Five films into his second-act career as one of Hollywood’s most unlikely auteurs, rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie has proven that he knows what he’s doing behind the camera. His ghoulish brand of onscreen mayhem may be thematically ugly, but the guy can compose some truly stunning images. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call myself a fan, but I will admit that the last five minutes of 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects are beautiful in their own sick, nihilistic way. All of which is a way of saying that I had high hopes for his latest movie, The Lords of Salem. Unfortunately, it’s just a witchy mess.
Zombie’s wife and frequent leading lady, Sheri Moon Zombie, headlines the fright flick as Heidi, a sassy radio-station DJ in Salem, Mass., which just happens to be the small town not too far from where Zombie himself hails from in real life. Considering the infamous hamlet’s haunted, centuries-old history with witchcraft, it’s easy to imagine that Salem, in some small way, helped to mold the director into the mad maestro of mayhem that he is today. Swell. But the town and the audience deserves better.
One night at the radio station, Heidi, a recovering drug addict with long blonde dreadlocks, a fresco of tattoos, and a groovy apartment in a creepy boarding house with an even creepier landlord, receives a strange wooden box containing a mysterious gift: a scratchy, eerily cacophonous LP from a band called The Lords. Later, at home, she puts it on, and its sinister hiss, shrill strings, and ominous incantations make her feel…strange. The black-magic genie has been let out of the satanic bottleMeanwhile, a local author and expert on 17th century witchcraft (Bruce Davison) is invited onto her show to plug his latest book. While there, he overhears The Lords’ record (it’s hard to tune out) and his occult antennae start tingling. As he starts sleuthing the backstory of this mysterious band and Heidi starts spiraling into some sort of hallucinatory possession, Zombie uses every occasion presented to fill the frame with visions of wrinkly colonial-era crones invoking Lucifer, sacrificed goats, and the kinds of Alistair Crowley images you’d find on the back of a Dio album. Some of this looks cool enough, but most of it’s just silly satanic mumbo jumbo that’s not particularly scary. The Lords of Salem’s spell doesn’t spook us. It’s a movie that’s more likely to give you a headache than nightmares. C-