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'Lords of Salem' review: Artistic disaster

Sheri Moon Zombie in

Sheri Moon Zombie in "The Lords of Salem," directed by Rob Zombie. Credit: Anchor Bay Films

Rob Zombie, film scholar? I'm convinced. Rob Zombie, filmmaker? Mmmyeah, not so much.

Not judging by "The Lords of Salem," at any rate. Zombie's two contributions to the "Halloween" franchise were serviceably brutal, but the rocker-turned-director has literally lost the plot with his latest, an unintelligible jumble of images and dialogue with almost no connective thread. If Zombie were Spinal Tap, this might be his "Shark Sandwich."

Buried in this mess is one excellent idea: In modern-day Salem (Zombie was born and raised in nearby Haverhill), a mysterious band called The Lords sends a 12-inch single to WIQZ-FM -- "Salem Rocks!" -- where DJ Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie, the director's wife) promptly plays it on air. Oops! It's an industrial-rock version of a 17th century melody that awakens dormant witches. Fan base established, The Lords book a local gig.

Only a true metalhead could invent this premise, and Zombie's setup is promising. He nicely captures the night-owl camaraderie at the radio station (Jeff Daniel Phillips and Ken Foree are appealing as misfit DJs), perhaps because it's a milieu the onetime rocker knows well. Heidi, too, feels real: aging alt-chick, recovering addict, still single. Mrs. Zombie, 42, with blond dreadlocks and multiple tattoos, plays the part convincingly.

If Mr. Zombie had stuck with this narrative (indeed, any narrative), "The Lords of Salem" might have been a rock-injected hoot. Unfortunately, Zombie is more intent on cluttering the screen with his cinematic influences. He mimics the surreal interiors of Stanley Kubrick and the blasphemous freakouts of Ken Russell; he plasters Heidi's apartment with stills from the silents of Georges Méliès. Yes, yes, very impressive -- but what about the story? And the scares?

You'll get neither. There are too many dream sequences (all very bloody and rock video-y), too much yakking from a tedious witchcraft scholar (Bruce Davison) and very little of anything else. After what seems like an eternity, Zombie finally reveals his climactic monster: a small, waddling baby. Is this a nod to David Lynch's "Eraserhead"? In terms of size, scale and impact, it reminded me more of a certain Stonehenge.

PLOT A female DJ receives a mysterious album with disturbing powers.

RATING R (violence, nudity)

CAST Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips


BOTTOM LINE Rocker-turned- horrormeister Rob Zombie delivers an artistic disaster worthy of Spinal Tap. Only he's not kidding.

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