Oh, how I wish I'd seen this thing theatrically. I've long been, not a fan, but certainly an interested observer of Rob Zombie's movie work. I was quite pleased by House of 1000 Corpses, which felt like the id of the grindhouse era unleashed on unsuspecting screens. The follow-up, The Devil's Rejects, left me rather cold, feeling that its relentless sadism was largely unleavened by wit (I said then that I found much to admire in the movie, and nothing to like). His Halloween remake and its sequel were rife with good ideas, strong moods, and more than a few truly harrowing shots, and yet they didn't really cohere.
But what the hell do I know? Zombie has his devotees, some of them close friends whose opinions I respect. And Zombie's movies grew steadily more ambitious, and between that and his clear devotion to genre films, I figured it would be only a matter of time before he made a movie I connected with. After finally seeing The Lords of Salem I felt like he was a lot closer to delivering that film.
And yet the movie's stuck with me since last night (among other things, it seems to have parked the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" in my head for the foreseeable future). Zombie's tale of Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie, of course), a nighttime DJ plunged into a nightmare by a mysterious recording, is rife with atmosphere and slow-burn horror. It feels like the most patient movie Zombie has made, though in retrospect there are plenty of visceral jolts throughout the piece And even though it feels like a more polished and refined Rob Zombie movie, there's still a superabundance of weirdness in pretty much every scene, delivered so gently and directly that at times one struggles to process what one is seeing.
Zombie is as much a child of genre movies and media as Tarantino, but Zombie's figured out how to use those inspirations beyond just slavishly quoting them. The Lords of Salem is a cocktail of influences from 70s Hammer horror (the witchcraft movies especially), Stanley Kubrick (from whom Zombie's assimilated much about manipulating cinematic space - check out the hallways of Heidi's apartment building and how Zombie maps her psyche with it), and Ken Russell (a clear and direct influence on the often mannered grotesquerie throughout, and especially the explosive and downright festive parade of blasphemy that climaxes the thing). And yet in addition to the visual quotes of those who came before (and his generous casting of those actors they worked with), Zombie's assimilated some of their boldness. Zombie's figured out that there's more to pushing the envelope than more tits, more blood, louder music, more violence; he's also figured out that there's more to Kubrick than just creepy atmosphere and one-point perspective. As the malevolence around and within Heidi grows in power it seems to take over the movie, which abandons narrative and, indeed, reality. Suddenly we're not watching a horror movie. Just as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey became an otherworldly object not unlike the monoliths that drive its story, so does The Lords of Salem become something dark, mysterious, and finally magical.
The movie is by no means perfect; I can think of a half dozen actors I would rather have played Heidi (Zombie's ready to collaborate with a lead actor who'll challenge him). But it's a huge step forward. You could call it a more mature film than he's made, and not just because the soundtrack includes Mozart's Requiem alongside the Velvet Underground. I'm sad that some of his fans have rejected it (perhaps they feel it would have been more radical to simply resurrect the Firefly clan for yet another bout of psychobilly mayhem), but others more invested in his work than I are also calling The Lords of Salem their favorite Rob Zombie movie. I said earlier that it was a step closer to a Rob Zombie movie that I could connect with, but obviously that I even wrote this makes it clear that this is, in fact, that movie. I'd always been curious to see the next Rob Zombie movie; now I can't wait for it.