All Hail 'The Lords of Salem'

Rob Zombie on his fifth feature, a decade in the making

Rob Zombie, Sheri Moon Zombie, and Jeff Daniel Phillips at the U.S. premiere of <i>Lords</i>, SXSW 2013
Rob Zombie, Sheri Moon Zombie, and Jeff Daniel Phillips at the U.S. premiere of Lords, SXSW 2013 (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Rob Zombie admits it: "I've always been obsessed with the bad characters." His first four turns as a film director – House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects, and his Halloween reboots – cut open the psyches of monsters. But for his fifth movie, the supernatural terror The Lords of Salem, the metal-god-turned-moviemaker focuses on the victim, placing his wife Sheri Moon Zombie under hell's hammer.

Lords is a throwback. Zombie calls it his reaction against modern, glossy cinema, where "everyone's 22 years old with the same haircut and the same clothes and the same way they talk, and I can't tell anyone apart." Instead, his lens settles on three late-night deejays in Salem, Mass.: recovering junkie Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), and the two Hermans – '70s throwback Jackson (Ken Foree) and mild-mannered burnout Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips). They find themselves at the mercy of hellish forces in the home of the infamous Salem witch trials. "Damaged people are more interesting," Zombie says. "Everyone I know is a mess, and the more [of a] front that they put up that they're not, the more of a mess they are."

This is a story that has kept Zombie up at night for a long time. Sheri Moon Zombie, his wife and muse, recalls exactly when it first took root in his brain: 11 years ago, when they were stuck in an airport on the way to a friend's wedding. She says, "He was bored and went to the gift shop and started looking up books on Salem." The finished movie may have taken a decade to germinate, but, she says, "When a seed is planted in his mind for an idea, it sits there, grows, and when it's ready to blossom, that's when we all get the script."

Zombie says: "The first concepts were very vague. I knew I had a radio station with these three characters, and somewhere there was this witch tie-in." First he planned a film, then a graphic novel, and finally, in 2006 he wrote a track called "The Lords of Salem" for his third solo album, Educated Horses. "That's when I'm like, 'I'll make it a song. At least I know I've stamped it, [the] title. ... It's something.'" That song was not the last word on the lords, but it was a vital step on their way to the screen. "To me it's important to get it out of the idea stage," he says. "I had this idea for The Lords of Salem, but what was it going to be? Because an idea's useless."

Zombie's earlier movies were a graphic throwback to drive-in horror and grindhouse psychedelia: With Lords, he changes tone, summoning psychological terrors rather than shock-value gore. He shared some touchstones with the cast: "Polanski, Kubrick, Ken Russell, Buñuel," Phillips lists off. "We're both cinephiles, so he would tell me things that were influencing him, and I either knew them or I watched them."

With so many contemporary films depending on jump scares, Zombie says, "It would be a lot easier to just have spooky witches jumping out of the dark and chasing Heidi [as] she's fighting for her life." Even though he knew it might alienate the audience, he ramped up the brooding fear rather than spoon-feeding them easy frights. The deciding moment was when he shot the first appearance of veteran TV actress Meg Foster as chief witch Margaret Morgan. Zombie says, "We were working on it, and I went, 'This doesn't work. From this moment on, anything that looks like it's a jump scare or a shock moment, we're taking out of the script.'"

There's a clear influence of Italian gore auteurs like Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava as he builds that growing sense of doom. As Zombie puts it, "You're almost in this dreamlike state through the movie, and when you try to shock somebody, it felt so false and so stupid that I thought, 'We either have to live or die by this thing we've started doing.'" It's a tone that Zombie admits some audiences will find off-putting. "If you're waiting for something super-exciting to happen in the first reel, you're going to get bored," he says. "It's the accumulation of it all." His desire was to evoke the kind of claustrophobic terror that frightens him. He says, "I remember as a kid, when I went to see The Shining; even when nothing is happening, it's just, 'I've got to get out of this fucking hotel.'"

Sheri Moon Zombie says she's just glad that "it's not the traditional horror movie with the girl, arms pumped, in a tank top." She says, "A lot of people either love it or hate it, and I think that's great. I'd rather have a hater than an 'eh, it was OK.' I'd rather you have a strong opinion about the film in its entirety, because it means something."

Much of that tone depends on Heidi's supernatural experiences, but she remains grounded because of her on-air banter with the two Hermans. In a rare pleasure for modern screen actors, Zombie gave the team three weeks of rehearsal time – almost as long as the actual shoot. He wanted them to establish the kind of bonds that only sitting in a stinking studio for hour after hour can build. He says, "I thought, 'It's going to be really awkward to have them not rehearse, walk in, and pretend they're some kind of on-air comedy team.' ... The way they talk over each other, the way they don't talk. I thought, 'We really need to do this a lot, or their rapport on camera is going to seem so fake.'" In fact, he saw this as so essential that he made it happen despite working with a microbudget. He says: "I wish I'd had a lot more rehearsal time, because I always get jealous when I read books about older movies like 12 Angry Men. 'Oh, yeah, we rehearsed for six months.'"

He also took the time and energy to shoot in Salem itself, rather than re-create its rain-soaked and history-drenched streets. He says: "The buildings are scary-looking. Everything's cobblestones; it's old. Everything seems weird." Surprisingly, the townsfolk do not run from the brutal legacy of the witch trials. Rather, "It's everywhere. The police, their logo's a witch. The newspaper, their logo's a witch. Instead of Dairy Queen, they have Dairy Witch." But it's not all broomsticks and cartoon black cats, according to Zombie. "There's this one cemetery and in the ground, in the sidewalk, are all the last words of everyone killed. 'God help me, I'm not a witch,' 'Lord save me.' What a weird fucking town."

The Lords of Salem opens Friday, April 19. Read our review of 'The Lords of Salem' and find showtimes in our Film Listings.

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