Rob Zombie does not strive to make films for the mainstream horror audience or any other kind of fan of the genre for that matter. His creative output is personal as his work is very much made for himself and as a result is a very acquired taste. He is the most polarizing modern horror filmmaker who has ripped open a divide so great that the middle ground falls deep through it. On one side, there are Zombie’s fiercely loyal fans that defend his work with every given word who see him as a great visualist, and on the other side, he is shown complete and utter contempt with venomous spit berated as nothing but a hack. Despite all the stinging criticism from that side of detractors though, the writer and director could not care less and has carried on undeterred making the movies he wants to that he would like to see on screen while catering to the tastes of the adoring other half of the split.
I whole-heartedly respect Rob Zombie for sticking to his guns and I do not doubt his abilities as a director as his talent can be seen in executing startling mean-spirited set-pieces with the striking visuals he employs really hitting the mark with their impact and encasing it all in a thick dark atmosphere. He has a real flair for envisioning brutal visceral intensity. However, on the other hand his writing leaves a lot to be desired and is just some of the very worst in genre cinema. This is no substantial point to make at all, as anything that can be said about Zombie’s filmmaking career thus far both positive and negative has been said over and over time and time again by critics and fans alike. It is nothing most of you readers have not read, heard and discussed before.
Therefore, I am going to resist the temptation to give a detailed overview of the writer and director’s body of work. I will just say that I hated ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ (2003) but can forgive him for that as it was his debut feature. I loathed though his take on the Halloween series with the 2007 remake and its 2009 sequel a mythology that was just so not suited to the direction that Rob Zombie approaches his films with his usual anti-hero take on psychopathic villains. Zombie was a bizarre choice to helm such a major horror franchise when he is anything but mainstream. All three of these movies are visually stunning with some effective stand out sequences yet completely inept in the writing department. The Devil’s Rejects (2007) remains his sole solid effort due to some actually fine narrative writing but still suffered from his liking of rip-off second rate Tarantinoesque dialogue scenes though there are some memorable quotable lines throughout.
After four films, Rob Zombie's latest effort ‘The Lords of Salem’ at last thankfully puts all this to rest along with the redneck white trash characters as well only to be replaced by just unbelievable single layered ones. You can forget about narrative cohesion as well. In what is intended to be a tension filled slow burn exercise in dreaded atmosphere with the logic of dreams and flashbacks playing the part of the nightmarish imagery here there is nothing else to support it as there is nothing convincing to care about and nothing at all makes sense in an inferior emotionally unrewarding movie. Some may argue that it is all left up to interpretation for the viewer to decipher what the message really is underneath it all. I interpret it as what it really puts emphasis upon - the fact that Zombie is a TERRIBLE. FUCKING. WRITER. In addition, where Francis Ford Coppola learned after the only time casting his non-actor daughter Sofia in an important supporting role in the step down but still well worthwhile ‘The Godfather Part III’ (1990) Rob Zombie makes the same mistake of not only casting his talentless wife Sherri Moon for a stonking fifth time but in the leading role.
Set during the period of a week recovering drug addict Heidi (Moon Zombie) is a DJ at the town of Salem’s local radio station Big H Radio presenting a rock/metal show along with the Hermans Whitney (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Jackson (Ken Foree). A mysterious wooden box arrives at the station’s reception for Heidi and inside is a vinyl record with written inside on the box "a gift from the Lords". She assumes that The Lords is a band promoting themselves and playing the record back at her apartment with Whitney it starts to play backwards and she starts to experience flashbacks to a past traumatic event involving the witches of Salem who were tried and executed by being burned to death in the late 16th century. Playing the record later on the radio show in which Heidi dubs the band “The Lords of Salem”, it entrances the female listeners. Heidi now begins to have potent surreal visions of evil and Satanism and descends into madness drawing the ever closer attention of her strange landlord Lacy Doyle (Judy Gleeson) and her two sinister friends Megan (Patricia Quinn) and Sonny (Dee Wallace). Tickets then arrive at the station to be given away for a free one off gig by “The Lords of Salem”.
Zombie’s passion for horror is evident on screen in all of his films with his homages to his favourite decades of the genre the 60s and 70s but they are done with the unsubtle heavy handedness of a fanboy student straight out of film school. Here he just apes the shit out of Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968) and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ (1980) that only serves to highlight the fact of what infinitely superior works they are compared to this uninvolving jumble of imagery as they were both extremely well written stories with real characters and had a genuine emotional lending. Granted the images in this movie are interesting, as Rob Zombie has put a lot of imagination into them succeeding creatively in staging as I stated before “the logic of dreams” and satanic symbolism with the flashbacks of witchcraft and the punishment for practicing it very well staged. The mood is also atmospherically brooding enhanced by the abrasively unnerving soundtrack.
This does not alone make a film though. None if this matters when there is no story to invest in. The premise is fucking ridiculous. The concept of the backmasking of the record releasing subliminal satanic messages is uninspiring and juvenile and oh, of course, Rob, your protagonist has to be a rock DJ. Yes, we get it you are a musician and a great one too I would like to add (I love the last two White Zombie albums and all of the solo stuff) and after four movie duds I wish you would just stick to what you are best at unless you direct somebody else’s screenplay who can actually write one. Just introduced and not fleshed out the cast of supporting characters are extraneous to the proceedings and even the protagonist of Heidi is one-dimensional and this coupled with Sherri Moon Zombie’s limited range of acting skills fails to elicit empathy for her plight. There is no emotional connection at all between the film and the viewer.
There is a sub-plot involving Bruce Davison’s character Francis Matthias the author of a book on the Salem witch trials that guests on Heidi’s radio show. After hearing the record in the station, he investigates it and Heidi’s link to it. It only serves the purpose to reveal why the record only affects the female listeners and why Heidi is made the head of it all. It does not go anywhere much like the entire movie that results in a nonsensical climax that neither answers questions nor raises them to give the audience something to think about, as it is just lazy writing to fizzle out the already near non-existent narrative of the last 1-hour and 40-minutes.
I wrote in my conclusion to my review of The Devil's Rejects - “So far, in his filmmaking career Rob Zombie has been a terrible writer and a mediocre director three out of four times.” Now make that four out of five times. Zombie’s terrible scripts render him a mediocre director when he has the potential to be such a good one. I really wanted to like ‘The Lords of Salem’ as I was hoping he could pick up from where he left off with his last wholly original work with the good time that is The Devil’s Rejects. Alas, Rob Zombie’s latest effort is not much of anything as it is just a shallow pretentious load of self-indulgent hogwash - an artistic failure.
* out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
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