Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem is one of the freakiest and creepiest movies you’ll see in a long, long time. Definitely see it if you are a horror fan, and definitely/maybe if you’re not. While Zombie’s past horror films have been a mix of shocking violence and gore, The Lords of Salem creates a seriously dark and moody atmosphere where every foreboding scene is punctuated with something that offends — visually or mentally. It’s not a buckets-of-blood sort of offensive, but rather a “Holy Jesus, that’s sacrilegious. I can’t believe he filmed that! Will I go to hell for watching this?” kind of offensive. It gives you the feeling you might have had when you were a kid and sneakily watched a forbidden horror movie on TV. You would be in so much trouble if your mother only knew.
There’s no CGI for the special effects, and that’s definitely a good thing, as it makes everything look more realistic and spooky. The film has a look and feel of a lot of classic horror films such as The Shining, The Exorcist, Jacob’s Ladder, Suspiria, and more. It has been a long time since I’ve seen such a wonderfully foul film, and can see this being referenced in the same breath as the aforementioned flicks.
The plot revolves around Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), a DJ at a radio station alongside fellow DJs Herman Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman Jackson (Ken Foree). Heidi receives a mysterious record from a band called The Lords of Salem that fills her mind with nightmarish thoughts and dreams. Throw in a colonial-era curse by a coven of witches and a landlord with some bad intentions, and that’s essentially the framework for the celluloid nightmare.
As per usual, Zombie stuffs the movie with an appropriately moody soundtrack, icons of horror in supporting roles, and take-no-prisoners approach to his vision. It no longer feels as though Zombie is a musician dabbling in film as a hobby, but rather a unique visionary of horror who has finally come into his own.
PC: Do you feel that you’re coming into your own as a filmmaker?
RZ: I hope so. With every film, you feel that you learn something that you can drag to the next film. This film was good for me because it was the only film I’ve ever made where I had a written contract stating that I could cast whoever I wanted, do whatever I wanted, and edit it any way I wanted… It helps you grow, I think, if you have the ability to do that, but sometimes you get boxed in. Like in the Halloween films… I literally remember working on those movies and putting my head down on the desk in my office and going, “I don’t even know why I want to fucking make movies anymore. I don’t even want to watch movies anymore, this has been such a miserable experience.” When you can have fun with it, it helps you experiment and grow. That’s the only way to do anything different.
PC: Are any of your personal beliefs involved in the film at all?
RZ: Pretty much all the characters speak the things that I think all the time. All the characters share my views. The actors certainly don’t, because the actors were really freaked out by the script. Ken Foree, particularly: “I don’t know about this, Rob. I’m going to church. This is really, really bothering me.” He was really wigged out.
PC: Is the soundtrack something you listened to while writing the script?
RZ: First, you just have some idea in your head: “How do I take this goofy idea and get it so that it’s on a screen and someone can watch it?” As soon as I can start finding concrete things to connect to, like a song… you start to really feel it flowing. Once I get that going, it really helps me a lot, ’cause now, there’s a sort of emotional vibe to an abstract idea… and it helps to convey it to other people. If I’m having trouble in my own head figuring it out, imagine what a nightmare it is for the crew to try and figure out what I want them to do, or the actors? Music can really help. You play that piece of Mozart and go, “I want it to seem like this.”
PC: So you would visualize a scene when you would listen to the music?
RZ: Yeah, and even then, I would write it in the script. Sometimes, being the writer/director is great for me, but it’s horrible for everyone else, because I can picture it so perfectly. To me, it’s as though I already filmed it, so then I’m trying figure out how [to] write this out so it makes sense, and a lot of times it didn’t. We would be filming it, and they’d be, like, “Oh, finally, this is what that was about when I read it.” So, I don’t know. I need better communication skills.
PC: Is there a reaction that you’re looking for — or hoping for — from people? Because this is the kind of film where the religious right might want to clear their calendars of protesting gay marriage.
RZ: That would be good, if they could find something else to be mad about. This sounds like a strange thing to say — or a cop-out — but I really want some people to love it and some people to just hate it. When I introduced it to South by Southwest, that’s what I said. It was a full crowd and I said, “Some of you are gonna think this is the greatest thing you ever saw, and some of you are gonna think this is the worst thing you ever suffered through.” Because I think that’s when things are great. I’d rather have one guy say, “This is the greatest movie ever made!” and his friend go, “You’re fucking out of your mind. That guy should never be allowed to make a movie.” Sometimes, I’ve watched a movie and hated it, couldn’t even get through it, [and I] come back to it ten years later and realize, “This movie’s fucking genius. I was just an idiot ten years ago.” I remember reading a quote by Woody Allen talking about 2001, and he said [that] when he went to see it when it came out, he hated it, and he couldn’t figure out why anyone liked it. And he went to see it again, he goes, “Wow. It was the first time I ever realized the filmmaker was ahead of me.” And that’s the thing. The studio system, they don’t ever want the audience to feel like they’re not ahead of you as a filmmaker, and sometimes, I feel it’s OK if the audience can sit there and be confused for awhile. European films don’t give a shit.
PC: So you’re an artist, as opposed to an entertainer.
RZ: Oh, that’s the worst word. Oh, my God, that will get you kicked out of every room in town. (laughs)
PC: Well, Hollywood is an entertainment industry, and that’s why it’s probably difficult for you.
RZ: Oh, it’s horrible. It’s funny, when we finished the movie, I said something that I thought was positive: “It’s kind of like an art house movie.” And the silence that fell over the room… They were, like, “Don’t ever fucking say ‘art house’ again in connection with this movie.” And they weren’t kidding. They were serious! So, of course, I said it every five seconds.
PC: Art makes you feel and think. It doesn’t just leave you passive, so, it’s a good thing.
RZ: That’s why, even if someone hates it… [There’s] a quote from David Bowie, I always say I probably stole from him: “You want a reaction, even if the reaction is they hate you.” Nobody wants to just be, like, “Eh, he’s all right.”
PC: Was Lords of Salem shot on film?
RZ: No, it was digital, the whole movie. They spend so much time with digital trying to make it look good, and I spend so much time later trying to make it look bad. I wish it actually looked crappier. The only reason I didn’t shoot on film was I knew the schedule was so tight that we weren’t going to have the time to light it properly, and you can move faster with the video.
PC: Are you comfortable saying what the budget was?
RZ: I’m really happy to say, because the thing that pisses me off is, we had hardly anything. It was, like, $2 million, and we shot in 22 days. The producer was like, “Don’t tell them the budget!” Oh, so let them think it was $20 million and we fuckin’ busted our ass, and no one’s impressed by it because they think we had all this money? When I took on the project, I didn’t want it to look like a low budget movie.
PC: It seems each one of your films has evolved. Watching some of those scenes, it goes right up there with The Exorcist, where they’ll be referencing this in 10 or 20 years.
RZ: I remember seeing The Shining as a kid — in a theater, obviously — when it came out. I remember just being blown away, but also feeling so freaked out. Like, you’re in the movie, you’re in the hotel. And then, obviously, for the last 20 years or something, just watching it on my computer or on TV, and never feeling that again. I realized, “Wow, it’s the size of the image that’s so powerful.” People are like, “Yeah, I saw your movie, we’re not scared.” You watched it on your phone! You kept stopping every two seconds to text your friend. Of course you didn’t get sucked into it and didn’t get freaked out, neither would I! You forget, and that’s why I shot a lot of stuff big and wide, and little, which probably doesn’t work good on television, but in a theater, you feel it’s so different.
RZ: I think your brain comprehends something being real. I think the effects on BattleStar Galactica look better from the ’70s, because it was a physical model they made, so it actually did exist. Your brain goes, “That does exist in real space.” Whereas now, I see James Franco walking, but it looks like everything behind him on the yellow brick road is like Roger Rabbit to me. My brain knows it doesn’t actually exist. No matter how good it is, even if it’s the most phenomenal digital effects.
PC: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a computer generated effect in any of your movies.
RZ: I think computer effects are fantastic — it’s a great tool, if they’re used that way. But I feel that it’s gone from being an amazing tool to an amazing crutch. I feel bad sometimes for actors, and I think that Star Wars — the newer Star Wars movies — are the greatest example of that. Suddenly, Liam Neeson has ceased to be able to act. I mean, Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman came across as three of the worst actors in the world, when they could be three of the best actors in the world. You could tell they’re, like, “So, I’m supposed to pretend like I’m walking and have a normal conversation, and there’s gonna be a droid behind me later or something?” It was so awkward to watch. But then, when they used it in Forrest Gump to get rid of Gary Sinise’s legs, it’s genius. Once they can figure out how to just get rid of actors and everybody altogether, and have just have the machines spit out a movie, Hollywood will be happy.