Rob Zombie knows what to do with witches... Burn ‘em!

(Momentum Pictures)

REMEMBER those 1970s Satanic cult movies by Dennis Wheatley and Hammer Horror, with hirsute middle-aged British thesps chanting to Beelzebub while naked witches cavorted lasciviously around a bonfire? The latest offering from heavy rocker turned cult director Rob Zombie actually owes more to them than you think.

Initially flashing back to 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts, we see the local coven of crones cursing the town preacher and his descendants for sentencing them to burn at the stake for their Satan-worshipping activities. This is not a film which paints witches as Earth-loving mother goddess types by any stretch of the imagination.

In the present day, recovering drug addict and town DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) decides to play a vinyl record she received in the post from a group called The Lords, only for herself and half of the local female population to be entranced by the mysterious music…

Yes, it’s the old story banded about by Christian groups as part of their campaigns against heavy metal, with the only difference being that here it’s all purported to be true. Quite why Heidi decided to share this unconventional track with her listening public is open to debate, but given some of the trash that turns up on radio playlists these days maybe she was just hoping to introduce her audience to something new.

Gradually the influence of the witches’ spell begins to grow, thanks to a supernatural sisterhood of spinsters comprising of Heidi’s landlady Lacey and her cohorts Sonny and Megan (Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn), and before long she’s seeing things and gradually going out of her mind.

Of course, local amateur historian Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) has no time for this magical bunkum and is convinced her mental breakdown is probably the result of either too much heroin in her conflicted youth or a relapse back into her habit…

Zombie’s influences are far from subtle, with nods to the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski’s Macbeth, The Devil Rides Out, Ken Russell’s The Devils, The Shining and The Exorcist, contrasting with the American grindhouse flavour of his previous films like The Devil’s Rejects and House of 1,000 Corpses.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in any horror film which spends the majority of its running time building up the psychological trauma and a sense of growing menace, he throws everything bar the kitchen sink at the final reel, culminating in Sheri Moon riding a goat like a bucking bronco.

There are some genuinely frightening moments amidst the general weirdness overkill and at-times risible dialogue, although maybe it’s time Rob stop casting his missus in his movies and broadened his talent pool?

The cinematography is very strong, and the choice of soundtrack delivers in spades, but it’s occasionally a bit try-hard, and the paper-thin plot struggles to hold up the 101 minute running time, descending into a smorgasbord of grotesqueries for much of the last act.

However, in comparison to the glut of torture porn horror flicks and mockumentaries like Paranormal Activity, it’s a breath of fresh air, and manages to be both unnerving and entertaining in a way many genre flicks fail to achieve.