Franchise Corner Entry: FIREFLY TRILOGY

 

HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES **** USA 2003 Dir: Rob Zombie. 88 mins

Cut by the MPAA and dropped by Universal, Zombie’s feature debut was completed in 2000 but didn’t emerge until 2003 when, pre-empting the post-SAW wave of nihilistic American horror, it was joined by a bunch of genre movies heavily influenced by the 1970’s fare Zombie favoured : CABIN FEVER, WRONG TURN and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake. Set on Halloween in 1977 and emphasising grotesque characters over the pretty faces dominating post-SCREAM horror, it sets a tone of spiralling chaos in its prologue at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Mayhem. Coarse, homicidal clown Spaulding (Sid Haig) serves gasoline and fried chicken, banters with obsessive autograph collector Michael J Pollard (with a great anecdote about a PLANET OF THE APES doll) and ensures some would-be robbers are swiftly bludgeoned to death courtesy of demented sidekick Irwin Keyes. Subsequently, four young folks (among them Rainn Wilson) with a love of oddball roadside attractions – including a Helter Skelter-reading oddball who lusts after the Manson chicks – are lured into the Firefly family home via demented cowgirl hitchhiker Baby (Sheri Moon). It’s the property at which the notorious “Dr Satan” – renowned for illegal experiments on mental patients – was lynched and is also host to Moon’s bordello madam mom (Karen Black), sleazy would-be comedian Grampa (Dennis Fimple), scarred giant Tiny (Matthew McGrory) and insane, cheerleader-torturing Otis (Bill Moseley), who laments the newcomers: “You Malibu Barbie middle-class piece of shit!”.

Overwhelmed by deranged characters, some of whom have minimal screen time, this atmospheric, strikingly stylised homage to vintage exploitation has scene-stealing work from the veterans and revived Haig’s long career as the foul mouthed, chubby-chasing clown with John Wayne tattoos and tacky sloganeering t-shirts. Moseley relishes his best role since Choptop in TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE PART 2, while Black and Moon are splendidly warped – the latter getting a stand-out creepy mime-a-long to “I Wanna Be Loved By You”. Zombie sustains a relentless intensity that’s enhanced by a pounding, screeching soundtrack combining a potent original score (by Zombie and Scott Humphrey), his own title track and an eclectic jukebox selection featuring Slim Whitman and The Ramones. Self-consciously cynical and paced to match the maniacal nature of its charismatic antagonists, it often feels like a feature length, 35mm journey through Zombie’s formative years : gimmick cereals (“Agatha Crispies”), clips from old Universal horror movies (HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, THE WOLF MAN), a fictional horror host named Dr Wolfenstein, lingering shots of future wife Moon’s butt and excerpts from TV’s THE MUNSTERS.

 

HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

 

THE DEVIL’S REJECTS ***** USA 2005 Dir: Rob Zombie. 106 mins

Muting the quirkiness and stylisation of CORPSES, Zombie’s follow-up sets out to disturb and give the audience a rougher ride – its tone set by an opening narration fashioned after Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Zombie’s career-long casting of numerous iconic genre actors in cameos is the only “cute” thing on display here, unless you have a special fondness for the oft-glimpsed arse of Sheri Moon Zombie – a factor that doesn’t detract from the psychotic power of her performance. After an inspired fantasy sex romp between Sid Haig’s hilarious Spaulding and porn star Ginger Lynn Allen, this opens with a western-style ambush / shootout as the family – dubbed “the devil’s rejects” by the media – go on the run, while demented Sheriff William Forsythe captures Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, an inferior replacement for Karen Black) as he obsessively pursues the clan. Otis, Spaulding and Baby hide out at Ken Foree’s “Clean Pussy, V.D. Tested” whorehouse before they hold a nice family (headed by Geoffrey Lewis and Priscilla Barnes) hostage in the trailer trash town of Ruggsville.

For genre fans, the fanboy casting scores big wins, with appearances from Danny Trejo, Steve Railsback, Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles and a delightful comic turn from Michael Berryman offering a rare chance to see the terrifying poster boy from THE HILLS HAVE EYES doing the hoovering. Zombie nails Hooper’s uneasy balance of black humour and visceral horror in a CHAIN SAW 2-inspired sequence of Moseley wearing a freshly removed face – capped by an even nastier punchline later on. Zombie’s fondness for crude banter allows for conversational detours about chicken fucking and a moment in which an obnoxious film critic nerdily points out the debt the Firefly family owes to the Marx Brothers. Overall, however, it’s a harder-edged, more punishing movie than CORPSES. Sympathetic characters are humiliated, brutalised and suffer long, painful deaths. The threat of violence is as disturbing as the onscreen throat slashings, and Zombie achieves a level of discomfort rare in modern American horror via a sequence in which Barnes is forced to strip in front of her family while Otis runs a loaded gun over her body. Forsythe’s staggering portrayal of a law enforcer as warped as the Firefly’s culminates with a bravura reversal of TEXAS CHAIN SAW’s notorious dinner table sequence – itself preceding the deliberately contentious elevation of the family to legendary status with a heroic, BUTCH CASSIDY-inspired cinematic send-off set to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird”. Zombie’s finest movie to date, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS reins in Moseley to be genuinely sinister and never lets the audience relax despite its potentially reassuring check list of influences and inspirations.

 

THE DEVIL’S REJECTS IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

 

3 FROM HELL **** USA 2019 Dir: Rob Zombie. 111 mins

Following fanbase-splitting detours into the HALLOWEEN franchise and one-off oddities like 31 and LORDS OF SALEM, Zombie returned to the Firefly clan for another unashamedly indulgent wallow in the wheelhouse of his favoured brand of exploitation cinema. Shot through with his trademark trashy, foul-mouthed dialogue and nods to the golden age of U.S. genre cinema, it’s an aggressive revival of his iconic creations from a man burned by his experiences in the Hollywood studio system in the 14 years interim. Despite a “one million to one chance of survival”, our bullet-littered anti-heroes survive and recover for a trial, becoming martyrs to America’s youth for their sustained “fuck you” to the system. Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a sex symbol, Otis (Bill Moseley) earns his own female adulation and Spaulding (a visibly ailing but marvellously venomous Sid Haig, at the end of his life) is executed within the first ten minutes by outrageously coiffured bastard warden Virgil (Jeff Daniel Phillips) at his self-described “Death Factory”. Ten years later (1988), Otis escapes, hooking up with his long-lost, suitably foul brother Foxy (a perfectly cast Richard Brake, the best thing about 31) to retrieve Baby by holding the warden’s family hostage.

Checking off keynote sub-genres, Zombie offers a side-story at a grim reform house casting Dee Wallace against type as sadistic lesbian warden Greta; elsewhere, the usual array of cameos includes Clint Howard cracking bad jokes as a clown defined as “the Picasso of Inflatables”. The violence is, in keeping with THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, unremittingly brutal: an extension of that film’s harrowing motel sequence is the trilogy’s most overtly shocking set piece, as Slim Whitman’s “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” accompanies Baby’s slo-mo, knife-happy pursuit of a naked woman onto a sun kissed, Haddonfield-style suburban street. Moon, afforded an extravagant reintroduction scene, has a lot of fun going full-tilt maniac, while Moseley and Brake enjoy a coarse onscreen chemistry as they argue about infamy and consider a career in XXX movies with possible titles like “The Salami Man”. In the Zombie tradition, background TV screens play old B movies, and a second half Mexico-set left-turn into Peckinpah / Leone territory (“Have three coffins ready”) allows the characters to reflect, exchange humorous barbs and display a semblance of humanity after the frenetic cruelty of the opening hour. It also showcases an abundance of nudity from ladies of all shapes and sizes (another rarity in American cinema) and a show-stopping, superbly edited brothel massacre incorporating Lon Chaney, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and “The Black Satans”. Tailored to fans of the earlier two films and performed with gusto, it’s a lively return to the REJECTS world…though it will date worse than its predecessors thanks to the ill-judged use of predictably rubbish CGI blood during the otherwise rousing shoot-outs.

Reviews by Steven West

 

3 FROM HELL IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

 

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