The Lords Of Salem is a horror film belonging to the non-too popular subgenre of witchcraft. We begin with an extended satanic ritual sequence, narrated by the words of Rev. Hawthorne (Andrew Prine) who we later learn successfully burned the witches involved and was cursed by their clan leader. We then jump to the modern day; central to the plot is Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a radio DJ of hard rock with co-hosts including Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) whom she is emotionally involved with. When Matthias (Bruce Davison), author of a book on witchcraft in the Salem area in which the film's action takes place, is a guest on Heidi and co's show, he hears a track which had been anonymously and conspicuously left at the radio station reception, and which stirs in him a "sadness". Delving into the mysterious music further, he finds a troubling link between its origin and Heidi. Heidi meanwhile has been experiencing some troubling dreams and thoughts, exacerbated by the darkness of her near-empty apartment building and the creepy landlady Clovis (Nancy Lineham Charles).
It was written and directed by Rob Zombie who has been making horror films every couple of years for the past decade, most of which have received lukewarm receptions. There are certainly some shots which convey an amateurish feel and more than a few scenes in which the writing betrays a certain shallowness - this is the scene in which the friends throw light-hearted insults at each other, this is the scene in which he calls her to see if she's alright as we cross-cut between him in serenity and her in disarray, this is the scene in which we are told that the figure we thought we had seen was but an illusion. But despite its failings in character and dialogue, the actual horror scenes (which is surely what a horror film is all about - who goes to a horror to see in-depth character exploration?) is both well-paced and not entirely obvious. Further, the weak areas of the script are propped up by a range of performances from adequate to really quite good; as horror buffs will have noticed from the actors already cited, many names from horror and thriller's past have been enlisted for this film.
Throughout the 100 minutes the emphasis is much more on the tension of 60s horror films (an paradigm example of which is Rosemary's Baby, which The Lords Of Salem borrowed from liberally) rather than the graphic images of modern torture porn or slasher movies. This is itself refreshing, but a little dated and almost forces itself into the thriller camp rather than horror was we define the genre today. Still, after the first 25-or-so minutes of somewhat cliché horror tropes, this level of tension is consistent, even if it never really comes to a head.
Salem certainly wears its influences on its sleeve, but manages to stay the right side of pastiche rather than slipping into outright plagiarism. Most blatantly is the wall-size still from Méliès's Le voyage dans la lune, whose experiments with camera and special effects influenced the early days of filmmaking, and the horror films of Stanley Kubrick, whose own focus on tension rather than graphic violence is echoed in Salem. Kubrick was a photographer by training and approached each frame of his films in a like manner; here, though nowhere close to Kubrick's pedigree, it is nevertheless clear that Rob Zombie has paid much more attention to the composition of frames than in previous films, particularly as regards camera movement. Particularly in the establishing scenes, Zombie moves the camera in any way he can across different shots. At first I thought that this was naïve - a kid with a camera playing with his toy - but then realised that the disjointed shots of action which would otherwise be quite mundane and obligatory was perhaps to instil unease and disorientation from early on. This might be giving a little too much credit to Zombie - he may simply be the kid playing with his toy - but the affect is still the same.
Lastly, I want to mention the original music by John 5 which is insidiously spooky; certainly moderately inventive scenes in which space and architecture is used to good effect; and notable cameos to look out for from Michael Berryman, Udo Kier and Roger W. Morrissey (as Beelzebub no less) among others.
Overall, this is an unusual subgenre to choose but one which shows consideration and an appreciation of the conventions of the genre. As I have emphasised, this is more of a thriller than anything by modern standards, so don't expect much gore or jumpy moments. It has been well put together and cinematic metaphors are there if one looks for them. Salem was better than I had hoped, but nevertheless still only deserving of the moderate and restrained praise I have given here. Better than the 5/10 stars that IMDb has awarded it, but not quite deserving of 7.
I believe that the trailer gives away a little too much, and it is with that caveat that I embed it below: