I really want to like Rob Zombie’s movies. He’s coming from the right place. It’s just…
I don’t know, man.
(NB: Thar be semi-spoilers ahead, matey.)
I saw House of 1000 Corpses three times, I think, when it showed theatrically. I was extremely enthusiastic about it. Having been a fan of his since I got my hands on an advance copy of White Zombie’s La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Volume 1, and having really been into his whole aesthetic (graphic design, cover art, video direction, etc.), I felt like HO1KC perfectly translated everything he’d been fixated on as long as I’d followed him to the film format. Hell, you could go back through everything he’d done prior to the movie and see bits and pieces of it gestating along the way (from Capt. Spaulding’s evil clown archetype showing up everywhere to “the Professor” showing up as a duo of marching snare drum players in the video for “Dragula”).
His follow-up, The Devil’s Rejects, oddly pulls off a strange experiment: taking the subject matter of HO1KC and de-cartoonifying it. It’s almost as if he approached it as “what would a more straightforward ‘70s exploitation flick take on this look like?” There’s less stylization, and everything (and everyone) is made to look as ugly and dirty as possible. It fits what my pal Jay would describe as the basic aesthetic of the 1970s: “it’s brown and depressing.” It’s also not a horror movie. It’s presented almost as a “true crime”-based exploitation flick. Like The Town That Dreaded Sundown but with everything smeared in filth.
But it’s almost as if he had exorcised everything from his brainpan when he made Corpses. He had pushed it all out, and what was left? Rejects came out practically concurrent with his album Educated Horses, which pulled back from the horror movie excesses of his previous two solo albums, Hellbilly Deluxe and The Sinister Urge. It emphasized a more straightforward hard rock approach that seemed to mirror the Rejects vibe.
With newfound genre bona fides, he was recruited to helm a remake of the John Carpenter classic Halloween. He attempted to mesh the Rejects approach with the source material, and the “everybody is equally unappealing white trash” sensibility seemed to completely destroy the almost supernatural vibe that made Carpenter’s original work so well. Michael Myers stopped being “the Shape,” a malevolent force that his own psychiatrist believed was the embodiment of evil, and instead became a damaged kid who grew up to be a generic serial killer. While the film fell flat with me, it was financially successful enough to warrant a sequel, and Halloween II emerged. Much like the concurrently-recorded album Hellbilly Deluxe 2, the sequel (and the animated film The Haunted World of El Superbeasto) seemed too self-consciously designed to recapture some of the outrageous stylistic choices that marked his earlier work. However, given the amount of studio interference and meddling, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when it came to the Halloweens sucking as badly as they did. El Superbeasto was stupid as hell, but it was a lark, and felt like a fun diversion. Maybe he was stepping in the right direction. His trailer for Werewolf Women of the SS featured in the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse project seemed a promising indication.
But then, this.
The Lords of Salem finds radio deejay Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering heroin addict, caught up in an occult conspiracy. When a 10” vinyl single credited to “The Lords” mysteriously arrives addressed to her at her Salem, Massachusetts radio station, playing it awakens a long-simmering curse handed down by witch Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) as she and her coven were executed by Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine) in 1696: that the female descendents of the city’s women will die the “forever death” and that Hawthorne’s bloodline will see it bring forth the fruit of Satan’s seed. Heidi finds herself the victim of visions and supernatural occurrences that make her question her sanity, while boyfriend Herman “Whitey” Salvador (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) work to save her from staring too hard into the abyss. Meanwhile, Satan’s plans are helped along by a triad of witches, Heidi’s landlord Lacy (Judy Geeson) and her sisters Sonny and Megan (Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn, respectively).
The movie itself isn’t so much bad as it is frustrating. There’s so much potential here. One of the problems is that Zombie can’t make up his mind what kind of movie he wants to make, and he lacks the deft hand needed to meld stylistic approaches that initially seem at odds. See, he wants to pull off the languid style of Kubrick’s The Shining, the quirky character work of Polanski, the hyper-blasphemous pop imagery of Ken Russell and the foreboding surrealism of Lucio Fulci. But instead of seamlessly marrying these wildly varying styles, he opts for juxtaposition. This is tricky business, because if it’s not pulled off well, the juxtaposed styles don’t play against each other for maximum impact, and instead detract from each other. And sadly, the juxtapositions aren’t handled well. There are too many “this was just a dream! Or was it???” sequences; scenarios where the supernatural bleeds into the natural (sometimes literally) are meant to shock, but Heidi’s lack of noticing them turns into almost a running joke; and journeys from the everyday world into surreal occult terrain don’t seem to have any noticeable effect on Heidi. The set design is great and the character design is imaginative (though portraying Satan as a baby dressed up like a boiled chicken seems like an odd choice, as is the depiction of the Antichrist as a tiny inverted starfish with Chthonic tentacles; I’m supposed to be afraid of these losers?), and it’s certainly a well put-together film. The music choices (both outside-sourced songs and the score by John 5 and Griffin Boice) are fantastic. The movie just lacks a much-needed focus.
There are also any number of plot directions that crop up that would have made for compelling viewing, but all seem to be dropped without the film settling on any one. There’s a good movie that could be made about drug addiction-induced paranoia and hallucination being confused with actual occult conspiracy: is what’s happening with Heidi real or in her mind? But Heidi’s addiction is thrown in there as a substitute for actual character building, and only really addressed in any concrete way at the very end. There’s a good movie that could be made about the playing of this record resulting in the supernatural leaking its way into the mundane, resulting in bizarre and surreal setpieces where Hell begins to become manifest on Earth. But there’s no sense of anything affecting anyone other than Heidi, and that’s of limited impact. There’s a good movie that could be made taking the “paranoid 1970s conspiracy” approach, but the matter-of-fact stylistic choices involved in that are dropped by Zombie at will and undercut by his shifting tone.
The other thing that irks me with the film is that it seems an almost desperate attempt to recapture past glories. Now, Zombie is to be congratulated for attempting a movie that is so far removed from his past work in so many ways. The film is evidence of him maturing as a filmmaker, stretching out and trying different things. But what it’s also doing is reaching back to the mid-90s, when Rob was a major force, much in the same way that his last two albums (Hellbilly Deluxe 2 and this year’s Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor) have been overtly backwards-looking works. There’s the thrift store retro-‘70s fashion styles that were emblematic of the time. There’s the fact that Herman “Whitey” Salvador is a Zombie lookalike and sports a nickname that recalls Rob’s former band. There are Heidi’s fake dreadlocks. There’s her heroin addiction. There’s the throwaway parody of Norwegian black metal, which is a whole other thing that annoyed me. Heidi and her radio compadres interview lead singer of Leviathan the Fleeing Serpent, Count Gorgann. Right there, you’ve got references to USBM act Leviathan, Varg “Count Grishnackh” Vikernes of Burzum and a sideways homage to Gorgoroth (plus, his responses to questions recalls Gorgoroth lead singer Gaahl’s presence in Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey). He also sports an inverted cross branded in his forehead much like Glen Benton of death metal act Deicide. The song played is an emulation of black metal’s most superficial aspects, and its accompanying video is completely wrongheaded for the genre. In short, it’s a parody of a genre by someone who seems to have only the most basic working knowledge of said genre.
Then there’s Zombie’s reliance on stunt casting. He seems to cast people primarily for their connection to other, better genre movies in hopes that those films’ good qualities will rub off on his. That Bruce “Willard” Davison, Patricia “Rocky Horror Picture Show” Quinn, Judy “Fear in the Night” Geeson and Dee “Howling” Wallace do completely stellar work seems to be beside the point when you take their casting in the context of other actors who appear in smaller (and in some cases, completely cut out of the finished film) roles: Barbara “Re-Animator” Crampton, Christopher “The Brady Bunch” Knight, Brandon “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” Cruz, Andrew “Simon, King of the Witches” Prine, Maria “Vampire’s Kiss” Conchita Alonso, Meg “They Live” Foster, and genre stalwarts Michael Berryman, Sid Haig, Ken Foree, Udo Kier and Clint Howard.
And finally, the main problem with this movie is its lead, Sheri Moon Zombie. If there were almost anyone else in the role, the film would have been improved to an unimaginable extent. She’s a decent physical presence at times (and not because of her attractiveness, since Zombie seems intent on making her look as unappealing as possible here), but when your lead’s best work is her playing with a dog in a clip that seems like an outtake, then there’s a problem. She lacks the ability to deliver a single line of dialogue authentically. Even small talk comes off like she’s suddenly lost the ability to know which words need to be emphasized in a sentence for it to make sense. She’s completely unbelievable, and it destroys any attempt by the viewer to identify with Heidi. There are small character moments that work, and that evidence the growth as an actress she displayed as Michael Myers’ mother in Zombie’s Halloween remake. But these are few and far between. In Halloween, she’s not asked to carry an entire film. Not even The Devil’s Rejects requires her to be the sole focus: Sid Haig and Bill Moseley share the load (and her exaggerated performance doesn’t require the naturalistic approach this film needs). But she’s simply not strong enough an actress to shoulder a lead role, particularly a role as demanding as this one.
But here’s the thing: for all that’s wrong with it, it’s still compelling viewing. I’ve sat through it twice now, just to get my thoughts together on it. And it’s held me every time. I can’t say that for either of his Halloween movies, and I’m in the second one. (At least my forearm plays a pivotal split-second role in it.) The movie is never boring, and that’s the worst sin a film can commit. The ending is so gob-smackingly out there that I’m impressed by it even as I’m disappointed in how it plays out dramatically. And most of the actors are seemingly in a much better movie than the one that stars Sheri Moon Zombie. There’s just so much here that grabs me in just the right way, and just so much here that tries to push me away. But I can’t let it go. And that’s gotta count for something, right?