Rob Zombie is the Quentin Tarantino of horror. Like that famed former video store employee turned American auteur (and Oscar winner), the genre icon rocker loves the cinematic reference. In each of his five previous films (House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, The Haunted World of El Super Beasto, the Halloween remake , and its surreal sequel), he’s channeled various eras and ideas from the history of fright. From schlock and exploitation to Ralph Bakshi and standard serial killer procedurals, he digs through a dizzying array of homages in order to provide his audience with a veritable cornucopia of scare shout outs.
This time around, he’s bringing the eerie Italian nightmares of the ‘70s to the fore, mashing Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava, and even a bit of Britain’s Hammer and Ken Russell into a disturbing hodgepodge of fear called The Lords of Salem. While decidedly American in folklore, the entire film feels lifted from Suspiria’s cutting room floor.
Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a legendary local DJ, spinning records and spouting opinions along with co-hosts Herman “Whitey” Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman “Munster” Jackson (Ken Foree). She lives in an old apartment building run by the kindly Lacy Doyle (Judy Gleeson). One day, she swears she sees someone in the abandoned unit down the hall. She then receives a weird record by a group calling themselves The Lords. When she plays the unusual LP, it seems to put her into a trance. Soon, her mental state is spiraling out of control.
In the meantime, Lacy is visited by her sisters Megan (Patricia Quinn) and Sunny (Dee Wallace) who seem to have ulterior motives when it comes to our hapless heroine. We then meet a historian (Bruce Davidson) who believes the odd sounds coming from the vinyl are the last dying curse of a known Witch named Margret Morgan (Meg Foster) who may or may not be using her black magic powers from beyond the grave to get revenge on the town and to turn Heidi into the bride of the Devil. Whoa!
With its visual wonders and mindbending narrative, The Lords of Salem is unlike anything Rob Zombie has ever done before. It’s a borderline masterpiece of macabre inference, a film that doesn’t shock so much as send shivers up and down your consistently confused spine. Virtually bloodless (except for a couple of last-act sequences) and limited in both dialogue and design, we end up with dread as minimalism, Zombie bringing his referential “A” game to moments which will sadly mean little to those outside his decades-old catalog of creeps. Even his casting — Foree from the original Dawn of the Dead, Gleeson from a gaggle of UK horror classics — proves his encyclopedic knowledge.
But this isn’t just a combination of tropes and tricks. Zombie is a consummate filmmaker, turning darkened hallways into the gates of Hell with a mere flick of the light while providing a soundtrack that’s both blissfully ambient and loaded with amazing musical moments (his use of two iconic Velvet Underground songs, “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” is stunning). He gets the best out of his actors, even if they are playing old, naked, and undead (as a very brave Foster does) and turns the town of Salem into a sinister setting of disturbing secrets.
While it may not be as bugnuts as House, or immediate and visceral as Rejects, The Lords of Salem is another horror hit from a man who truly understands the genre. Sure, he’s just like another famous director known for his creative copycatting. But the results, at least in Zombie’s case, have been pretty remarkable.