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Shriekfest 2010: Rob Zombie roundup, “High Tension”

“House of 1000 Corpses”
Starring Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Rainn Wilson

If Roald Dahl and Ed Gein ever had a secret lovechild, Rob Zombie is it. Zombie’s got an imagination on him that mightily trumps Stephen King’s in terms of psychotic kitsch and campy terror. “House of 1000 Corpses” is an entertaining if highly revolting combination of both, though Zombie’s attempts to make up in weirdness what he lacks in storytelling ability aren’t always successful. A gaggle of 20somethings — including Rainn Wilson playing Rainn Wilson — stop at the Texas gas station/museum of the bizarre owned by crude, wannabe minstrel Capt. Spaulding (Haig, funny and menacing) and decide to seek out the hanging tree of legendary sicko Dr. Satan (Walter Phelan). Of course they break down, and of course they become the unwitting houseguests of the Firefly family, composed of mom (Karen Black), Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), Otis (Bill Moseley), a horribly burned mute named Tiny (Matthew McGrory) and others. What vomitous horrors await them must be seen to be believed. Black and Haig’s kooky performances are entertaining, while Moseley finds depths of sickness that you’d never expect from, well, Bill Moseley. Though punctuated by flashes of humor (go on down to Red Hot Pussy Liquor and pick up some Dewar’s, would you?), the whole film devolves into a hallucinogenic mess by the end. And even really inventive weird-for-weird’s-sake gags get old after 90 minutes. C

“The Devil’s Rejects”
Starring William Forsythe, Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley

It’s a wonderful thing, focus is, and it’s just what “The Devil’s Rejects” has that Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” sorely, sorely lacked. Where the original was a grotesque parade of aimless, murder-obsessed freaks interspliced with sinister-comic tunes, “The Devil’s Rejects” tells a narrower – and wholly more interesting – tale. Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), Otis (Moseley), Spaulding (Haig) and Ma Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook this time around) are the only survivors of a blitzkrieg raid orchestrated by Sheriff John Quincey Wydell (Forsythe), who wields his badge like a lightning rod of justice. Ma’s carted off to prison, while Baby and Otis escape to a nearby hotel and make hostages (and whimpering play toys) of a Christian singing group. Moseley, Haig and Moon Zombie’s inane squabbles – “there is no fucking ice cream in your fucking future!” Otis screams at a whining Baby – give “The Devil’s Rejects” a more obvious comedic slant, with the gruesome threesome coming across as more sympathetic than Forsythe’s self-righteous, laughably cocky Sheriff Wydell. The sequel’s also something of a come-uppance for the Firefly gang, with sins of their past nipping at their heels as they flee the law. Still, Zombie’s inexplicable affection for these reprobates is clear, and he writes (or tries to write them) this time around as human figures capable of affection and pain. When karma comes ‘round, we almost feel sorry. Almost. B+

“High Tension” (2003)
Starring Cécile De France, Maïwenn Le Besco, Philippe Nahon

Alexandre Aja thinks gore can be beautiful in its way. Nearly every frame of his horror/thriller “High Tension” fairly oozes style. (There’s plenty of blood, too, but the free-flowing claret somehow adds to the grim artistry.) He weaves a twisted, action-heavy storyline of serial killers and friendship without sacrificing mood in the race to the conclusion. There’s an ethereal elegance to the film’s most taut scenes, like a bloody gas station confrontation or hushed tiptoeing through a deserted greenhouse. This means the actors have little to do but utter few lines of dialogue and die spectacularly or fight like hell. Key players are college pals Marie (de France) and Alex (Le Besco) making a trip to Alex’s family’s isolated French country home to study for exams. Well after the witching hour a knock comes at the door, and Alex’s father answers, sealing his family’s future as prey for a deranged butcher (Mahon) with a fondness for using severed heads for oral sex. Everyone’s slaughtered – Alex’s mom gets the most chilling and starkly colorful dispatching – but Marie, who hides under the bed, and Alex, who’s carted off in the killer’s truck. The film turns high-octane after that, with de France demonstrating Ellen Ripley-like cunning, reflexes and an ability to think on her feet. The finale (either genius or insulting, but obvious to shrewd viewers) does an about-face that leaves no time for breath catching. Love the film or hate it, though, Aja’s flair for making gore seem arty is undeniable. B