- Monthly Theme: Highbrow/Lowbrow
- The Film: House of 1000 Corpses
- Country of origin: U.S.A.
- Date of U.S. release: April 11, 2003
- Studio: Spectacle Entertainment Group & Universal Pictures
- Distributer: Lions Gate Films
- Domestic Gross: $12.6 million
- Budget: $7 million (estimated)
- Director: Rob Zombie
- Producer: Andy Given, et al.
- Screenwriter: Rob Zombie
- Adaptation? No.
- Cinematographers: Alex Poppas & Tom Richmond
- Make-Up/FX: Wayne Toth & Michael O’Brien
- Music: Scott Humphrey & Rob Zombie
- Part of a series? The movie spawned a theatrical sequel, 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects.
- Remakes? No.
- Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Scream queen Karen Black (The Pyx, Burnt Offerings, etc.). Genre icons Sid Haig (Spider Baby, Galaxy of Terror, etc.), Bill Moseley (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Blob (1988), etc.), and Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Borrower, etc.).
- Other notables?: Yes. TV stars Erin Daniels, Chris Hardwick, Walton Goggins and Rainn Wilson.
- Awards?: Best Supporting Actor [Haig] and Actress [Black] at the 2004 Fangoria Chainsaw Awards. Best Special Effects at the 2004 Fantasporto.
- Tagline: “The most shocking tale of carnage ever seen.”
- The Lowdown: Children of the 1990s know Rob Zombie as the frontman of White Zombie, a.k.a. the feral guy with dreads doing ‘magic hands’ in the “Thunder Kiss ’65” video. But it turns out Zombie was dead serious about that video’s aesthetic statement – it wasn’t simply a bunch of empty references meant to market his band on MTV. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, even if it was that, it was also heartfelt and signified a lot more. Because while the “Thunderkiss ’65” video mashes together the aesthetics of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! KIll!, Mexican luchador horror movies, psychedelic go-go dancers á la The Big Cube, and a really, really horrible rave, it was also a premonition of things to come from Zombie. After years of collaborating with Universal Studios on PR projects (namely, a Rob-Zombie-designed haunted maze at Universal Studios and a revival of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights), Zombie pitched and sold House of 1000 Corpses to the studio in the early 2000s. Once the movie was made, however, the studio refused to release it, believing it would garner an NC-17 rating. Zombie eventually bought the rights to the film back from Universal and sold the movie’s distribution rights to Lions Gate Entertainment, who released the movie. House of 1000 Corpses was critically derided upon release, but it recouped more than double its budget and led to a sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, that was almost universally praised (even by horror-hater Roger Ebert).
If you haven’t seen House of 1000 Corpses our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: So I have a pressing question about our movie.
Sean: Did you…. spot the Boston?
Sean: There was a Boston Terrier in this movie.
Kristine: I hate myself right now. Who had a Boston?
Sean: Okay, when Denise’s dad is being gunned down by Otis, it briefly flashes back to him and his family sitting around a Christmas tree, and Denise is holding in her arms… an adorable Boston Terrier. And the Boston is cute and looks happy.
Kristine: I can’t believe I missed that.
Sean: So according to Rob Zombie, Boston Terriers represent Americana and the American Dream and suburban contentment.
Kristine: Well, duh. I do have a question about the shooting scene… Did you love that stylized, super-long shot before Otis (finally) kills Deputy Naish? I kind of loved it, even though it screamed “music video” at me. I also liked Otis’ “You Wanna Burn a Flag? Try Burning This One” redneck American flag T-shirt, and how he scratched his belly with the gun. The weird blend of patriotism and perversion in the character of Otis sort of cracked me up.
Sean: Okay, I have literally 100 questions for you about this movie, but let’s start with that shooting sequence. Remember that the whole thing -where the cops come to the Firefly house and are killed – is set to Slim Whitman’s “I Remember You.” Remember also that Dept. Naish and Denise’s father discover an anteroom in the back of the house filled with the remains of young women, including a struggling, crucified Mary (she’s got “Boo” written on her stomach in blood). And then Mama Firefly shoots Lt. Wydell (aka Ottis from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) in the head and Otis guns down Denise’s dad… I’m curious what your thoughts are about Zombie’s approach to Southern culture in general. I’m thinking, of course, of the use of the Slim Whitman song, but also the character of Goober (the cashier at Red Hot Pussy Liquors) and the Southern accents and redneck stylings of the Firefly clan in general. I would like to note, before turning this over to you, that Rob Zombie was born and grew up in Massachusetts, and after graduating high school he went to Parsons School of Design (of Project Runway fame). So, he’s no Southerner.
Kristine: Like, do you mean that Southerners should be offended? I thought the depictions were stereotypical and lazy, sure, but they were also great fun. Zombie having attended a fancy design school doesn’t strip him of his right to enjoy trash culture. And I think the Firefly family is meant to be a bunch of trashy rednecks more than iconic “Southerners,” if that makes sense. There are rednecks (or “white trash”) all over the country. They are not exclusive to the South. I don’t think setting the movie in the South has any more significance than the fact that it’s an iconic, creepy setting where this kind of thing still seems possible. It has to be set in some version of backwoods small-town rural America, and the South, in our collective imagination, is imbued with a Gothicism and mood that other areas of the country lack. Small-town Iowa or small-town Idaho are picturesque in their own way, but they’re not these fetid, swampy places teeming with all of the historical demons and ghosts that the South brings along with it. And I say all this as someone who has driven through the Deep South but has never spent much time there. Dude, driving through the South is scary.
Sean: Well, okay. I went to the University of Florida in Gainesville for graduate school, which is the upper midsection of Florida, meaning it’s the “Southern” part, not the beaches-and-resorts part. Many of my peers in the degree program were coming from very hoity-toity East Coast backgrounds and approached our two years in Gainesville as some sort of vacation in Southern sleaze. They fetishized and ate up the “local color,” including but not limited to poverty, racial divisiveness and (as you said above) the “specter” of the South’s peculiar history and flavor. It always made me feel weird and kind of grossed out, a bunch of grad students piling into a local dive bar or some remote swamp tavern and like, loving every second of it. Every dissolute setting, every economically or culturally depressed place… It was a weird kind of cultural appropriation/tourism and I was guilty of it too, to a certain extent. But it seemed like many of my peers felt no qualms or awareness of it, and got off on it in a way that was grotesque. Am I being ridic?
Kristine: No, I get what you are saying.
Sean: Like when Baby Firefly says, “We like to get fucked up, and do fucked up shit!” It strikes me as misguided when that kind of sentiment is appropriated and becomes some weird mantra of East Coasties who are play-acting Southern dissolution. There’s a big difference between cynical middle class ennui and genuine economic and cultural poverty (which leads to no choices, which could result in Baby’s particular brand of hedonistic nihilism).
Kristine: It just didn’t bother me in this movie because I approached the whole thing as an exercise in high camp. You know that movie Beasts of the Southern Wild? I haven’t seen it, but I know some of the criticism surrounding that movie is about how it treats the South as a backwards, whimsical place and turns poverty into a magical milieu. I think I would be more offended by something like that, since it is a “prestige” movie, then dirty, grungy Rob Zombie making a movie about rednecks in the sticks terrorizing tourists. Does that make sense?
Sean: Right, absolutely. Beasts of the Southern Wild sounds wicked problematic (and also has a racial dimension to it, where a white, affluent filmmaker appropriates this black milieu and turns African-American poverty into noble savagery). I guess the character of Goober in House of 1000 Corpses is a kind of redneck pickaninny, in my mind. I mean, that’s not exactly right, but it feels like white trash minstrelry. It kind of makes me roll my eyes that Rob Zombie feels so comfortable enacting Southern-ness without any cultural permission, especially when he feel entitled to turn Southern-ness into a garish, idiotic cartoon.
Kristine: Right, but isn’t Zombie simply nodding at all the exploitation and horror movies of the 1970s that came before him? Everything from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Deliverance… I think it changes the politics of representation when he’s drawing on a particular genre of film more so than “real life,” if that makes sense. I see this movie as in dialogue with all the inbred, redneck cannibal savages of horror movies from yesteryear more than in dialogue with the “real” South.
Sean: That’s a good point.
Kristine: Plus this idea that the setting for a horror movie has to be in some realistic dialogue with that place seems a bit absurd, no? I get what you’re saying about representation, but somebody’s always pissed off about that stuff regardless of the text or context. Remember all the Italian-American hubbub about The Sopranos? I mean, I’m sure the Germans weren’t happy about The Human Centipede.
Sean: I don’t think they’d care, do you?
Kristine: Who knows. Some Germans are very sensitive still. Yeah, I think some of them probably do care. There must be some German Anti-Defamation League that cares.
Sean: I see your point. I mean, Tom Six is Dutch and so has some kind of relationship with German culture, I would imagine. As an American, I can’t pretend to know anything about the cultural politics of the Continent. But it’s not quite the same as some MA-born-and-bred Parsons Design student turning Southern culture into a Grand Guignol. I guess Rob Zombie irritates me a bit.
Kristine: You might be getting a tad ridic.
Sean: Fine. John Waters he’s not, I guess, is what I’m saying.
Kristine: I can’t get worked up about it. Plus, do any campy gross-out horror movie directors have permission to do any of the things they do? Or need it?
Sean: True, another good point. Not having permission and doing it any way and taking delight in offending “good taste” is, of course, part of the point. But I just feel compelled to remind you that John Waters is transgressive and Rob Zombie isn’t. I know it’s dumb, but there it is. House of 1000 Corpses is, at its worst, an empty exercise in style, not a trash manifesto with genuinely subversive ideas about class, sex, gender or any of it.
Kristine: I don’t want to offend you but… No duh.
Sean: I just want to add that Zombie’s next movie, The Lords of Salem, is set in Massachusetts and I am very curious to see how he handles a milieu he actually knows something about.
Kristine: We’ll see if he busts out a bunch of New England clichés. There was a sequel to House of 1000 Corpses, right?
Sean: Yes. The Devil’s Rejects.
Kristine: Is it any good?
Sean: It is highly praised and wound up on many, many “Best Horror Movies of the 2000s” lists at the end of 2009. House of 1000 Corpses was near-universally derided.
Kristine: I am surprised that this movie wasn’t more beloved, because I really had a good time watching it.
Sean: I think its fun, too. This movie is much more up my alley, aesthetically, than The Devil’s Rejects. But I literally saw that movie once when in came out and haven’t watched it since, so I’m not sure how I’d feel about it now.
Kristine: I want to see the sequel.
Sean: We shall watch it. You never can tell how your tastes will change over time, or what a new context will do to your appreciation of something. For example, I was shocked, upon re-watching this, by how much I found the tone to be similar to American Horror Story. In fact, I think this movie feels more similar in style and tone to AHS than it does to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and I know this movie came out before Murphy’s show). But do you agree?
Kristine: I do agree, absolutely. There were certainly scenes that reminded me of Texas Chain Saw, but the tone was totally different. For example, when the roadtrippers are forced to sit down and wear masks with the Fireflys around the dining room table, that was obvs a shout-out to the “family dinner” scene from Texas Chain Saw, but the tone was waaaay more American Horror Story. Also because while Texas Chain Saw is actually scary, both this movie and AHS rely more on visual gross-outs, campy humor, and shock.
Sean: Totally. I wonder if Zombie and/or Murphy have ever thought of this connection. Also, this movie is just CRAMMED with ideas and characters in a similar way that a season of AHS is crammed with ideas and characters. And both House of 1000 Corpses and AHS switch subgenres like, six or seven times over their running time.
Kristine: Right, like Captain Spaulding at the beginning. He is abandoned for the bulk of the movie, then re-introduced at the end. That character was so disgusting and funny and I kind of loved his scenes. With the disgusting fried chicken (which I am never eating again)?
Sean: Captain Spaulding is played by Sid Haig, fyi. Exploitation actor – he did lots of sleazy sex movies in the Phillippines with Pam Grier in the 1970s.
Kristine: Oh my. Poor Pam.
Sean: Yeah. So did this movie make you laugh?
Kristine: Oh yeah, it made me laugh a lot during the first third.
Kristine: Hmm, specific scenes… let me think. Captain Spaulding definitely had some great moments. As did Baby. Can we address Baby and that laugh?
Sean: Oh boy.
Kristine: I thought the laugh and her character in general would drive me batty, but I ended up kind of loving her.
Sean: You did? I am shocked – I was certain you would hate her.
Kristine: I didn’t hate her. I thought she was great for the character.
Sean: I mean, if we talk about Baby than we have to discuss Sheri Moon and what Rob Zombie is trying to do with her and just the whole thing because I am dying. I just want to offer these few facts about her: she’s from Plainville, CT. She started off as an aspiring MTV VJ and then wanted to do cartoon voiceovers, but all that was derailed when she met Zombie (at Toad’s Place in New Haven, a place I’ve been a dozen times to see shows). She then went on tour with him as a go-go dancer and “created costumes” for the tour. She’s been in almost every one of Zombie’s music videos, on several album and single covers, and in all of his movies.
Kristine: So, she is his muse?
Sean: She is his muse (and his wife). After hearing these facts, do you still love her?
Sean: I thought me saying the words “aspiring MTV VJ” would just drive the nails into the coffin of your hatred.
Kristine: You are being an enemy of sisterhood right now.
Kristine: I am curious though – has Sheri Moon ever acted in anything non-Zombie-related? I mean, Baby was styled exactly like a dancer out of a Rob Zombie video, which is obviously a big part of her resume. But does she have any range?
Sean: I won’t go so far as to say she has no range, but she’s never really been in anything non-Zombie-related. Maybe a cameo here and there, but nothing substantial. I think she cameo’d in a movie starring Angela Bettis (a.k.a. May).
Kristine: Are you anti-Sheri?
Sean: No, not at all, though I run a little hot and cold with her in this movie in particular. I mean, I’m all for a pro-sex ass-kicking broad who delights in trash culture. I actually liked Sheri Moon best in this when she is paired with Karen Black and they are cackling like mad witches together. Karen Black – best name in show business.
Kristine: Well, I’ll be an enemy of sisterhood also and say that I didn’t think Karen Black was used as well as Sheri Moon was. I was looking forward to her performance. I’ve loved her ever since Five Easy Pieces and I know she’s a minor “scream queen,” but I’ve never seen her horror stuff. This introduction to her horror oeuvre was a tad disappointing.
Sean: The thing that shocked me most about Karen Black in this movie was just how…. dissolute and slatternly she was. I mean, her gigantic boobs all hanging out, and her making puffy old-lady sex mouth at the policeman and all of it. I love how she just went for it, but I was also surprised she let Zombie re-invent her as a plus-sized cougar babydoll. She was kind of like Bette Davis as Baby Jane crossed with a really drunk fat hooker.
Kristine: I agree with you. Mother Firefly kind of made me sad. I wanted her to be gorgeous and regal and evil, instead of just kind of sloppy and crazy.
Sean: Oh I kind of loved her drunk, fat ass. It was great.
Sean: I mean, talking about female sexuality in this movie brings up another issue for me. The way the movie opens, with the commercial for Captain Spaulding’s that contains all the circus sideshow freak imagery, doubles as a mini-history of horror, or at least as a quick reminder/tour of horror’s roots. The world of vaudeville and travelling circuses was an earlier, primal form of “show business” from which Hollywood and cinema (and horror movies and thrillers in particular) historically arise. When Baby Firefly gives her vaudevillian performance of Helen Kane’s “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” Zombie is referencing all of that, and revealing that his aesthetic interests are far-ranging (beyond simple torture/slasher exploitation shock value). I think it would be wrong to dismiss him as a merely a cretinous shock movie fan. Helen Kane is thought by many to be the prototype for Betty Boop (along with Clara Bow) – and I think this movie clearly indicates that Zombie is just as interested in pornography, nudie culture, burlesque and sexploitation as anything else. All those music-video-esque cutaways to Betty Page-style sex kittens. What’s your take on his relationship to sex culture? Do you also see it as integral to his style?
Kristine: Well, I can’t speak definitively since all I know of his work is this and some White Zombie videos. I actually thought all those cutaways were a little distracting, a little like a student film. But they certainly got the message across. I enjoyed Baby’s vaudeville performance. The campy retro-bombshell number was much better than if she had gone up there and done some contemporary stripper bump-and-grind. But then later she walks into Red Hot Pussy Liquors in assless pants… So, yes, I think Zombie is using the character of Baby to make a point that the culture of hardcore porn and stripper culture has a direct link to vaudeville. I think Sheri Moon walks the line constantly throughout the movie between classic pinup/burlesque and modern-day stripper/porn star, which I found pretty fascinating.
Sean: Yeah, the assless pants cannot be forgotten.
Kristine: Also, what about the female rivalry between Baby and the girlfriends? I disliked the scene when Mary attacked Baby for sitting on Bill’s lap (in the context of a burlesque/nudie cutie performance) and called her a slut. I mean, if my car broke down outside some weird family’s house I’d be on edge, but then if the bombshell youngest daughter in the family started doing this aesthetically-elaborate retro-sex-kitten number, I’d be hootin’ and hollerin’ and loving it! But then she calls Baby a slut? I wanted her to die for that!
Sean: Totally. In fact that Mary character was a million times more of a problem for me than Baby.
Kristine: I agree. What about the character of Jerry? Do you think that is Zombie’s critique of horror nerds? I like that he is lampooning his own fan base, in a way.
Sean: Well, when Jerry was like “We’re writing a book on roadside attractions,” I was dying. Next I thought they were going to say they were NPR interns….
Kristine: The kids were all actually pretty awful. I still am in shock over seeing Tom Towles as a cop and not as vile, disgusting Ottis from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. He still gives me the creeps even in a good guy role.
Sean: I thought he was kind of butch and handsome in this movie.
Kristine: Wait. What? Are you lying??
Sean: No. Tom Towles as Lt. Wydell? I thought he was kind of butch and sexy.
Kristine: He is not an attractive man. Stop it.
Sean: Tight pants.
Kristine: Gross, Sean.
Sean: Deal with it.
Kristine: I can’t deal with it. I am dying.
Sean: Well, back to the kids being jerks and douchebags. That conversation between Jerry and Capt. Spaulding about roadside attractions just mirrors the Mary/Baby fight about sluttiness. All of these interactions and tensions revolving around class. But I have to say, as Zombie is a privileged East Coaster, I feel a bit uneasy about his relationship to sleaze culture.
Kristine: See, this is why I don’t think the film is offensive towards Southern culture. Because the kids are made out to be pretty obnoxious and snooty and clueless. We cheer the Fireflys and Captain Spaulding punishing them for their pretensions. I loved it when Spaulding yelled at Jerry for being a culture vulture.
Sean: See I rolled my eyes at that, because in real life Zombie is way more Jerry than he is Captain Spaulding but he doesn’t think so.
Sean: Now I’m really about to get myself into hot water. I actually think the most morally degraded aspect of the movie is how it turns the psychos into heroes and the victims into sniveling jerks.
Sean: I am not sure I’m on board with that.
Kristine: Interesting. I didn’t mind.
Sean: I sound like your mom right now, but legions of Zombie fans on message boards being like, “We like to get fucked up and do fucked up shit!” and idolizing the psychos makes me queasy.
Kristine: Sean, horror movie club has turned me into an amoral gore junky. I was cheering the Firefly clan on the whole time and being like, “Kill ‘em all!”
Sean: You are depraved. I am a moral giant. I only want to make this argument – the best exploitation blurs the line between victim and victimizer and tries to point out how we already are the monster. It indicts the audience and tries to make us uncomfortable, to shake us out of our brainwashing or our complacency in some way. It is NOT all about feeding us carnage. Zombie does not understand this about exploitation cinema. There is a moral component to the best exploitation, that is my grannypanties of an argument.
Kristine: I feel like you are pointing a knitting needle at me while lecturing me from your rocking chair.
Sean: This movie is just reveling in the monstrous without any moral valence. It is turning Evil into a hipster moustache party with ironic country music playing in the background.
Kristine: C’mon Sean. Let’s get fucked up and do fucked up shit. While wearing assless pants. Come on.
Sean: I am despondent.
Kristine: I mean, who would you rather hang out with – Jerry or Baby?
Sean: I would rather hang out with Jerry, is the truth. Unless I was going to do a shit-ton of coke. Then I would hang with Baby, but she better have some gay friends to bring to the party.
Kristine: I love it. You know Baby has some main gays… She does vaudeville, after all.
Sean: I think Baby is sexy and I am all for her sexual freedom.
Kristine: I agree.
Sean: But I’m trying to put my finger on what bugs me about the Zombies in general. I think the main reason I have qualms with them is… they are so heteronormative.
Kristine: Hmm, good point. They absoutely are.
Sean: Right? There is like, nothing queer about them. (And remember by queer I mean, non-normative). People who are that sex/porn-positive should be a little bit queerer in my opinion. Rob Zombie, and through guilt-by-association Sheri Moon, has a bit too much hetero-machismo undergirding his whole schtick for me…. There is an overall lack of genderfuckery in this movie. I can’t think of hardly any queerness (outside of maybe the image of Bill as a taxidermied mermaid, but even that is a borderline homophobic image that’s about mocking genderfuckery and emasculating the character of Bill from this heteronormative perspective).
Kristine: I think the closest the movie ever comes to a queer aesthetic is the presence of the big, beefcake brother, RJ. You know, the mechanic who fixes the kids’ broken-down car. The movie had the opportunity to play around with a little bit of queerness there, but I agree that Zombie never goes there.
Sean: I mean, Zombie’s perspective, to me seems like the most tired, boring heteronormative perspective ever. Strippers and “Red Hot Pussy” and titties and yawn, yawn, boring. All I need is to read/see one interview where Zombie brags about how Sheri Moon shoves a huge red dildo up his ass and he loves it and I will be a fan. Until then, I am a guarded admirer of sorts.
Kristine: Ha, I get it. Any couple who are so into hyper-sexualizing themselves can’t be so square. Or, if they are, then that is super-lame and disappointing.
Sean: I don’t think Zombie or Sheri Moon actually have any gay friends.
Kristine: That makes me sad. I bet they do. C’mon.
Sean: If they do, it’s just some wretched lesbians I bet.
Kristine: Stop it.
Sean: We have talked in the past about the overlap between porn and horror. Zombie’s work makes me feel dystopic about that overlap. Other people’s work (Larry Cohen, Stuart Gordon, etc.) makes me feel empowered by it – because I think there’s real radical potential in them. I don’t think porn or horror as genre labels have to signify objectification and misogyny. But they can and often do. I do not think Zombie is a misogynist by any stretch – but I also think he might be more culturally conservative than appears on the surface. I bet he and Sheri vote Republican.
Kristine: Stop trying to ruin this for me.
Sean: All right, let me submit something for your appraisal. An oft-cited review of this movie comes from Filmcritic’s James Brundage, who writes that House of 1000 Corpses is “too highbrow to be a good cheap horror movie, too lowbrow to be satire, and too boring to bear the value of the ticket.” So you can see how this fits with this month’s highbrow/lowbrow theme. Do you think that critique is too harsh? Or what?
Kristine: Hmm, I disagree with that review. First of all, other than winking knowingly by referencing horror movie classics of the past, I don’t see what’s so highbrow about this movie. Secondly, I didn’t think it was boring at all.
Sean: Right? I may agree with Brundage partially, but I do not find House to be boring in any way. Quite the opposite. I am riveted by it, though not always in the “good” way. This movie is not a mindless, unimaginative retread of Texas Chain Saw Massacre – I’ve seen dozens of those and this isn’t what they look like. But it IS a situation. If anything, it’s Texas Chain Saw crossed with Lollapalooza ‘92/Jim Rose Sideshow Circus.
Kristine: I like that description a lot. That late-‘90s piercing/Jim Rose/assless-pants culture is not something I usually enjoy… But whatever. That’s what this movie is and it entertained me. So, I just don’t see the problem.
Sean: It is so Lollapalooza right?
Kristine: Okay, one character who was very “Jim Rose Sideshow” and I thought didn’t work that well was Tiny, the masked, disfigured brother. He just seemed like an empty nod to Texas Chain Saw with no real purpose. Do you agree?
Sean: No, I loved him. He’s my favorite Firefly. I love a good mutant freak. I love him in that ill-fitting pumpkin sweater – I actually think that’s the movie’s best visual gag (second best – the bunny outfits the sacrifices are forced to wear).
Kristine: Interesting. I liked the Halloween sweater and I thought the bunny costumes were kind of brilliant. The only thing I really liked about Tiny was the comedy he brought… when one of the girls (I think Denise) escaped on his watch and he just shrugged like, ‘Oh, well. Shit happens.’
Kristine: Did Denise’s ultimate fate make you upset? I thought it was noteworthy that the movie had such a downer ending. Even the two Texas Chainsaw films and The Hills Have Eyes have “happy” endings. I was surprised that Zombie broke from the conventions of all the movies he was referencing at the very end.
Sean: I didn’t care about Denise’s fate one way or another because I never really got on board with her character. And, as you know, that actress played Dana on The L Word and was my favorite thing about that show. I am a hugeDana fan (despite how poorly the show mishandled her character at times). I actually think I struggled to separate her performance in this movie from her being Dana. I wish I’d seen this before I’d watched all of The L Word, because Erin Daniels, the actress, being so completely identified in my mind as Dana kind of ruins this movie a bit for me.
Kristine: Her escape was the least interesting part of the movie for me – even the discovery of Dr. Satan was kind of ‘meh.’ I preferred the escapades and dialogue of the Fireflys and Captain Spaulding. I did think her lil’ girl dress and Mary Janes was ridiculous and not fun like the bunny costumes.
Sean: Oh, that outfit. That’s one part of nudie culture that Zombie clearly finds alluring that I think is gross. The infantilization of grown women is not and never will be sexy. I hated baby-doll dresses in the ‘90s (I am shaking my fist at Kat Bjelland right now) and I still hate them to this day. They are so ‘Jill from Hardware.’
Kristine: Jill from Hardware and her goth kimono chic.
Sean: But I have to disagree with you about Dr. Satan. I love Dr. Satan and the entire gonzo final third of the movie. I think the zombies who rise out of the muck and eat Jerry are genuinely scary and are a direct reference to Lucio Fulci zombie movies like The Beyond, which made my heart skip a beat. I loved it.
Kristine: Dr. Satan was Dr. Dum-Dum. But yes, the muck-zombies were scary. You know what scared me?
Kristine: When Denise gets tossed in the closet with what looks like rags and blankets on the floor… then people or creatures or something jumps up out of the blankets and attack her like they are starving and she is dinner. God, that was horrible.
Sean: I love the ancient man in the bunny suit who appears in the catacombs. And it is clear that he is a former sacrifice who has somehow managed to stay alive and grow really old… Totally awesome.
Kristine: I liked the ancient bunny victim, too. What about Otis wearing Denise’s Daddy’s face and kissing her? Total Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 shout-out.
Sean: Karen Black and Sheri Moon screeching “Who’s your daddy?” teeters on the line between camp amazingness and fucking annoying for me. Can you believe that Chop-Top in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Otis in this movie are the same person?
Kristine: I agree that the “Who’s your daddy” screeching was grating. I cannot believe Otis and Chop-Top are one and the same. What did you think of Otis as the “Daddy” and leader of this sick family? Convincing performance?
Sean: Well, I mean, Otis is kind of the crux of the ideological flaws in this movie. He is totally despicable and yet I think he’s presented in heroic terms. You pointed out the Red State t-shirt he’s wearing – I feel like he’s Rob Zombie’s psychobilly Libertarian anti-hero, and that makes me queasy. But I do love the absurdly long take of Otis holding the gun to the deputy’s head and it takes forever for the gun to go off, and I love the Slim Whitman song over it. I actually think that whole Slim Whitman sequence, esp. them finding the closet of murdered girls, is one of the strongest bits in the movie. It is the thing I would show and explain to haters/doubters of this movie in order to make my case for it.
Kristine: I loved all that, too.
Sean: Can you please explain how you could not love Dr. Satan?
Kristine: Hmm. Like I said, the movie was kind of losing steam for me at the time of Denise’s escape – which is weird, because it should have been ratcheting it up. I liked the concept of her running around this compound and finding a new horror behind every door, but it just seemed so implausible and over-the-top. I mean, a psycho redneck family torturing and killing tourists is one thing. Some mad scientist/sadist who would have to be like 200 years old living in some weird catacomb laboratory just made me roll my eyes.
Sean: But that’s the classic American Horror Story genre switcheroo, right there. That’s the moment when the family of sadists turns into a cult of Satan worshippers and this chthonic evil takes over the movie. It was totally gonzo and I love it. But I am a sucker for anything having to do with Satanism and religious cults. My favorite aesthetic sequence from the film is the Firefly clan dressed up in ceremonial robes, standing in the midst of a burning pagan symbol. Fuckin’ rad.
Kristine: I wanted to love it, but I didn’t so much.
Sean: The big steampunk red mutants wielding axes might have been a bridge too far.
Kristine: Uh, yeah. The supernatural elements didn’t work as well for me.
Sean: So… I do want to praise Zombie a little bit. The movie is filled with visual references to classic horror culture. Like Dr. Wolfenstein, the vintage television horror movie host who opens the film. It’s clear than Zombie is a scholar of pop history, and a well-studied one at that. In the early days of television, the major studios were too suspicious of the new medium to sign any deals to have their films shown on the networks. So the only movies that were shown were B-movies, exploitation pictures and junk entertainment. The horror movie host/hostess (which of course started with Vampira in L.A. in the spring of ’54) was an invention to try to get audiences to watch this schlock – the hostess got the audience to stick around. Without them, why watch these terrible movies? The horror host was also sort of imported from the world of horror comics, where characters like the Crypt-Keeper and the Old Witch introduced and concluded the horrific stories in each issue. But there was cultural hysteria about the warping effect the comics were having on young minds and the creation of the CMAA (Comics Magazine Association of America) led to a Comics Code that essentially made the horror comic extinct. Enter the tv horror host/ess. Enter Dr. Wolfenstein.
Kristine: And to some extent, Captain Spaulding, I think. So of course it makes sense how he bookends the film.
Sean: Oh totally. Spaulding is our link to the circus/sideshow roots of horror. I just want to be clear that I really admire how well-studied Zombie is in these areas, despite his total lack of any semblance of a queer sensibility.
Kristine: I agree. This movie might not be great or perfect, but it could have been so much worse. Can’t you totally see some shock-rocker coming along and being all, “I like horror movies. I’m gonna make one where some redneck family kills a bunch of cheerleaders” and it would have been dumb and dreadful and depressing? This movie has style, humor and, as you said, impressive reference points.
Kristine: I think I am most impressed with Zombie’s enthusiasm and how industrious he is. He churns out a lot of material in different mediums. I am always impressed with that, since it takes me so damn long to do anything and I am easily discouraged.
Sean: He is pretty impressive in terms of output, yes. But now that I have praised him….. I would like to make one final point about Zombie as an artist. Would you humor me for a second?
Kristine: I humor you always.
Sean: Could you just briefly peruse these lyrics? Then tell me what they have in common with this movie. I am just curious what you will see when you see these lyrics in the context of having just watched this.
Kristine: Okay…. “Moonshine frenzy hail,” huh?
Sean: “Livin’ fast and dying young like a
endless poetry/ My motor-psycho nightmare freak out
Inside of me/ My soul salvation liberation on the drive.” So what do you think?
Kristine: I mean, in reference to how incredibly prolific Zombie is in multiple mediums, I am wondering if it is all just a variation on this same theme of the “motor-psycho freakout”?
Sean: You don’t think the lyrics are gibberish? Strings of words that amount to nothing?
Kristine: I think he is the Jim Morrison of horror-rock, which is to say, yes. It’s a bunch of “badass” catchphrases strung together.
Sean: I am not arguing that rock and roll lyrics have to “mean something” but, they shouldn’t mean nothing. That’s my point.
Kristine: Oh, are you saying that is what this movie is, too? A bunch of badass references and visuals strung together with no real meaning.
Sean: I think that’s what I’m saying.
Kristine: I totally buy that. Because his goal is not to tell a story, but to make an aesthetic homage to badassery (in his opinion).
Sean: And to subtextually erase gayness from the universe, yes.
Kristine: Heh. We are talking a lot about Zombie. Is that because he is a celebrity or because you think the movie is so much about him and his interests and style that you can’t discuss the movie without analyzing him?
Sean: Oh yes. He is like a Tarantino or an Eli Roth to me. A provocateur, a cult of personality, and a total situation that must be discussed. I mean, if I had to choose to spend the weekend hanging out with one of them, I’m pretty sure I’d choose Zombie. Roth is too much of a prick and also strikes me as homophobic. Tarantino would be fascinating but would infuriate me after two hours. But I do think Zombie is a classic “rock star” in that he is schilling an aesthetic that, stripped down to its core, is essentially a void, an emptiness, a nothingness.
The Girl’s Rating: Problematic, but fun as hell
The Freak’s Rating: This movie is dumb but I had fun watching it (and I don’t know why) AND Where’s the queer?