Rob Zombie has been making movies for a while now, and technically they keep getting better. The Lords of Salem is his latest, and the effects, music, performances, etc. are almost without flaw, and still the film is only moderately successful. This may be because of the death of actor Richard Lynch mid-production, which caused lots of reshoots, rearranging and compromise to complete the picture.
The tale revolves around Heidi (the director's wife, Sheri Moon Zombie), a Salem DJ, who is sent a mysterious record by a group called "The Lords". She plays the record on her radio show, which is co-hosted by Whitey and Herman (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips and Ken Foree). The somber, eerie music on the record has a strange effect on Heidi, and various other women around the city. Then, things start to get weird.
Intercut with the scenes of the modern day, sometimes as flashbacks, other times not, is the story of the real witches of Salem, led by the wicked Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster), who spent their time dancing widdershins, unclad, around fires, killing babies, and generally being evil and disgusting, ending up burned at the stake. But not before laying a curse on the Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne, his descendants, and the women of Salem in general.
Of course, movies like this don't work well without the dogged scientist or intellectual who searches for the truth about what is going on. Here, that part is played by Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), a historian who is interviewed on Heidi's show, and is intrigued enough by the music of The Lords to try and figure out just where it came from.
Once the record is played on the radio, strange things begin to happen to Heidi. Shadowy figures appear in her apartment, she starts seeing terrifying visions and having disturbing dreams, she swears that someone is living in apartment five down the hall, even though her landlady insists that it's vacant, and all sorts of other things like that. It seems that someone is trying to drive Heidi mad, or at least back to the drugs that had threatened to ruin her life. As her world crumbles, it becomes clear that a secretive group of Satanists have dark plans for her.
The Lords of Salem is beautifully shot, with great locations, fine performances and an effective score. So why does it leave the viewer feeling so empty? Sheri Moon Zombie does quite well as the troubled DJ descending into insanity. Her relationship with Whitey is realistic and touching. Ken Foree is criminally underused, but he does well with what he has. A feeling of dread and tension is created and maintained. There are a number of good jump scares and disturbing tableaux. But what we don't understand is why any of this is happening.
There doesn't seem to be any point to the events, any reason why Heidi particularly should be targeted by witches (though a nod is made in this direction), or even what is to be gained by the satanic machinations. It's all exquisitely orchestrated and finely executed, but oddly lacking in drama. All the parts seem to be working, but not toward any unified goal.
Granted, the death of Richard Lynch, and the subsequent rearrangement and changes this caused, quite possibly scrambled the story enough that comprehensibility was impossible. In the commentary, Zombie discusses several major plotlines that had to be discarded wholesale as a result. This is too bad, since his technical mastery is the best it's ever been. There is a lot to like in The Lords of Salem, but it's not as successful as it could have been. Recommended.