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'Salem' has scares lost in confusion

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

You get the idea that “The Lords of Salem” would be a lot scarier if you could tell what was going on.

Rob Zombie's latest film piles on the satanic imagery, with lots of chanting, witchcraft and a genuinely evil slice of rock and roll. He pays homage to movies he obviously loves, such as “The Shining” and “Rosemary's Baby,” and has an entertaining cast that includes Bruce Davison and Judy Geeson.

And, since the main character is a recovering addict, the divide between what is real and imagined is meant to be blurred. But the divide between what's comprehensible and what isn't is immense, and too big a problem to overcome.

The film stars Zombie's wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, as Heidi, a DJ on a late-night radio station in Salem, Mass., where the sun, evidently, never shines. She's part of a show with her friends Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree). They play music, but, this being Salem, they also talk about witchcraft and have guests who either play death metal or write books about the witch trials.

One day, a mysterious package arrives for Heidi, a wooden box addressed to her from “the lords.” It contains a record, which, when played, not only disturbs Heidi but causes her to have visions of the witches in the 17th century. (John 5, the guitarist in Zombie's band, provides both the spooky song and the film's soundtrack.)

In flashbacks, we learn that some of those put to death were real witches, and before being burned alive they cursed the women of Salem and their children's children's children, etc. (These are hideous, naked crones, by the way, filthy and vulgar in all respects as they perform their various rituals.)

So we are presented with an admittedly intriguing prospect for a horror movie: Either the witches are coming back for their revenge or Heidi's addictions are returning to haunt her.

Rob Zombie, who also wrote the movie, throws in an enigmatic landlady (Geeson) and her relatives (Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn), who have a little more than hospitality on their minds (though, in a rather charming touch, hospitality is a part of what they offer).

Davison plays an author who has written about the trials who suspects something weird is up (it's the ominous cut on the album Heidi receives that tips him off).

Some of the imagery is memorable, in a twisted-horror kind of way. Zombie has no trouble scaring up atmosphere. But other scenes are ridiculous, unintentionally funny, particularly one he builds up to ominously, only to give us a silly payoff.

Zombie, whose other films include “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil's Rejects,” has a clear love for horror films. But as “The Lords of Salem” reinforces, he's just not very good at making them.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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