The Lords of Salem feels like Rob Zombie’s gift to his wife, Sheri-Moon. While she has appeared, gloriously, in all his movies, this is the first that is anchored on one of her performances. He also taps into a different kind of horror, a slower tempo, more like the low drone that dominates the soundtrack than the bared teeth maximalism of his previous films. While he usually crams every frame with as much hectic information as possible, here he plays with negative space and darkness; a static camera and held shots over handheld and staccato editing. Every location holds deep shadows, the entire film shrouded with a veil of sharp menace, both psychological and supernatural. It’s a film you have to dim the lights and light a candle for, the kind of horror you have to squint into,
This is more of a character study than anything Zombie has done to date. It doesn’t exist in the same plain as The Devil’s Rejects but rather acts as a look at the kind of characters who would go and see that movie on opening night. The horror and imagery of Lords of Salem doesn’t sprout purely from the annals of grindhouse cinema but from the protagonist’s frayed psyche. Sheri Moon more than rises to the occasion with a deeply felt performance that expertly weaves between vulnerability and toughness. She’s one of my favourite actresses, refreshingly untrained and rough around the edges but exuding a natural need to be observed and to ignite an image. She’s the perfect avatar for all of her husband’s obsessions but one he clearly has a lot of respect and admiration for, and undoubtedly gains a lot of inspiration from. During the Ken Russell-esque frenzied montage in the last act, the Zombies return to the pure image and sound of their music videos and Sheri Moon is yet again mounted as the centrepiece of her husband’s grotesque canvas. It is the worship of a modern horror queen. Sublime.
While mainly a horror film of inner demons, when they do manifest as more traditional terrors, Zombie goes all in with textured depictions of grimy, aged bodies and stark pagan imagery. We’ve come a long way since Mario Bava’s Black Sunday but Zombie is one of the few filmmakers to adopt that film’s imagery and drag it into the modern age with a real ferocity. I can’t remember the last film I saw that made witches seem like a tangible, visceral threat, not even The Witch. This one manages it. I also love all the bold set dressings and constant graphic nods to cinema history peppered in like vulgar graffiti.
As ever, Zombie’s casting is a delight. His knack for rescuing treasured genre faces from late-career obscurity and offering them meaty roles blossoms from movie to movie. Seeing Bruce Davison, Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn and Barbara Crampton together, as well as strobe light appearances from Michael Berryman, Sid Haig, Udo Kier, Clint Howard, Lisa Marie and Camille Keaton, is infinitely rewarding to an uber fan of American cinema’s extensive underbelly like me. It’s the icing on a cake for a film which only seems to grow more impressive the more I return to it. It’s something of a subtle left turn for the notoriously aggressive musician-turned-filmmaker but a film that suggests deeper, darker aspects to his talent. Horror cinema as well preserved vinyl, just with a gnarly satanic message hidden between the grooves.