With Halloween only a couple of days away, as film fans we’re divisive on what is deemed essential spooky season film viewing. Some opt for the more family-friendly flicks such as either of the Addams Family instalments from the 90s or the most recent Goosebumps adaptations. Others opt for a genuine thrill with slashers such as John Carpenter’s Halloween or Wes Craven‘s Scream. Whilst others will champion modern-day classics like A Quiet Place or the revamped depiction of Stephen King’s 1986 novel It.
The possibilities are endless. There is no right or wrong answer.
One film I often revisit every October is one that a hell of a lot more people should know about. It’s been a Halloween staple every year without fail for me since its release back in 2012. That film is Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem.
And I know what you’re thinking, Rob Zombie, seriously? Yes, seriously! But the guy who’s made a career off making cheap and nasty horror films? Again, yes. But the same guy who took John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s near-flawless idea and shat out two utterly disappointing slashers? Once again, yes.
I acknowledge that Rob Zombie is one of the most polarising filmmakers of the last 20 years. If you look at Zombie‘s filmography over on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll unsurprisingly discover that not a single one of the films he’s released holds a “Fresh” score. They’re all “Rotten”. All below 60%. But as I say time and time again, a films’ credibility shouldn’t be based on what merit is given.
I’ll admit, Zombie‘s filmography is far from perfect. I only like a handful of his works. His latter career has been questionable to say the least. I thought 31 was a messy and unfinished abomination that left a lot to be desired. 3 from Hell spoiled two adequately-good entries from earlier in his career by being completely unnecessary.
But I’ve digressed; The Lords of Salem.
Starring long-time collaborator Mrs. Zombie – Sheri Moon Zombie, wife of Mr. Zombie the film focuses on a Salem, Massachusetts DJ who receives a mysterious vinyl record from an unknown band whose life becomes entangled with a coven of ancient Satanic-worshipping witches.
Extra spooky, right?
Now there’s already a plethora of perfectly fine films about witches and witchcraft out there in the world. What makes this one so special? If you care to read on and indulge me, I’ll tell you why.
Spanning over six days, The Lords of Salem tells the story of a young woman named Heidi LaRoc (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering drug addict who works at a local radio station as a disc jockey. Alongside the two other DJs Herman “Whitey” Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman “Munster” Jackson (Ken Foree), the trio specialise on airing hard rock and heavy metal music. The trio welcome onto the show local artists and Salem residents to promote their work.
On Day One (Monday) after their show wraps up, the three are about to go their separate ways to head home. Upon their exit Heidi receives a wooden box package from a group listed as “The Lords”. Now at home with Whitey, he decides to play the record (created by fellow bandmate of Zombie’s, John 5 and Griffin Boice). Heidi begins to spiral into mania. She envisages a coven of witches surround a young woman give birth. Presumably the lead of the coven holds the baby, licking away the blood, tasting it, rejects the newborn for its impurity. The old, naked witch repeatedly spits on the newborn baby. Before we see anything else more gruesome, Whitey turns off the record and Heidi snaps out her vision. It’s a vile and disturbing scene even for the strongest of stomachs. Anything wrongful involving babies and children in film is hard-to-stomach. The vision is drenched with a New England folklore, thus having a gothic quality to it. Lots of fog, flames, darkness and an underlying sense of dread.
Tuesday: At the WIQZ radio station, “The Big H Team” are interviewing a man who’s written a book about Salem witch trails, Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison). Ending their show with a playthrough of The Lords song, Munster newly dubs them as “The Lords of Salem”. Whilst the song plays over the airwaves, the film cuts to multiple shots of different women in the local area who become entranced by the track and fall into a frenzy. Unbeknownst to him of the phenomena that has just occurred in Salem, Francis nonetheless is bothered by the The Lords of Salem‘s piece of music.
Heidi goes home and meets her landlord Lacy’s (Judy Geeson) two sisters, Sonny (Dee Wallace) and Megan (Patricia Quinn). Agreeing to have a drink with the three, Heidi has her palm read by Megan. The palm reading is abruptly halted as Megan becomes quite intense, making Heidi feel uncomfortable. Retreating back to her room, Heidi decides to turn it in for the night.
An undisclosed amount of time later, Heidi is woken up to her dog outside her apartment, clawing and barking at the door of a vacant room in the building. Managing to get Troy back into her apartment, the door of apartment number 5 opens by itself. A curious Heidi walks into apartment 5, with the door closing behind her. Inside the room is nothing but a red neon cross glowing. With the door fully closed, a demon appears behind Heidi as she is transfixed to the cross.
When she leaves the room and enters the hallway, Heidi sees one of the old, naked and decrepit witches from her vision stood opposite her, telling her to “Lead us again”.
Wednesday: Waking up confused and exasperated, Heidi takes a walk to a local church with her very, very good doggo Troy. Entering the church, a priest can see she’s troubled by the events which transpired the night before. He comforts her by telling her that God is always open and ready to listen. And in a bizarre turns of events, the priest stops her from leaving the church, forcing himself upon Heidi. The priest forces Heidi to perform fellatio on him whilst giving her a speech on that she is “a filthy whore and Christ can’t save her”, “angels sending people to Hell”. Before it can get any more graphic, Heidi snaps out of it realising it was only a nightmare.
The same night, Heidi goes to work with Whitey and Munster announcing that The Lords of Salem are coming to Salem to perform live and they have tickets courtesy of the elusive group. As the record begins to play, Heidi relapses into mania and begins to have more visions, hearing voices, freaking out and eventually running to the bathroom to cry.
Meanwhile, Francis is reading a book about the infamous Salem witch trails. Upon his reading, we cut to a scene set in the year 1696 with a coven of witches being sentenced death by Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne and his group. In his diary during the trail, Hawthorne talks about one of the witches in particular, Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) and how she had put a curse on the women of Salem as well as the descendent of Hawthorne. Margaret Morgan is the same woman Heidi had previously seen an apparition of in her hallway the night before.
Thursday: Heidi decides to stay at Whitey’s house. She tells him she needed to get out of the apartment as she believes The Lords of Salem’s record is “fucking with her”. Suddenly coughing up blood, Whitey calls 911 only for Heidi to see visions of ghosts surround Whitey and knock him down to the ground. Heidi is then held down and cut open by the apparitions, pulling out her intestines and eventually a strange creature. Again, this is only a nightmare and Heidi soon awakes from her nightmare to find herself at her own home, not Whitey’s.
Dumbfounded by her lifelike visions, Heidi goes out to buy drugs. When she returns to her apartment, Lacy and her two sisters take it upon themselves to “look after” poor young Heidi. Locking the ever-so-adorable Troy in the bathroom, the three sisters encourage Heidi’s drug abuse.
Now drugged, Lacy, Sonny and Megan take Heidi towards apartment 5 talking to their “master”. They open the door and Heidi enters. With the door of apartment 5 now closed, Heidi is seen walking into a huge, grandiose ballroom. At the very top of the staircase in the palladium is a demonic creature she embraces, grabbing its tentacle-like appendages.
The scene is one of the strongest and weirdest highlights of The Lords of Salem. Strong in the sense that Brandon Trost‘s cinematography is absolutely breathtaking. Every frame is perfectly central. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a Stanley Kubrick epic. It echoes The Shining and The Overlook Hotel. And it’s perhaps the most colourful scene of the entire movie. For the most part, The Lords of Salem has a grey-like quality to it. A dull tint. Every single frame is cold, bleak and black. It’s autumnal and very fitting to Salem’s bewitching (excuse the pun) aesthetic. Weird in the sense that what’s on-screen has a David Lynch Eraserhead absurdity to it. A Clive Barker-like demonic miscreants Hellraiser/Nightbreed “Cenobite” similarity of mise-en-scène.
Saturday: The night of The Lords of Salem‘s concert at the local theatre.
In an failed attempt in contacting Heidi to warn her of his discovery, Francis decides to pay Heidi a visit to tell her she is descendent of Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne and may well be in danger.
Lying to Francis, Lacy tells him that Heidi has nipped out and is expected to return at any point. In fact, Heidi is in her apartment, sitting in her bathroom on a comedown from the drugs. Inviting Francis into Lacy’s apartment, herself and her two sisters begin to question what he wants with “their” Heidi. They accuse him of attempting to “fuck her brain”. Realising he’s being pressured by the three sisters, Francis decides to leave Lacy’s apartment and come back to see Heidi some other time. Unfortunately for him, Sonny beats Francis to death with a frying pan before he can escape. Yes that’s right, a frying pan! It’s a truly brutal way for him to go.
Later that day, Whitey swings by the building to pick up Heidi to go to the concert. The three sisters try to not let him pass them on the staircase, until Heidi finally opens her apartment door to let Whitey inside. Suspicious of her distraught and frightened state, Whitey attempts to save Heidi, only for Lacy to tell him to wait outside for Heidi whilst she gets herself ready for the night.
Eventually arriving at the concert hall, Munster is wondering what the hell has happened to Heidi over the course of a few days. Her well-being has deteriorated. She’s high on drugs and covered in fresh bruises. She’s not the Heidi LaRoc that both Munster and Whitey love. Heidi, teary-eyed, then walks away from the both into the palladium closing and locking the door behind her.
And finally, The Lords of Salem‘s show begins!
Lacy, Sonny and Megan are onstage wearing 17th century rags. Kneeling and chanting to the audience, “Satan come to us, we are ready”, the ghost of Margaret Morgan and her coven of witches appear. “Welcome, whores of Satan. I can taste the foul stench of your ancestors rotting in the folds of filth between your legs” Morgan exclaims. The Lords of Salem begin to play their instruments, performing that song. The members of the audience which are all females, begin to strip off their clothes and dance, entranced.
Now, this is where the film reaches a new level of bizarro…
In an alternate reality, Heidi sits on a throne spectating a number of ghost-faced priests strangling their man meat. And in a quick succession of cuts, Heidi is seen riding a goat, Jesus Christ’s face is seen melting multiple times, nuns are ablaze, deceased babies are upon crosses with barbed wire, rotting flesh. All whilst the coven chant that riding the goat is embracing the Devil. So on and so forth. It’s extremely gratuitous and extremely visceral. A bad psychedelic acid trip with some of the most shocking and disturbing imagery of any horror film I’ve seen. If you’ve seen Luca Guadagnino‘s Suspiria or even Dario Argento‘s original film you’ll know that there’s some very horrifying avant-garde dream sequences both of those films. The Lords of Salem too reaches that level of mend-bending avant-garde.
Back to the Technicolor nightmare, Heidi now appears to be in Hell. Surrounded by the original coven of witches from Salem, she gives birth to a strange creature, resembling the Antichrist.
Back onstage, the three sisters kneel before a bright light, bowing in prayer. As the light begins to shine upon them, they smile ecstatically staring up at Heidi who’s atop a the now dead, naked audience members. Having given birth to the Antichrist, Heidi is now their Satanic Virgin Mary.
And bang! The end credits begin.
Whilst the end credits roll, on a radio news report it is made apparent a mass suicide of 32 women took place at the Salem palladium. There is no news of the whereabouts of Heidi.
Silly? Yes. Far-fetched? Somewhat. Pretentious? Maybe a tad. Short on scares? Sadly. Plentiful in shock-horror, much like his “shock rock” music catalogue? Yeahhh baby! So ultimately fun? Absolutely!
Rob Zombie‘s The Lords of Salem is a proper film about witchery. It isn’t a PG-friendly fantasy film like 1990’s The Witches or 1993’s Hocus Pocus. Nor is it an edgy feminist piece about Wicca such as The Craft. No green paint, no pointy noses or broomsticks. Zombie’s film is bestial. Similarly to Robert Eggers‘ The VVitch, the historical accuracy in The Lords of Salem is no joke. It showcases the true horrors, macabre and mythology of a Satanic-worshipping coven of the 17th century…only Zombie’s film came out four years before Eggers’ universally-loved period supernatural 2016 film.
So where is the love for the 2012 film? What has The VVitch got that The Lords of Salem doesn’t? The simple answer – reputation. Going back to what I said earlier, Zombie is a polarising filmmaker. Not well-loved by critics or average moviegoers, five films into his directorial career, you’re either onboard or you aren’t.
Me? I am. Obviously, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading these nerdy ramblings.
I’m hardly a theorist or a conspirator, but when I saw this film back when it first dropped it felt…different. It wasn’t another one-dimensional, cheap, nasty or sadistic Rob Zombie film. It was meticulously-made, forward-thinking and dare I say – smart. It lingered long after its runtime and made you think about what you had just witnessed. It felt like Zombie was onto something new and refreshing after a slew of uninspired and samey found footage films that had plagued audiences after the global success of Oren Peli‘s Paranormal Activity.
The last 10 years of horror films have largely been similar. Meticulously-made, forward-thinking and leaving you to ponder. It Follows, The Babadook, Get Out, Hereditary, Suspiria, Us, Midsommar. All standout horror films from the last decade that followed after The Lords of Salem serving as an unexpected, underappreciated precursor to modern-day horror films. Pre-Jordan Peele. Pre-Ari Aster.
Was Rob Zombie ahead of the curve!? Sadly, if he was he will NEVER be credited for it or even acknowledged as an influence on the modern-day masterpieces audiences are blessed with. And to be brutally honest, Zombie would only have himself to blame as his follow-up work since this uncredited marvel have been what the vast majority of viewers constantly tarnish him with – complete and utter dogshit.
So when the conversations get thrown around next year, “What’s the best film about witches?”, or “What’s the best horror film to watch over Halloween?”, you should give this a try! Add it to your Halloween marathon! Add it to your 31 Days of Horror! It’s unconventional, experimental, extraordinary and most of all, bloody entertaining!