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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

Highbrow, lowbrow mix in disappointing “Halloween II”

Halloween_II

Is it me, or is Michael Myers starting to look suspiciously like Leatherface?

A mere 10 minutes in and with some help from a white horse and his kohl-pencil loving wife, Rob Zombie loudly announces his intentions for “Halloween II”: He’s out to make a thinking man’s movie about Michael Myers. One where the immortal murderer sees his dear departed mum (Sheri Moon Zombie) in spooky, hazy midnight hallucinations and she lays out a master plan for family togetherness that involves dispatching young Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton). She also offers motherly advice about future kills (“now go have some fun”) and strokes her hulking son’s furrowed brow.

In a word: Spare me.

Or perhaps I should say spare us, Zombie-comma-Rob, and by “us” I mean all the Michael Myers fans who have been hanging in since the start, the ones who have seen every petrified crap-pile remake and sequel and meta-sequel with the tiniest shred of hope that this director saw the original, or at least read the blurb on the back cover of the DVD. Zombie’s first attempt, “Halloween,” showed a wee flicker of promise because there was an eerieness there (thanks to Daeg Faerch) that nearly balanced out the gore. Not so with “Halloween II,” a mindless, pointless exercise in blood spillage interrupted frequently by crazy, acid-like dream sequences. So “Halloween II” isn’t just a stupid movie, it’s a pretentious one. The fact that Zombie attempts to combine these qualities is about the only original thing this huge, lumbering disappointment has to offer. 

Right off things don’t look so bad, since “Halloween II” begins where its not-so-bad predecessor ended: Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) has survived the Halloween massacre of her brother Michael (Tyler Mane), but not without serious physical and psychological scars. Now living with her friend Annie (Danielle Harris, whom you might remember from “Halloween 4” and “Halloween 5”) and Annie’s father, Sheriff Lee Brackett (Brad Dourif), Laurie’s wracked with nightmares and panic attacks. Her anxiety only deepens when Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) outs her as Michael’s sister and proceeds to turn her name and Michael’s victims into big book sales. Slowly slicing and dicing his way into this storyline is Michael, driven by hallucinations to find his baby sister and stage the kind of family reunion that would make the Firefly family squeal with delight. 

That’s really all that happens in “Halloween II” in the way of plot. There’s some random teen-age sex (in a van, no less) that’s generic in its sluttiness included for good measure, or perhaps because that’s a horror movie requirement, but mostly “Halloween II” is a veritable smorgasbord of crunched bones, split throats, stomped-in craniums and severed heads. It’s crass and pointless, and what’s more it’s not inventive or even terribly interesting. If Zombie’s out to startle us with gore, he more than missed his chance — the “Hostel” and “Saw” movies long ago killed off the shock centers of our brains. What “Halloween II” serves up in the way of violence barely merits a raised eyebrow, let alone a quick dip behind the popcorn bucket or a hands-over-the-eyes maneuver. This is positively run-of-the-mill, and on its own the gore would be enough to make “Halloween II” an average horror movie.

The bigger problem here is that Zombie tries to merge Michael’s self-consciously arty and trippy visions with all the killing, and it just plain doesn’t work. There’s a serious disconnect between these two stories that never gets repaired; in fact, it seems like Zombie wrote two movies and tossed both scripts into the air, grabbing the pages and putting them in random order. Either approach would have made a decently watchable movie, but together these storylines create a big mess.

There’s probably not much point in mentioning the acting, since McDowell is no Donald Pleasance, Laurie’s friends are largely dispensable and Taylor-Compton makes Laurie into a potty-mouthed, whiny Anyteen who can barely keep our interest, much less our sympathy. She does, however, get one good line: “Nightmares are chewing at my head again … they just seem to be getting worse.”

After sitting through “Halloween II”? Yeah, I’d say my brain felt decidedly nibbled.

Grade: D