A distinctly original effort in the wake of two misshapen and much-maligned “Halloween” remakes (well, one remake and its own f**k-off sequel), Rob Zombie’s “The Lords of Salem” is a more restrained kind of grungy horror throwback than the rocker-turned-filmmaker has offered to date, at least marking a step in a different direction, if not necessarily the right one.
The director gives wife Sheri Moon Zombie her most prominent role in his films yet as Heidi Hawthorne, a DJ in Salem, Mass. who receives an unsolicited album at the local radio station from a band identified only as “The Lords.” She proceeds to give their atonal tracks some airplay, unaware that the deep thumps and low chants therein aren’t avant-garde rock so much as the result of legit black magic, casting a vague spell over every woman in earshot and causing Heidi to slowly, steadily lose her mind.
Arriving as it does in a wooden box, that mysterious LP serves as a canny metaphor for the way that Mr. Zombie, like any good auteur, pilfers from past nightmares in order to keep them alive today. Having already had his way with the deep-fried schlock of “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” “Lords” carries instead the moody slow-burn residue of Polanski, Fulci, Argento and Kubrick, and with the help of cinematographer Brandon Trost (of the classic “MacGruber”), Rob captures with perfectly grimy care the gray chill of a New England fall and the more sinister shadows that lurk within Heidi’s various haunts.
To her credit, Mrs. Zombie is asked to be far less shrill than ever before, and she does succeed at conveying a particular degree of feminine vulnerability by greater measure than simply flaunting her bare ass (which still makes its requisite appearance here). Due to her increasingly wan appearance, Heidi’s shock-jock colleagues (Jeff Daniel Phillips and Ken Foree) become worried that she might have relapsed into drug abuse, and yes, “Lords” technically beat this month’s “Evil Dead” remake to the punch in this regard, but what really counts is that Sheri sells the entirety of her living nightmare. Before she gets too far gone, though, Heidi reaches out to an occult scholar (Bruce Davison), and while she is subsequently subjected to all manner of strikingly gothic imagery, he is left to the predictable investigation into the cause of all this madness (SPOILER: Salem is a town best known for its past persecution of witches).
The scenes that make the most sense stem from your usual horror-movie B-plot, while those sequences which don't dare resemble conventional logic volley from eerie to laughable -- sometimes within the same scene. The absence of an abandoned subplot involving the other possessed women in town (among them a briefly-glimpsed Barbara Crampton) is especially felt by the film’s finale, and the catty fun with which Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn and Judy Geeson play a coven lurking in plain sight leaves one wishing that they’d had more scenes to call their own.
“Lords” builds all the same to a reliably gonzo climax, where Zombie’s music-video roots finally come out to play with understandable abandon. However, the film’s final shot ranks among its least graphic and yet most puzzling, a slap-in-the-face piece of punctuation that reminds the most accommodating viewers that, even on his good days, Mr. Zombie is really only making movies for an audience of one.