Love him or loathe him, Rob Zombie is one of the leading forces in modern horror cinema. A filmmaker whose name alone brings about either applause or ridicule, much to the pleasure (or pain) of his audience over the past 15 years since his directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses. You know you’re watching “a Rob Zombie film” within the first five minutes of watching a Rob Zombie movie because his morbid style and expletive voice is so ingrained into his worlds that you either take to them or you don’t. There is no normalcy to the characters he writes. There are no small-town U.S. values he won’t chew up and regurgitate as a great American nightmare. There is no end to his ability to kill off an actor like Rainn Wilson and turn him into a Fishboy. Zombie writes the characters he wants to write, he casts the performers he wants to cast, and for the most part, he makes the movie he wants to make (even if the making of something like 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses was creatively tumultuous).
This next revelation might leave a few of you scratching your head, but Zombie is the artist to whom I aspire most. For someone like me, Zombie has been a huge artistic inspiration on my musical tastes, the films I’ve come to love, and his whole persona makes me wish I had as little as an ounce of his coolness. He’s conquered the music business having sold over 15 million albums worldwide, he’s had a number one movie at the box office with his Halloween remake, and he’s released novels and comic books such as The Nail (which is unsurprisingly everything you expect it to be). A signed copy of his 2016 album, The Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser, is one of my most prized possessions and something I’ll always hold onto. Let us not forget, he’s also married to the beautiful and talented Sheri Moon Zombie, which is really unfair, right? How lucky can one guy get? In all fairness, though, his success is the result of hard work and an unrivalled dedication to his craft.
His schedule of late seems to be that he’ll record a new album, followed by a worldwide tour in support of said album, then he’ll make a new movie and wash, rinse, repeat. It’s a crazy work ethic, but as long as he keeps making his art, I’ll be there to support it. I could go on forever about Zombie’s childhood and what led him to this point in his career, but I’d be doing a disservice to Joel McIver’s fantastic biography, Sinister Urge: The Life and Times of Rob Zombie, which is a must-read book for anyone who has ever had any interest in the man born Robert Cummings. Rest assured, this is not one of those unauthorised biographies that you’ll find in the aisles of a discount store, though, as McIver digs deep into the larger than life man that is Rob Zombie, and creates a three-dimensional portrait of someone who worked damn hard to get where he is and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Also, check out this fantastic interview with Mick Garris for a more personal outlook on Zombie’s life and career.
So, why Rob Zombie? Out of all the filmmakers to have made their mark on cinema, why choose to do a three-part series on the director of The Devil’s Rejects? Well, firstly because I’m a massive fan and I want to approach Zombie’s oeuvre from a different angle to the norm. Admittedly, Zombie is more of a visual stylist than a writer of great dialogue, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t created some of the most iconic horror characters to have entered the zeitgeist over the past 15 years. In his first two movies, Zombie makes us watch through the eyes of bad guys, and three of those characters in particular—Captain Spaulding, Otis, and Baby—will be the focus of this first article. Much has been written about the making of and the films that inspired House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, but I want to mainly focus on the characters themselves, why we the audience are drawn to them, and how Zombie gives us a world without protagonists and only sadistically nauseating antagonists.
“This is the house. Come on in. This is the house. Built on sin. This is the house. Nobody lives. This is the house. You get what you give.” —Rob Zombie, “House of 1000 Corpses” from The Sinister Urge (2001).
House of 1000 Corpses is clearly the work of a first-time filmmaker trying to balance the act between homage and originality, which is something that Zombie would immediately improve upon with its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects. Zombie is very much a filmmaker in the same ilk as Quentin Tarantino, in that they’re not really cinematic originators, despite them both making mostly original films. The films that they both watched as children made such an impact on their creativity that their own movies play as more of a tribute to a specific period in cinema than a truly original work of art. There would be no House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects without the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Bonnie and Clyde, and there would be no Kill Bill or Django Unchained without grindhouse cinema and the Spaghetti Western. The likes of Alice Cooper, too, had a huge impact on Zombie both as a musical artist and a filmmaker. Basically, Zombie packaged everything he loved as a kid and made it his career.
I’m not going to pretend like House of 1000 Corpses is great cinema or even an objectively good film, but Zombie somehow manages to keep it together even if it threatens to come off the tracks throughout its runtime. It’s tonally all over the place and sits somewhere between the pitch black comedic insanity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and the violently decadent slickness of Dario Argento at his best. It’s a haunted house attraction come to life, and maybe it’s a little too over the top for its own good. The Devil’s Rejects, however, couldn’t be any more different. It’s as tonally, stylistically, and thematically different as any movie sequel I’ve ever seen. The Devil’s Rejects is less cartoonish, way more violent, and is visually closer to a gritty Western/road movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a horror movie, but if not for the returning cast, you’d be forgiven for not even realising it is part two in what will become a three-part franchise after the release of 3 from Hell in 2019.
One look at the performers cast to portray the three from hell in question—aka the devil’s rejects, aka the Firefly family—tells you all you need to know about Zombie and his casting process. For the role of the male patriarch of the Firefly family, Captain Spaulding, Zombie cast a man whose career is often tied to that of the legendary exploitation filmmaker Jack Hill (Spider Baby, Coffy). Sid Haig is the type of character actor people often call upon when they need someone a little…off. He knows that and, well, he’s made a pretty good career out of it having worked for the likes of Hill, Tarantino, Zombie, and more. Captain Spaulding is every coulrophobic’s worst nightmare: one part Pennywise the Dancing Clown, one part Colonel Sanders, and one part John Wayne Gacy. Introduced in House of 1000 Corpses as the owner of “Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen,” Captain Spaulding is the nasty foulmouthed clown responsible for supplying the Firefly family with their latest victims.
Though, while the people who stop at Captain Spaulding’s gas station/museum might be able to enjoy a “murder ride” and some complimentary fried chicken, there is no free toy with this Happy Meal. If Captain Spaulding were a character in a heist film, he would be considered the mastermind of the operation. He’s the breadwinner, providing the front for the crimes of the family that’ve claimed over 75 victims. His connection to and role within the Firefly family is left intentionally ambiguous during House of 1000 Corpses, but The Devil’s Rejects positions him at the top of the food chain and the father of Baby (played by Sheri Moon Zombie). Baby is basically Harley Quinn brought to life 13 years before Margot Robbie put on the costume in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Sheri Moon’s casting is clearly nepotism, for sure, but her manically bravura performance sets the screen alight. Don’t let her sexpot charm fool you, though, as Baby is crazy. Like, seriously batshit crazy, and is just as sadistic as her male relatives.
First seen as a hitchhiker flagging down the unfortunate pawns in the latest Firefly massacre (an obvious homage to Edwin Neal’s hitchhiker in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Baby is the deranged—to be fair, all of them are deranged—loose cannon member of a heist film crew. The unpredictable one who can turn on a dime. The girl next door with a corpse under her bed. Her adoptive brother, Otis, is the heist film soldier—a depraved figure who enjoys turning his kills into freak show attractions and wears their skin for fun. The man tasked with playing the Manson-like Otis, Bill Moseley, is no stranger to this type of character having previously played Chop Top in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (which turned him into an instant horror favourite). Like Tarantino, Zombie casts all of his movies with an ensemble of genre favourites from years gone by. You can bet your life that if Zombie enjoyed a particular film from his youth, someone from the cast will end up working for him.
While all three characters were toned down for the more realistic and serious The Devil’s Rejects, the thing that has always made House of 1000 Corpses stick out to me is how we are presented a world without protagonists. Our leads are the antagonists, and it’s them we follow from the very opening of the film. The heroes of the story are the Firefly family. If you look at the horror genre throughout its history, how often does a story actually focus on the antagonistic villain or titular monster? Dracula isn’t the lead in Dracula, and Leatherface isn’t the lead in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and neither is Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. In House of 1000 Corpses, though, it’s all about the Firefly family and everyone else is just meat for the dinner table. There is no Laurie Strode or Ellen Ripley or Nancy Thompson fighting against evil time and time again. We’re asked to actively follow the journey of Captain Spaulding, Otis, and Baby and watch their heinous crimes from their points of view.
Of course, I’m sure there are many exceptions to the point I’m making, but I don’t recall that many actual human villains continuing to lead a franchise approaching its third instalment in 16 years. Even in something like Psycho we don’t actively follow Norman Bates, because the reveal of his true nature is a twist in the narrative. Sure, we might get a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or a Natural Born Killers every once in a while, but we’re never asked to empathise with these people. We know they’re void of humanity, emotionless, and there is nothing relatable about them. In TV, a character like Dexter Morgan is portrayed as vigilante serial-killing antihero with an ethical code of putting right what the justice system so often gets wrong. But in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, Zombie actually tries to establish a relationship between the viewing audience and the on-screen murderers by relating to one of the most profoundly emotional ties that bring us all together as humans: family.
“Live for the family. Die with the family. All is the family. My gun is running out.” —Rob Zombie, “The Devil’s Rejects” from Educated Horses (2006).
To paraphrase Megadeth for a second: killing is the Firefly’s business…and business is good. Well, it’s good until they’re forced to go on the run and are killed in a barrage of gunfire at the end of The Devil’s Rejects. Up until that point, we watch the Firefly family act upon every violent impulse with as much perversion and sadism as possible. Murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, scalping, etc. You name it, we watch them do it. And yet, by the time the credits roll, Zombie has given us enough reasoning to at least see why the Firefly family do what they do. Namely, it’s all in service of protecting the family. You don’t have to like or empathise with the family to understand their motives, but Zombie tries his damn hardest to make us see their disturbingly repugnant viewpoint within the context of this world. Zombie is never one to shy away from the darker corners of the human mind, and unpredictability is one of his greatest assets. It’ll be a sad day if Zombie ever listens to his critics and tries to please them.
Family ties have always been a staple trope of the horror genre, and the Firefly family is no different. Not only do we see Captain Spaulding, Otis, and Baby, but there’s also a whole host of others who each play their part in the family business. There’s Tiny, Mama, Rufus, Grandpa Hugo, Dr. Satan, The Professor, and more. Each one of them is as sick as the next, and we can draw connections to various families from horror cinema and real life. Think about the never-ending clan of Sawyers who adopt Leatherface into the family in each new film, or Pamela Voorhees avenging Jason’s death in the original Friday the 13th, or even a family as bone-chillingly real as the one formed by Charles Manson. Whether these families are real or not, horror is an exploitative genre that feeds on society’s obsession with the macabre. There wouldn’t be eight Saw films or 11 Halloween films if we didn’t pay to see these blood-soaked killers over and over. I’m sure Freud would’ve had a reason for why we choose to do so.
If then there are no true protagonists in either House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects, who should we root for? Do we actively want the Firefly family to escape at the end of The Devil’s Rejects and continue their murder spree elsewhere? The sensible, morally conscious side of me wants to see all the pain and suffering they’ve inflicted come back to bite them, but I’ll be damned if I don’t admit to finding them incredibly watchable, despite knowing they’re human abominations. They have no redeemable qualities, yet there’s a twisted sadness to the end of The Devil’s Rejects knowing that this is the end. As despicable as they are, the Firefly family literally came to the end of the road. That is until next year when we’ll get to see the return of the Firefly family on the big screen. Next to nothing is known about 3 from Hell’s plot, but maybe Zombie has been toying with their return for many years. One look at the lyrics to “The Devil’s Rejects” from 2006’s Educated Horses might provide some clues…
“Hell doesn’t want them. Hell doesn’t need them. Hell doesn’t love them. This world rejects them. The Devil’s Rejects.” —Rob Zombie, “The Devil’s Rejects” from Educated Horses (2006).
So, what are your thoughts on House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, and the Firefly family in general? Are you looking forward to next year’s 3 from Hell or should Zombie have left Captain Spaulding, Otis, and Baby dead from the hailstorm of bullets that put a stop to their depravity at the end of The Devil’s Rejects? Please leave a comment and let us know by following the information about our social media accounts, which can be found below. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter (@JonSheasby), and we’ll continue the conversation over there.