Rob Zombie is not a particularly nuanced filmmaker, but then nuance isn’t everything. Sometimes, a parade of bravura, shoot-for-the-gutter images and sounds is all you need, and if nothing else, The Lords of Salem is a fairly stunning little devil of images and sounds lined up for us by the naughtiest ringmaster this side of Italian giallo. After all, and at the risk of sounding too classicist, early cinema was nothing more than a parade of images to amuse and titillate, to vex and induce wonderment, and to distill and massage emotion out of the purity of look and feel. Those were the wild years of cinema, a period of looking to the future. Of course, Rob Zombie, here and always, looks to the past. But in it he finds something no less woolly, no less feral, and no less sensitive to the primitive power of feverish film imagery at its most direct.
His own wife Sheri Moon Zombie and a fiendish little ditty about the town history of Salem Massachusetts in tow, Zombie sets out for this sort of direct line between his script and the images he wishes to induce and caress out of it. On paper, it’s a tentative mixture of ambiguous character and enigmatic, not-quite-psychological horror (it’s too willfully difficult and primordial, and probably too literal to earn the psychological horror bent everyone who likes the film wants to bestow upon it). Sheri Moon Zombie stars as a middle-aged single Salem shock-jock radio DJ who receives a mysterious musical curio early in the film, a peculiar LP equal parts of metallic rust and Gothic haunt that soon enough reveals itself to do much more than serenade the ears with raw nails and screws.
Where things go from there, I cannot say, and I suspect neither can Zombie. Nor should he. The film is highly personal, both as a piece of passion for Zombie and a potent product for the fraction of the viewing public that will be willing to let the film exist on its own terms. As such, intellectual arguments about its narrative or characters fundamentally can’t hold up in any objective sense. For what can be said with reasonable assurance, the first half, at least, is well formed and shockingly restrained by Zombie’s standards, very much his calm before the storm (and a torrential eye-of-the-beast storm it is!). If anything, there’s something truly special in how he quietly explores the life of a middle-aged woman coaxed by society into desperation for youth and popularity (although I’m fairly certain he loses a hefty bit of this when the film conforms to highly gendered horror imagery involving witches). But, nonetheless, it’s easy to say Zombie sacrifices the story and the quiet chill of his first half for the unfettered mammoth of his impending Grand Guignol climax.
It’s easy to say that, but also too simple. Zombie clearly has a non-narrative form on the mind, sacrificing realist character study for the surreal and doing a bang-up job of slowly and surely pulling us into his spider’s web with the slithering clack and perched howl of an increasingly confident master, a filmmaker who can go all out but understands the rhythms of tempo and form and lets his hell erupt within smaller moments of quiet irregularity and mundanity. It’s a hard line to walk without careening over either side, and Zombie clearly wants to have his chilly Euro-horror vibe and his fiery Euro-horror glee in equal succession. If the final balance isn’t perfect, it’s surprisingly dexterous and able to tickle us in both directions, using silence and boredom to lull us into tepidity before unleashing a barrage of quiet-to-loud, muted-to-hyper-saturated colors that induce whiplash in ways that feel character specific and pointed rather than unwieldy and formless. That the film also manages to be slightly unwieldy in a dangerous way, toward an end that seems fueled by a particular direction rather than a desire to shock the squares at whatever cost, is a personal pleasure of the highest order.
It is an altogether shockingly confident film, careful and deliberate, with images placed before us not arbitrarily and haphazardly (a concern that plagued Zombie’s screwy earlier films) but with accuracy and meaning. If nothing else, he has progressed in his exploitation-as-art love-letter to modern horror aesthetic to a point of clarity and precision, and he has also become one of the few, if not the only, modern director to really add anything on to the templates he’s working from, recreating, commenting on, and pushing forward old horror tropes in equal measure. It’s necessarily a bit unruly, and deliciously so, but never the slightest bit ungainly.
Which brings us back to “psychological”, a descriptor for horror that has become a bit of an all-encompassing denotation for “intelligent” scary films that are well made. The term serves many purposes, but it can be a tad smothering. It implies that images and sounds need character to function properly, and that they lack depth and affect on their own terms. There’s nothing wrong with psychological horror on principle, but it forces films into the mechanics of convention and needlessly shoehorns narrative form onto the raw images and sounds. Good cinema can imbue images and sounds with narrative and character depth, and most good cinema does by virtue of how cinema today is made. But good cinema does not, and should not, require this depth, making the term a bit restrictive.
A fair reading of The Lords of Salem could bestow the film with psychological airs. But the images, from the generalized sticky-grim malaise of the whole thing to the more specific moments like a red-hued late-night mood piece of equal parts menace and quiet wonder, relate to one’s person-hood in such a blunt and unexplained way it seems unnecessary to qualify it with highfalutin words like “psychological depth”. What the images are, and what all of the most experimental horrors from Murnau to Tourneur to Bava to Argento are: dreams stripped barren and darkened up into nightmares. They are possibilities, of course, but they have the confidence of facts, working as psychology but never relying on psychology to claim. They do not need character. The images bolster and enhance character, but they work, and fly high, on their own.