Shock-rocking filmmaker Rob Zombie injects his familiar brand of trippy horror with some dark local color in “The Lords of Salem,” a portrait of vengeful occult torment that pushes hard to redefine the meaning of “witch trials.”
Sheri Moon Zombie, the director’s wife and regular troupe member, steps into a bigger, nominally saner role as Heidi Hawthorne, a Salem radio DJ facing a destiny a whole lot darker than the death of FM. When a release by an unknown act called The Lords shows up at the station, Heidi and her fellow studio hepcats (Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree) give the funereally throbbing disc a spin on the air. Little does she realize that she and practically half the women in town have now fallen under the satanic spell of modern-day witches. Seems that some locals have held on more tightly than most to the grisly memory of those centuries-past executions — and they’ve decided it’s payback time.
There are echoes of Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” in all of this that are impossible to miss. Gloomy as the film renders its Salem scenery — has that whimsical “Bewitched” statue downtown ever looked so ominous? — it’s nothing compared to Heidi’s spooky old apartment house. Love the ode-to-Melies wall décor, but still. And what’s with the landlady (Judy Geeson, a lifetime after “To Sir, With Love”) and her little tea circle (Dee Wallace, “E.T.,” and fun-as-ever Patricia Quinn, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”)? Kindly and cultured as they appear, it turns out they’ve got everything in common with their ancient, feral coven matron (Meg Foster, undressing the part). Pity poor Heidi and her demonically suitable birthing hips, not to mention her one clued-in acquaintance (Bruce Davison of, amusingly, “The Crucible”).
Even in his work on the “Halloween” franchise, Zombie has always shown a preference for weirdly unsettling depravity over scares delivered with a jolt, and he gives that inclination free rein here. The further Heidi falls, trance-like, in thrall to the witches, the more visually and tonally crazy “Salem” becomes. You half expect Ms. Zombie to cap the Polanski riff with a Farrow-esque cry of, “This is really happening!”
We’re with the movie when Heidi fires up a crack pipe while listening to Berlitz French tapes — “Ou est, puff, la salle de bain?” — trying in every way she can not to lose her grip. We start wondering if we’re catching things right when (potential protest alert) she’s assaulted in a church — or just in her own mind. But good luck keeping up at all with the kaleidoscopic rush of blasphemer’s-delight surrealism that accompanies Heidi’s final descent.
There’s a hypnotic quality to a chunk of the film that’s undeniable, and a definite kick, considering the theme. But there comes a point where inaccessibility breaks even the most potent genre spell.