It’s October, the autumn air is turning cool and crisp, and I’m itching to watch as many horror movies as I can this month. Every year I make room in the Halloween watchlist for old favorites, but also for relatively new classics. One of those more recent classics is The Lords of Salem (2012). Written and directed by Rob Zombie, The Lords of Salem explores what happens when a Salem, Massachusetts disc jockey becomes dangerously entangled with an ancient coven of Satan-worshipping witches. Zombie’s wife and frequent collaborator Sheri Moon Zombie plays the hard rock DJ Heidi, while horror and cult movie veterans Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, Meg Foster, and Ken Foree, among others, round out the cast.
In the decade since its release, The Lords of Salem has become a bit of a cult classic, at least among discerning horror fans who love a good, scary witch story. In my opinion, Zombie has never made a better film. His movies are often hit or miss for me, with House of 1,000 Corpses(2003) and Devil’s Rejects (2005) being major hits, while his two Halloween remakes and 31 (2016) were less impressive. As much as I love House of 1,000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects though, The Lords of Salem exists on a different level. It’s a haunting and impactful work of art, the sort of movie that sticks with you forever, giving you instant shivers any time you recall it’s finest, most disturbing moments.
Zombie establishes a thick, suffocating sense of dread from the start that never lets up. The film is drenched in chilling, autumnal atmospherics. Between cinematography, editing, score, and performances, all elements work in perfect harmony to create something altogether unsettling. There are several disturbing shots in the film that linger in the mind’s eye long after the end credits. Zombie was at his creative peak with The Lords of Salem, no doubt about it. It sure doesn’t hurt that he has legends like Meg Foster and Bruce Davison turning in stellar performances, or that the Salem, Massachusetts locations are obviously perfect for a horror story about witches.
Let’s take a minute to praise Sheri Moon Zombie’s lead performance. Whatever you may think of Mrs. Zombie’s talents, she has earned her stripes in several of her husband’s flicks, during which she’s delivered what the roles demand. In House of 1,000 Corpses, she’s a demented loose cannon, cackling and strutting around the Firefly clan’s house of horrors. With The Lords of Salem, she’s called on to play it much more low key, even solemn at times, and she succeeds at matching the film’s excessively gloomy tone. In her hands, Heidi’s harrowing descent into the ancient coven’s grasp is sad to watch.
Once we realize why the witches want Heidi, it begins to feel like she’s practically helpless to defend herself. That’s a bold move by Zombie: as the movie progresses, any hopes for a happy ending feel increasingly unlikely. If this all sounds like a bummer, it is, but that’s why I love it so much! It commits to relentless tension building and doesn’t give us any easy outs. For me, that’s why The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s masterwork, and the film of his that sits most comfortably alongside other excellent, slow-burn horror classics like Messiah of Evil (1973) and Next of Kin (1982). It’s a remarkable display of restraint from Zombie, a filmmaker more associated with frenzied chaos than with this film’s stark, autumnal horror. If you’re looking for a perfect Halloween season movie to watch on a chilly October evening this year, then turn the lights down low, fire up The Lords of Salem, and prepare to have trouble sleeping that night.
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