Truly Disturbing Horror.)
Rob Zombie is one of the more singularly divisive figures in modern horror. He inspires frothing anger and gleeful loyalty in equal measure among horror fans worldwide. What ever other criticism can be rightly leveled at him (and he certainly has some significant failings as a film maker), it can't be said that he's someone who is guilty of finding a successful formula and then milking it until audiences are so tired of it that they just can't stand it any more. Every Rob Zombie film is significantly different from the others, with the possible exception of the stable of actors who have now become regulars in his films, including his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie.
The Lords Of Salem is a vastly different film from anything he's done before, and with the possible exception of Ti West's The House Of The Devil, it's a vastly different film from any we've seen in a long time. There are some truly great, iconic moments and images in the film that go far beyond anything his previous films even hinted at. There are elements of the film which could have almost taken it over the line and into greatness. There are also things in the film that don't work and are reminiscent of problems with some of his previous films, but he either got very lucky and came up with a story that allows for him to rely more on his strengths than he has before or the experience he's accumulated through the years allowed him to start developing stories that minimize the parts of film making that he is least successful in. Either way, because of the nature of the story, those failings are evident, but they aren't quite as damaging to the story or to the experience of seeing the film as they have been in some of his other films.
This outing, Rob Zombie directs his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, in a story revolving around a coven of witches who'd been burned alive during The Salem Witch Trials and are attempting to get revenge on the ancestors of those who burned them. It's a slow build film, relying much more on mood, atmosphere, visual style and it's overall aural presentation to convey the sense of dread at the story's center. In this way, it definitely nods to many of the supernatural horror films of the past. Few of them were willing to tip their hands right away and instead were willing to approach their stories with a much more disciplined and nuance way of telling their story.
What can't be ignored or discredited about The Lords Of Salem is that it is visually bold and arresting. It is gorgeous. There are some truly sumptuous images in the film and the overall visual style is hypnotic, hallucinatory, decadent and has a shocking amount of depth. There have been hints of visual flair in his previous films, but none of them have suggested this level of visual mastery and technique. Leaving behind the grit and grain of his influences from the seventies films that were shot on 16mm might be the best creative decision Rob Zombie has made in his film making. In that sense, it's the first truly cinematic film he's made, and the degree of success he achieves is enough to carry the film into interesting territory. There is enough there visually that one could see the film multiple times just to be sure they've grasped all of the detail, symbolism and nods to some of the seminal films of the witch and Satanic cult sub genres. From the cinematography to the design, everything in the film is top notch, recalling the best of Argento, while also touching on some of the great design and atmosphere from Hammer and Polanski. The visual presentation is outstanding.
Another element of the film that works exceedingly well is the sound design and the music. The score evokes memories of some of the great films in the same genre, pulling from The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby and others, without coming across as an uninspired bit of imitation. Like the visual presentation, the score is outstanding. It's evocative and helps to set the mood and create atmosphere without overpowering the rest of the elements of the film and creating the kind of situation where it's very obviously telling the audience what to think and feel. The soundtrack definitely speaks of Rob Zombie in that it's made up of recognizable music from the mid to late seventies, but it too is diverse and well used to help inform both character and story. There's no point at which Zombie seems to be very obviously attempting to use familiar music to establish something he can't with dialog, story or the visual presentation, but instead the soundtrack music all contributes more color to those things.
The Lords Of Salem also represents Rob Zombies best work in creating characters as well. His protagonist is by far the most fully drawn and complicated character he's written so far. Even the rest of the characters in the film, who all get a relatively minimal amount of screen time are given enough hints of larger bits of personality, lives and history that they don't ever just feel like plot devices, with the possible exception of his villain, but there's an aspect to that lack of character in the villain that can be interpreted as being a part of the story that actually makes it work better. All of the actors carry off their parts respectably. It's definitely interesting to see Sheri Moon Zombie take on a character much less cartoonish and over the top than Baby Firefly was or as stereotypical as Deborah Myers. Considering the roles we've seen her in before, and that realistically, she was definitely lacking as Deborah Myers, she does a great job of carrying the story and the film as the protagonist, Heidi Hawthorne. It's a surprising turn, and should put an end to constant crowing of Zombie's critics in relation to his continuing to cast his wife in his films.
The degree to which all of the cast members, especially those who are playing witches, are committed to the material helps to give the film some of it's best moments. There are scenes and some dialog that are intentionally campy, but because of the atmosphere of the film overall, and the conviction the cast brings to it, it not only comes off as campy, but in that camp, makes it even more creepy and unsettling.
The major criticisms of the film are going to be related to its story and plotting. Overall, it's relatively light on exposition, and doesn't go out of its way to make sure the audience is keeping up with the story and plot as they develop. It's not that the development isn't there, but more that it's conveyed visually instead of constantly telling the audience what just happened and what each and every scene is supposed to mean or where it falls in the plot. There's a lot left up to the audience to understand and/or figure out on their own. There are going to be inevitable criticisms that the film is either poorly plotted or short on story, and for audiences who are used to having their hands held by nervous film makers and studio executives who are more willing to treat them like children than trust that they're intelligent enough to figure it out, that may be part of how they experience the film. For audiences that have more experience with films that aren't heavy on exposition and that do believe their audiences are capable of keeping up with and understanding a more nuanced form of plotting and storytelling, The Lords Of Salem is going to present a visually sumptuous, fun, creepy outing.
The other side of that coin is that for the people who may not be completely able to keep up with the plot and story in the way they're told, it may actually contribute to the kind of hallucinatory, dreamlike, disconcerting atmosphere and style. They may actually end up with an even creepier experience because of the way things unfold and the lack of concrete understanding of the plot will only compound what is already a dread soaked, unsettling atmosphere. Those audiences that are looking for something more straight forward, where every plot point, every rule of the world we're experiencing and every characters motivations are explained (multiple times) are going to be disappointed. The Lords Of Salem is going to feel like a wandering, meandering nightmare that never really tells much of a story. It's not a completely unfounded criticism, as Rob Zombie may be relying a bit too much on the visual aspect of storytelling to convey everything, but given just how beautiful and arresting his visual style is in the film, it's hard not to give it something of a pass on that count.
In that respect, this is definitely a very Rob Zombie film. It's nearly guaranteed to find audiences who are going to completely fall in love with it. It's also guaranteed to find audiences that find it a useless waste of time and have a real distaste for it. Interestingly, the audiences that go into the theater looking for a film that's more akin to his earlier films are probably going to be the ones who are most disappointed, while some of the people who found his previous films lacking in creative energy are going to find this film deeply enjoyable.