The 13th Floor

Highway To Hell: Revisiting Rob Zombie’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES/THE DEVIL’S REJECTS

Ever since Bill Moseley was a guest on the Blumhouse.com-presented horror podcast, Shock Waves (co-hosted by yours truly), I’ve been wanting to go back and revisit his 2 turns as the character of Otis Driftwood in the first two films of Rob Zombie’s filmography as a director, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. With my apartment fully stocked up on popcorn, sodas and candies, I spontaneously opted to make last Friday night a Zombie night.

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Just to contextualize, I hadn’t seen either, probably, since their original releases. I recall being tremendously excited for the much-delayed HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, but 2003 was a pretty weird year for horror. The SAW cycle hadn’t quite kicked it off yet and studio genre fare was still spinning its wheels in the post- SCREAM rip-off era without any concrete voice. When I did finally see CORPSES, I recall flourishes of cinematic lunacy, much like the works of Brian De Palma mixed with Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. But overall, I was really disappointed at the time. WRONG TURN, which came out a few short months later, turned out to be the horror movie I was hoping for & expecting from CORPSES. Hey, it was fun, at least!

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In 2005, the horror landscape was shifting & we were seeing horror imports such as THE DESCENT and HIGH TENSION hitting theatrical screens. Lionsgate put those out, and Rob Zombie followed them with THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, a movie I was initially suspicious of, considering my feelings on CORPSES, but which turned out to be a nasty slab of ’70s style exploitation filmmaking executed to perfection. At the time, I thought it was a morally challenging masterpiece and the sort of movie that was intent on pushing your buttons, as well as your boundaries as an audience member. I haven’t seen either film since then and was able to approach a double feature of the two with fresh eyes, and only vague memories.

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This time around, I rather enjoyed HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES! In particular the first 30 or so minutes, which play like a bizarro version of a Tarantino flick. It’s like Tobe Hooper’s reinterpretation of the opening of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. The stuff with Sid Haig at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen is fun, Halloween-themed fodder. It’s when the “teens” enter the picture that the movie shifts its focus and direction and continues to do so through-out. And that’s the thing. What’s evident about the film is that Rob Zombie has got a lot of radical ideas, and he’s doing his best to cram them all into the confines of a 2 hour movie, because who knows if he thought he’d get to make another one? Most directors treat each movie as if it’s their last and this definitely seems to incorporate everything from Zombie’s sensibilities and personal love of the genre. From the characters, to a museum showcasing real life mass murderers like Ed Gein and Albert Fish, to an underground legend in the form of Dr. Satan. But.. I’m getting ahead of myself here.

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Much like a carnival ride, or house of horrors attraction, the shift of the “horror” changes from each segment. The main characters first encounter the creepy, eccentric Spaulding at his shop. And then while on the search for more on the legend of Dr. Satan instead stumble upon a family of crazies at a neighboring house. This is where we meet Baby, Mama Firefly, Tiny and the meanest of the bunch, Otis. The family dynamic is a strange one, almost Lynch-ian in their weirdness. Mama hits on chubby jokester Jerry. Then Baby does an elaborate dance for the group, and before you know it, they are out the door and on the run. But sadly, they don’t get far.

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We get glimpses of the cruel and unusual torture that this group endure, a group of characters which we’ve spent a good deal of time getting to know and kind of like. Then the narrative shifts to the local police investigating their disappearances. They don’t last very long, and the final girl ends up escaping and stumbling into the underground lair of Doctor Satan and his band of strange semi-human creatures, which feels very surreal, almost like something out of the final boss level of a video-game. She escapes that too only to be picked up by Captain Spaulding, still in clown make-up, in a convertible on the road with Otis in tow.

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Tone-wise, the movie’s a bit all over the place, mainly because there are so many different story threads and characters all happening at once, and for the most part, they don’t really connect other than maybe one character stumbling into the next. The first half is kind of fun, whereas the second half gets pretty dark, grim and depressing. And there are so many different stylistic choices all in play here that it’s a bit jarring. The movie looks absolutely gorgeous on Blu-Ray and the colors are vibrant and pop. But then there’s all this random VHS-style footage. Considering the 70’s time period, I’m not sure why it shifts to that, other than to give those moments a sense of “realism.” But for me personally, it actually distracts and takes away from the main narrative. Just as I’m getting into the movie, it cuts to one of those sequences. When Otis describes what happens to Rainn Wilson’s character, I thought it would’ve been far more effective if it didn’t cut to the VHS home video footage showing it. Somewhere out there, I hope someone has done an edit of HOUSE without the home video bits. I think it’d be a stronger movie that way.

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Also, can we just take a minute to appreciate this freakin’ cast now that it’s been 13 years? Of the main kids, we’ve got Rainn Wilson, who went on to much success as Dwight Schrute on THE OFFICE. That funny, chubby kid that’s obsessed with Dr. Satan and goes by the name of Jerry Goldsmith, no doubt a tribute to the great composer; I wonder what ever happened to him? Oh. Oh, that’s Chris Hardwick. The Talking Dead guy? Whoa.

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Obviously, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Sherri Moon Zombie have become indelible with their on-screen counterparts, but also Karen Black is a great member of the family, as is the late, great Matthew McGrory. The Sherriff is played by Tom Towles, and his deputy? Walton Goggins!

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Whereas CORPSES had Zombie throwing all his influences and tastes into one film, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS is a step up in every possible way and is a totally confident and sharp piece of storytelling that strips it all down to the main story. He dropped the over-exaggerated color scheme of CORPSES and opted for the gritty realism of the films of the ’70s and focused the story primarily on the remaining members of the now-on-the-run Firefly clan consisting of Otis, Baby and Spaulding, who it turns out, is Baby’s father. Also dropped is Otis’ Albino appearance, and eventually Haig’s clown visage. Hot on their trail is Sherriff Wydell played with great force by the mighty William Forsythe.

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And while in the first half, the Rejects are most certainly the villains, the sympathy shifts and we’re led to feel that maybe Wydell is no better. When he sticks Mama (Leslie Easterbrook taking over for Karen Black and absolutely slaying it) and violently violates and penetrates her with a knife, we come to the realization that we’re in a movie in which everyone is morally questionable. This is a dark tale about the bad, and the even worse! It’s not often I like to take this journey, but every once in a while, it makes for a unique moviegoing experience. And the best movies stick with us long after they’re over and make us feel something, even if some of them make us feel bad.

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I hope people recognize this, because to be frank, I’m a little scared of the people that obsessively watch this movie over and over again, and side with the Firefly clan. They are the villains, you know. Murderers. The torture they inflict on the band Banjo & Sullivan is unrelenting and unforgivable. But this movie shows us the ugliness of both sides and doesn’t flinch at any of it.

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Zombie originally had a scene with Dr. Satan, and this time around was able to understand that it didn’t make narrative sense to include it, and it also took away from the pace and plot of the main story. The leap forward in terms of filmmaking craft is evident and it’s fascinating to look back at these two movies and clearly see that they are distinctly Zombie’s vision, whether you like them or not.

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Moseley’s performance is almost night and day. He admits to not fully “getting” Otis during the first movie, and almost going for a slightly more refined version of Choptop from CHAINSAW 2 because that’s what he assumed Rob wanted. But here, in REJECTS, his performance – the look behind those eyes in just about every scene, and his delivery of the dialogue is just flawless. In particular his speech out in the dessert where he declares himself the devil, here to do the devil’s work.

The cast on the second feature is even better than the first. Seeing genre vets Ken Foree and Michael Berryman is a trip. EG Daily, Lew Temple, Geoffrey Lewis, Brian Posehn, Danny Trejo, Mary Woronov! It’s just filled to the brim with so many recognizable faces and character actors.

As a double bill, both films work really well. CORPSES has aged better than I remember, but REJECTS is still just as great as when it originally came out and shows what Zombie is capable of pulling off when everything goes exactly right. It’s a long, strange trip down a dark, dark path, but if you’re looking for something totally different, that may leave you ambivalent, yet give you plenty to discuss afterwards, I encourage you to drive down this highway to hell.

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