Shock-rocker-turned-schlock-director Rob Zombie is nostalgic for a bygone era when a woman could have near-magical influence. The protagonist of Zombie’s low-budget “The Lords of Salem” is so powerful that she can mesmerize a community just by playing a particular record on the radio.
Yes, blond-dreadlocked Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie, a.k.a. Mrs. Rob Zombie) is a 1970s-style FM DJ. She and two pals (Jeff Daniel Phillips and Ken Foree) share a late-night shift at a small Massachusetts station that is sufficiently free-form to segue from Rush to Rick James to a mysterious number that just arrived from “the Lords.” It’s on vinyl, not a flash drive, proving that the Lords are either ancient or totally trendy.
The simple, thudding tune turns out to be an industrial-style rearrangement of a ditty performed in Salem in the 1690s, when the town was lousy with witches. These wrinkled and often buck-naked Satan worshipers want to stage a comeback, and they’ve selected Heidi as their, well, medium. They intend something worse than death metal — if anything can be worse, that is.
Set over the course of a week, the movie tracks Heidi’s deteriorating psyche. The DJ is strongly and adversely affected by the Lords’ music, as well as by mysterious stuff that’s happening in the apartment down the hall. She’s possessed by creepy visions and scary nightmares — bloody babies, people with charred faces, goats — that drive her toward a breakdown.
Heidi is a recovering drug addict, so perhaps her torments are caused by narcotic cravings. Except that Rob Zombie, who also wrote the movie, has already staged a cheesy, red-tinted flashback that takes colonial Salem’s reputation for witchcraft quite seriously. He has even included that standard occult-thriller character, a scholarly expert (Bruce Davison) who comes to realize that his rationality is a liability.
Zombie winkingly suggests that music really can drive people to do terrible things, an argument usually advanced by detractors of his sort of rock. The soundtrack does include great stuff from such classic musicians as Bach, Mozart and the Velvet Underground, but it’s not used very effectively. And the music-is-evil joke doesn’t really pay off, either.
Although mayhem is inevitable, the movie doesn’t feature the relentless psycho-killer gore of Zombie’s earlier flicks. Much of the story is devoted to establishing an ominous mood, with spooky shots of the hallway in Heidi’s rooming house more common than spurts of blood.
After a while, the extended foreboding begins to feel like stalling, designed to delay the moment when the movie’s predictability becomes clear. Zombie’s scenario upholds all the usual notions of witchy thrillers, including that women are uniquely susceptible to demonic suggestion. That makes “The Lords of Salem” a weak echo of the misogyny that fueled the Salem witch trials.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
R. At area theaters. Contains disturbing violent and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use. 101 minutes.