Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rob Zombie's Canon: "House of 1000 Corpses," "The Devil's Rejects," "Halloween" (2007), "Halloween II" (2009)

House of 1000 Corpses (2003) 
89 min., rated R.

A Fangoria subscriber's fever dream, "House of 1000 Corpses" is shock-rocker Rob Zombie's execrable film debut. The founder and now ex-lead vocalist of White Zombie figured if Dee Snider of Twisted Sister could write a sadistic horror flick like "Strangeland," he could write and direct one, too. When are Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson gonna give it a go? While it is an occasionally striking first effort with some actual vision, this gonzo gore-show showcases Zombie more as film fanboy than filmmaker. 

In 1977, a bizarro Halloween night of mayhem ensues after two loud sci-fi geeks (Rainn Wilson, Chris Hardwick) and their whiny girlfriends (Erin Daniels, Jennifer Jostyn) drive cross-country, intent on learning the Legend of Dr. Satan, make a regretful detour at an odd roadside attractions stop, Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen (for some fried chicken and gasoline). After some car trouble in the sticks in the pouring rain, a giggly, baby-voiced hitchhiker aptly named Baby (Sheri Moon, Zombie's real wife and an annoying acting neophyte) takes them back to her house, only to meet her family of Satan-worshipping crazies and sadists that makes the Bundys look like the Bradys. 

Madman Rob Zombie's retro death letter is a clamorous, repellent, over-the-top freak sideshow that's meant to raise hell with devoted genre fans (like Zombie himself) and harken back to the primal, down-and-dirty '70s exploitation days. But it's mostly a poseur of "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" combined with a little "Rocky Horror Picture Show" and pieces of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Excessive profanity and gore are tiresome, piss-poor excuses for shocks and scares, and tasteless redneck/necrophiliac jokes are traded for wit. Zombie has garish, psychedelic visual style out of a deranged EC comic book to burn, playing with color filters and film negatives, scoring his own creepy, “Helter Skelter” music, and throwing in random cutaways and trippy sidetrips. At least the John Landis-esque clips to B&W monster movies are fun. Zombie's overdone aesthetics aren't enough as the movie becomes an unpleasant, self-indulgent, incoherent assault to sit through, much like one of his music videos. Just what Dr. Satan ordered. It's one thing to scare us and another to just beg us to be shocked and glamorize serial killers' work, such as torturing cheerleaders and slicing Rainn Wilson like a fish as the killers jam out to “Brick House" as a wicked counterpoint. 

Sure to earn itself instant cult status, this ballsy but artlessly callous crud is shock/camp overkill rather than a drive-in B-movie funhouse. Mr. Zombie gets pity points for giving his evil killers more personality than his victims, but that doesn't make the experience enjoyable, interesting, or scary. Including Sid Haig as the perverted clown Captain Spaulding, Bill Moseley as twisted, nihilistic ladykiller Otis, and Karen Black as yellow-toothsome madam Mother Firefly, the committed, free-wheeling cast of squalid, obnoxious carnies plays it for Bette Davis keeps, gnawing so relentlessly at the scenery that you expect them to foam at the mouth. Actually, one of the characters screams with his mouth full of food. Fun stuff! 

Much more interesting is the long history behind "House of 1000 Corpses," with Universal Pictures first refusing the movie in 2000 for being too horrific, but before long, Lionsgate bought it. Hardcore splatter-movie completists should dig this grody throwback after such a long wait, while everyone else will be repelled. 

Grade: D +

The Devil's Rejects (2005) 
101 min., rated R.

Rob Zombie's debut "House of 1000 Corpses" was annoying, self-indulgent, immature, and went wildly off the tracks into Dr. Satan's underground chambers. Now, his sequel-cum-spin-off "The Devil's Rejects" is stylish and gripping, trading its predecessor's psychedelic, pop-art horror (and dumping Dr. Satan dry) for a gritty western feel like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch." And it's for the better. That's not to say it's not just as nasty, violent, and revolting . . . because it most certainly is, and that's inherent in the genre.

For the second time, we follow the Firefly clan of homicidal sadists, having their rural slaughterhouse in the American Southwest raided by the police. While hooker-matriarch Mother Fireplay (Leslie Easterbrook) is locked up in jail, three of the remaining killers, Otis (Bill Moseley), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), go on the lam and on another killing spree. Meanwhile, Sheriff Wydell (a wily William Forsythe) plans his vengeance for their murder crimes, one of which is personal.


For what it is, "The Devil's Rejects" does what a grimy, twisted, sadistic horror western should do. With the film giving us even more of a point-of-the-view of these deranged killers, who are later targeted by the sheriff, we still don't condone their actions but they show a bit more vulnerability than before. With Mr. Zombie's lovingly evocative influences of drive-in grindhouse B-movies, the heavy-metal undertaker shows real skill and wit, starting with his grungy, filthy visual style. This sick dude's sweet dreams are our nightmares, as he gives us the most horrific images that evoke the Manson Family. From a fantastic opening-credits scene with freeze frames over the Allman Brothers Band's “Midnight Rider,” to a set piece in a desert motel, Zombie has a vision for pure hell.


There's a terrific soundtrack selection of '70s southern-fried rock (even a tip o' the hat to Wes Craven's "The Last House on the Left"), blacker-than-grease humor, and a powerful Thelma and Louise-inspired denouement so impeccably scored and edited in slo-mo to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." Moseley and Moon Zombie are back, more menacing and less campy this time, with Easterbrook gleefully assuming Karen Black's Mother Firefly and an impressive supporting cast of cult veterans that really are at home here, including "The Hills Have Eyes'" Michael Berryman, "Dawn of the Dead's" Ken Foree, and "Carrie's"/"Halloween's" P.J. Soles. Haig has to be the scariest, scummiest, most leering clown in cinematic history as Captain Spaulding, giving Bozo, make that John Wayne Gacy, a run for his money.

A Groucho Marx-looking film critic gets poked fun at in one scene, but there's a gratuitous attempt at redneck humor on a chicken farm and every woman is either a whore or treated as a whore. All things considered, it is a sick film; disturbing, unrelentingly vile, and punishing to both its characters and us in the audience. Caveat: the R-rating is not to be taken lightly. Not defensible on a moral level, but as take-no-prisoners exploitation horror filmmaking, "The Devil's Rejects" is the scuzziest vomitorium of its genre, and that's meant as a compliment. 



Grade: B +






Halloween (2007) 
109 min., rated R.

In one word, why? If anyone had to needlessly remake John Carpenter's masterful "Halloween" from 1978, edgy musician-turned-filmmaker would have seemed to be the right man for the job. Now, after actually seeing Rob Zombie's "Halloween," fans of the original Michael Myers saga have a right to pull out their pitchforks. This "re-imagining" (or whatever Zombie wants to call the film for it to be its own entity) is a gratuitously crude, assaultive, and unrelentingly ugly pile of trash that sets out to reinvent the seminal horror classic and fails. Particularly in the business of remakes, more is always less, but Zombie tarnishes the simple craft of the original for purists. Worst of all, his film is a hundred times more harsh and explicit than Carpenter's version, however, being angrier and more in-your-face is not necessarily more terrifying. Horror movies should come with two separate reviews (one for fans, one for regular moviegoers), but writer-director Zombie's “revision” is a bastardization any way you slice it. 

As 2007's "Halloween" starts with a psychologically useless, foul-mouthed "backstory" that's intended to bring empathy to our killer, animal-slaughtering 10-year-old punk Michael Myers’ (Daeg Faerch) white-trash household is like 30 minutes of wallowing in a shrill, over-the-top carny act or a repeat of Harmony Korine's "Gummo." (The sleaze is laid on with such a heavy hand that dirt might actually appear under your fingernails as you watch it.) On Halloween night when he should be out trick 'r treating, the disturbed young boy puts down his candy corn, grabs a big kitchen knife, and kills off his sister Judith (Hanna Hall), the sister's boyfriend, and his mother's loutish live-in boyfriend (William Forsythe) in cold blood. Only the baby, Boo, survives. Michael is supposed to be "pure evil” incarnate rather than humanized, but we get it already, Mama Myers (Sheri Moon Zombie) was a stripper, his older sis a slut, and his step daddy a gross, verbally abusive idiot, so his troubled home life made him do it! Even Ron Howard's rationale of The Grinch was more justified by comparison. We even get a stupid origin to He Behind The Mask wearing the white William Shatner face. 

The plodding second section has Mikey institutionalized for seventeen years and counseled by Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), until breaking out of Smith's Grove sanitarium to go back to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. Finally, the final third follows now-teenage baby sister Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and her two yappy, oversexed girlfriends, Lynda (Kristina Klebe) and Annie (Danielle Harris) being stalked by the giant killer (pro-wrestler Tyler Mane). This section feels like a rushed, condensed version of Carpenter's whole film and yet the chase never seems to end, with kill after kill and a whole lot of screaming coming on a pile driver. Throughout, Zombie seems to be in a hurry to get to the stabbings and then lingers on the suffering and blood-spilling way past the point of impact. The violence is so savagely brutal and repetitive that it leaves nothing to the imagination, sucks out the suspense, and just becomes desensitizing overkill. It doesn't help the prey being hopelessly underdeveloped that we don't care much about their fates, and that Michael wastes no time strangling or stabbing his victims. 

For a horror-fan filmmaker, Zombie has proven he has the artistic style and tools to shock us, even stamping a raw, grungy style on this project. (Again, he makes sure everyone's TV sets play old black-and-white movies, one recognizably being William Castle's "House on Haunted Hill.") There are several indelible images, particularly in the first section with young Mikey beginning his killing spree, but alas, "Halloween" grows numbing after a while, primarily from an obnoxiously kinetic camera that thrashes around and relies on too many tight close-ups. Tyler Bates' rattling musical score is often effectual, with some echoes of John Carpenter's memorable synthesizer, and shot-for-shot recreations of original sequences are evocative but inferior by comparison (Michael standing across the street from Laurie's school window and the "glasses over a ghost sheet" set piece). 


If Zombie was able to get appropriately wild performances out of his cast in "House of 1000 Corpses" and "The Devil's Rejects," his performers are poorly directed here. As 10-year-old Michael Myers, Daeg Faerch has the creepy stares down, but he's mostly ineffective, not really up to the task of playing such a depraved young mind. As Laurie Strode, the one we should be rooting for, Scout Taylor-Compton can scream like the best of them and conveys emotional hysteria well, but before then, her portrayal comes across as an annoying brat. The same goes for Kristina Klebe and Danielle Harris, who turn Lynda and Annie into entitled bitches and are never as likable as the "totally"-saying P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis, even though Harris played Michael's niece Jamie in two earlier "Halloween" sequels. Veteran Malcolm McDowell luckily isn't impersonating Donald Sutherland's Dr. Sam Loomis and mostly succeeds in putting his own spin on the role. Most surprisingly, the director's wife Sheri Moon (who thankfully cans her tiny Mini Mouse voice and whole banshee act from "House of 1000 Corpses") appears as Michael's caring mommy, and hasn't yet matured as an actress, but ironically shows the most humanity out of anyone on screen. The film is also packed with a "who's who" of cameos, including cult B-movie queens Dee Wallace Stone and Sybil Danning, respectively, as Laurie's adoptive mother and an ill-fated nurse, as well as Ken Foree as a doomed trucker and Danny Trejo as a nice janitor. Mr. Zombie might consider himself a huge fan of Carpenter's masterpiece, but this is an offensive love letter. It's as if he hadn't watched the incomparable original since 1978 and just wound up re-creating his Firefly family saga with Michael Myers. That's quite enough, Michael (and Rob). How depressing. 

Grade:


Halloween II (2009) 
101 min., rated R.

Rob Zombie may love horror movies, but not since "The Devil's Rejects" has he shown much promise in actually making them. "Halloween II," Zombie's sequel to his heavy-handed 2007 prequel/relaunch, is more vile, unrepentant trash that again shoehorns in more excess and utterances of the “F” word than a trailer park ad nauseam. In lieu of remaking the 1981 hospital-set sequel, which is preserved for the film's top 20 minutes, this is an artless, barely coherent fusion of a stabfest, hallucinatory fantasy, and character drama. Only occasionally creepy, never scary, and almost always disturbingly brutal, "H2" doesn't even feel like a seasonal Michael Myers movie. It's more like another "House of 1000 Corpses" featuring Mr. Myers, a.k.a. another numbing assault on the senses. 

Masked mass murderer Michael Myers was shot in the head by Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) at the end of "Halloween," but now one year later, he's missing and presumed dead, even though we know he'll be up and walking again. Now, the towering, long-haired Mikey (Tyler Mane) is a grunting, animal-eating hobo (Sasquatch, is that you?); Laurie is a parentless, damaged hippie with a profane mouth on her and a Charles Manson poster above her bed; and Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is an arrogant asshole obsessed with fame after writing and publicizing his book “The Devil Walks Among Us,” and being blamed for the boogeyman's killings. Practically dead in a psychological state and suffering bad dreams (that means bad dream sequences for us), Laurie finds out the killer is her long-lost-bro. For some thrown-in Freudian psychology straight from the Jason/Mommy Voorhees mythos, Michael himself is visited by awfully campy dreams of his ghostly white mother (Sheri Moon-Zombie, looking like she's all ready to go trick 'r treating), dragging along her symbolism-heavy white horse, and his younger self (Chase Wright Vanek) in a snowy land of grotesque pumpkin heads and skeletons. 

Rob Zombie does offer a few momentarily striking, even incendiary images amidst the griminess in 16 mm (Michael towering over a little trick-or-treater comes to mind), but wastes that style when his handheld camera has an epileptic seizure anytime a murder happens. Rather than actually creating suspense, Zombie is rather adamant about wallowing in the nasty brutality and suffering of each hard, repetitive kill, allowing us to feel every blow, that they're visually and aurally unpleasant. A nurse is stabbed repeatedly in the head. A naked woman's head is smashed into a mirror not once, not twice, but ten times (count if you think that's hyperbole), and a guy has his head stomped on 'til it smashes like a pumpkin. To prove his “point” further that he's a director with too much ego and no taste or artistic value, we get a scene cut between Laurie eating a veggie pizza and Michael slicing up a dog for dinner. For God's sake, we got it already! His misguided directorial choices of slow-motion, color desaturation, and flash frames are shrill and grating. Not to mention, nearly all of his characterizations operate in one mode: white-trashiness. 

Scout Taylor-Compton unimpressed the first time in her one-note portrayal of Laurie Strode, and here she goes through the hysterical wringer as a whiny, self-absorbed shell of a heroine who swears a lot. Danielle Harris reprises her role as Annie Brackett, who survived the first film with scars and now stays at home to cook meals for her sheriff father (Brad Dourif), but she has more touching, sympathetic notes than Taylor-Compton's Laurie. The film is naturally full of blink-and-miss-'em cameos, with Caroline Williams who played Stretch from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" as a nurse; Margot Kidder, wasted as Laurie's psychologist; and Betsy Rue on screen long enough as a country girl to scream and get stabbed. Like Michael's mask, "Halloween" was grungy and beaten, and now "Halloween II" is deterioration. 

Grade: D - 

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