Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem perfectly captures the feeling of being forcibly dragged into the darkest depths of hell. The film stars Sheri Moon Zombie as Heidi, a Salem-based DJ and former heroin addict who is sent a mysterious wooden box containing a vinyl record with connections to the town's dark and violent history. After listening to the record, she begins to have vivid hallucinations gradually increasing in scale and severity; commencing with visions of dismembered bodies dangling from the walls of her Georges Méliès-styled apartment, and later climaxing with an intensive audiovisual assault as the seven deadly sins encompass her mind in a mad flurry of horrific imagery. Salem is an exercise in slow building terror as Zombie steadily guides us through the mind of a woman loosing a spiritual battle against the devil and his Wiccan followers; with the odds of her survival dwindling with every passing minute until eventual possession and death seem inevitable.
This isn't a "scary" movie in the vain of most modern horror films. The Lords of Salem is pure, unfiltered atmospheric horror by a man who seemingly studied the filmmaking techniques used by Kubrick in The Shining for months on end; adding a much greater emphasis on steadily building dread over time rather than delivering moment-by-moment chills. While certainly frightening at times, Zombie uses gruesome surrealism and unnerving long takes to promote constant discomfort in his audience rather than relying on constant jump scares to provide momentary shocks. The Lords of Salem can't be recommended to the conventional horror fan; the person who watches the Friday the 13th and Saw series just to see nubile teens and grimy scumbags get ripped to shreds by machetes and elaborate death traps. For people seeking out Zombie's film for that reason, you'll be bored and disappointment. There's death and violence every 15 minutes leading up to the jaw-dropping insane climax, but it mostly stems from extended flashbacks to the Salem Witch Trials; wherein many women were burnt to death at the stake. Not particularly crowd pandering material for gore hounds, and it's frankly pretty spectacular that something this disturbingly independent managed to achieve such a wide release.
This is a horror movie for those who remember the slow burn, macabre exploitation films of the 1960s-1980s, or anyone who can appreciate artistry in shock-cinema. The level of effort and creativity which went into the film is astounding. For better or worse depending on your opinion of what constitutes "scary," Zombie delivers imagery and sequences which would've been impossible for another director to even comprehend bringing to the screen. A demonic possession executed by a fat, red, fetus-like creature, who grabs Sheri Moon Zombie's protagonist with appendages resembling electric tentacles and shakes her violently to implant himself inside her soul. A group of naked women trapped in metallic cages being graphically burned alive while their leader laughs maniacally and an insane priest shouts prayers at them. All of this is shot with beautiful cinematography from Brandon Trost, and Zombie's direction makes the film successfully work as both excellent horror and high camp. In terms of nightmarish visuals, Zombie gets his demonic cake and eats it too.
(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
However, when people talk about the film, the conversation probably won't be about any of the topics listed above. As mentioned before, The Lords of Salem ends with an intense audiovisual assault of graphic, gruesome, and relentlessly unsettling illusions as the devil attempts to take complete hold of Heidi's mind and soul. The plot is completely dropped in favor of 15 minutes of Heidi's decent into the darkest depths of hell, and even classifying the sequence as representing that decent is a personal opinion. If the movie is considered to be slow burn horror, the final scene would be like if that burn transcended into a gleaming ball of fire which went on to obliterate the earth. Although it works as a fitting capper for a movie so invested in its protagonist's subconscious relationship with the devil, it almost feels like a cop out from Zombie. Instead of remaining consistent with the macabre psycho-drama of the rest of the film, Zombie retreats back into the motif of a black metal music video. In the words of comedian Jason Mantzoukas of such films as The Dictator and Baby Mama; " It's next level bonkers." But is it necessary?
While the final 15 minutes might detract somewhat from the whole, Zombie has directed what is easily the finest horror movie of the year, and a feature which should hopefully find its audience after a disappointing performance in theaters. This might not be the right film for the conventional horror fan, but for anyone who remembers the macabre exploitation films of years past or wants to see something a little more artistic, The Lords of Salem should do more than fine.