It’s common sense that good horror should, ideally, terrify its viewers. Usually, desensitised horror aficionados often require surplus terror to have them sit bolt upright or slump in cowardice. What seems to pass for muster these days, sadly, scarcely gets the skin crawling aside from in anger and disappointment. Anyone spooked by the theatrical rendition of Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman in Black will no doubt be disheartened to see the eponymous spectre reduced to a wailing banshee in James Watkin’s film vehicle for Daniel Radcliffe. Fede Alvarez’ remake/reboot of Evil Dead scuppers potential by slotting into generic torture porn paradigms, substituting genuine fright for queasy visuals slashed and pierced by an assortment of sharp household appliances.
There’s little ingenuity in shocking an audience with sudden manifestations and deafening blares, and the dependable sight of gushing blood is fundamentally more cringe-inducing than legitimately terrifying. We cower from the sight of gore because of our identification with a physical pain, when in actuality the more brutal and lasting assault is over that which lurks beneath our skin, beyond the mind and around the soul.
It’s taken rock star and director Rob Zombie a good few years to reach this realisation; either that, or finally wrench complete creative control away from whoever was hitherto breathing down his neck. His fifth feature The Lords of Salem is an unsettling cinematic experience; a teasing, tempting trajectory of sinister, composed imagery that gives rise to the elusive action of squirming in one’s seat.
There were promising hints in Zombie’s debut House of 1000 Corpses, which featured sporadic flickers of uncomfortable snapshots dotted into its tonally confused carnival horror caper. That film’s b-movie sensibility was dispensed with in sequel The Devil’s Rejects, an exploitation flick that reimagined the murderous family from the first film as a badass outlaw troupe on the run from the law, and defined Zombie as a purveyor of repugnant trash.
Family and terror are far from mutually exclusive concepts for Zombie; they form the basis for the bloody cat-and-mouse chase between Michael Myers and his sister Laurie in the director’s hollow reimagining of Halloween and Halloween II. In Lords of Salem, Massachusetts DJ Heidi Hawthorne – played by the director’s wife and frequent collaborator, Sheri Moon Zombie – has her own ancestral connections, though the film primarily situates her as a lone woman in an apartment whose central hallway, dressed in hypnotically patterned wallpaper, seemingly stretches on into eternity. The living quarters possess a haunting prescience courtesy of cinematographer Brandon Trost and his Red One; Trost utilises wide angles and a de-saturated milieu of washed-out greys and greens to give the viewer a clearer, incisive perspective of the frame and its peripheral terrors, concurrently reserving a richer array of colours for the elements of subjective lunacy.
The streets of Salem are equally lonesome and faded stretches, elongated in widescreen with Heidi occupying but a minor fraction of the frame. The stylistic forbearance is a far cry from the collage of comic book colours that saturated House of 1000 Corpses, and the overwrought pace of the Halloween films. Zombie’s learned to use fewer shots to tell his story, and with this reduction comes a greater emphasis on the compositional quality of each frame. His mise-en-scene is less cluttered than before yet at the same time much denser, and richly textured by virtue of varied artificial light sources acting as small comforts in dark abodes. A persisting symmetry, particularly focused on Heidi’s apartment door, signifies the unarguable influence of Kubrick’s The Shining, as do the calendar intertitles used as full stops between each successive day of Heidi’s tribulation.
The slow-burn pandemonium begins as a result of a sinister record being played on Heidi’s radio station. The song is a simple but effective blast of 4-chord riffage by a group known as The Lords of Salem, though in our reality it’s one of numerous unsettling pieces of a score composed by current Rob Zombie guitarist and former Marilyn Manson axe-wielder John 5. Heidi’s psychological response to the music is the precise distress the film attempts to garner out of us: its lingering touch crawls not on the surface of her skin but underneath.
Zombie’s horror no longer climbs all over our faces, nor does it scream in our ears. The forthcoming descent into delirium is inferred by the film’s building tapestry of snatched glimpses and implied terror, accompanying John 5’s bedrock of low droning thrums and pianos. The film is similar in structure to last year’s Berberian Sound Studio, except its accumulation of visual motifs feeds nicely into its final maddening crescendo in a way that Strickland’s film didn’t entirely manage.
The form is near-faultless, but Zombie’s story content must be hugely credited for effectively needling into its viewers’ subconscious. Heidi Hawthrone is plagued by a spiritual torment, of an eternal spiritual war waged between Jesus and the Devil; the blizzard of light and sound that pummels her into submission emanates from this internal tension, and subsequently works to torture the viewer along the same lines. The implication for our souls can be, for some, too itchy to confront onscreen. However, if that explanation amounts to little more than nonsense in your atheistic worldview, the aesthetic evolution of Zombie’s craft achieves a blistering effort of persuading otherwise.
It may have taken ten years – and it usually does for many auteurs – but Rob Zombie has finally hit the horror hammer on the head of the nail.