This may be terrifying news to Rob Zombie fans, but after years mining the 1970s for gunky shock moments, the musician-turned-filmmaker has emerged as an unusually sensitive director of actors. Let’s not begrudge him the leap. The Lords of Salem, his latest, has witchcraft in mind—how could it not? Yet after its unpersuasive 17th-century intro, crammed with all the cackling around the bonfire you could want, the movie settles into a far more intriguing modern-day story about Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie, the director’s main squeeze), a late-night rock DJ with a cute dog. She slings on-air sass with her cohorts and barely notices the spell she’s unleashed after playing a haunted vinyl record that arrives at the station in a wooden box.
Relaxed exchanges among a well-chosen cast—the plot evolves from flirtatious hangouts to concern over Heidi’s increasingly strange (and possibly drug-relapsed) behavior—are so natural that it’s a shame Zombie feels the need to jerk back to convention. Rats invade Heidi’s apartment hallway (seen that before) and a strange light emerges from the unoccupied apartment a few doors down. Even as a coven assembles, the movie forgets to scare. Regardless, how can you not admire a filmmaker who’s gone from Lynyrd Skynyrd–scored gore to Kubrickian polish, the camera creeping toward maturity and maybe—in another film or so—throwing a real spell?
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