Judge Gordon Sullivan has hallucinogenic dreams while listening to Lawrence Welk.
The Lords are Coming
Rob Zombie has largely worked in the realm of pastiche. His music is famous for its mix of dialogue samples, metal riffs, and industrial clank. When he started to make movies, he immediately went for House of 1000 Corpses, which is like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on acid. The Devil's Rejects kept up appearances by working through darker, more Southern-fried influences before Zombie jumped on the remake train with Halloween and Halloween II. What unites all these disparate films is that Zombie's sources are mostly on the seedier side of the movie rental aisle. With Lords of Salem, Zombie looks to be turning that around a bit. Though he doesn't abandon his love for low-class culture, he's added the influence of some decidedly bigger names (Roman Polanksi, David Lynch) to his cinematic stew. The result is a visually brilliant journey through Zombie's headspace, though viewers looking for character development or a fast-paced plot will be disappointed.
Facts of the Case
Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie, The Devil's Rejects) is a radio DJ in Salem, Massachusetts. One day she receives a package that contains a record. When she plays it on her radio show, it has dire consequences. Heidi starts hallucinating, having strange dreams, and it seems like something from Salem's witch-y past might come back.
As a filmmaker, Zombie has often been praised for his visual flair. Whether it's the color-drenched vibe of House of 1000 Corpses or the bleak browns of The Devil's Rejects, Zombie has a way with the camera and a solid understanding of how to create a visual world. Similarly, his use of music is excellent, as he mines the world of rock 'n' roll for the perfect song to match his visuals (see, for instance, "Free Bird" at the end of The Devil's Rejects). Rarely, at least as far as I know, has anyone really talked about his attention to sound design. Hopefully that will change with The Lords of Salem, which has a masterful attention to sonic detail. Of course the record that Heidi plays from the Lords had to sound amazing, but I was surprised at how powerful and unnerving everything in the movie sounds. When I saw it in an empty theater the bass was almost overwhelming, and the visuals wouldn't be half as creepy without the music and sound effects.
Of course the visuals are creepy as well. Zombie has learned a few tricks of his own over the last decade or so, but here he's trying on new techniques. Obviously many of them are borrowed from the biggies—there are clear references to Polanski in the wide-angle apartment shots, and there's something Lynchian about the tableaus in the end—but some seem new and creepy on their own, like Zombie is reaching for his own voice and finding it.
It's this voice that The Lords of Salem stakes its success on. The Lords of Salem doesn't offer conventional scares—there are no jumping cats, no nightmare monsters—but instead offers viewers 101 minutes in Rob Zombie's headspace. That's not terribly different from his other films; House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects are both Zombie films to the core, and even the Halloween remakes feel uniquely his. However, Zombie's previous films feel beholden to genre and reference in a way that Lords of Salem does not. Or, to put it another way, if Rob Zombie head were a blender and his films the resulting nutritious concoction, then his early work still has identifiable chunks that haven't been completely blended. So, we can easily recognize the way each piece fits into the puzzle of other films. With The Lords of Salem, Zombie has set his mind-blender to total purée. Yes, we can taste the influences that went in, but there are no longer the huge chunks of other people's work to be digested by us.
Of course this kind of visual and aural feast demands on the best Blu-ray presentation, and in the case of The Lords of Salem (Blu-ray) that's what it gets. Two discs are housed in a standard Blu-ray case that features a cardboard cover with a lenticular version of the poster art. The 2.39:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is excellent. There's some variety in the visuals, so the transfer doesn't always look like a contemporary blockbuster. However, it's very true to the theatrical experience. That means detail is generally excellent, there's a bit of intentional grain, and colors go from muted to wildly saturated depending on the scene. Black levels are deep and consistent, and no serious digital artefacts crop up. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track is equally impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear from the center, with the surrounds getting a lot of play to establish atmosphere. The low end is perfect and rumbling, exactly what the music for this flick needs.
Aside from DVD/Ultraviolet copies, the set's lone extra is a commentary from Zombie. He's chatty and knowledgeable about the film for the running time. He discusses his influences, his experiences on the set, and some of the changes that had to be made to tie the film together. He also does a pretty good job explaining some of the stranger aspects of the film. It's probably not going to rescue the film for those who hated it, but it's a nice adjunct for those who enjoyed it, or are on the fence.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some more extras would be great, as this may be the most barebones Zombie release ever. It would be especially fun to see some behind-the-scenes footage of some of the crazier moments in the film. Also, there's lots of information floating around about cut scenes and seeing some of those (especially incorporated into an alternate cut) would be amazing and make this set even more essential.
As for the film itself, it seriously divided audiences. It's a slow burn kind of film that hopes to slowly build up dread and confusion for 90 minutes before unleashing 10 minutes of insanity on you. That means it's doesn't come together in a nice, neat plot package where every mystery is solved and everyone can go home happy. There are still some Zombie signatures—gore, neon, nudity—those looking for his cowboy persona and devil-may-care quickness will be left disappointed.
The Lords of Salem is a must-watch for Rob Zombie fans, even if half them will hate it. The film shows that he has a lot of resources to draw on and will continue to be an interesting voice in horror filmmaking. Fans will be disappointed that there aren't more extras on this set, but the Blu-ray presentation is pretty fantastic.
Not Zombie's best, but The Lords of Salem is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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