Horror auteur Rob Zombie and comedy maven Judd Apatow have more in common than you may think.
Apatow burst onto the scene with a series of personal comedies that channeled raunchier fare from the 1970s and 1980s, R-rated laughers like The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up.
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Similarly, Zombie rose to prominence through a pair of horror films that functioned as throwbacks to the psychedelic and grindhouse horror of the 1970s. House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects were unrelenting masterpieces of brutality—cheaply made and deadly effective, they showed the horrifying reality of a world where society’s rules are turned on their head.
Apatow’s two most recent efforts, Funny People and This Is 40, suffered a bit from bloat and self-indulgence. Funny People—which is a fine, even underrated flick—closes with a 45-minute jaunt revolving around a movie star recovering from a usually fatal disease seducing his long lost love (played by Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife). This Is 40, meanwhile, starred Mann and Paul Rudd as an uncomfortably-true-to-life couple whose marriage is falling apart.
Zombie’s latest, Lords of Salem (new on Blu-ray and DVD this week), is a more intimate affair than his previous features. It follows the breakdown of Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife), a Boston-area DJ and recovering drug addict who is given a mysterious recording from a band known only as "The Lords." Re-christened "The Lords of Salem" by the radio station, the mysterious, dark music has a deleterious impact on Hawthorne’s health, resurrects a coven of witches, and leads to death and destruction. There are few moments when Moon is not onscreen.
And therein lies the problem. It seems to me that Rob Zombie has a Judd Apatow problem: He loves his wife just a little too much.
I want to be very delicate here, for a pair of reasons. The first is that it’s uncouth to criticize another man’s lady (not to mention potentially dangerous when one of the guys you’re dealing with is the tyro who dreamed up Werewolf Women of the SS). The other is that I genuinely and truly like both Leslie Mann and Sherri Moon Zombie. In the right roles they are extremely good. But they tend to work best in smaller doses.
Mann’s pop-up appearances in Big Daddy are my favorite thing about that Adam Sandler film. Her cameo in The 40 Year Old Virgin as the out-of-control drunk driver is brilliant. But she simply doesn’t have the gravitas to carry a film for 134 minutes in an earnest feature like This Is 40.
Likewise, Sherri Moon injects a dangerous, manic energy into House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. Lords of Salem is overly suffused with the actress, however, a problem since she doesn’t do straight-laced recovering drug addict suffering from a mental breakdown as well as she does Manic Pixie Dream Devil.
This simply isn’t a role well suited for her talents, and Rob Zombie does the film a disservice by failing to recognize that fact. What is otherwise a tense and creepy film, one filled with a genuine tension that is so often lacking in modern horror movies, suffers from the lack of believability at its core.
That weakness aside, fans of Zombie will find much to be intrigued by in his latest, though those expecting a straightforward narrative may be disappointed. This is a more impressionistic picture, one that combines mental and physical distress in lurid and traumatic ways. Lords of Salem may be a misfire, but it’s still an interesting one from an auteur with much to offer a genre that has sadly devolved into a sodden mass of jump scares and knockoffs.