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The blog below was under an older name of Hollyweird. I have kept the numbering the same so that I could keep track of my posts, but this is where it all begin back in the heyday of 2012…
Growing up in the leafy ghetto of Greater London, I was quite the grunger and metal head as teenager. One band that it was hard not to notice in the metal scene at that time was White Zombie.
Fronted by the self-proclaimed ‘Hell-billy’, Rob Zombie, White Zombie stood out in a scene of numerous identi-kit Nu-Metal bands for three reasons. Firstly, Rob’s vocal style was not far off trying to sing whilst gargling gasoline. Secondly, they had meaty riffs, which is the only type of meat I still consume to this day. Finally, they had a weird hodgepodge of imagery.
This imagery was controlled by Rob Zombie. Zombie is an educated art and design graduate, and also worked full-time as Porn Magazine Design Editor. Given his wide knowledge of design, Zombie combined his various interests to give his band an eclectic look mixed up from 50’s Americana, Futurism, Universal Horror and Ed Roth’s art. Together this jumble of styles was garish but recognisable, familiar yet unique. This amalgam of trash-imagery even extended to White Zombie’s music videos- something that makes all the more sense once you know that Rob Zombie directed the band’s music videos, too.
So when it was announced in the year 2000 that Rob Zombie had his own feature film coming out, I already had a rough idea of how it may potentially look. Sure enough, after several delays, House Of 1,000 Corpses arrived in 2003 and it was in many ways it was an extension of his established style.
House Of 1,000 Corpses is a wild throwback for horror fans. It was a modern exploitation movie set in 1973, a key decade for the genre. The plot, in brief, is that a bunch of Kids are out sightseeing macabre places. They stop to get Gas and find the owner of the Gas Station is the unusual Captain Spaulding. Spaulding dresses like a clown and sells fried chicken out of his gas station. More importantly for them, he has a deep knowledge of the local urban legend concerning a mad scientist called Dr. Satan who once tried to create an army of super mutants.
The kids go looking for more on this Dr. Satan legend, but soon they ‘breakdown’ at a house nearby the murder locations. This is the house of the Firefly family. The Firefly’s are made up of freakish relatives who resemble twisted Carnie folk. Even worse, they are a soon revealed to be murders, rapists and, at a complete guess, quite possibly even tax dodgers.
House Of 1,000 Corpses has a lot of fun elements and is self-aware enough to revel in its own silliness. This is evident in its use of Dr. Satan as a geriatric Mad Scientist-come-Body-Modder, as well as the Firefly clan being named after different Marx Brothers characters. In fact, perhaps the most telling- and endearing- sign that this is not a film to be taken too seriously is that the very first character we meet is Captain Spaulding. Spaulding is a murderous clown who built a Ghost Train into his fried-chicken-selling gas station and likes to imitate John Wayne. This is hardly Ken Loach territory.
Through House Of 1,000 Corpses,Rob Zombie made a candy floss movie. A brightly coloured, enjoyable snack rather than a nutritious meal to be consumed delicately. There is certainly nothing wrong with that.
However, it is the subsequent sequel span in a new direction. This sequel, The Devil’s Rejects,has been burning away in the back of my mind for over a decade. It has always left me frustrated despite several viewings. The reason for this frustration will be explained in a moment. However, after watching both films back-to-back again very recently, I finally realised that this frustration may not necessarily be an accident. It may be by Rob Zombie’s intended design.
Released in 2005, The Devil’s Rejects picks up approximately one year after the end of House Of 1,000 Corpses. The Firefly clan are being hunted by Sherriff Wydell, whose brother George was killed in the first film. Sheriff Wydell is not just an officer of the law- he is a self-righteous force of vitriolic justice.
With various members of the family wiped out during a siege near the start of the movie, only the father Otis, his sister Baby, and their father, Captain Spaulding, are able to escape. The film focuses on both the remaining Fireflies as serial killers on the run, and also Wydell’s loss of control as he peruses them unrelentingly across dust bowl Texas. As their confrontation looms closer and closer, things get bleaker and bleaker with every passing scene.
If you are unfamiliar with either of these films, compare the rough plot synopsis that I have written and you’ll notice a remarkable shift of tone. Gone is the joy of exploitation from the first film. The sequel takes a weightier look at the horror of pure evil that humankind can do. There is no hope in The Devil’s Rejects. The only thing present is despair.
Unlike the neon-circus of House Of 1,000 Corpses, the colours of every scene of the sequel are drained out. The film is seems exclusively brown, grey and every shade in-between. Also absent are the ‘MTV’ fast editing that House Of 1,000 Corpses is loaded with. In the first film, the shocking scenes are cut with obtuse imagery or skittery shots from other perspectives. It is a jarring way to show something shocking has happened. The editing in The Devil’s Rejects though is much more straight forward and traditional. In short, the tone of the film series has gone from comic-book to snuff movie.
Now this change in tone is not the point of this blog entry. The shift is not anything that needs pointing out, it is simply a statement of obvious fact. However the point of this blog is linked to this massive tonal shift.
The thing that has previously frustrated me with The Devil’s Rejects, even from my very first cinema viewing at a midnight screening, is its ending.
House Of 1,000 Corpses ends with the bad guys getting away with it all. Downbeat endings are often exploitation standards, and since the whole film is fluff it does not feel out of place. Unfortunately, given that The Devil’s Rejects is presented as a much grittier and a somewhat more realistic film than its predecessor, its ending becomes one of very poor taste.
The end of The Devil’s Rejects involves the emergence of a presumed dead family member, Tiny, returning just in time to save Otis, Baby and Captain Spaulding from Officer Wydell’s vengeance. Tiny stays to perish rather than burden his family, and so the three escapees head off once again. As the last Firefly survivors try to get away they come across a Police blockade. They are then slowly gunned down to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song Free Bird. It is almost like experiencing a redneck version of The Wild Bunch.
“It’s a dry heat, y’all”
This ending is presents a brutal death for the escapees, and in doing so it attempts to humanise them. The entire sequence begins with swooping shots of the countryside whilst the guitars of Free Bird build.
These shots of scenery eventually give way to close up’s of their three weary, bloodied faces. They drive off in a battered state, having seemingly escaped society and the law. As they head off the song’s message of ‘personal freedom’ begins to become apparent.
As the song continues, there are repeated flashbacks to home-video type footage. In these shots we see the Fireflies as a loving family. They smile and laugh and pose together happily. These home video moments are inter cut with their bloody, almost lifeless faces. All the while the song continues to build up.
As Free Bird flows into its epic form, the Fireflies realise a Police blockade is ahead. They pick up their guns and drive straight on, choosing to go out fighting whilst the guitars twang over the soundtrack. We proceed to witness bullets rip each of them apart in slow motion as the song crescendos and the film simply fades to black.
So the final presentation of the Fireflies is of a loving family who go out like proud rebels of the Wild West….Yet barely an hour before hand we have followed these same characters as they sexually assault a woman, kill her husband, cut off his face and then force her to wear it!
Zombie’s attempt to present horrible characters in a sympathetic light at the zero hour always seemed to me to be in awful taste. The fact the audience is supposed to suddenly feel sad for the Fireflies simply because the frame rate slows down, and we see that they had fun family times too has always bothered me.
But on my most recent watching of The Devil’s Rejects, what recently clicked in my mind was, well, maybe that’s the whole darn point of the film.
Maybe we are supposed to question the technique-to-content relationship. Maybe we are not supposed just being passive viewers who accept the Fireflies defiant last stand. Just maybe we are in fact supposed to call “bullcrap!” on that whole section.
Let us take a moment to consider this; Rob Zombie makes a fun, schlock-fest via House Of 1,000 Corpses. No doubt some people could be offended by it, but for the most part it’s so ridiculous and over the top in all its techniques that it’s clearly fluff. Good fluff perhaps, but fluff.
Then Zombie follows it up with The Devil’s Rejects. This is a brutally grimy film that follows the very same characters in a far harsher light. Now these characters are stripped from their garish costumes and their cartoon world. There is no Dr. Satan here. There are no mere-men curiosities. Not even Captain Spaulding is wears his full clown outfit any more. Instead he now wears regular clothes with the faded visage of clown make-up.
Is Zombie is actually presenting a film that is not only about setting a different tone, but it is also about questioning that very tone? If so, then the The Devil’s Rejects ending begins to take on a much more interesting and acceptable bent.
The ending does not have to humanise these demons. Rather it can exist to show how film techniques can humanise demons. It all it can take is some slow motion, some pleasant cutaways and the endorsement of rock song associated with positive nostalgia.
At any rate, this is just a recent theory. Perhaps Zombie is asking us to question how we could possibly sympathise with rapists and murderers, or perhaps Zombie genuinely does expect us to sympathise for them simply because they’re ‘cool’ characters.
It is tough to know if Zombie is an artist with something to say, or a psychotic with a camera. I like to think the former given his amazing growth between the two films, but I am tempted to think the latter. After all, his next film was the atrocious Halloween remake. Oh Rob, I guess you were out to shock and disgust after all.
Next time I’ll be pondering what my old pal Jack Burton always used to say.
Thanks for reading.