Rob Zombie’s blood soaked epic is perfect Halloween time viewing if you have a strong enough stomach for the ride.
The first part of the story is House of 1000 Corpses. House is a surreal and tripped out homage to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. With part 2 of the tale, The Devil’s Rejects, the influence this time is gritty 70’s thrillers like Straw Dogs and Deliverance. Similar to what Quentin Tarantino did with his Kill Bill epic (released around the same time) the two different styles incorporated work well to tell one large story but function as separate movies just fine. Where Corpses is loaded with tripped out visuals, a fun house color scheme, and gonzo set design; Rejects is much more realistic in its visuals and keeps the palette firmly locked on dusty, dirty, and grim.
First up is House of 1000 Corpses and unfortunately Rob Zombie’s audacious first movie has not aged well from it’s 2003 debut. It was one of the first of the brutal horror genre (“torture-porn” to detractors) and predated both Saw and Hostel by a year. Watching it now when The Walking Dead routinely shows violence just as graphic, House of 1000 Corpses comes across as remarkably thin when the violence (while still strong) doesn’t carry quite the same punch as it used to. The movie isn’t bad, especially if you have a soft spot for grade Z exploitation schlock from the 70’s and 80’s, but there just isn’t much to it. Odd vignettes, over reliance on filters and snap zooms, and meandering scenes make the slim 88 minute runtime feel longer than necessary.
Taking place over Halloween in 1977, an irritating group of college kids stop off at Captain Spaulding’s (Sid Haig, sporting an absolutely disgusting set of chompers) Museum of Monsters and Mad-Men (and gas station/fried chicken emporium) and get sent on a detour to find the hanging tree of a local legend named Doctor Satan. The “kids”, including Rainn Wilson and Chris Hardwick, are annoying and you don’t feel a great deal of sympathy for them. Especially Hardwick’s character who can’t keep his mouth shut at the worst times to have it open.
Eventually the kids run afoul of the creepy, ooky, and all together spooky (homicidal devil worshipping psychopaths) the Firefly family [snap snap]. There’s mama Firefly (Karen Black), Grandpa (Dennis Fimple, this was his last movie), Tiny (Matthew McGrory), Baby (Sherri Moon-Zombie), Rufus (Robert Allen Mukes), and Otis (Bill Moseley). The family is equal parts scary, mundane, and off putting but never boring. Once the kids enter the house you know they aren’t getting back out. The scenes before the mayhem, when the family becomes more and more unhinged are the most effective in the movie. Once their true nature is revealed the movie gets increasingly crazy until all internal logic is thrown out to be replaced with total mayhem and chaos.
The problem with this approach is that what starts as a reality based horror film eventually introduces elements of the supernatural that don’t fit in to what came before. Once the ending sequence begins and Zombie finally leaves the editing tricks behind and focuses on unleashing one horror after another on the survivors and audience, House of 1000 Corpses is remarkably effective at getting under your skin. I just wish there had been a bit more of that inventiveness through the rest of the movie.
For the sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie throws out all of the supernatural elements to focus on a brutal story of revenge and family. Rejects came out a mere 2 years after Corpses but the maturity and assuredness of his direction and writing is so strong it may as well have been a decade later. For my money, this is the best movie of Zombie’s career to date. There are some elements that keep it from achieving true greatness but for the most part The Devil’s Rejects is a sick thrill ride and the better half of what is a two part story.
Rejects starts a few days after the events of the first movie. Sheriff Wydel (William Forsythe) leads a raid on the Firefly family homestead taking mother Firefly (here played by Leslie Easterbrook) in to custody but Baby and Otis manage to escape. Sheriff Wydel is obsessed with destroying the family after they killed his brother, George, and commissions a manhunt to find the siblings. Within the first few minutes of the movie Zombie makes it clear Rejects is not merely going to be Corpses 2. The color palette is muted down, gone is the over decorated set design, there is a realism and mundanity of evil on display that Corpses never had. Make no mistake, Rejects is still horror and in many ways far more disturbing then Corpses, but it’s a total departure from the fun house hell of Corpses. Interestingly it doesn’t refer to the events of Corpses at all other than the death of the Sheriff. None of the victims are mentioned outside of the kidnapped cheerleaders. There is a deleted scene showing Doctor Satan in a hospital under police watch but it was cut from the movie, and wisely so.
For all of Bill Moseley’s great lines in the first movie, there wasn’t a lot of other memorable dialogue for anyone else. That all changes here. William Forsythe is given badass gems like “This is what the good lord would call a ‘Cleansing of the wicked’” before his men unleash a barrage of bullets on the house and its occupants. Most of his dialogue is made up of hardboiled declarations that are both ridiculous and deeply cool. The whole cast, made up of genre stars including Ken Foree, Danny Trejo, Priscilla Barnes, PJ Soles, Geoffrey Lewis, and Michael Berryman joining the returning Bill Moseley, Sherri Moon-Zombie, and Sid Haig, are all given some great material to work with.
Rejects is a brutal and profane film. The violence isn’t stylized or fantastical and it is very hard to watch at times. More than in Corpses, the viewer sees who the Fireflys are without any outsiders and its fascinating and frightening at the same time. The ease that Baby and Otis have with killing is disturbing to watch and a middle section that sees them terrorize two couples in a seedy motel room just for kicks may be too much for some. Not because it’s violent visually, but the mental and emotional component is so off-putting and downright demented. Massive props to Bill Mosely and Priscilla Barnes especially for absolutely going for broke in a scene of sexual violation that is jaw dropping in its depravity. Rejects isn’t really first date night material,unless you’re dating (or are) a member of the Addam’s Family.
At its heart, The Devil’s Rejects is a road movie about family and freedom. On one hand you have the obsessed Wydel doing absolutely everything in his power to bring down the fugitives for the murder of his brother. On the other you have the Fireflys who don’t care about anyone but each other. It’s interesting that the truly explicit violence that is shown happens to Otis, Baby, and Captain Spaulding.
Watching it back to back with Corpses it becomes clear how much is paralleled between the two movies, the difference is in Rejects the Fireflys are the “victims” with a world of pain and suffering brought down on them. Even though they deserve everything that happens in the last reel the movie has set the Rejects up as sort of folk heroes, living off the grid and thumbing their nose at civilized society. The moral is an inversion of the American dream where you have true freedom to do and be whatever you want. Of course their version of freedom is kidnapping, torturing, raping, mutilating, and murdering dozens and dozens of people but the underlying sentiment is the same. Rejects doesn’t have the same level as dark humor as Corpses but still finds some moments of levity keeping the whole story from being too heavy.
Taking together, Zombie’s magnum opus tale of the Firefly family is a touchstone to so many of the genres and films that Zombie obviously finds inspiration. Even though the journey starts off a bit rough, stick with it for the powerhouse finale. All in all there are worse ways for horror hounds to spend 3 hours on Halloween.