Metal rocker Rob Zombie's second career as a filmmaker proved he was just as capable of unsettling showmanship behind the camera as he was onstage. His frightening "House of a 1,000 Corpses" hinted at the spectacular portrait of depravity that came next in 2005's "The Devil's Rejects," which got so intimate with serial killers even some dedicated genre fans felt it crossed a line. Zombie's two "Halloween" remakes, however, found less favor, which means it's time for a comeback. With the effectively creepy "The Lords of Salem," Zombie reaffirms his capacity to tap into the genre's strongest qualities.
A decidedly spookier achievement than his earlier films (possibly due to the involvement of "Paranormal Activity" producers Oren Peli and Jason Blum), "The Lords of Salem" stars the director's wife Sheri Moon Zombie as Heidi Hawthorne, a spunky radio DJ in the sleepy Massachusetts town who hosts nightly talk show with her pals Herman (Jeff Daniel Philips) and Herman (Ken Foree). A recovering drug addict, she lives out her frumpy life in a rundown apartment marked by shadows and an eerie hallway.
The omnipresent gloom isn't the first indication that evil lurks. With a cheesy intro set in 1692, Zombie makes it clear that a group of witches once engaged in depraved nude antics in Salem's woods; by implication, it's clear that eventually this will somehow manifest in the present. But their invasive vessel is a clever twist on the usual incantations around the cauldron: a mysterious LP shows up at the radio station, bearing Heidi's name. Curious, the hosts play the record, first in the privacy of their own home and then on the airwaves. Each time, the redundant trance music has a hypnotic effect on Heidi as she slowly loses her grip on reality. Clearly, the spirits of the witches want her for some devilish end, and Zombie has fun with letting that ghoulish mystery hang in the air.
Soon enough, Heidi finds herself stalked by menacing figures devoid of faces and a comparatively innocuous goat, while requisite witchcraft scholar (Bruce Davidson) becomes aware of her predicament and scrambles to alert her. Zombie too often gives into the tendency to let the soundtrack overemphasize the scares, but his nightmarish visuals transcend the hackneyed narrative. The witches' agenda comes secondary to the freakish ways that Zombie depicts it, including a montage of mayhem that's profoundly disturbing for reasons that have nothing to do with their context.
Zombie's vivid imagery includes bleeding walls, bodies lurking in the shadows, and some first-rate creature effects that compensate for the lack of ingenuity through the artistry of their design. Brandon Trost's cinematography accentuates the proceedings with an expressionistic color palette that reaches its apex during a hellacious encounter between Heidi and a bite-sized tentacled demon, a wild moment that outdoes everything else in the movie.
Set to the deafening roar of opera music, the scene relates to Heidi's forced involvement in a bizarre mating ritual that blatantly knocks off "Rosemary's Baby," which "The Lords of Salem" also brings to mind for its steadily grim atmosphere. By its more unhinged later scenes, however, Zombie has entered a realm of gothic abstraction that suggests a harsher Alejandro Jodoworsky. It's fascinating to watch even as the story unravels into pure gloom and doom.
Heidi's downward spiral works as a reasonable analogy for the changing tides of addiction; it avoids portraying insanity in assaultive terms in favor of a slow descent. That's enough to make "The Lords of Salem" impressive in parts rather than having a cumulative effect. Despite an enjoyably cryptic turn by Judy Gleeson as Heidi's suspicious landlord, there's nothing about the threat Heidi faces that doesn't feel overly familiar. Zombie's witches aren't as scary as the credible psychopaths he has portrayed before, but "The Lords of Salem" contains enough frenzied imagery in its climactic moments to make the spell linger.
Criticwire grade: B
Editor's note: A version of this review ran during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. "The Lords of Salem" opens nationwide on Friday.