Girl Meets Context: This month is Brutality Month on Girl Meets Freak, where we’ll watch some of the most recent examples of ultraviolence in horror movies. This week, Rob Zombie’s follow-up to House of 1000 Corpses, which is often thought of as a big stylistic departure, trading in campy and gory B-horror for hard-edged exploitation ultraviolence. The films opens with the police raiding the Firefly compound from the first film, sending Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis (Bill Moseley) on the run, while Mama Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, taking over for Karen Black), is captured by the vengeful Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), whose brother (Tom Towles) was killed by the Fireflys previously. As Wydell tortures Mama in prison, Baby and Otis meet up with Capt. Spaulding (Sid Haig) and together they go on a killing spree that involves brutalizing a travelling band of musicians at a run-down motel, before heading to a Wild West-style brothel owned by Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree). As Wydell and a pair of bounty hunters close in on the Fireflys, the movie suddenly recasts the murderous trio as the heroes of the film. As they struggle to survive against Wydell and his men, the audience is invited to care whether the Fireflys live or die… Kristine and I sat down to discuss the movie. If you haven’t seen The Devil’s Rejects, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Sean: So, I am not just in a bad mood. I really hate this movie.
Kristine: Really? I found it massively entertaining.
Sean: I was wondering what you’d say! I saw this movie when it first came out and remember not liking it very much, but not really hating it. But rewatching it for the blog, I hated it. It made me really mad.
Kristine: I am shocked you hated it! Tell me everything.
Sean: Well, first let me ask this: Do you think it’s a big stylistic departure from House of 1000 Corpses? Or is it just more of the same?
Kristine: I thought it was better than House of 1000 Corpses in all ways. Especially visually. I thought it looked great.
Sean: But a better version of the same formula? Or a new formula?
Kristine: Yes, it’s pretty much the same formula: a pastiche of horror movie tropes, along with some outright plagiarism from “better” movies. Was that part of what you hate about it?
Sean: Maybe that’s part of it. I’m not sure exactly how to pinpoint the source of my distaste. I had forgotten how much Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, et al was in the DNA of The Devil’s Rejects. The Allman Brothers songs, the Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, the Three Dog Night songs. All the open road Americana, all the grindhouse car movie stuff.
Kristine: For sure. This is a pastiche of not just exploitation horror movies, but also 1970s road movies + westerns. I liked the western elements. So, Zombie borrowing from all those different genres annoyed you?
Sean: It’s not the incorporation of stuff from the western or the road movie bothered me, per se. I love westerns, and I’m fine with carsploitation movies. Basically, I have the same complaints that I lodged against House of 1000 Corpses, but with The Devil’s Rejects the problems are magnified by about a million times. And my complaint is: Privileged Massachusetts kid who went to Parson’s School of Design slumming in fake Southern sleaze. I just keep thinking of Rob Zombie meeting Sheri Moon at Toad’s Place in New Haven, and her aspirations to be an MTV Veejay and… I just cannot handle it with them.
Kristine: Yeah, I totally understand that reaction. And it is underscored to the max with the recent news item I shared with you, that Rob ‘n Sheri filed a noise complaint against the local skate park near their house in some posh Connecticut enclave. Is that not a total douchebag yuppie move or what? So much for them being edgy outsiders. But for whatever reason, I still found The Devil’s Rejects to be completely fun and watchable.
Sean: Remember when we watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 and you said that at a certain point Chop Top (played by Bill Moseley, of course) screaming “Get her Leatherface! Get that bitch!” just started to bum you out?
Sean: That was how I felt about this entire movie.
Kristine: I get that.
Sean: I really couldn’t stand the humiliation of Gloria. When Otis forces her to say “Make me your fucking whore”?
Kristine: Yeah. Though I did think the shout-out to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, when they force Wendy to wear her husband’s face and she’s running around all deranged, was pretty awesome and horrifying.
Sean: Here’s the thing. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (and movies like it) are these Grand Guignol explosions of id… But Zombie’s movie doesn’t feel transgressive or radical or even like a dark catharsis to me. And I think that’s because Zombie doesn’t actually have any cultural demons to exorcise. He is –for better or for worse – part of a wave of filmmakers who are all about style, are all about the aesthetics and surfaces of genres. Obviously Quentin Tarantino is the idiot savant king of that generation and, as we covered when we discussed From Dusk Till Dawn, I’ve got very conflicted feelings about Tarantino and his movies. But this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few years, as more and more filmmakers in the horror/sci-fi genres make these visually stylish, narratively inert “homages” to older, better movies. I’m thinking of things like Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned (homage to Eurotrash lesbian vampire movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s), Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow (homage to Kubrick and the psychedelic sci-fi of the ‘60s and ‘70s), Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (both homages to the classic giallo), Ti West’s The House of the Devil (homage to the Satanic panic movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s) and Rob Zombie’s own recent movie The Lords of Salem. The movies are all basically a set of aesthetic signifiers; they’re all about cinematic language, about the language of pop. Slant’s review of the 2013 Maniac remake discusses these filmmakers intelligently. But I’m not sure how I feel about them, this post-Tarantino wave of genre stylists. The truth is, I really loved some of the movies I just mentioned. But they’re just the flipside of the 21st century wave of horror remakes. They’re still mining the past for inspiration. They’re not innovators, they’re imitators. The current moment is so much about nostalgia, as these movies and all the recent remakes make so clear. But I can defend the movies I listed above from detractors and point out some of their virtues… I can’t do that for The Devil’s Rejects. In my mind, if you wanted to make a strong case against the lack of originality in the current crop of (indie) genre filmmakers, The Devil’s Rejects is the perfect example to point out all the most egregious problems. This movie – as much as that 1990s wave of Pulp Fiction wannabes like Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead and 2 Days in the Valley – is just desperately clamoring to copy Tarantino’s style, especially his way with dialogue and it is pathetic and embarrassing. Again, I’ve got my reservations about Tarantino, but… That ‘chicken-fucking’ conversation? Awful. Absolute garbage. It wanted so badly to be the redneck trash equivalent of the “Royale with Cheese” conversation from Pulp Fiction, but it was just crass and stupid. Tarantino’s gift is for dialogue, and especially how he surprises and subverts our expectations. But that conversation was, in addition to being moronic and poorly written, exactly what you’d expect someone trying to make edgy Southern sleaze to come up with.
Kristine: Oh, I totally agree about the chicken conversation! My boyfriend and I looked at one another after that scene and asked, “Why did that just happen?” Also, I don’t disagree that Zombie is all about style, but I thought he managed to work in some good humor to The Devil’s Rejects and kept things zipping along.
Sean: Good humor? Like how the punchline of Capt. Spaulding’s life is that his girlfriend is fat? And how we’re supposed to think it’s so hysterical when he calls his fat girlfriend is a “spastic mongoloid” and a “bitch”?
Kristine: Wow, you hate this movie!
Sean: I really do. I thought that all the women in this movie were the butt of filthy, misogynistic jokes. We’re almost never invited to laugh at the male characters, but the movie wants us to laugh at the expense of the women again and again. For instance, remember the way the movie introduces Gloria, the woman who is sadistically assaulted and sexually abused for our pleasure? We meet her by witnessing all of her friends (both male and female) mocking her body, saying things like “[Her] tig bitties were flapping around…” and calling her breasts “two raccoons in a gunny sack fighting to get out.” And then later, Otis says to Roy, “Your wife’s pussy stink is all over my gun… hope it doesn’t rust the barrel.” Again, we’re being asked to laugh at Gloria.
Kristine: I totally get it, but I thought it was kind of interesting how the “normal,” sympathetic family unit is presented as pretty fucked up (Roy is a creeper, everyone’s talking about Gloria’s body) whereas the Firefly family is presented as being caring and loving (all the scenes of Spaulding, Otis and Baby bonding on the road, saving one another from Wydell, etc.).
Sean: Well, but this is one of the main reasons I hate the movie: Zombie wants to turn the trio at the center of the movie into folk heroes! And present them as the sympathetic ones. Just… no.
Kristine: I agree that he wants us to love them and identify with them, regardless of all the horrible things they do.
Sean: Just like with House of 1000 Corpses, if there was one iota of queer sensibility to the “monster” family, I could possibly get on board, because then the trio of psychopaths become somehow subversive… But Otis, Spaulding and Baby are the most mainstream patriarchal heteronormative assholes ever. That scene of them all partying at Charlie’s Wild West town? A bunch of sad dried-up old fucking gross men and haggard women cavorting with cheap whiskey to fucking stripper music? Sorry, not subversive. That same depressing scene is happening in every dive bar AND frat house in America, right now.
Kristine: Oh, I agree with that 1000%. And I also noticed how Baby is always sexualized but never actually allowed to be sexual. We see Otis and Dad having sexual encounters, but never Baby. She just uses her sexuality to help the family get victims or titillate the men, never out of her own actual sexual desire.
Kristine: Her desires are whatever turns the boys on. She has no identity outside of them and her role in their universe. I hate that.
Sean: Look, if you want to present us with some subversive, outcast, radical freaks to assault the heteronormative “system,” go for it! Zombie doesn’t know queer freaks from a fucking toe ring on his wife’s foot.
Kristine: Ha ha!!! He and Sheri definitely think they are super-suberversive freaks, but it’s all Frat Boy 101. This cannot be denied.
Sean: So what this movie winds up doing is glorifying Sons of Anarchy biker/outlaw culture, with all its inherent misogyny and misanthropy. Again, I’m all for a movie in which some ‘fucked over by the system’ blue collar superfreaks go nuts and start attacking the normals. But in this movie, all of their victims are regular, blue collar, hard-working folks! Baby, Otis and Spaulding are layabout good-for-nothings who don’t work or do anything. Meanwhile, they butcher a middle-aged nurse, terrorize a hard-working single mom trying to get to work on time, violate and destroy a band of working musicians, and so on and so on. Fuck them! Plus, everything that Otis and Spaulding and Baby stand for are the same things that all the evil asshole patriarchs throughout American history have stood for. They’re horridly conservative, they’re stunningly ignorant, and they’re not even weird enough to be entertaining.
Kristine: Now I am bummed out!
Sean: I am sorry.
Kristine: It’s okay! All your points are valid. And I realized all of this when I was watching the movie, but I still thought it was fun. But now I am having a hard time justifying why. One element of the movie that I didn’t like was how Zombie re-cast the role of Mama Firefly. Karen Black forever.
Sean: Karen Black wanted too much money.
Kristine: Seriously? Is that why she didn’t reprise the role?
Sean: Yes. She was like, “My price just doubled.”
Kristine: Good for Karen! I didn’t like the new actress and I really didn’t like Mama Firefly’s ultimate fate in the movie.
Sean: I thought her murder scene was basically a rape scene. I hated it so much.
Kristine: Well, of course it was. Wasn’t that the point? It was to show how Sheriff Wydell had gone off the deep end. But I hated it, too.
Sean: What about the way Wydell leaves the men to burn but turns Baby loose in order to terrorize and torture her more, because that’s what you do with women?
Kristine: Oh, I KNOOOOOOW!!
Sean: Rob Zombie is turned on by the rape and abuse of women. He is turned on by it!
Kristine: I agree with that.
Sean: I was rooting for Wydell when he had them all tied up and was driving stakes through Ugly Otis’ hands. I was cheering.
Kristine: So, answer me this. Zombie wants the viewer to do an about face and root for the Fireflys, but he does very little character-building in order to make the audience care about them. Why do you think it works? I know it didn’t work on you, but I bet most viewers found themselves on board. It is just because audiences are used to agreeably going along with movies without question?
Sean: My answer is that the audience is suckered in to identifying with the Fireflys (and seeing them as anti-heroes) because of Zombie’s admittedly highly-developed ability to dazzle us with style. He knows how to put which song over which image to get some kind of post-modern marketing frisson out of the audience. Watching a Zombie movie is like watching a sadistically well-constructed SuperBowl commercial. You know you are being manipulated by cynical geniuses, but the power of style is undeniable.
Kristine: Wow! He really gets under your skin. You are pissed!!
Sean: I am actually complimenting him right now.
Kristine: I know!
Sean: And, like Tarantino, he is undeniably well-versed in the language of cinema. I think he possesses a lot of stylistic gifts.
Kristine: Hmm, not when it comes to self-styling.
Sean: I enjoyed House of 1000 Corpses, despite its flaws, and I outright liked The Lords of Salem and Halloween II. But The Devil’s Rejects, to me, is shallow and stupid garbage. Ebert loved it, by the way.
Kristine: Ha ha! I agree it’s garbage, but I cannot deny being entertained by it. I guess I was “dazzled,” despite being well aware of all the problematic elements.
Sean: But here’s the thing about Ebert. He specifically said that one of The Devil’s Rejects’ virtues is that “It desire[s] to entertain and not merely to sicken,” which is the most classic Ebert thing to say about a horror movie. The thing that Ebert (and, by the way, Rob Zombie) doesn’t get is that entertaining the audience – for the horror genre, specifically – is sometimes the most morally appalling thing that a movie can do. Ebert never understood the anger at the heart of the horror genre, that one of the primary things that animates the genre is rage at the system, at the culture. He could never stomach a movie that was animated by pure rage, that wanted to do the opposite of entertain the audience – that wanted instead to rub our fucking noses in the most awful, the most ugly, the most debased subject matter. In the best cases, there’s an actual moral point being made. Ebert dismisses the power of sickening the audience outright. Well, I’m going to argue that the more morally depraved approach is to take the kind of subject matter that the horror genre (especially the kinds of horror movies that The Devil’s Rejects is referencing) deals with – rape, murder, decay, death, violence – and try to make slick, inoffensive entertainment out of it. Sometimes “to entertain” is the absolute stupidest, the absolute most depraved thing a movie can do, especially a horror movie. This is not to say that their aren’t wretched, misanthropic horror movies out there that try to sicken us out of pure sadism and misogyny. There are. But Ebert, to my mind, was never really able to tell the difference.
Kristine: I do think you’re right that Zombie doesn’t get the anger at the heart of this kind of horror movie. Like, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was pissed off about things – the breakdown of blue collar industry in Texas, the return of a generation of wounded, dehumanized men from Vietnam… What is Zombie mad about? That some women are fat? That America expects you to work and not just lay around getting drunk all day?
Sean: Right… I just want to reiterate that the way the movie tries so fucking hard to make the Fireflys into iconic American anti-heroes is laughable and idiotic. How the movie ends on all these lingering shots of American highways, landscape, open country, open road, all choked with nostalgia and goddamned Harley Davidson classic-rock feel-good bullshit. And the Fireflys cavorting and posing for the camera like they are goddamned flower children? When I saw all that, I was like, “Is this a joke?” It was like a terrible ad for True Religion jeans. Also, Zombie chose to end the movie on “Free Bird”? What? And why? I was dying. He is the King of Clichés.
Kristine: Ha ha ha! I have a question for you – your outrage seems to come from a human place, i.e. you are disgusted by the movie’s misogyny and Zombie’s misplaced belief that he is being outré when he is just slinging the same old shit at us. Are you also outraged as a horror fan? Do you think he is insulting the genre?
Sean: That’s a difficult question for me to answer. Especially because, as we discussed earlier, this movie is a pastiche of many genres, not just horror. But no, I’m not offended as a fan of the genre. Mostly because Zombie’s stylistic gifts are so strong that, despite being moronic and misogynist and embarrassingly shallow, it looks fucking great. As you pointed out.
Kristine: I believe Zombie is a true superfan of the genre. Do you agree?
Sean: Yes, I am not questioning his horror fandom at all. Do you believe Zombie and Tarantino belong in the same camp, like I alleged earlier?
Kristine: Yes, I do. I believe that Tarantino is more ambitious and his filmic vocabulary is broader. He is less of a caricature than Zombie. But I believe they are in the same camp, and that camp has very, very few ethical qualms about… Well, anything!
Sean: Right… But Tarantino at least seem aware of the ways he’s breaking the rules or whatever. I don’t think Zombie is as critical a thinker as Tarantino. Tarantino is like, ‘Sure this is in ‘bad taste,’ but fuck it.’ Zombie is like, ‘Aren’t I so dangerous? Isn’t this movie so offensive?’ and yes, it is, but in the stupidest and least imaginative way possible.
Kristine: Agreed. I think a crucial point is that Tarantino comes from a place of being an outsider nerd, whereas Zombie is the insider cool rocker guy. I mean, they’re both self-styled identities, but I do think they inform each filmmaker’s vision.
Sean: Just fyi, the only characters I didn’t hate in this movie where Charlie and Candy, despite being the black pimp and his white ho which is a tired cliché… Did you recognize those actors?
Kristine: Candy is P.J. Soles, one of my all time faves because, hello, Valley Girl!!!
Sean: No. Candy is not P.J. Soles.
Sean: P.J. Soles plays the mom who gets carjacked by Capt. Spaulding (she’s with her little boy).
Kristine: What?! Who is Candy, then? I am so confused.
Sean: Candy is E.G. Daily who was absolutely in Valley Girl and Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains, as well as being Dottie from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
Kristine: Okay, yes. I feel dumb. Who is Charlie?
Sean: Charlie is Peter from Dawn of the Dead!
Sean: Did you recognize the new Mama Firefly?
Kristine: Her face is totally familiar but I couldn’t place her. My boyfriend knew who she was.
Sean: She played Rhonda, the hot-to-trot sexpot neighbor, on Laverne & Shirley and she was also Callaghan, the dominatrix cop with the giant boobs in the Police Academy movies.
Sean: Gloria, the wife who gets sexually assaulted, played Terri, the replacement for Suzanne Somers, on Three’s Company.
Kristine: Oh shit you are right!!! Fuck! Terri!
Sean: Did you spot Mary Woronov?
Kristine: Ugh, no! I feel so dumb right now! I live for Mary.
Sean: When Baby lays in the road and the middle-aged nurse stops her car, but then Otis stabs her? That was Mary.
Kristine: Missed it. Baby using her body as bait? I am so over it.
Sean: Ugh, so over it. Her making Wendy hit Gloria in the face? So disgusting. Did you spot Pluto, the mongoloid rapist, from The Hills Have Eyes?
Sean: I just want to point out the repetition of the following line: “What are you a faggot?” It was said, I think, at least ten times? Also, “You’re nothing but a city faggot with a cowboy hat.”
Kristine: I remember Otis saying it about Roy not noticing what a “fine piece of ass” Baby was.
Sean: Yep. Thanks, Rob. Love ya! Our American Folk Heroes, ladies and germs, according to Rob Zombie!
Sean: But what do I know? I’m just a fucking faggot.
Sean: I rebuke this movie.
Kristine: I am ashamed that I was dazzled by it!
Sean: No, please. I mean, people love this movie for the same reasons they love Sons of Anarchy, right? It’s a white trash/blue collar fantasy about “incorrect” masculinity reigning supreme, and women being really good for lookin’ at and rapin’.
Kristine: Can I say that Sheriff Wydell was totally entertaining, if we can leave aside his rape-killing of Mama Firefly.
Sean: He is my hero, despite raping and torturing women, just for being a force against the Ugly Three.
Kristine: Ha ha! Otis is vomit.
Sean: This movie’s moral universe is so revolting. Also, Wydell is a “worse” villain than the Fireflys because he is supposed to represent the law and the government, right? This movie is like, a sick conservative Libertarian fantasy that assumes that the cops are stupid, man! Don’t let the System tell you what to do!
Kristine: Guess what, Zombie blew his anti-cop, anti-authority façade when he fucking called the cops on a local skate park.
Sean: If you want to celebrate overthrowing the Man, don’t make him the most sympathetic character in your trashy rape fantasy.
Kristine: Tee hee.
The Girl’s Rating: This movie is dumb but I had fun watching it (and I don’t know why)
The Freak’s Rating: This is a horror classic because…why, exactly?