I have read some inexplicably negative reviews that bark about Sheri Moon Zombie's performance, but I personally found her to be an engaging leading lady, very easy to like, to root for and - more importantly - to fear for. In any case, her performance is surrounded and supported by a uniformly superlative ensemble cast including a veritable coven of magnificent actresses playing Salem witches, both past and present. I hesitate to single out any one of the performances in this film, because they're all so good, but I will say that it was a real treat seeing (and hearing) Dawn of the Dead veteran Ken Foree back on the big screen again. Oh, and Dee Wallace, too, in a hilarious turn. And Judy Geeson is just flat-out awesome as the nice-but-somehow-off landlady. And Bruce Davison, who turns on the charm as a randy academic. And... well... you see what I mean. Zombie's abilities as a director of actors has obviously evolved leaps and bounds in recent years, and it pays high dividends in Lords of Salem.
On the more technical side of things, the movie just looks fantastic. Zombie serves up a feast for the eyes, meticulously constructing every shot and filling the frame with unforgettable images that stamp themselves into your grey matter and resonate for days afterwards. His camera glides fluidly from scenes anchored in warm and grungy but somehow comforting earth tones, to brilliantly lit set pieces awash in blazing primary colors, and it all makes a mad sort of sense. Visually, Zombie approaches and frequently equals the very best works of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Yes, Lords of Salem looks that good.
With Zombie setting such a high bar for himself visually, it should come as no surprise that Lords of Salem also features the most chillingly effective sound design in a horror film since Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Spooky, almost subliminal sounds skitter at the threshold of stony silence to keep you ever on edge. Many shock scenes feature sonic punctuation that is brutally efficient as a sledge-hammer to the forehead. And, every once in a while, the malevolence of what we suspect might be transpiring on the other side of a closed door is underscored with a nerve-shattering slash of otherworldly roaring that echoes up from only God - or the other guy - knows where. Again, I say, best sound design since The Shining.
Speaking of Kubrick, Zombie has borrowed liberally from many masters to make Lords of Salem into a monster. For instance, he engages in Kubrick's penchant for needle-dropping the very best classical music to grand cinematic effect... but more about the music, later. Roman Polanski is also an obvious influence here, as are Jodorowsky and Ken Russell. Zombie shares with these directors a feral intensity of vision and a willingness to follow wherever that vision takes him, no matter how absurd it might seem on paper.
Finally, a word about the music. I'm not much of a fan of Zombie's heavy metal output, but his decision to showcase the decadent droning of the classic Velvet Underground songs Venus in Furs and All Tomorrow's Parties was a wise one. And I suppose you could cycle through images of a star nosed mole eating a worm while playing Mozart's Lacrimosa and it would still send chills running up and down your spine.
But perhaps the film's most impressive musical element is the piece of music included on the vinyl record surreptitiously sent to the radio station where Sheri Moon's disc jockey character, Heidi, works. The song, by "The Lords", is brilliantly lo-fi; a decidedly Pagan sounding, repetitive drone that really gets under your skin. In fact, it very much reminded me of the most terrifying music I've ever heard.
I first encountered the music of Belgian ensemble Univers Zero during my quest to discover ever more obscure progressive rock music. I read reviews about them in the Prog Archives, and subsequently tracked down a CD version of their 1979 album Heresie. Just as the reviews at the Archives promised, their music scared the living shit out of me. And now that I've seen Lords of Salem, and heard the piece of music that is so central to that film, I can very much recommend Univers Zero's early works to anybody who would like to hear more music of this type.
I include, here, a sample that should give you a pretty good idea of what I'm going on about. Buckle in, perk up your ears and listen good. That may just be the Devil knocking at your back door there at the end...
PS - Don't forget the ongoing journey through history at our sister-site, the Useless Eater Blog! In the latest edition, we cover everything from Nick Berg's beheading to the freaking SKY falling down upon our heads! It all happened, ON THIS DAY in History! Enjoy!