When Rob Zombie was growing up in Massachusetts, not too far from the notorious town of Salem, his elementary school would take field trips there to see reenactments of the witch trials. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the musician and filmmaker has now made “The Lords of Salem,” which premiered Monday night in the Midnight Madness slot at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Though as a filmmaker Zombie went from such grungy projects as “House of 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects” to slicker, more commercial work like his two “Halloween” movies, this is his darkest, most unnerving film yet.
“My world exists sort of in that cult world,” Zombie said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “That is what I like, not just what I want to produce, but the filmmakers and things that I love. The ‘Halloween’ stuff, that was all well and good but it was more mainstream and I was sort of happiest just making something smaller and crazier just for the people that would like it.
“When I had a No. 1 movie,” he added, “it was like, ‘OK, fine, I had a No. 1 movie and now I can go back to making small, weird stuff.’”
“The Lords of Salem” is weird indeed. A radio DJ in Salem, Heidi (Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie) is sent a mysterious vinyl record in a wooden box that seems to exert a strange power over women whenever it’s played. The record sets off a chain of events that find Heidi spiraling downward, maybe falling back into drug addiction, but also falling under the spell of three women who have sinister plans for her.
Among the producers on “Lords of Salem” are Jason Blum and Oren Peli of “Paranormal Activity” fame, who gave Zombie a budget of around $2.5 million, the smallest amount he has ever made a movie for, but also the promise of complete creative control. What Zombie did with that control is not make the goriest, most gruesome film ever, but rather a film of a stranger power, one that leaves the audience feeling disconcerted.
“The type of movies I’ve always liked, filmmakers like David Cronenberg, David Lynch and Ken Russell, sometimes it’s not really anything that shocking on screen but you’re like ‘Why is this whole movie making me feel nauseous, what is going on?’” said Zombie. “And that’s what I was attempting to do. People who’ve seen it can’t quite put it into words. And that was the thing, it’s not violent, it’s not bloody, and as Heidi is sinking into this drug-fueled madness I wanted the audience to feel they were getting dragged down too.”
Perhaps riled up by the film and Zombie’s amusing penchant for answering questions with a simple “I don’t know,” there was an oddly cantankerous and slightly confrontational vibe after Monday night’s screening of the movie. The Q&A; ended with Zombie responding to a question as to why in his films he frequently features his wife nude from behind but never offers a frontal view of her body. “I’ll tell you why, it’s because of guys like you.” (That response got a big cheer from the crowd.)
The film’s press notes feature an indecipherably abstract director’s note and during an interview Zombie noted his distaste for explaining himself.
“There is an actual thing happening,” he said of the film’s story, “that if I had to explain it I could say, ‘This is what’s actually happening.’ But I like leaving it so people go, ‘Oh, so that’s what happened? Or is it?’ Even the actors didn’t know and they’d argue about it.”
By way of further describing the tone of the film he added, “When I was a kid, the movies that affected me were always movies that ended badly.”
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