Reviews: CURSE OF THE ZODIAC and THE TOMB

Archive reviews from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · May 14, 2019, 1:44 PM PDT
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CURSE OF THE ZODIAC (2007)

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on May 14, 2007, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

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It’s a sad comment on the state of modern independent horror cinema that Frank Henenlotter is only now making his first feature in 15 years, but Ulli Lommel is getting bankrolled to crank out a new schlock shocker literally every month. Three decades seems a long time to be able to coast on being “the director of The Boogeyman”—or maybe it’s expected that people will think of the same-titled 2005 film (not the most laudable credit either, to be sure). Lommel has also been referred to as a “cult director,” and it’s a plausible tag, I suppose, since history has proven one can achieve that status via sheer volume of output (it worked for Jess Franco) or jaw-dropping wrongheadedness that, over time, can come to be viewed as lovable eccentricity (see Ed Wood). Perhaps some late-21st-century Tim Burton will one day make a charming biopic about the man who started out collaborating with the great German film artist Rainer Werner Fassbinder, had a big hit with his first American horror picture and eventually settled into an apparently comfortable living financed by the inexhaustible direct-to-DVD market.

In the meantime, we’re stuck with Curse of the Zodiac and The Tomb, both of which suck a golf ball through a garden hose. They epitomize the twin marketing hooks that are the secrets of Lommel’s recent “success”: base a movie, ostensibly at least, on either the works of a classic horror author—the latter’s full onscreen title is H.P. Lovecraft The Tomb (sic)—or a notorious real-life serial killer. Lommel connoisseurs will note that this is actually his second recent feature about San Francisco’s unsolved slayings, and he must have had kittens when he realized he had made his Zodiac Killer (2005) two years too early to exploit the publicity surrounding David Fincher’s much-praised big-budget feature. The solution? Whip out another Zodiac picture, this time centering on the actual maniac rather than someone inspired by his crimes. The fact that as a result, each film’s title really belongs on the other is neither here nor there.

Curse alternates between scenes of the bald-and-tattooed-headed Zodiac doing his bloody thing and a subplot involving young San Franciscan Natasha (Cassandra Church), who—everybody say it together—has frightening visions of his crimes. She winds up seeking help from a writer who has been receiving steady missives from the murderer, and who is not named except by the Zodiac in these voice-overed letters, in which he calls the guy “Fatfuck” with such regularity that it descends into ridiculousness and then tedium before the movie is half over. These monologues are also jam-packed with misogynist, racist and homophobic invective that would be offensive if it wasn’t so laughable and laughable if it wasn’t so offensive.

The Tomb, on the other hand, continues Lionsgate’s apparent “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy on knocking off its own landmark Saw franchise. Curse co-star Victoria Ullmann here has the lead role of Tara, who wakes up imprisoned in…well, less a tomb than a filthy, dark warehouse, full of candles and pentagrams and dolls and other paraphernalia that are good for spooooooky close-ups. A succession of further victims are literally dropped into the chamber and tormented by a deep-voiced, unseen “Puppetmaster,” and since none of this has anything to do with Lovecraft’s story, Tara is led to determine that their abductor has a fixation on the author, given his random referencing of names like “Charles Dexter Ward” and “David Pickman.” All that is just a distraction, though, from the main plot, in which it takes a long time for anyone to try to escape from the “tomb,” and even longer for Tara to realize that, hey, perhaps her predicament just might stem from the fact that, in childhood, she subjected a young acquaintance to an imprisonment almost identical to the one she and her new “friends” are undergoing.

Lommel’s writing on Curse seems non-existent; all the dialogue sequences play like improv exercises by a first-year acting class. His Tomb script, meanwhile, is full of noodlings about fate and the darkness of the human soul that never coalesce into anything resembling coherence. But the deficiencies of the screenplays pale in comparison to the headache-inducing indulgences of Lommel’s filmmaking, especially in Curse—a welter of flash cuts, image pixilation, rapid-fire montages, double exposures and other directorial masturbation that fail to create the intended tension, and instead suggest that the movies have been kidnapped and tortured by a psychopathic Avid editing program.

Listen to the Curse audio commentary by Lommel, producer Nola Roeper and editor Christian Behm (who has cut many of Lommel’s recent features, but not Curse), and they’ll tell you that this ability to visually massacre a film is the greatest cinematic innovation since the invention of sound. Seriously—they believe that the new realm of digital manipulation allows for a return to pure visual storytelling, and they may be right, but this group has a long way to go before making a case for it. Those curious about how bottom-of-the-barrel flicks like these get made should be sated by Curse’s talk track (the Tomb DVD is bare-bones), and some may get a chuckle when Lommel rhetorically questions what would happen if he went on trial and a jury viewed his movies. Having rendered my verdict, all this juror can say is that I’ll be skipping the director’s forthcoming chronicles of the Baseline Killer and Son of Sam that he mentions in the commentary, both coming soon to clutter the New Arrivals shelf of a video store near you.