Rob Zombie is a hack. He has no business making horror films. Grossness and incomprehensibility dominate his writing. And when it comes to directing, he’s no Wes Craven. Yet people keep throwing loads of money at him to make more of these terrible movies. It has to stop.
The story of how the completed House Of 1000 Corpses took three years to get released is certainly more interesting than the actual film. Initially shot in 2000, it was picked up and subsequently dropped by two nervous studios before Lionsgate flung it into theatres in the Spring of 2003. They should’ve buried it instead.
Set on October 30th and 31st, 1977, two young couples make a pit stop off a Southern highway and stumble upon Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters & Madmen (he also offers fried chicken) right next to a gas station. It’s a happy coincidence because Chris Hardwicke (with really bad hair) and Rainn Wilson (pre-American Office) just happen to be working on a book about unusual roadside attractions. Like me, their respective girlfriends (Jennifer Jostyn & Erin Daniels) could care less. They’re even less enthused about the museum.
Spaulding (the memorable Sid Haig who deserves better lines) is a demented, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered clown who can handle himself. (Before the foursome even arrive, His Coarseness singlehandedly takes down two dimwitted robbers in a truly random sequence that has nothing to do with the main story.) He runs a tour (the only good thing about this movie next to hearing The Ramones) that resembles a Tunnel of Love attraction showcasing famous mass murderers in recent history. One character, the fictional Dr. Satan, stands out so much for Hardwicke & Wilson they want to track him down. (His supposedly dead body is missing so presumably he’s actually alive and in hiding.) So Spaulding draws out an impromptu map that will supposedly lead them directly to him.
Instead, on a dark and stormy night, they pick up a cute hitchhiker (Sheri Moon) with an annoying high-pitched laugh. Shortly thereafter, someone shoots out one of their tires. Because Hardwicke screwed up, there is no fully inflated spare to replace it. So, they end up temporarily staying with Moon and her highly dysfunctional family.
Moon’s longhaired psychotic brother Bill Moseley considers himself a prophet of some sort but good luck understanding anything he says. Their mother Karen Black takes a liking for some reason to the sadly irritating Hardwicke who is thankfully much more likeable and funny these days on his @Midnight program. (His cameo in Zombie’s Halloween II is so much better than his entire Corpses performance.)
After dinner where we meet the rest of the clan, bizarrely they decide to put on a show complete with staging and lighting. Grandpa (Dennis Fimple in his final onscreen performance) tells snippets of a really awful dirty joke (the even worse full version is shown in rehearsal footage on the DVD). Then, Moon pantomines I Wanna Be Loved By You. (She’s obsessed with old Hollywood starlets.) Hardwicke and the family appear to be the only ones enjoying this. After Hardwicke’s gal pal takes offense to Moon moving in on her man, show’s over. Imagined tension arises followed by a doomed attempted escape.
Unbeknownst to our forgettable heroes, this family, like the cannibals in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, love to torture and kill. (Before they even arrive, they content themselves with tormenting several high school cheerleaders they’ve kidnapped.) One by one, the numbers start to dwindle until we’re inevitably down to the Final Girl.
Meanwhile, Daniels’ dad Harrison Young realizes something is wrong because, despite a courtesy phone call letting him know they would be late, the foursome don’t arrive at his place as planned. Along with local law enforcement (William Bassett and Walton Goggins) helping him out, they get the full story from a still agitated Captain Spaulding and unwittingly walk right into a trap.
House Of 1000 Corpses is a great title in search of a great story. Beyond the briefly disturbing museum tour, the film is more of an endurance test than a frightfest. Because of numerous cuts made to get an R-rating from the ever maddening MPAA, we are thankfully spared from being subjected to even gorier moments. In this case, the MPAA did us a favour.
Zombie’s meandering, unfocused screenplay throws in clips of a fake late-night UHF cable program called Dr. Wolfenstein’s Creature Feature Show which serve no purpose other than to eat up a few seconds of screen time. The opening titles function more as a demented music video for Zombie’s surprisingly listless title song. And there is way too much time spent getting to know this murderous, unoriginal family before our dopey heroes fully realize the clichéd danger they’re in.
Add to that some pretentious visuals and an unwanted cliffhanger ending and what you’re left with is an ignominious debut.
Ten years after House Of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie unleashed his fifth theatrical feature, The Lords Of Salem, an even less coherent work. Sheri Moon (his real-life wife) plays a Rush-lovin’, dreadlocked DJ in recovery from heroin addiction who is sent a bizarre gift. It’s a rather thick 12″ record sent by “The Lords”. Moon does a popular nighttime radio show (not believable once you hear it) with Jeff Daniel Phillips and Ken Foree which features a regular segment called “Smash or Trash?” Upon playing the record, she has, shall we say, an adverse reaction, while a number of female listeners are hypnotically stunned. (The song sounds like an out-of-tune Velvet Underground badly covering The Tea Party’s The Bazaar.)
Over the course of several long, tedious days (the pacing of this movie is so glacial), she starts to fall apart. She has one too many peculiar nightmares, one of which involves her performing forced fellatio on a priest. (Disgusting.) She sees an unfriendly someone in a supposedly abandoned apartment across the hall from her and her dog before the door slams shut. She becomes transfixed by a neon cross after being somehow lured inside that same apartment. Outside, she watches as some odd character walks toward her with a goat (or was it an illusion?). Her downstairs neighbour (or is it her landlord?) introduces her to her “sisters”, one of whom gives her a rather lewd palm reading. Unsurprisingly, she ends up breaking her sobriety.
Bruce Davison does a good job playing an author of a book on the Salem witch hunt. Conveniently, he’s the guest on the same radio show the DJs play that strange Lords track. Intrigued, he conducts his own private investigation and learns that Moon’s bloodline stretches all the way back to a witch-obsessed minister in the 17th Century. After meeting with Seinfeld’s Richard Fancy, another author who’s an expert on American witches, he learns that because the minister had a specific “coven of six” burned to death (their constant chanting (“blasphemous music” he calls it) drove him particularly crazy), they placed a curse on his future female descendants as well as all the women of Salem, Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, we don’t learn this crucial, not exactly persuasive detail until about halfway through the film. It’s clear why Zombie delays it. If the scene comes any sooner, he’d have a short, not a feature, and a predictable story. So, this gives him an excuse to fuck with the audience for a while as he presents a number of underwhelming scenes as real only to have Moon immediately wake up from them dragging the story out needlessly. We could also be spared her dull interactions with the bearded Phillips.
Like House Of 1000 Corpses, The Lords Of Salem (another great title) suffers from poor plotting that’s plodding. The very first scene reveals a fatigued Moon barely able to keep her eyes open while being a passenger in a moving car. Snippets of a radio talk show play in between a few opening credits. Because the film doesn’t steer back to this particular moment, it’s a meaningless random scene never addressed again, a Zombie trademark. (Hearing the tuneless Lords song is what causes her drowsiness we later discover.)
Right after, we get a flashback with that letter-writing, witch-obsessed minister and meet that clothes-hating group of Satan worshipping witches (led by a completely unrecognizable Meg Foster who I sincerely thought was a man at first). It’s not clear what the women do that’s all that threatening besides kissing the devil’s butt, hate on Christianity, lick and spit on babies (wait, that was one of Moon’s dumb dreams) and hope he’ll grace them with his presence as they dance and cackle in the nude. Looking back, you get the feeling the minister’s only real beef with them is they refuse to keep the noise down.
It isn’t until much later that the connection is finally made between all these characters, but by that point, the movie has given us little reason to be emotionally involved or unsettled. (Regarding scares, I can only remember two effective moments and they are modest ones at that.) Not only does it fail to hook us right away, it also takes way too long to not pay off.
As a result, The Lords Of Salem is overly mysterious because not much of its thin story can be reasonably explained. (How exactly is the 17th Century minister being punished when he’s already been long dead for more than 300 years?) Stripped to its essence over time, it eventually reveals itself to be just another revenge thriller with not much dread and a whole lot of hokum.
Zombie’s a sucker for cheesy, uncomfortable dialogue and like House Of 1000 Corpses and his Halloween remake, The Lords Of Salem is saturated with it. From the gross, “slut” shaming witches to the deeply unfunny radio trio, listening to the potty mouths of these characters grows weary over time. Zombie’s definitely no David Mamet. There’s just no poetry in his filth.
By the time we reach the bizarre ending which features more unexplained nudity, pseudo masturbation, a devilish little person and a possible tribute to Alien (the second one, by my count), whatever little sanity existed in this story has long since disappeared. Not even the Velvets’ timeless All Tomorrow’s Parties can rescue it. (Venus In Furs, another standout track from their 1967 debut, pops up in a meaningless scene with Moon and Phillips earlier on.)
One can easily forgive a bad movie in a filmmaker’s catalogue if it is an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment. But after seeing four Rob Zombie movies, all terrible, I see a stubborn pattern of dreck. There is no lapse in judgment. There is no judgment whatsoever.
From here on out, it would be best if Zombie’s ugly imagination is kept to himself.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, October 26, 2015