Thursday, December 5, 2013

'The Lords of Salem': A witchy nod to the past

As I watched “The Lords of Salem” on Blu-ray disc, I couldn’t help but imagine Rob Zombie’s latest horror film in a clunky, cardboard VHS box sitting on a video store shelf.

Though this movie was released in 2012, this tale about witches feels like a horror movie made more than 30 years ago. This is not an accident. Zombie is definitely offering up “Lords of Salem” as a tribute to films such as Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” This tribute has resulted in possibly his most atmospheric – and surreal – work to date. Most important, the movie is fun to watch.

“Lords” follows Heidi, a DJ in Salem, Mass., and recovering addict. Heidi (Zombie’s wife, Sherri Moon Zombie) receives a strange package at the station one day – a wooden box containing a record that appears to be from a band called The Lords. When the record is played over the air, the band’s strange, sickening dirge awakens something within her and the other women in Salem.

Unbeknownst to Heidi, the music has cast a spell by a coven of witches: The Lords of Salem. Heidi’s sanity slowly begins to unravel, sparking concern from a fellow DJ fearful she’s fallen off the wagon. Of course, something more sinister is afoot. This movie spins a tale spanning the Salem witch trials to the present day where these witches – and even Satan – have set their sights on Heidi for some reason.

The plot may sound ridiculous, but it’s no more ridiculous than Argento’s tale of a young girl discovering the prestigious ballet academy she’s attending is home to a coven of witches. It’s also likely viewers of “Lords” will figure out the answers to many key questions before the movie provides them, but that doesn’t matter either.

This movie is about atmosphere. It’s about creating a world where the supernatural is lurking around the corner, ready to strike when the opportunity reveals itself. Rob Zombie has succeeded admirably here with a movie that abandons much of the gore found in his previous films. Viewers willing to let go and enjoy the ride – even if they are laughing during that ride – are in for a creepy good time.

They also will be left with some unforgettable images, such as the movie’s climactic scene in a theater. The way Rob Zombie juxtaposes this scene against a wild, tongue-in-cheek sequence that appears to have come straight from one of his music videos is particularly effective. It’s also the only movie that I can recall where Satan appears less like a horned and hoofed beast, and more like a supernatural Thanksgiving turkey.

Though some horror fans may use “Lords” to debate the director's skills versus Argento and other horror masters, this movie is simply his love letter to the atmospheric films of the 1970s and early 1980s that offered strange tales of the occult.

It may not be the right movie for the casual horror fan, but for those of us who fondly remember searching a shelf of faded and worn VHS boxes for just the right tale about witches and other out-of-this-world phenomena, “The Lords of Salem” delivers the goods.