DJ Heidi Hawthorne receives a vinyl record from a mysterious band called The Lords. When she plays it, she is overwhelmed by headaches and visions of horrific events that took place in the town of Salem during the witchcraft trials held there 300 years ago.
The Lords of Salem follows a radio DJ called Heidi Hawthorne (Sherri Moon Zombie), a recovering addict who lives in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. She works on a radio show with her co-hosts Herman Jackson (Ken Foree) and Herman ‘Whitey’ Salvador (Jeff Daniel Philips). A curious wooden box containing a vinyl record is delivered to the station, addressed to Heidi. It is only marked ‘From The Lords’. When she plays it she suffers crippling headaches and bizarre visions. Her landlady and her friends (Judy Gleeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace, a trifecta of genre favourites if ever there was one) are seemingly friendly and helpful but have darker motives. Francis Matthias (Bruce Davidson), a local author, is determined to find out more about the mysterious ‘Lords’ and their monotonous,but hypnotic music. The climax of the film is at a free ‘concert’ given by the ‘Lords’ in which it is proved that if one is going to get revenge, sometimes it pays to play the (very) long game.
Rob Zombie’s influences in this film are obvious. He himself described it as “If Ken Russell directed The Shining” and he puts noble effort into making his film as such. Other films such as The Devils, Rosemary’s Baby, Witchfinder General, To The Devil A Daughter, The Exorcist and Blood On Satan’s Claw clearly make their presence felt. It is possible in trying to pay homage to so many classics that Zombie ended up rather over egging the pudding with Lords of Salem. The film looks gorgeous for the most part, with muted colours and a foreboding atmosphere (the scenes where Heidi walks through the streets of Salem with leaves blowing around her is straight out of The Exorcist). Heidi’s apartment building and within it the symmetry of the carpets and lights and the discombobulation this brings certainly brings to mind The Overlook Hotel. As fitting as someone who directs his own music videos, Rob Zombie knows how to frame a shot. He also knows that a film with many surreal dream sequences means he can really let rip with the weirdness, which doesn’t always work. Case in point being the depiction of Satan and his scenes with Heidi. It was much more MTV than horror film and mostly just looked a bit silly. Compared to similar scenes in the aforementioned To The Devil A Daughter and Blood On Satan’s Claw and considering how harrowing and yet simplistic they are the scenes in Zombie’s film are just too bombastic and lose impact. It does seem slightly unfair to keep comparing Lords Of Salem to other (superior) films but Zombie does invite such comparisons by being so open with his influences.
The acting is uniformly solid. Sherri Moon Zombie does well in her first ‘lead’ role. Although Heidi is the main character she is fairly passive as things just happen to her, and around her. It is the supporting characters that move the story forward. Bruce Davison is what one would call the straight man of the piece, and he turns in a subtle, likeable performance. Ken Foree, although slightly underused here, is always good value for money and Jeff Daniels Phillips is sympathetic as Heidi’s co-worker and ex, unable to stop the inevitable. Judy Gleeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace have great fun devouring the scenery and taking no prisoners. Meg Foster, as Head Witch In Charge Margaret Morgan deserves plaudits for a visceral and earthy performance.
The atmosphere and overall tone are very effective. It’s a very Autumnal feeling film. The score and soundtrack by frequent Zombie collaborator John 5 are very well utilised, while the titular tune by the ‘The Lords of Salem’ is subtle but unnerving. While not particularly scary, it has it’s disturbing moments, which for me come from the more subtle moments, such as when Margaret Morgan stands motionless in Heidi’s kitchen, as opposed to the over the top theatrics of the final 20 minutes (Points docked for the annoying “This is a scary moment in the film, jump now!” music sting though). Rob Zombie has a very good grasp of the visual aspects of film making, and knows how to build an ambience and a world inhabited by well written characters. I understand why folk hoping for another House of 1000 Corpses/Devils Rejects ball outs gorefest would be disappointed by Lords Of Salem. It isn’t a perfect film, not by any means. It builds a great atmosphere but there is little pay off for it. The ending scenes at the The Lords ‘concert’ are frankly bizarre. I much preferred the build up to the climax in this case. This was Rob Zombie’s first film with full creative control and while it seems slightly churlish to begrudge him the chance to really flex his creative muscles it has come at the expense of both a fully coherent story and the (possible) enjoyment of the audience. I definitely recommend the film though, if you like atmospheric and visually appealing horror films. And if you also like films that go for utter weirdness at the end, so much the better.
Words: Fliss Burton