Less inferno than slow burn, Rob Zombie's retro witch thriller
With torture porn having been snuffed out many moons ago, Rob Zombie hasn't picked a bad time to tone himself down. Still, as even PG-rated horror has a duty to deliver on some level, the director's narrative dead-end here registers not as a lack of nerve so much as a lack of imagination.
After a tongue-in-cheek prologue set in the late 1600s and showing a witches' coven getting burned to a crisp, we arrive in the present day, which for Zombie looks and sounds a helluva lot like 1974. Recovering addict Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie in blond dreadlocks), who lives in a rundown Boston apartment, and co-hosts the late-night "Salem Rocks" show, thinks she sees someone or something moving around the unrented unit down the hall. At work, she gets an ancient-looking vinyl platter from a band called the Lords that freaks her out even more.
Full of cacophonous bow-sawing and mumbled incantations, this patently avant-garde long-player goes out over the airwaves and puts even listeners at home in a trance. Several scares later and poor Heidi is back on the crack pipe, making it tough for the viewer to tell whether her subsequent visions of the damned are drug-induced or directed by a force even more malevolent than Zombie. Meanwhile, the exhaustive research of occult scholar Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) puts him in the company of three middle-aged women (Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson) so hospitable they could pass as pure evil in some quarters.
All of this builds to Heidi being transported by some means or another to 17th-century Salem but not much further, as the film simply poops out around the 90-minute mark, leaving an end-credits sequence where an ending ought to be.
In terms of technical credits, "The Lords of Salem" has its virtues. A handful of set pieces come on like vintage Ken Russell, with Sheri Moon Zombie, her face painted a ghostly white, looking like a human sacrifice or Marilyn Manson groupie. Rob Zombie, having proven himself a connoisseur of gloomy '60s and '70s pop rock, here delivers another killer playlist, although his pick of the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" seems a touch obvious.