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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

10 Responses

  1. House of 1,000 Corpses and High Tension actually suffer from the same affliction for me in that they both pull a really stupid bait-and-switch in the last act that seriously taints both films. House decides to lose its backwoods redneck Chainsaw Massacre horror vibe for something a lot weirder, and High Tension Shyamalans the bed with the lights on with a “what a twist!” turnabout. In both cases neither film stays true to itself, and the end result is that neither feels terribly assured. High Tension still warrants viewing, but House kills itself in the last act. Shame, really.

    Devil’s Rejects however is satisfyingly grim and disturbing, totally consistent, and morally complex. At this point I’m right convinced that the film was a huge fluke on Rob Zombie’s part, but if his whole career ends up being 99% garbage save for this one piece of output it’ll be worth it.

  2. Oh man, High Tension, that shit made zero sense but if there was a movie over the past ten years that really fucking upset me, that was it. The buzzsaw, the bureau decapitation, and especially all those awful images I conjured up in my head when he/she takes a straight edge to that woman’s hands. Terrible story, so brutal, but absolutely unforgettable. Good review, M.

    Neat fact: The entire score is made up of high tension wires being struck. I dig that.

    • @ Andrew — Yeah, I can’t decide how I feel about the end of “High Tension,” though I lean more toward “preposterous” than “brilliant.” I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, but this one leaves a huge, cavernous plot hole. The last 30 minutes of “House of 1000 Corpses” had me very close to 86ing the film early. The movie just degenerates into a huge, incomprehensible mess that stops being fun (if it ever was). And what a sh**ty ending. Maybe Rob Zombie has another “Devil’s Rejects” in him, but I doubt it. He should stick to music. If you could call that “music.”

      @ Aiden — It was the mom’s murder that Marie sees from the closet that got to me. The image of her dying eyes staring at Marie in the closet … yikes, that stayed with me for days! And that factoid about the entire score bumps it up a notch in my opinion, and almost makes up for the ending.

      • Hey, Zombie the filmmaker you can say whatever you want about…but I love me some White Zombie. He actually puts on a really bitching show filled with great costume work and set design, which shouldn’t be surprising given his fashion school background. He could have a career just doing that kind of work on movies and be great at it; I just don’t think he personally belongs behind a camera.

  3. I love all 3 of these movies soooo much. I would actually give 1000 corpses more in the B range. It’s a great first film. It lost me a bit at the end when the story changed from one kind of horror movie to another.
    Devil’s Rejects rules.
    And High Tension is so much fun. Somebody (not me) actually picked it for the post we’re doing on the 29th.

  4. I pretty much hated House of a 1000 Corpses. It’s just a shameless remake mash-up of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hills Have Eyes with some random weirdness thrown in. I avoided Devil’s Rejects because of it, but you’re not the first to say that it is a better film. I also just noticed that Ken Foree is in it too, which makes it more appetizing.

    I’ve got High Tension on my queue and have heard good things. Looking forward to it.

  5. I really dislike Zombie’s films and if there was any redeeming factor (which sorry there isn’t) to House of 1000 Corpses the ending killed it.

  6. From what I remember I Luv High Tension! I remember the ending very intense it seem like a roller-coaster ride. A must see again for me. It’s been a while checking you site mcarter I thought you didn’t like horror?

    • @ Kaiderman — I’m surprised that I enjoyed “High Tension” because I am not a fan of torture porn or gore in the slightest. But that beheading scene? I will never, EVER answer the doorbell when it rings in the middle of the night.

      @ Fitz — I agree. What the eff was that ending about in “House of 1000 Corposes”? I was reasonably entertained at the start, but by the end the whole thing unraveled into this completely incoherent … mess. Blecch. Thank God I rented this and didn’t buy it. I will say, however, that despite my hatred of clowns I am weirdly attracted to Sid Haig (if I don’t look at his teeth) in both films.

      @ Boogiestu — The whole movie is extremely intense. If it wasn’t so gory, I’d be tempted to call it an action flick … and you’re right. I’ve never been much of a horror fan, but in honor of Halloween I’m trying to do better and at least see one big sampling of everything: zombie movies, straight gore, some torture porn, and some classics.

  7. Like that bit about karma in your Devil’s Rejects write-up. Great way to end it and never really thought about the humanizing the Firefly family as a plot device. I think I was focusing on the best use of Freebird in a film and the rest of the great soundtrack.

    Never saw High Tension but based on all the praise I just may try to sneak it in before Halloween…only I’m not really in the mood to feel depressed afterwards:P

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