If you had told me before the beginning of this year's Toronto Film Festival that I would prefer Rob Zombie's film to Terrence Malick's film, I would have laughed in your face.

And I would have been wrong.

One thing that is important to remember when looking at ratings on my reviews is that each film exists in a vacuum.  The letter grade I give has to do with how well I feel the filmmakers have accomplished their goal with the film.  At the end of the year, my top ten favorite list might not be the list of the films that had the highest letter grades for the year because I love flawed films sometimes despite their flaws, and I've seen technically "perfect" movies that didn't do much for me on an emotional basis.  So while I think Malick's film is perhaps much more accomplished on a technical level (there's no arguing with the luminous quality of Emmanuel Lubezki's photography), it left me cold in many ways, and that has to count for something.  Beyond that, it feels to me like Malick is starting to settle into his style to the point where it's almost becoming a straightjacket for him.

"Lords Of Salem," on the other hand, represents a major step forward for Zombie as a director.  So far, I'd say he has one film to his name that works as a whole, and that was "The Devil's Rejects."  I thought "House Of 1000 Corpses" was an interesting warm-up, and it more than demonstrated how much he loves the genre.  His two "Halloween" films felt like major misfires, though.  The second is marginally better than the first, but they both suffer from what I saw a major misunderstanding of the icon of Michael Myers.  Remakes in general are tricky, especially for someone who has such a personal approach to the films he makes.  So far, there has been a unifying voice to his work, and I expected more of the same here.

To some extent, that's what I got.  Once again, Sheri Moon Zombie has a key role in the film, and Brandon Trost's photography certainly grounds this in the same sort of dirty grubby look that has marked Zombie's work so far.  Many of the cast members have been part of his ongoing ensemble, so it's not a surprise to see Ken Foree show up in a key supporting role, just as I'm not surprised by the nods that Zombie packs into the film to other genre titles and iconography.  What's new, though, is a sense of restraint, a word I would never use to describe his other films.  This is not the same sort of assault that he's mounted on viewers each time out.  Instead, he's crafted this one as a slow burn, and even when it finally kicks into high gear, it's aiming more for surreality than shock.

Sheri Moon Zombie stars as Heidi, a radio DJ who is part of a team at Salem's biggest hard rock station.  Herman (Ken Foree) and Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) are her two co-hosts, and the three of them sound like a real DJ team when they're on the air in the early sequences, annoying and hyper-jokey and basically steamrolling their guest, a local author named Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) who has put together a book on the town's history with witchcraft, meant to dispel the ongoing myths around what happened.  A box is left at the front desk of the station for Heidi, though, handcarved and containing a record that is attributed simply to "The Lords."  When they play it on the air, we see that all around Salem, women who hear the broadcast stop, immediately arrested by the sound.

The film follows Heidi through one long week, a downward spiral in which she begins to realize that the record did not accidentally show up for her, and that she may be the center of something terrible and sinister that is designed to make Salem pay for its history and for the treatment of one coven in particular, known by the people at the time as "The Lords Of Salem."  Margaret Morgan (played by an unrecognizable Meg Foster under make-up) was the leader of the coven, and a genuine force of evil, and Heidi becomes a conduit for a long-planned vengeance.  I like that Zombie uses music as a creeping force of darkness in the film.  It's a natural choice for him, and the actual music made by The Lords is disturbing and ambient and insistent.  The way Sheri portrays this slow slide into madness by Heidi is persuasive, her best work so far on film, and I hope people don't just dismiss her because she's Zombie's wife.  As she gets drawn in further and further, she also wrestles with her own tendency to addiction, something she thought she'd beaten.  That's a strong choice for this film, since it's about the way the things we think we've buried can still destroy us.  There's very nice supporting work by Dee Wallace, "Rocky Horror" icon Patricia Quinn, and Judy Geeson as three women with a very strong interest in what's happening to Heidi, the three of them all perfectly embodying a sort of sweet-faced menace.

I don't think the ending quite pulls it all together, and if anything, he's erred this time on the side of mood over something actually happening, but there's a real pull to the way things stack up in the film, one that lingered with me afterwards.  If I had to describe this using other movies as a reference point, I'd say the best comparison I could make would be to the dreamy surreal nightmare work that makes up Argento's best era as a director.  This isn't quite as powerful and deeply affecting as "Suspiria," but I'd say it's at least the equal of something like "Inferno," and that's high praise from me.  If Rob Zombie is going to continue to evolve and pursue original visions moving forward, then he may well become the sort of filmmaker whose work is so important to him, and I'm excited to see him take the step.

"The Lords Of Salem" was just purchased by Anchor Bay, and should make its way to theaters in 2013.