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“And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation’.”
– The Holy Bible, King James Version, Book of Exodus – Chapter 34:6-7

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Is there anything worse than wasted potential? Failure is always a possibility. In fact, it’s to be expected when trying one’s hand at a new venture; instant success is a rarity. What’s more, a successful long-term career will be, paradoxically enough, filled with a number of failures. The very point of doing something long term is to experience failure; for how else will one truly savour their success? What new ground can one break if they haven’t fallen into several pits along the way? There are few lessons as definitive as failure.

Wasted potential is something different. That’s when someone’s career is not only marked by failure, but it’s clear that said person hasn’t even attempted to learn from past mistakes. There was a spark there at the start, the opportunity for a career that would stand out and possibly innovate. Unfortunately, this would-be innovator turned a deaf ear to constructive criticism and began embracing their worst tendencies. They believe “there’s no such thing as bad” press, or perhaps they fool themselves into thinking that every criticism is a coordinated personal attack borne out of professional jealousy. Even as they continue on their downward slide, there are moments where possible brilliance could still shine through, if given the chance. But overall, they are unable to kick their bad habits and we observers can only hang our heads and lament “what could have been”.

If you follow any form of art, the above scenario is all too familiar. Whether they be the tabloid trainwrecks that are Amy Winehouse and Lindsay Lohan’s careers, the visual and hollow storytelling of film-makers M. Night Shyamalan and Tarsem Singh, or even the failed follow-up novels of author Harper Lee (who supposedly never wrote again because she thought nothing would match To Kill a Mockingbird). And yes, it is the story of (at least) the film-making career of Rob Zombie.

The self-proclaimed “Hellbilly” rocker’s transition into horror films wasn’t all that surprising. If you were even casually aware of his music, then you knew that his entire modus operandi – from song titles such as “Dragula” and “Living Dead Girl” to his very name – was chock-full of allusions to horror cinema. What’s more, he personally directed most his own videos, which were simultaneously reminiscent of German Expressionist films and William Castle schlock. Zombie’s transition into motion pictures wasn’t a possibility, it was an inevitability.

Unfortunately, his first film, House of 1000 Corpses, left much to be desired. Produced by Universal Studios, home to many classic movie monsters, it’s late-2000 release date was infamously cancelled when studio execs saw the final product. When the film was finally released through Lion’s Gate in 2003, audience reaction wasn’t much better. Similar reactions met his 2007 remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween and that film’s 2009 sequel. He started the 2000s as one of the most promising new horror directors and ended them as just of the decade’s many “gore-nographic” hacks.

But there were still flashes of brilliance. The Devil’s Rejects, his 2005 sequel to House of 1000 Corpses, was a gritty, low-budget bloodfest that broke out from its peers. It was not only warmly received by critics, it has been interpreted as one of the most complex horror films of the past decade. Even Werewolf Women of the SS, Zombie’s Nazisploitation faux-trailer for the film Grindhouse, was entertaining.

The only problem with both Rejects and Werewolf Women is that they were few and far between on Zombie’s resume. As good as they were, they were easily outnumbered and overshadowed by the mediocre material he put out on a regular basis. It looked as if Rob Zombie’s film career was looking to be another textbook case of wasted potential.

Then he made The Lords of Salem.

Heidi (Sheri Moon-Zombie) is part of a trio – with Herman (Ken Foree) and Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) – of radio DJs at a hard rock station in Salem, Massachusetts. Heidi loves her job goes home every night to an empty apartment and an ornery dog.

One day the trio are sent a mysterious record from someone addressing themselves only as “The Lords of Salem”. When they play it on the air, it has a strange hypnotic effect on the women of Salem – including Heidi. This, in addition to the presence of three mysterious women who have moved into Heidi’s building (Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Judy Gleeson), have led to a series of events no one explain. Events that will have terrifying repercussions for Heidi herself.

The most underappreciated element of a horror story is atmosphere. Be it theatre, film, literature, or even videogames – all of the “boo” moments and buckets of blood won’t mean a damn thing if you can’t create a genuine feeling of dread. Mind you, I don’t buy into the somewhat prudish idea that a splatterfest is inherently devoid of any real terror. But there’s a difference between an atmospheric bloodfest (John Carpenter’s Halloween, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds being fine examples) and something that aims to rack up a high body count (the Friday the 13th series, any number of “torture porn” films of the past decade). Just as slapstick and toilet humour don’t really make for lasting comedy, so too does shock value only go so far in horror.

That’s what makes Robert Wise’s The Haunting a classic, but Eli Roth’s Hostel a gruesome document of horror in the 2000s.

Only time will tell if Lords of Salem is regarded as a classic, but I can definitely say that it’s one of the most atmospheric American horror films in years. Rob Zombie creates a vision of contemporary Salem, Mass. that has aesthetically advanced into the 21st century, but has never shaken the infamy of its notorious witch trials. Every outdoor shot either takes place in the dark of night, illuminated by glowing neon, or with overcast skies; as if proper sunlight has no place here.

Additionally, all of Heidi’s visions and flashbacks to the witch trials are pulled off entirely with practical effects rather than CGI. This makes for a much more visceral experience when the terror appears. I imagine Zombie is someone who keeps a series of dream journals, because the imagery he conjures up here is something on which I wouldn’t want to linger very long.

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The cast are all adequate in their roles. To the surprise of no one, Zombie has once again cast wife Sheri Moon in the lead of one of his films. Given her limited range, this has often led to accusations of nepotism; for what career would she have if her husband weren’t always giving her work? However, she isn’t as terrible as folks often make her out to be. She does have personality that naturally shows itself onscreen when her characters are meant to be happy. She might not have a lot of options when portraying other emotions, but you can tell she’s trying.

The other cast members fare much better, likely due to the fact that – as per usual with a Rob Zombie film – they’re all genre film veterans. From Ken Foree and Sid Haig to Dee Wallace and an absolutely unrecognisable Meg Foster, they know how to act in low-budget horror flicks. Which is not to say they “phone it in” here; quite the contrary. If anything, they approach their roles like old suits they’ve worn many times before.

Although the film mostly succeeds in telling its story, Zombie’s biggest shortcoming as a writer continues to be his dialogue. It isn’t as bad as it used to be – the majority of the characters in this film do NOT sound like they all work at a Southern truck stop – but it’s still a bit of a wonder how the actors can pull off a lot of these lines with straight faces.

Having said that, he is improving as a storyteller. There is a storyline in this film that could have had a cliché ending that wrapped up everything in nice little bow, but Zombie instead opts for a more fitting (if slightly ambiguous) ending that stays true to the story that preceded it. Usually when I walk out of a Rob Zombie film, I wonder where the past two hours have gone. If this film signals a change in his film-making aesthetic, then I’m actually looking forward to what he’ll do next.

Grade:            B+

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