Protect us from “The Lords of Salem”

ImageCertain words need to be removed from the lexicon. One of those words is cray. Another one of those words is auteur. When Andrew Sarris introduced the concept to America in 1962, he was talking about Olympian figures in cinema like Hitchcock and Welles and Ford. Nowadays, anyone with a decent cell phone camera and a YouTube channel refers to themselves as an auteur. And it looks like the latest to be infected with rampant self-righteousness is Rob Zombie.

I really, REALLY liked The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie’s “sequel” to House of a 1000 Corpses, which is an absolute mess and almost unwatchable. But The Devil’s Rejects is a gleefully repugnant piece of outsider art. It has an energy and conviction that sweeps you into its inexcusably nihilistic world of serial killers and the even more morally reptilian law enforcement officer after them. It’s so over the top, but the actors, particularly Bill Moseley as one of the killers and William Forsythe as the officer chasing him, are so convincing and perfectly ground the movie’s seriously disturbed point of view that, even though your better angels are telling you how awful viewing this can be on your psyche, your evil id can’t help but go along for the ride.

Unfortunately, Zombie’s other movies, including House of a 1000 Corpses and his remakes of Halloween and Halloween 2, while energetic, are unfocused and lack the despicably seductive anarchy of The Devil’s Rejects. But those movies do exhibit a definite visual style, namely in the grainy look and the hand-held camera work. And while occasionally pretentious, particularly his remake of Halloween and its attempt to explain Michael Myers’ psychosis through a belabored back story, it usually doesn’t overwhelm his movies.

Zombie’s latest is The Lords of Salem, a tale about a curse cast by the Salem “witches” back in the seventeenth century that seems to be coming to fruition via an overnight radio host played by Sheri Moon Zombie, the wife of writer-director Rob Zombie. She has been in all of Zombie’s movies in supporting roles, but this is the first time she is taking the lead. This is a mistake. Though she has the energy and willingness to throw herself into whatever Rob Zombie throws at her, she lacks the presence and heft to be the center of attention for an entire movie.

The Lords of Salem also marks a new visual style for Zombie. Gone are the hand-held cameras. Zombie is attempting a more classically composed visual look, but even though it’s always locked down, it’s always slowly zooming in and out of the action, as if it wants to move but being held in check. And, most noticeably, the pacing of this movie isn’t frenetic like his other work. Quite the opposite, in fact; it’s languid to the point of being soporific.

This is the work of a filmmaker making a STATEMENT. It’s not a horror movie. It’s more like an exhibit that would be projected onto a large wall at a contemporary art museum and would get certain factions all riled up back in the day. There are scenes of priests and other masked figures in vestments performing sex acts. And the movie’s climax looks and feels like the final sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I have no problem with using genre to make larger points; that’s what most genre work does and I do admire the ambition of Zombie. But The Lords of Salem is so boring! And even though I’ve been less than thrilled by much of Rob Zombie’s work, there was so much I liked in The Devil’s Rejects that I refuse to believe that he had just that one fantastic work in him. But with each passing movie he makes, I’m left feeling that I just have to be ready to be disappointed.

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