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No point in burying this: Rob Zombie is the most interesting American filmmaker currently working within the horror genre.
Even before the release of his latest film, The Lords of Salem (opening in limited theaters nationwide tomorrow), that statement would've been completely valid. With his garish and unwieldy 2003 debut, House of 1,000 Corpses, the rocker-turned-director displayed a reckless sense of genre appreciation and all-bets-off experimentation that, although the movie is uneven, commanded attention. Two years later, Zombie shocked and awed critics with House's superior sequel, The Devil's Rejects, a deathly serious descent into depravity that stands as one of the best horror films since the year 2000. Where the fanboy anger toward Zombie comes from, however, is his one-two punch of divisive, narratively problematic, but visually and tonally forceful Halloween films. Whether you hate the fact that he altered the original Michael Myers we all grew up fearing or not, it's tough to deny that both of Zombie's Halloween movies are replete with cleverly staged and legitimately jolting moments of brutality.
This time, though, Zombie is a whole other kind of filmmaker, one who's more indebted to Stanley Kubrick and European genre masters like Roman Polanski, Ken Russell, and Dario Argento than any grindhouse-era artist. In The Lords of Salem, Sheri Moon Zombie (the director's wife) plays Heidi Hawthorne, a metal-loving radio DJ living in Salem who drops a needle on a mysterious vinyl LP that, unbeknownst to her, summons the spirits of the long-dead Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) and her band of witches, all of whom were burned alive during the Salem Witch Trials. That's a simple explanation of what the movie's about, but, really, The Lords of Salem is much more a mood piece than a storytelling experience. From beginning to end, Zombie maintains a bleak austerity before the film erupts into a WTF finale of devilish nihilism.
Simply put, The Lords of Salem is a must-see for anyone who likes their horror cinema bizarre and downbeat. Complex recently chatted with Zombie—who also co-wrote a Lords novelization (available now) and will release his latest album, Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor, next Tuesday—about the joys of making a horror movie with total freedom, the genre's current lack of imagination, and why narrative cohesion isn't always a necessity.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The Lords of Salem is, tonally speaking, your most surreal, nightmarish movie yet. Was that your intention from the start, or did the script evolve into something crazier and crazier as you were writing?
It kept evolving. I don't think when I first thought of the project that I thought of it in this way. As the project evolved, I found myself wanting to do this strange, dreamlike movie, the kind of thing you can only make if you have complete freedom. A studio would think you were nuts if you tried to make a movie like this on their dime, especially with the ending.
As I realized how much freedom I had, I kept veering away from the original concept to take it as far as I could.
Was that the result of having just made two Halloween movies with studio interference and involvement? Was there a feeling of liberation?
Yeah, that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do the movie. This sounds terrible, but when I came off the Halloween movies, they were very stressful movies to make. That had been four very stressful years. I'm happy with how they turned out, but getting the end results took so much fighting with people and so much craziness, that at the end of it I was so burnt out.
The thought of even making another movie was a bummer. But I knew I needed something where I had total freedom and would be able to have fun and think again without 10,00 pages of studio notes every time I turned around. So, yeah, that was a big reason for doing this film. Just to not be shackled down by the conventional thought process.
And how did producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister) get involved?
They came to me. I wasn't even aware of what they were doing. It wasn't like I had my project and I was shopping it around. I wasn't thinking about making a movie at that point—I was thinking more about making a record. They came to me and said, "We want to make a movie with you. The budget is small but you have 100% complete freedom to do whatever you want at all times. Our only sort of request is that the film be something of supernatural nature." For some reason, they wanted to keep making movies in that realm.
At that point, did you already have the idea for The Lords of Salem in your head?
I had the idea for this years and years ago, but I'd filed it away and forgotten about it. At that time, I'd only written about 30 pages of the script, and very little of that remains in the actual movie today. For the most part, once the project started going, I basically started writing it from scratch.
Being that you were born and raised in Massachusetts, was Salem a place that you visited as a kid and had an effect on you?
Yeah, we'd go there as kids. It was always a fascination; it wasn't this major thing that I was heavily interested in, but it was always there. It's not so much just about Salem—all of Massachusetts has that sort of vibe. Everywhere you go, there are old churches and old graveyards, and it's this New England-y vibe that brings to mind something Lovecraftian.
At the SXSW screening of The Lords of Salem, you mentioned that, in researching for this film, you were more intrigued by the old European witch trials than the Salem ones.
Like a lot of people, I knew about about the Salem Witch Trials but I'd never actually researched it before. So when I started reading up on them, I learned how few people had actually died, and how conventionally it had all gone down. They would basically take people out and hang them; it was a horrible event, of course, but it wasn't nearly as crazy as I'd thought. A lot of what had informed me early on was the European stuff, where they'd killed thousands and thousands in whatever crazy ways they could think of, from spiked chairs to iron masks to tarring and feathering.
That was what I had in my mind to begin with, so it turned out that I was misinformed about the Salem Witch Trials. When I really started getting into this film, I thought, well, I can just go with the European stuff. I knew that visually, as a movie, it would work much better with the European angle.
One of the things I've always loved about your films is how strong and imaginative they are visually. You always seem to put a big emphasis on coming up with the craziest and most impactful horror movie imagery possible. Are you more interested in visuals over narrative?
To me the visual is everything. What's been bothering me lately—well, not "bothering me," exactly; that's not the right way to put it. But especially in the horror genre, once a movie like Paranormal Activity comes out and becomes popular—and that's a totally fine and valid movie—everyone starts copying it. Everything becomes a found-footage movie that looks like somebody shot it with their phone.
The art of moviemaking seems to get thrown away. The cinematography is gone, and the look of everything becomes of little importance. You lose the memorable images; everything looks like it's been shot at night with a security camera. That was one of the things I wanted to bring back: that sense of memorable imagery in a horror movie.
And there's so much of that in The Lords of Salem. My personal favorite image comes from the scene in which Sheri Moon's character gets, let's say "assaulted," by a trio of charred-face surgeons. Do those images just hit you out of nowhere while you're writing?
That's kind of how it goes even on set. I can picture certain things in my mind, while writing the script, but then I can also tell that everyone else might be a little confused about what it's supposed to look like at the end of the day. But it all works out. [Laughs.] I find a way.
Does that concern every cross your mind during the writing process? "How am I actually going to make this work on set?"
That's always the concern, especially with a smaller-budget movie. If you have a lot of money, you know that you can make almost anything happen, but with a smaller budget you don't have a lot of time or too many resources, so you have to conceive things in a very simple manner and make them happen fast. Sometimes you just can't, but for the most part we were able to make everything happen in this film that we wanted to.
A major factor in the film's creepiness is the totally unrecognizable Meg Foster (Masters of the Universe, They Live!) as the lead witch, Margaret Morgan. From how skeletal and messed-up she looks to the way she commits herself to every line of dialogue, she's insane in The Lords of Salem. Did you have her in mind for the part all along?
I don't remember, actually. I don't think I had her in mind, but at some point I came to think that she would work as Margaret Morgan, but even then I still wasn't sure. There was nothing that she had done in any other movie that told me she could do this. A lot of the roles she's played, she's been more down-to-Earth and regular, but then I talked to her on the phone one day and got a sense of who she really is, and that's when I felt that she would really get it.
That's a tricky role, because if someone didn't embrace it realistically, it could seem like a goofy, spooky witch. [Laughs.] And if that was the case, the whole credibility of the movie would come apart immediately, since she's the first overtly creepy thing you see from that opening scene. It would have started crumbling.
Looking back at your filmography, it's interesting to see how you started off with an extremely dark, strangely playful horror-comedy (House of 1,000 Corpses), but since then all of your movies have been wholly bleak, brutal, and laugh-free. The Lords of Salem is your bleakest film yet. Has that trajectory been intentional?
Yeah, House of 1,000 Corpses pretty much stands alone. I just needed to get that kind of horror movie out of my system, and with each subsequent film I've wanted to make it grittier and darker. Lords is definitely the most downbeat film of them all, whereas, compared to Lords, House of 1,000 Corpses is like a wacky cartoon.
That's a big reason why I'm such a fan of The Lords of Salem. It's rare to see a new horror film that has no desire to make viewers laugh in any way whatsoever. It's pure dread, right from the opening image of Sheri Moon riding in that car with the loud, humming, electronic score roaring in the background. That's something to appreciate. Is it a conscious thing on your part to make sure people never forget that they're watching a horror movie?
Yeah, definitely. I think that's because that's the way I remember horror. These days, most horror movies seem to be rated PG-13 and they really want them to appeal to a wider audience, whereas all the films I grew up watching and loving, from The Holy Mountain to Eraserhead and something like Cannibal Holocaust, they didn't appeal to everybody. They had a very heavy tone. They weren't made for everybody. That's the way I look at my movies: You can't please everybody with this kind of material. And in order to please everybody, it seems like you have to water it down so much. I don't care to do that.
At that same SXSW screening, you introduced the movie by saying, "50% of you will think this is the greatest thing ever, and 50% will hate it."
You know what? I had never said anything like that before. I'm not sure why I was compelled to say that that night. I think I wanted to let everyone there know that it's OK to feel that way about a film like Lords. It's meant to make you unsure about what you just saw.
That's the way the things that I like are—they're not for everybody. People have this delusion that everything has to be for everybody at all times. Every album must be liked by everybody, and every TV show must be liked by everybody, and every movie must be liked by everybody. Everything then becomes bland.
Sometimes the best movies, at least for me, are ones that leave viewers with this feeling of, I don't think I even understand what I just saw, but the images and mood stick with you for a long time after. You don't know what the hell you just watched, but it's not going to leave your head anytime soon.
Yeah, with a movie like this, and this is an odd statement that no studio ever wants to hear, but I think that the vibe and the feeling they walk away with is what's most important. They may still be confused by the actual story, and I don't think that matters. When Lords ends, I want people to feel like they just went through a nightmare.
I want them to say, "I think I just went through an actual nightmare, and I'm still trying to sort it out," as opposed to a movie where they can easily explain what happens to Heidi and it's all wrapped up nicely for them and they can walk out of the theater thinking, OK, everything got wrapped up perfectly for me. The movie makes sense, but I didn't want to make it obvious. There are details that people will catch the second time around that they may have missed the first time. Lords leaves you with a weird, uncomfortable, off-balance feeling. That's what my favorite kinds of horror movies all do.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)