Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a dreadlocked ex-drug addict DJ living in Salem Massachusetts, who co-presents a popular late night radio programme with two guys called Herman (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips and Ken Foree).

She lives with her dog and sleeps beneath a giant picture of the moon-with-a-rocket ship in its eye from Georges Melies ‘A Trip To The Moon’ …

…she falls asleep to old movies…

…and one night as she’s leaving the studio, the receptionist gives her a record from an anonymous sender known only as ‘The Lords’  that, when Heidi plays it, literally turns her life into a living Hell and revives the malevolent spirits of several long-ago burned-at-the-stake witches who are out for revenge.

I don’t want to say anymore. The long synopsis in the press notes told me way too much before the movie started and we all know that, where witches are concerned, it’s important to hold back some surprises.images

Witches have issues. And burning them only leads to malevolent curses and mucho bad news for the modern day ancestors of the people who put the witches to death. Maybe, if they’d had movies about witches back in 1700-and-whatever the townspeople would have been more up to speed and kept the burnings to a minimum. Or taped up the witches mouths. I don’t know, I’m not a Witchhunter and when I went to Witchfinder General country last year and told the hotel receptionist I was there to do some research on the witch burnings, well, the reaction was the complete opposite to fiery. If it’s possible to freeze someone to a stake, I’m pretty sure I’d still be there waiting for a penguin to dig me out.

But despite their issues, I’m a sucker for a movie about witches. Spells and curses and black cats on broomsticks will never get old in my book. And although there are no black cats on broomsticks in Rob Zombie’s latest mind-explosion ‘The Lords of Salem’, and the only spell I could count was the mysterious record that starts all the problems, there is a very definite curse.

I’ll tell you the other reason witches are cool, and get a lot of little boys into watching horror… they take off their clothes. Witches like to get naked, at least in the movies.

If, like me (when I was eleven), you ever thought selling your soul to Satan was a great idea because it would involve watching someone who looked like Ingrid Pitt’s clothes fall off… check out ‘The Lords of Salem’ and be very glad you gave the pentagram-boogie a miss. ‘The Lords of Salem’ are (mostly) muddied, naked and so old they should put their robes back on before they get a cold, which made me miss the scrubbed-clean, old and naked but-with-a-neat-comic-delivery satanists of Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’.

But what these witches do have to recommend them are three modern-day allies in the form of Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace, three wonderful genre queens who have been away from the big screen for too long, and their presence here is worth the price of admission alone.

I love Judy Geeson. She’s the reason I watch ‘Doomwatch’ and ‘Inseminoid’ whenever they’re on the Horror Channel. And when I was a kid, she and her ‘Bless This House’ sister Sally were pretty high on my list of women I want to marry as soon as my voice breaks.

I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of Ms Geeson’s movies (apart from the two I mentioned, ‘To Sir, With Love’, ’10 Rillington Place’ and Hammer’s underrated ‘Fear In The Night’) but, of all her performances I’ve seen, this one is a revelation.

Patricia Quinn (‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’) is equally fantastic. She’s all smouldering bile and raised eyebrow venom, who you should never ask to read your palm unless you want everyone to know what happens between your legs.

And ‘The Howlings’ Dee Wallace makes up the triumvirate of fabulousness (which sounds like it should have been a recurring enemy in ‘Buffy’… I may copyright that) to play the horniest of the three wyrd sisters, a flirty cougar of a witch who’d obviously much rather see at least one man she offs… well… get off before she offs him.lords_of_salem_festival_poster

Every scene those ladies are in is a pleasure to watch and anyone who’s read my opinion-piece lamenting how older actresses don’t get enough chances to play strong roles in genre movies will understand why I enjoyed seeing them in this.

But, just like the inhabitants of Salem, Rob Zombie’s movie is suffering from a curse too: the first thirty or so minutes feels very nicely constructed with some lovely character touches and a particularly engaging performance from Sheri Moon Zombie, but there’s a definite point – just after the satanic music begins to do its work – when Heidi and her dog are compelled to visit an eerie gothic church and she experiences a strange encounter with a priest. This is where the unintentional chuckles began, and the atmosphere starts to slide.

This is the curse: there are moments of black comedy in ‘The Lords of Salem’ that are obviously deliberate, but there are more than a few moments that veer into Ken Russell’s ‘Lair of The White Worm’ camp.

Having said that, part of the fun of Rob Zombie’s movie is picking up on the quiet references to other, better films: Ellen Burstyn’s stroll through picturesque period Georgetown in ‘The Exorcist’… a set (and lighting design) lifted straight out of Argento’s ‘Opera’… and a moment that doesn’t quite go the route Mario Bava took, when he executed Barbara Steele via spiky mask in ‘Black Sunday’ (aka ‘The Mask of Satan’) but that iconic piece of witch torture was obviously in Rob Zombie’s mind when he wrote the script.

But it’s not scary. If you want to feel your bowels clench while the camera takes a slow crawl along a shadowy corridor, Ti West did it much better in ‘The Innkeepers’.

I really wanted to like ‘The Lords of Satan’ more than I did, but I’ll still heartily recommend it (only with a few provisos)

If, like me, you have a nostalgia for old skool horror, a neat spot of witch-burning, the birth of an octopus-devil child not unlike the mutant Isabelle Adjani squirted out in Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ and some taking-a-goat-for-a-walk-on-a-leash, you will have a blast watching this movie. There’s also a neat little gore sequence, a creepy over-the-top performance from an unrecognisable Meg Foster (‘Masters of The Universe’) and something strange that happens between Sheri Moon Zombie-in-fright-makeup and some kind of demonic midget that shoots out tentacles.

On that basis, what’s not to like? Sure, it’s a flawed film that hits the cliché button a little too often (I hate ‘it was just a dream’ sequences almost as much as I hate found footage) but there are some terrific performances to enjoy and a balls-out style of direction and storytelling which, even at its most “aw, come on! You’ve gotta be kidding me!” should be admired for its audacity.

The big problem is that, with the exception of Ms’  Geeson, Quinn and Wallace, ‘The Lords of Salem’ just isn’t as bewitching as it could be. There are enough good ideas here to have made an intriguing film, but Rob Zombie pushes it too far. When ‘The Lords of Salem’ is slow-burn, during the first Act of the story, it’s full of promise. By the end, it feels like a missed opportunity.

If you’re into witches, check it out. But, for the witch-inclined, ‘Night of The Eagle’, ‘City of The Dead’, ‘The Witches’ and ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ are far better films. And if you want to see a family movie that’s not only scary and deliberately funny but also has an interesting point to make about the whole nasty Salem witch-killing frenzy, take a shudder at ‘ParaNorman’.

And read ‘Conjure Wife’, Fritz Leiber’s book on which ‘Night of The Eagle’ was based.

Still, in Rob Zombie’s defence, although he puts his wife Sheri Moon through the mill, at least he avoids the icky ‘what’s up with that real-life relationship?’ factor I often feel when Dario Argento directs his daughter Asia.

You’ll enjoy ‘The Lords of Salem’, but it’s not magic.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white