The Size of Your Love: The Psychological Effects of Violence in the Horror Films of Rob Zombie

Rob Zombie is out of step with contemporary horror movies—and his films are all the better for it.
Willow Catelyn Maclay

3 from Hell

As far as horror movies go there aren’t many texts more sacred than  John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). It kickstarted the entire slasher boom of the 1980s and sky-rocketed one of the greatest genre filmmakers into stardom. Many fans watch Halloween religiously every time the holiday rolls around and to this day the image of Michael Myers still carries cultural weight. Everyone knows what “The Shape” is and audiences are still flocking to cinemas to see this character slaughter helpless teenagers. Rob Zombie’s take on the character in his 2007 remake is reviled. He took this figure that didn’t have a backstory or any depth beyond a singular image of shadows, a long knife, and a mask, and gave it new context. No one wanted it. Critics argued that it strayed too far from Carpenter’s initial movie or were put off by Rob Zombie’s own brand of trauma and grief-infused violence. The Weinsteins produced Zombie’s Halloween films and the director was miserable the entire time. They didn’t trust Zombie and even though the first film came out of the gates swinging at the box office it quickly fell off when word of mouth on Zombie’s vision for Michael Myers proved toxic.  Zombie’s experiences were even worse with the second film.  He had final cut taken away from him when the producers saw the film and realized that Zombie had made something closer to Halloween: Fire Walk with Me than a mindless slasher sequel. On the audio commentary track for the director’s cut release of Halloween 2 (2009), Rob Zombie stated that it was a miracle that his cut of the film ever saw the light of day. He ran into problems from the outset when he made a “Laurie Strode film” instead of a Michael Myers one. Halloween 2  was massacred by critics at the time and has only recently begun to be rediscovered by some as a major work of horror filmmaking. After this film Rob Zombie has had a more difficult time finding financing for his movies and the release schedules of his directed works have been scattershot and neglected. His newest feature, Three From Hell (2019), is advertised as a special event from Fathom, but with a three-day-only cinema run and a  home video release soon to follow in October, I can’t help but see this as another example of Zombie’s movies being misfit children in an age of art-house drama in horror drag.

Rob Zombie is out of step with the current climate of horror filmmaking. We live in a day and age when horror films and superhero movies are the only universal truth at the box-office. These horror films almost unanimously make a profit because they’re cheap and teenagers have historically always flocked to the genre. But horror movies are in a conservative rut this decade. The term “elevated horror” has been bandied about for art-house directors like Robert Eggers (The Witch) and Ari Aster (Hereditary), who make bloated films that reach for the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski and land somewhere in the vein of slick student filmmaking that renders all of the psychological elements of their craft obvious and overwrought. If these films do attempt to create any scary or chilling elements they’re usually foreshadowed with the subtlety of someone sneaking behind you and firing off an air-horn.  Zombie’s films are more complicated, with a filmmaking grammar that feels sleepier and comfortable in the conversational aspects of real characters relating to one another with casual discussions of things like family vacations or ordering pizza. He breaks these moments up with severe violence, and because we’ve spent time with these characters in quotidian moments of relaxation the grief of losing them feels heavier. Zombie even renders his villains in a similar light. Around the mid-way point of The Devil’s Rejects (2005) the film takes a strange turn and pivots from a horror film into that of a road-trip movie, as if the Firefly clan of serial killers took the camera for themselves and charted their own journey with bone-deep sincerity. There’s even a moment where Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) teases her own brother Otis (Bill Mosely) about tutti frutti ice cream that feels downright charming until you realize that not ten minutes earlier they were brutally murdering a group of people in a hotel room. What Zombie offers as a filmmaker is a lived-in quality for his characters that complicates our relationship to the violence on-screen.

The Devil's Rejects

By analyzing violence in this way Rob Zombie’s work has a distinct understanding of trauma. In his two Halloween films and The Lords of Salem (2013), this takes on a distinctly feminine tone. In slasher movies the “final girl” archetype frequently dominates the storytelling, but little to no weight is usually present in whatever emotional and physical turmoil these characters experience in the after-math of their life and death situation. Such movies are structured like roller-coaster rides: they’re thrilling, but ultimately hollow. Where Rob Zombie differs—and this is what made his Halloween films so distinct—is his acknowledgement that trauma and violence lingers. There’s no saving the day and moving on with your life if you have experienced this much horror. It creates a new reality where the violence you experienced dictates how you live and move through the world. In his 2007 Halloween this is rendered through the experiences of Deborah Myers. Played with great empathy by Sheri Moon Zombie, Deborah is a woman who has slipped through the cracks and is likely aware of the bad decisions she has made along the way. It is evident that Deborah is still trying to do what’s best by her children, despite witnessing the physical and emotional abuse committed in the house by her new boyfriend, played by William Forsythe. It’s easy to see the tiredness in her eyes, but she keeps moving forward for her family because she’s a mom. In her eyes, this is what she’s supposed to do, and it doesn’t hurt that Rob Zombie films her as if she is an angel with a real halo effect, making her seem like a beacon of hope in a movie that’s overwhelmed by violence. She makes the inevitable seem tragic. When she notices her son start to slip away there isn’t much she can do, and it’s miserable watching her fall. After her son is indefinitely locked away in a mental hospital, she still takes the time to visit him every day. Rob Zombie goes the extra mile by including these truly strange scenes where the audience spends time with Deborah and her pain while she is alone in her home. She watches home videos shot on Super 8mm film and thinks back to a time when everything wasn’t so horrible, and in those moments we’re supposed to feel what she feels, and there’s an anguish in knowing that this is now her present-day life. She has to live in this reality where she is the mother of a murderer and she can't go back in time to fix that problem. It’s not her fault, but it would be impossible not to blame yourself for this happening and she can’t live with that guilt. That’s a daring avenue to take in a horror movie, let alone a slasher, and moments like these continue into Halloween II.

Halloween (2007)

Halloween ends with the typical retelling of the story of Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) surviving Michael Myers after he escapes from the mental hospital, and goes on a killing spree, but the final shot is blood-curdling and foreshadows what Rob Zombie would do with the sequelThe final image is a close-up of Laurie Strode’s mouth, caked in blood, screaming and screaming until the image cuts to black as the sound of her pained voice echoes out past the conclusion of the movie. It’s an image of violence extending beyond the moment. She survived, but she’ll never be the same. That very ethos is restated in the brilliant rain-soaked stretch of Halloween II’s opening dream sequence, which sees Laurie stuck in a hospital trying to escape Myers again. She dies in the dream and wakes up screaming. She’s been having these nightmares a lot lately. She’s stuck in a traumatic loop, because Halloween’s right around the corner. She drags herself to her bathroom mirror while her body is on auto-pilot. She’s done this many times. Taylor-Compton is great at lumbering with the weight of all these traumatic memories on her shoulders, and the look on her face in the bathroom mirror, which is adorned with a sticker that reads "Wake the Fuck Up", is one of complete exhaustion. Laurie mutters to herself that “he’s fucking dead,” but she can’t really believe in those words. Here’s a final girl who survived the night, but the real battle ends up being the life she has to live from that moment forward.  

The trauma that Laurie has experienced also extends to how the movie actually looks. It’s evident in how cinematographer Brandon Trost shoots the town of Haddonfield. In the Halloween films there’s usually an amber quality that highlights all the oranges and yellows of autumn, but in Halloween II everything feels like litter. It’s a brown, overcast world where the notion of fall just means the oncoming death of winter. It’s a massive difference from the way Haddonfield looked in Zombie’s first film, which was lit up like a Jack-O-Lantern. We see the world through Laurie’s eyes,and everything is muted and dimmed. Halloween can’t be anything other than a terrible burden for this poor girl, and Zombie’s attention to her own struggles as the holiday grows closer never wavers.

When Myers does reappear to finish what he started and kill every last member of his family the violence is shockingly brutal. The camera jostles when he drives a knife into his victims in a way that gives the encounter a real feeling of impact, but Zombie goes one step further in realizing the violence as something of grief and not just chaos. He is insistent with his choices that every life means something, and that is never more obvious than with the death of Laurie’s friend, Annie (Danielle Harris).  

When Myers confronts Annie he appears like a monolith before her, she doesn’t see him. She barely comes up to his chest, and her body is swallowed up in the void-like appearance of Myers’s dark clothing and frame. When she discovers Myers she retreats, and Zombie uses slow-motion to let the moment hang on for longer than comfort would allow. Annie knows she’s about to die. The sound falls out entirely except for a thrumming hum of static. She runs, but then the screen goes to black and still images of her retreat are edited in along with sound clips of her terror. We can only hear her scream. It’s up to us to determine how she was brutally attacked. When Laurie finds her much later, Annie is covered in blood, and at the precipice of death. Laurie is despondent. She knows exactly what has happened, but she doesn’t run away. She doesn’t care if Myers is still in the house. She stays with her friend and sobs, begging her to not die. Scout-Taylor Compton’s harrowing pleas of “Annie don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I can’t live without you” sever the heart. This scene of Laurie in complete anguish over her dead friend lasts minutes. We have to sit there and feel what she feels. All of the guilt, shame, grief, and love she had for her best friend spilling out of her in wailing sobs. Taylor-Compton goes as deep as an actor can go, and it’s so easy to feel Laurie’s pain. Zombie holds the camera for an extremely long time on this scene and it’s impossible to shrug this off as a death that doesn’t matter. This isn’t a kill count movie. Annie’s life was important. Laurie only abandons her when Michael knocks down the door with a wooden axe.

Halloween II (2009)

This is a slasher film that aches. There is no enjoyment in the bloodshed here. Only sorrow, and that’s compounded later when Annie’s father, Sheriff Bracket (Brad Dourif), answers the 9-1-1 call that came from inside the house. Upon arriving, he discovers his daughter’s dead body. He’s warned by other police officers not to go in there, but he pushes them off and screams, “Where is she?!” Dourif is rigid here, barely keeping it together, a volcano of all-encompassing grief about to erupt out from underneath him—but he has to see her. He has to look at his own baby girl to know that she’s gone and when he does, he falls. A wail escapes his lips and he slams his arms down, rejecting what his eyes obviously see. He grunts “no” before finally giving himself away to what he’s feeling and he sobs for what he’s lost and how he’s failed her. That would be enough to set the scene apart in the lexicon of slasher movies, but something special happens: familiar music starts to swell in. It’s the same music that accompanied the scene where Deborah Myers killed herself while watching Super 8 movies of a young Michael after she realizes she’s lost her family.  It’s a sense memory for viewers that recalls the  tragedy of the first film, but then an image of Annie, appears on screen, no more than seven years old, holding a loving dog in her arms, with an innocent smile beaming across her face. They cut back to Sheriff Bracket laying on the floor crying, and then there’s Annie again, as a child, with an entire life to live. This is what Sheriff Bracket is thinking about during the worst moment of his entire life. Annie’s life could have been a good one, and maybe it was before that night she met Michael Myers.We have to ask ourselves these questions. We have to consider her. Bracket is helped out of the room, but he’s mentally gone. He holds himself together with a memory of his daughter, his love for her, and what made her a real person. The girl who was given a puppy. All he’ll ever have from this point forward is a memory. This is the true nature of the death of a character, but the tragedy is in losing someone who very obviously lived a life. We grieve for Annie in that moment, because her father does, because Rob Zombie’s form mirrors Sheriff Bracket’s sorrow. At that point it’s entirely unimportant if Micheal Myers lives or dies, because he’s taken just about everything he possibly ever could from Haddonfield and these people. This town will never be the same.

Halloween II (2009)

There’s a reverberating ache at the center of Rob Zombie’s movies that I find comfortable to exist within because his movies are honest about the pain that comes with having experienced violence and loss. In The Lords of Salem, that ache is the entire heart of the film. The catalyst for all of this pain is in Sheri Moon Zombie’s character, Heidi, a recovering drug addict who spends her nights as a radio DJ, and her days in the quiet solace of her own mind. Heidi’s life has slipped away from her before she even realized it and the pull to go back to using drugs is manifested through these surreal visions which bear a resemblance to the films of Ken Russell in the 1970s. Her apartment is a monument to holding onto the aesthetics of art as a means of survival. She sleeps underneath a giant mural of the iconic image from Georges Méliès’s  A Trip to the Moon (1904) and is constantly listening to the Velvet Underground, as if the band were a life-raft keeping her from drowning. Salem is Zombie’s most extravagant film and most experimental movie to date. With complete creative control and backing from Jason Blum of Blumhouse he had the ability to go wherever he wanted with this story and he chose to ground it in the real struggles of a woman losing the fight against herself. The genre elements of this film are only window dressing for the impenetrable loneliness of Heidi’s life. Much of Lords of Salem is spent traveling with Heidi as she wanders abandoned streets or sits in her empty apartment with her dog who can’t even cheer her up. If not for the surreal horror elements that frequently break up her stasis this would feel more like a movie indebted to Chantal Akerman than to the devil. At the absolute height of Hedi’s own collapse she gets a phone-call from her friend Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips) who genuinely offers to help Heidi in any way he can, and it is devastating to watch her turn away someone who cares. It was her last chance to survive. Sheri Moon Zombie plays Heidi like someone dissolving in real time. She becomes quieter and smaller until she disappears entirely. Rob Zombie does an excellent job completely understanding what his wife is doing with this performance and minimizes his camera movement with static, almost still images, of Heidi resting in the hum of her empty apartment.

The Lords of Salem

Rob Zombie hasn’t slowed down despite his abilities to finance a film cratering in recent years. 31 (2016) was crowd-funded, and Three from Hell almost went off the rails multiple times. Neither go for broke like Zombie’s best work, but they do show a resolute calm in dwelling within his own worlds. At this point in his career Rob Zombie has adopted a take it or leave it approach to his interests and his characters, many of whom still feel as complicated as those in his best films. He makes movies that challenge and probe our relationship to on-screen violence  and asks audiences to interrogate why we’re drawn to monsters in the first place. Three from Hell asks this question about the Firefly Clan, who miraculously survived a police stand-off that ended in a hail of gunfire at the close of The Devil’s Rejects. In this new film, they have a following. They’re famous, because people can’t help but be drawn to the worst qualities of humanity. It’s easy to ask the question, “how does someone do this?” and be aghast at the results, and this is something Zombie is inherently fascinated by, considering many of his movies are peppered with images of Charles Manson hanging around in the set-dressing. He probably doesn’t have a clear answer, because no one really does. As true crime podcasts become ever more popular and when Netflix is growing subscribers off of an endless diet of television shows and documentaries about people who kill, it’s necessary to ask ourselves why we’re pulled to figures who do horrible things. Rob Zombie is honest enough to be curious about this too. But he shows you the effects that this violence has on people who survived. People who now have to live in the aftermath of monsters whose images never die and the victims who fade into dust. 

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