Less inferno than slow burn, Rob Zombie’s retro witch thriller “The Lords of Salem” has plenty of portent but not much payoff. Likely to disappoint die-hard fans of “The Devil’s Rejects” and other Zombie atrocities, this milder brew still has ’70s-esque style to spare and sports a likable lead perf by Sheri Moon Zombie as a DJ seemingly spun by Satan’s spawn into the lower depths. Theatrical play will pale beside the pic’s ancillary afterlife, although “Lords” isn’t potent enough to rule in either realm.
With torture porn having been snuffed out many moons ago, 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 helmer’s narrative dead end here registers not as a lack of nerve so much as a lack of imagination.
Following 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 blonde dreadlocks), who lives in a rundown Boston apartment, and co-host of the latenight “Salem Rocks” show, thinks she sees someone or something moving around the unrented unit down the hall. Then at work, she gets an ancient-looking vinyl platter from a band called the Lords that freaks her out even more.
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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 crackpipe, 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 Matthais (Bruce Davison) puts him in the company of three middle-aged women (Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson) so antiquatedly 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 farther, as the pic simply poops out around the 90-minute mark, leaving an end-credits sequence where an ending ought to be.
In terms of tech credits, “The Lords of Salem” has its virtues. A handful of setpieces 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. Brandon Trost’s color-bleached widescreen cinematography is particularly well suited to rendering the heroine’s dingy abode and the city’s autumnal chill. 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.