Horror just ain’t what it used to be; the advent and subsequent rise of the slasher genre in the late 70’s and early 80’s brought the focus less on visceral terror and more on violence and gore as a means to horrify the audience. And while there have been several masterpieces of this movement (can anyone forget their first encounter with Freddy?) the blood and body counts just kept rising as each movie tried its damnedest to outdo the last; this, of course, eventually evolved into the torture-porn movement we’ve seen over the last decade and the violence escalated.
To be clear, I’ve got nothing against violence in movies or horror and I love certain slasher and torture-porn movies. They have their place and most likely always will be a mainstay sub-genre of horror. I do lament the decline of the cerebral, however; movies like the original Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and even The Shining made their marks on both cinematic and horror history by being, first and foremost, atmospherically disjointing. Violence was implied, for the most part, and the real horror took place psychologically, in the mind of the characters and the audience. There was a subtlety to these films and to the horror movement of the 60s and 70s that is, frankly, terribly lacking in today’s horror culture.
Now, I’d never thought I’d use the word subtle to describe Rob Zombie in anyway; his music and directorial career have both been larger than life and in your face. His first film, House of 1000 Corpses, was so brutal and outlandish that it languished in release purgatory for years before Zombie finally acquired the rights to release the film on his own. Once released, it was hailed as an instant classic by horror aficionados and it set the tone for his subsequent horror outings. Corpses and its sequel, the arguably superior Devil’s Rejects, in addition to his work revitalizing the long dying Halloween franchise, are powerful works of slasher violence and the gore and blood flow freely. Subtle they weren’t, but his vision and voice were welcome additions to the pantheon of horror masters and brought a new level of terror to the scene.
Fans have been long clamoring for a new Rob Zombie movie and the wait is almost over. His latest effort, The Lords of Salem, is set for release later this year and the anticipation among horror fans is reaching a fever pitch. How will Zombie terrify us this time? I’m happy to report that his newest film is an exercise in subtlety and the terror is visceral.
The Lords of Salem follows a week in the life of popular radio DJ and recovering drug addict Heidi LaRoq (played by Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie in her best performance yet). Heidi has everything going for her and her life seems to be headed exactly where she wants it to go. She enjoys her job as a DJ at the local rock station and, all in all, lives pretty well. One day, as she’s leaving for the night, the station security guard hands her an antiquarian box saying it was dropped off earlier and had her name on it. Assuming it’s a promotional record for a local band, she takes the box home with her.
It is indeed a record, produced by a band from Salem called the Lords; she and one of her radio show’s co-hosts, Whitey (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips) decide to give it a spin after work. The song seems to produce a somewhat disoriented, hypnotic state in Heidi and she quickly decides to end the party and just head to bed. Of course, Whitey remains unaffected and is confused by her reaction. The more Heidi hears the record, the more she becomes affected by its haunting rhythms and melody. More and more she’s seeing visions and flashbacks of her town’s violent history while her co-workers and seemingly everyone else around her remain immune.
From this point, movie explores the psychology of Heidi’s terror; her dreams are becoming more and more real and are haunted by faceless drones that seem hellbent on reaching her. Is Heidi going insane or is there something else going on here? We’re led to believe early on that the happenings in Heidi’s life are somehow the result of a coven of witches who were burned alive 400 years ago during the trials, but to what end?
The Lords of Salem is an exciting new direction for Rob Zombie and I hope it’s indicative of the type of movies we can expect from him in the future, if not narratively than at least stylistically. The film relies heavily on imagery and atmosphere, the effect of which is a remarkably beautiful film that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. It’s never outright terrifying, but there are more than a few unsettling implications. The end result is a film that feels like what would have happened if Kubrick directed Rosemary’s Baby.
The film is also aided by fantastic performances from the cast; the lovely Mrs. Zombie, who’s up to this point pretty much exclusively starred in her husband’s films, gives a powerful performance that might just lead to roles outside the wing of her loving husband. And Dee Wallace gives a decidedly creepy turn as Heidi’s sweet little old landlady.
Rob Zombie, as an artist, has never failed to terrify me. Astro Creep 2000 was the first record I ever listened to that scared me. Its samples from old horror movies and thunderous guitars, to say nothing of the Satanic and horror imagery of the liner notes, proved to be too much for my pubescent brain to handle and I had to put it away for a few months before listening to it again. This trend was continued into his career as an auteur and he has not disappointed me with his latest effort. The Lords of Salem is a remarkable work of horror and a bold new direction for Rob Zombie that I hope inspires the makers of horror to look beyond the simplicity of torture-porn and back into the terror of the mind.