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The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

The Devil's Rejects

by Steve Habrat

After Rob Zombie’s cluttered and distracted 2003 horror debut, House of 1000 Corpses, failed to make an impression on critics and (most) audiences, the pressure was on the horror-loving Renaissance man to really step his game up as a filmmaker. In 2005, Zombie followed up the tie-dyed House of 1000 Corpses with The Devil’s Rejects, a grimy, snarling, and absolutely humorless decent into Hell. While many have labeled The Devil’s Rejects a horror film, I really hesitate to slap that label on it, as it never really even attempts to scare the viewer. Instead, it takes a page from the exploitation playbook and just continuously crosses the line and gets right in the viewers face just to watch them recoil in disgust. This film just flat out refuses to play nice, but then again, would you expect anything less from Rob Zombie? As if this tale of murder and revenge wasn’t intense enough, Zombie makes the wise decision to force us to root for the bad guys. That’s right, this time we don’t root for some group of brain dead teenagers or even the revenge driven police officer on a mission from God to prevail over this trio of death. Nope, we are rooting for that vile and downright rotten Firefly clan to blast and stab their way across the dusty Texas plains. It almost becomes a western, with the last of the true outlaws making their final stand in the face of annihilation. It is nearly a stroke of brilliance.

The Devil’s Rejects picks up in May of 1978, a year after the events of House of 1000 Corpses, with Sherriff John Quincy Wydell (Played by William Forsythe), brother of Firefly family victim Lieutenant George Wydell, leading a group of heavily armed police officers right to the Firefly’s front door. After a nasty shootout between the police and the Firefly family, Baby (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis Driftwood (Played by Bill Moseley) manage to escape capture, but Mother Firefly (Played this time by Leslie Easterbrook) isn’t so lucky. Baby and Otis quickly get in touch with their father, Captain Spaulding (Played by Sid Haig), who agrees to meet up with his children so that they can plot their next move. While waiting, Baby and Otis find shelter at a rickety roadside motel and to amuse themselves, they immediately take a traveling band hostage. Spaulding suggests that they flee to a local brothel called Charlie’s Frontier Town, which is overseen by smooth-talking pimp Charlie Altamont (Played by Ken Foree) and his simple assistant Clevon (Played by Michael Berryman), both of which are friendly with Spaulding. Meanwhile, the relentlessly brutal Sherriff Wydell is hot on the group’s trail and he plots a trap that will bring down the rest of the Firefly family once and for all.

There is no doubt that the best part of The Devil’s Rejects is the opening fifteen minutes of the film. Zombie starts things off with a gritty early morning shootout and let me tell you, that shootout is just plain awesome. It is cleanly shot, in your face, and suspenseful from the first shot fired. It certainly proves that Zombie could do all-out action if he really wanted to. After wasting one character and capturing another, Zombie launches into an equally cool opening credit sequence set to The Allman Brothers Band “Midnight Rider” all while the picture keeps freezing to announce cast and crew members. It looks like it was ripped out of the coolest exploitation film from the 70s that you never saw. This opening sequence shows us that Zombie really means business this time around and that he is abandoning the psychedelic approach of House of 1000 Corpses in the Texas sun. From here on out, the film is relentlessly intense, but it never really ever becomes scary. There are sequences of gruesome torture, both mental and physical, but they don’t ever fill us with terror. Instead, they just make us massively uncomfortable, but that is exactly what Zombie wants to do.

The Devil's Rejects #2

Much like House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects is overflowing with colorful creeps to make your skin crawl. Moon Zombie is much better this time around as the giggling Baby, who can be all smiles as she seduces her victims one minute, only to snap into a demon-eyed banshee the next. Moseley is busy channeling Charles Manson as the stringy haired hippie killer Otis Driftwood. He is absolutely fantastic and wildly memorable as the grizzled outlaw who enjoys stuffing his gun barrel down the underwear of one poor woman and carving the face off one of another male victim. Then there is Haig’s Captain Spaulding, who once again manages to steal the entire movie. The first time around, we only saw a few glimpses of how sinister Captain Spaulding could be but here, he is 100% evil. He can be darkly hilarious as he terrifies a small child and he can be surprisingly soft as he howls along with Baby for some tutti fruity ice cream. We also have cult legends Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) as Charlie and Clevon, two shifty pieces of work who enjoy snorting cocaine and bickering about having sex with chickens. Last but certainly not least is William Forsythe as Sheriff Wydell, a stone-cold man of God who may actually be worse than the Firefly clan. He will stop at nothing to trap his victims and when he finally is staring them down, he resorts to some of the nastiest torture out there.

What ultimately turns The Devil’s Rejects into a winner is that Zombie doesn’t appear to be preoccupied with trying to overstuff the film with references to other horror or exploitation films. He is much more subtle this time around with his tips of the cowboy hat. Most of the references here come in the form of cult actors Foree, Berryman, Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000) and even P.J. Soles (Halloween), all of which will have seasoned horror and grindhouse buffs chucking to themselves but never overly distracted. One of my only complaints about the film is the fact that Zombie trimmed the Dr. Satan sequence from the film, something I never thought I’d be complaining about. If you have a copy of the DVD, it is worth checking out this particular deleted scene because it actually grounds the whole Dr. Satan thing in the real world, at least in my humble opinion. Overall, as a tribute to old exploitation thrillers and grindhouse revenge flicks, The Devil’s Rejects is a homerun. It is a twisted and erratic western that can be unbelievably brutal, but never very scary. This is a modern day exploitation classic and a masterpiece for Rob Zombie.

Grade: A-

The Devil’s Rejects is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

House of 1000 Corpses #1

by Steve Habrat

Way back in the early 2000s, I can distinctly remember several of my friends whispering about shock rocker Rob Zombie directing a horror film that was so scary, the studio was thinking about shelving the project all together. Being someone who liked Rob Zombie’s music and was a fan of horror movies, I was instantly intrigued by just what the horror-obsessed rocker would come up with. Finally the day came when House of 1000 Corpses was released to the public and believe it or not, I never took a trip to the theater to see the movie. I finally saw House of 1000 Corpses during the summer of 2005, right before I went to see Zombie’s second feature film The Devil’s Rejects. I had read the largely negative reviews of film and I had even talked with a few people that had seen it and simply shrugged their shoulders at it, so when I rented the film, I had insanely low expectations as it began. As the film sped through its brief eighty-eight minute runtime, I found myself actually impressed with several segments of House of 1000 Corpses and chuckling at some of the blatant tips of the hat to other classic horror movies (everything from The Creature from the Black Lagoon to The Munsters to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is in there). It certainly was an inimitable vision from a man who had infinite amounts of potential as a horror/cult filmmaker. It was a blood soaked sampler of all the horror films that Zombie loved, but a number of disjointed moments and cheap jolts kept the film from truly striking fear in the viewer’s heart.

House of 1000 Corpses begins on October 30th, 1977, with four teenagers, Jerry Goldsmith (Played by Chris Hardwick), Bill Hudley (Played by Rainn Wilson), Mary Knowles (Played by Jennifer Jostyn), and Denise Willis (Played by Erin Daniels), traveling the Texas back roads in search of wild roadside attractions and macabre local legends. The group stops off at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen, where the meet the fast-talking Spaulding (Played by Sig Haig) himself. While exploring Spaulding’s funhouse, he sparks the group’s interest in the local legend of Dr. Satan, who is supposedly responsible for the mysterious disappearances of the area. The group suckers Spaulding into giving them directions to the area where Dr. Satan is supposed to reside and while traveling the back roads, they pick up beautiful young hitchhiker Baby (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie), who claims to live nearby. As the group nears Baby’s house, their tire is blown out, forcing them to take shelter at Baby’s rundown farmhouse. Shortly after arriving, the group begins meeting various members of Baby’s family including her mother, Mother Firefly (Played by Karen Black), her half-brothers Rufus (Played by Robert Mukes) and Tiny (Played by Matthew McGrory), her adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Played by Bill Moseley), and her Grampa Hugo Firefly (Played by Dennis Fimple), all of whom are gearing up for creepy Halloween festivities. As the hours pass, the group begins to fear that they may not be permitted to leave the Firefly home alive.

It really won’t take the viewer long to figure out that Zombie has lifted the plot from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and then fed it a heavy dose of LSD. After the acid has kicked in, it feels like Zombie pried its eyes open with the device from A Clockwork Orange and forced it to zone out on endless hours of Universal’s classic monster movies, episodes of The Munsters, forgotten television horror hosts, and stock footage of seedy peep shows and the Manson family. It then spirals into a kaleidoscope of warped images and repulsive shocks that hint at other, better midnight exploitation movies, B-horror cheapies, and real-life serial killers. You could honestly fill a review with all the movies that Zombie pays tribute to. Yet there is something strangely admirable about how Zombie wears these influences on his sleeve. It’s clear that he absolutely loves these movies, he just has a hard time funneling all of these references into one cohesive idea. Instead, he just shoots all over the place, eager to spring redneck funhouse shocks on us while also unleashing a group of underground ghouls that look like they would be more at home on stage with him during a rock show rather than a scruffy horror outing. It really should have been one way or the other.

House of 1000 Corpses #2

What has really lured the cult audiences to House of 1000 Corpses are the eccentric cast of creeps drawn up by Mr. Zombie. By far the best character in the entire film is Haig’s Captain Spaulding, a cackling madman clown who never seems to be at a loss for words. A word to the wise, never get the idea to hold up his flashing little roadside attraction. Another classic character would have to be Moseley’s Otis Driftwood, a foul-mouthed hillbilly maniac who takes charge of every situation and dispatches his victims in the most brutal ways imaginable. Together, Haig and Moseley ride off into the Texas sunset with the entire picture. Karen Black will make you uncomfortable as the dotting Mother Firefly, a woman who stands firm behind her Halloween traditions. Sheri Moon Zombie’s Baby will have you gritting your teeth as she chuckles like a deranged schoolgirl. You can tell that Moon Zombie is pretty inexperienced here and that she has a lot of growing to do as an actress. Meanwhile, Wilson and Hardwick are likable enough as Jerry and Bill, but Hardwick (yes, THAT Chris Hardwick) ends up falling into the amateur category when going up against the infinitely more talented Wilson (yes, THAT Dwight Schrute). Jostyn and Daniels are pretty forgettable as heroines Mary and Denise and weirdly, Zombie asks us to root for Daniels in the final twenty minutes. Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Night of the Living Dead (1990)) also memorably shows up in a small role as Lieutenant George Wydell.

I honestly don’t think that House of 1000 Corpses is a terrible horror movie. It really isn’t. It just isn’t nearly as scary as it was hyped up to be and it tries to pay tribute to way too many horror movies. It almost feels like Zombie feared he would never have the opportunity to make another film so he overstuffs it. The film would honestly have fared better if someone had convinced Zombie to drop the whole Dr. Satan thing and leave the mutant monsters on the cutting room floor. I won’t deny that they look really cool but it just doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film. However, there are enough spirited performances, quotable lines of dialogue, and eerie surprises (that cop-execution sequence really stands out) to balance out the weaker spots. Overall, Zombie has a vivid imagination and it truly is a start for him, but you just can’t shake the feeling that Zombie is much, much better than all of this. Either way, you won’t ever forget entering the House of 1000 Corpses.

Grade: C+

House of 1000 Corpses is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

by Steve Habrat

Before the unnecessary 1998 remake of Psycho, a film that certainly was not begging to be remade, the 90’s saw the altar of George Romero desecrated by make-up artist turned director Tom Savini’s utterly pointless carbon copy of Night of the Living Dead. To this day, every time I sit through it, I can’t help but ask “why?” To be fair, I suppose we are still asking that very question today, as we’ve seen every classic remade or re-envisioned. Astonishingly, Romero is listed as an executive producer here, further making this finely tuned machine even more enigmatic especially today due to his outward disapproval of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead slips up from its perfect execution, maddening tweaks to the story, and, well, the use of color. The film is vacant of any real terror and it seems touched by Hollywood, especially the electric guitar and synthesizer score that distractingly bellows over the arguing between the iconic characters. What made the 1968 Romero classic such a landmark was it’s rough around the edges presentation, never shying away from what it really was: an unapologetic horror film with attitude. Savini misunderstands that the film itself posses the anger and the characters were there simply to guide it along its path. Here, Savini makes every character angry, while the studio grabs the film by the hand and leads it along, leaving it’s furious independent sensibilities behind to be eaten by the make-up heavy undead.

Night of the Living Dead ’90 has no place in the era that it was made. It wasn’t a time that was gripped by panic, fear, violence, and uncertainty. Stripped off all its political and social relevance, there is no reason for the dead to walk other than for Hollywood to showcase their latest special effects. The storyline for Savini’s contribution is basically the same, a dysfunctional brother and sister, Johnnie (Played by Bill Moseley) and Barbara (Played by Patricia Tallman), take a road trip to visit their deceased mother’s grave. Upon arrival, several ghouls instantly attack them and the irritating Johnnie imitation bites the dust. Barbara frantically makes her escape to an remote farmhouse where she bumps into zombie killing juggernaut Ben (Played by Tony Todd), testy Harry Cooper (Played by Tom Towles), Harry’s cooperative wife Helen Cooper (Played by Mckee Anderson), and the young Tom (Played by William Butler), and his frizzy haired girlfriend Judy (Played by Katie Finneran). The bickering group attempts to board up and defend the farmhouse from the restless corpses who lurk outside. The group soon falls victim to their own unwillingness to work together, forcing them to make a desperate final effort to survive until morning.

About the only contribution this film makes to the annals of the horror genre is a profession approach to the source material versus what Romero, then a novice filmmaker, produced in 1968. Everything here is a notch more ornate, which makes the events seem preposterous and inane. Some of the zombies border on demonically possessed human beings much like what was found in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. They wear cloudy eye contacts and have yellowed skin. Some have their stomachs sewn up while other animated corpses loose their garments due to the slits cut into the back of the clothing so they could be easily dressed. It looses the “they are us” echoes that resonated through the original. The film attempts to drive the “they are us” idea home, giving the line to Barbara who slips it in at climax. Romero’s zombies were never this intricate, making the ghouls assaults all the more unfathomable. What has happened to these individuals? These are our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Here, they seem like filler background characters. They are the furthest things from “us”. The ghouls resemble Halloween decorations you toss out into your front yard.

If the fact that you are sitting through the remake of Night of the Living Dead is maddening enough, the acting will send you through the roof. No one in this film brushes a subpar performance, with characters that find themselves frenzied who shouldn’t be and characters making drastic turns in their personality. Barbara, who in the original film was sent to a state of shock and never fully returns, snaps out of her catatonic state and becomes a pistol packing sex symbol. It’s awkward. Ben is all melodramatics, shrieking to the heavens when he dispatches a contorted zombie heap. Why would he be kneeling out in the front yard shouting at the sky? You’re going to attract more zombies, you dumb ass. Ben also appears to be looking for a fight in this version. I preferred him as the calm and collected individual who pushed back only when he was pushed far enough. Helen Cooper remains largely the same given she is only a minor character and Harry is still his difficult self. He insists everyone stay in the cellar and refuses to help board up the windows. Judy and Tom, the confused youths caught in the middle of the warring pairs, act like dimwitted hillbillies. Judy is always blubbering yet somehow she pulls it together to drive the getaway truck to the gas pump on the property. Don’t get me started on the alteration made to how the truck is engulfed in flames. In 1968, it’s an accident. In 1990, it’s just plain stupidity.

Night of the Living Dead 90 is amusing for all of the references to the 1968 original. The alterations still make reference to the original film, the most obvious is the scene where Harry and Helen’s daughter Sarah (Played here by Heather Mazur but made famous by Kara Schon) rips her mothers throat out with her teeth opposed to dispatching her dear old mum with a cement trowel. As she eats at her mother’s neck, blood splatters across the cellar wall where a cement trowel hangs. It doesn’t help that Sarah resembles as large colonial doll done up like a vampire. It’s not nearly as traumatic as the original death scene. The film also relies on more gore to keep the horror fans glued to the action. There are more infected wounds on the zombies, more gunshots to the head that end with a shower of brains leaking down their foreheads, and charred bodies are munched on. The original only showed brief glimpses of the savagery, mostly leaving the truly vile stuff to the imagination. Savini, who was a photographer in Vitenam and did gore effects for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead opts the sadism to be up close and personal.

This film is largely forgotten for a reason. I’d bet money on the fact that many do not know a remake of the Romero classic exists. This film lacks any attention-grabbing camera work, every shot remaining immobile. Romero may have been a new kid on the block in the filmmaking neighborhood, but he filled his work with artistic camerawork and some fairly bizarre Dutch tilts at inimitable times. Romero knew how to creep us out and make his film an atypical nightmare. There is none of that here and it’s as if Savini was reading from a “How To” book on filmmaking. It’s a simple wide shot, medium shot, close-up, repeat. He never takes a risk and the only brush with risk is the nod to Dawn of the Dead at the end, in which Barbara joins a merry gang of hillbillies hunting the ghouls and making a party out of it. The film is also sluggishly edited together, another departure from Romero’s classic. He applied frantic, pithy editing that bordered on visual nails on a chalkboard. It honestly made me squirm the first time I saw the original. It added another layer of intensity. This film wouldn’t know intensity if it bit it on the ass. Night of the Living Dead ‘90 is flat, artless, and minimal, banished to the murky depths of horror for good reason. Hopefully, it never rises up like on of its undead protagonists to see the light of day or the black of night again. Grade: D-

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