Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses is a fun movie. It’s not a bad feature by any means, especially for a first time director. It was, by all accounts, not remotely easy to make. Universal hated it from the first time they saw any footage and held off of releasing it for four years. Zombie had to pull the resources together to finish it on his own, filming inserts and quick bits with the cast at his house. I remember reading in an issue of Fangoria that Zombie was working on his first directorial feature and how excited they were for it.
Because of that, I was aware of House of 1,000 Corpses for years before it actually came out. Fans of Zombie as a musician began to rally behind him to get this movie released. Who knows? Without the director having a built-in fan base, House might have just sat in a studio vault indefinitely. It’s not hard to imagine that happening to another first time filmmaker just out to prove themselves in the studio system.
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When it finally hit theaters nationwide, after playing the festival circuit and a limited release, it made back its budget on the first day. It debuted at second in the US behind the comedy Anger Management. Now, all of sudden, after nobody wanted to touch House of 1,000 Corpses, Lionsgate immediately approached him about a sequel.
The writer/director had already begun to think of ideas for a sequel and went to work on writing the script, which promised to be very different.
House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects are two very different films. One’s a classic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre style story about kids going where they shouldn’t and getting butchered. It’s basically the story of the first Chain Saw told through the visual style of the second. But The Devil’s Rejects is pure ‘70s exploitation cinema. It’s a brutal, gritty road movie.
At the same time, they’re two sides of the same coin. I don’t think The Devil’s Rejects works so well in spite of House of 1,000 Corpses. I think it works because of it. It takes everything that’s presented in the original, the tone and the style and—above all—the brief glimpses we see of the family genuinely caring for one another and holding that bond above all else. Devil’s Rejects latches onto that concept and just makes it bigger and bigger until it becomes the whole movie.
Devil’s Rejects totally evolves the entire concept of the previous film by actually making the Firefly clan the protagonists. We’ve seen them as villains for the duration of an entire feature. And they’re still villains here. They’re never portrayed in a positive light, there are no excuses made for their actions. In fact, they spend a good chunk of Rejects doing some pretty monstrous things. But at the same time, we get these small moments between them. We see how much they need each other, how much they care for each other even if all they do is bicker. And we see how desperate they are to survive.
Because of these factors, we find ourselves, as audience members, rooting for the members of the Firefly family. After all they’ve done, after all we’ve seen, Zombie still crafts it in such an intricate and meticulous way that we are rooting for Otis, Baby and Spaulding to make it out of this mess.
That’s such a hard thing to do. It’s almost impossible. I know Rob Zombie is a divisive name among the horror community, but it takes a filmmaker who really knows what he’s doing in order to pull that off. Zombie wouldn’t have been able to make this half as effective if he weren’t very talented. Devil’s Rejects is definitely not a fluke, but I think it’s still probably his most well-crafted feature.
Part of what makes Devil’s Rejects work so well is the fact that the sheriff who’s hunting the family down is just as unhinged as they are. Maybe he’s worse, maybe he isn’t, it doesn’t matter. The point is that he has been driven genuinely insane and the form of justice he inflicts is not by any means something that should be enacted by a representative of the law. It’s an amazing display of hypocrisy that really elevates a movie that was already working better than I think anyone expected it to.
Zombie gives us moments of levity and humor in House of 1,000 Corpses that make us interested and make us want to see more of these characters. But in The Devil’s Rejects, he actually makes us care about them. Murderers, rapists, cannibals, people who wear human skin, he manages to cut beneath all of that to the exposed nerve and show that they are still human. That they are, in fact, vulnerable. He shows us everything they do to people and still makes us want to see them survive, even though we know they won’t. That’s why The Devil’s Rejects has become one of the most important horror efforts of the twenty-first century and will be remembered for so long to come.