Rob Zombie gets horror movies. He understands the genre the way only a die-hard fan does. Every time I watch one of his films I find myself wanting to look through his movie collection. I can tell we grew up loving the same shows and movies. THE LORDS OF SALEM is an homage film, an elaborate stew of Zombie’s influences. It is entirely on its own at the same time. The cast is full of genre veterans, but Zombie’s voice is clear.
Sheri Moon Zombie is the focus of LORDS. She plays vital roles in all of his other films, but this movie hinges on her, and she pulls it off. Sheri is Heidi La Roc Hawthorne, one-third of a famous local radio DJ group in Salem, Massachusetts. She is burned out, trying to overcome drug addiction and rebuild her life. We see her for the first time riding in a car at night, lights flashing across her as she struggles to stay awake. Heidi is a woman trying to outrun her demons.
Heidi receives an anonymous delivery of a vinyl record in a wooden box from a band called The Lords. The bizarre repetitive tones send Heidi into a series of hallucinations about a coven of witches, led by Margaret Morgan, that was tortured and executed by Heidi’s ancestor, Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne, in the 1600’s.When Heidi and her co-DJs play the record on air, it also has a hypnotic effect on the women listening. The hallucinations destroy what grip Heidi has on her life, and she falls into the witches’ plan: to make her the mother of Satan’s child and kill the descendants of the Salemites who executed them.
LORDS, like the rest of Zombie’s films, is loaded with strong performances. Zombie alums appear alongside genre greats. Jeffrey Daniel Phillips (HALLOWEEN II, 2009; 31, 2016) and Ken Foree (HALLOWEEN, 2007; THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, 2005) are Heidi’s co-dDJs Whitey and Herman. The banter among the three is one of the best parts of the film. Bruce Davison is Francis Matthias, a writer and historian, who uncovers Heidi’s link to the witches and tries unsuccessfully to warn her. Torsten Voges (31, 2016) kills it as Count Gorgann of the death metal band Leviathan. He is completely deadpan as he is being interviewed and mocked by the DJs.
Meg Foster is Margaret Morgan, head of the coven — a cultish figure who is intense and magnetic. The coven appears naked throughout most of the film. They are haggard and dirty, perpetuating the image of the witch as the hag on the fringes of society. Zombie has said he wanted them to come across like the Manson family. Andrew Prine of SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES (1971) is seen briefly as Jonathan Hawthorne. Judy Geeson is Lacy, Heidi’s mothering landlord. She and her sisters Sonny (Dee Wallace) and Megan (Patricia Quinn) are helping to channel Morgan and the coven and to bring Heidi to them. Patricia Quinn is, of course, famous for THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) and for playing a witch in an episode of the HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR TV show (1980).
LORDS OF SALEM combines elements of many different films. The dark interior of the apartment house and the patterned carpet is reminiscent of THE SHINING (1980) and ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968). Argento, Fulci, and Ken Russell all appear to have been influences. The hallucination scenes made me think of Jodorowsky. Even Lovecraft is thrown into the mix.
Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (1960) is also strongly represented in the witch execution scene. THE MASK OF SATAN was another name for the Bava film. Like Barbara Steele’s character in BLACK SUNDAY, Margaret Morgan wears a mask forced upon her by her executioners in LORDS. Masks and their removal are a running theme in the film. The black-and-white films Heidi watches references them; the strange doctor figures terrorizing her appear to wear grotesque masks.
The use of music in a Zombie film is, of course, a major element. The music in LORDS OF SALEM is a central theme. Zombie’s bandmate John 5 composed the score, including the rhythmic dirge of the coven. I loved the use of The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” in the heavy flirtation scene between Heidi and Whitey. The score especially helps to even out what are a couple of clunky transition scenes.
“Why the goat?”
Count Gorgann talks about the goat and Satan representing free will. Heidi, however, seems to be in a continual state of oppression, either by drugs, Christianity, or the coven. As Megan tells her while reading her palm, she is tied to her fate. There is no escape; only acceptance brings real freedom. Heidi’s only path is to be the gateway of Morgan’s revenge on Salem. She and all the other female descendants are drawn to a one-night-only performance by the coven. Heidi does achieve a form of transcendence through transformation into a dark Madonna.
Zombie’s films have an organic feel. The imagery in LORDS blends well and is layered. He knows the effect he is going for and very little goes to waste or seems unnecessary. I catch something different every time I watch. Rob Zombie’s films always seem to provoke strong reactions of love and hate. He will always be something of a dark horse in the industry. While I want him to succeed and grow, I hope he maintains that fringe mentality. His films will be ones that stand out well into the future.