Film Review: The Lords of Salem

Shock rocker turned filmmaker Rob Zombie pits an emotionally fragile radio personality against a coven of undead witches in his fifth feature. The result is genuinely creepy if not jump-out-of-your-seat scary.

Recovering crack-addict Heidi LaRoq (Sheri Moon Zombie) co-hosts late-night talk and music show "Salem Rocks" with velvet-voiced Herman Jackson (Ken Foree) and best-buddy Herman "Whitey" Salvador (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips), who'd clearly like to take their relationship to the next level but maintains the status quo rather than risk destroying their friendship with an ill-timed pass.

All things considered, Heidi is in a pretty good place until a mysterious record—yes, vinyl—is delivered to the station without information other than the band’s name, The Lords. Heidi doesn't much care for the snippet she listens to with Whitey, but it's a natural for their audience participation segment “Smash or Trash,” which coincides with an on-air interview with local author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), who's plugging his new book about the history of witchcraft. No one in the studio has any idea how oddly the cut affects their female listeners, who are apparently too bewitched and bewildered to bother calling in, but Francis is thoroughly unnerved by it and starts nosing around, as writers are wont to do.

Heidi, meanwhile, is assailed by deeply disturbing dreams so vivid she begins to lose track of when she's awake and when she's asleep: Did that kindly priest really turn into an slime spewing rapist? Has someone or something moved into Apt. 5? Landlady Lacey (Judy Geeson) says no—in fact, she claims to despair of ever renting "the dreaded 5"—but Heidi is sure she saw someone going in, and her sweet dog has taken a ferocious interest in the place.

Heidi's so wigged out she doesn't even notice the naked, filthy crones crouched in the shadows of her own funky-chic home. Is Heidi nuts? Yeah, probably. How many not-nutty chicks do you know sleep beneath a blow-up of the man in the moon squinting angrily at the rocket ship stuck in his eye (a call out to Georges Melies' 1902 A Trip to the Moon) or have bleeding posters in the bathroom? But just because Heidi’s a little crazy doesn't mean that Lacey and her friends Megan (Patricia Quinn, The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Magenta) and Sonny (Dee Wallace) aren't reincarnated witches up to no good.

Is Rob Zombie the Woody Allen of horror auteurs? The cast of Lords of Salem says yes: Anyone who can assemble a group of actors who range from Sid Haig, Michael Berryman, Ken Foree and Andrew Prine (one-time star of the psychedelic horror freakout Simon, King of the Witches) to Davison, Maria Conchita Alonso and Meg Foster is clearly someone actors respect. And Sheri Moon Zombie's performance as the increasingly terrified Heidi is genuinely unnerving. Her descent into hellish madness verges on the painful to watch.

Like Zombie's previous movies, The Lords of Salem has the look of a low-budget '70s horror film down cold, and it's packed with allusions to genre classics and cult favorites, from 1960's City of the Dead to The Tingler (1959), Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Shining (1980). Predictably, it's driven by a kick-ass soundtrack, though Zombie's breadth of reference is impressive, skipping effortlessly from Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light" to W.A. Mozart's Requiem in D Minor and the Velvet Underground doubleheader of "Venus in Furs" and "All Tomorrow's Parties." The surprise that he's no longer just a skillful synthesizer of vintage horror tropes, though his variations on The Shining's unnervingly plastic spatial logic is impressive. The Lords of Salem won't do anything for genre fans looking for the next Saw, but it's got creep factor to burn.