Rob Zombie occupies a unique space in pop culture. First known for his music with heavy metal band White Zombie, Zombie eventually made a transition into writing and directing horror films. To put it mildly, his films are an acquired taste. Ugly, disturbing, deliberately off-putting, his films have a small, but very dedicated, fan base. I consider myself a proud part of that fan base.
Last time on Trailer Park Terrors, fellow writer Audrey Griffin discussed the D.I.Y. film-making and aesthetic that Texas Chainsaw Massacre forged for the “hillbilly horror” subgenre. Zombie managed to further that aesthetic with a loose trilogy of films, following the cannibalistic, murderous “Firefly Family”. With House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, and the recent 3 From Hell, Zombie emphasized an element that slowly became a mainstay in hillbilly horror: off-the-wall, over-the-top characters.
Let’s not delay this any longer. It’s time, friends, to dig through the ditches, burn through the witches, and slam into Rob Zombie’s Firefly Trilogy.
House of 1000 Corpses
House of 1000 Corpses resulted from a well-received installation that Rob Zombie did for Universal Studios’s Halloween Horror Nights. Watching the film, it’s easy to see how- House of 1000 Corpses is a haunted house in and of itself, with the haunts in question being the Firefly Family. And trust me, there’s no one worse to be locked in a house with.
There are “protagonists” in the form of four teenagers writing a book about roadside attractions. These characters are fine, two of them notably played by Rainn Wilson and Chris Hardwick. But they’re not what you’re here for. The real stars of the show are the Firefly Family, who ensnare the teens when they stop at the wrong gas station.
Sounds like a typical set-up, right? Well, the Fireflies are completely original creations with unique personalities that make House of 1000 Corpses a morbidly fun watch. First, there’s Otis, played by cult horror legend Bill Moseley. Certainly the nastiest of the bunch, he acts like a child, freaking out when he doesn’t get his way. Brutish and completely dominating, he’s a threatening presence every time he’s around.
Next up, his sister Baby Firefly, brought to life by Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie. Resembling the infamous women of the Manson Family, she is undoubtedly seductive and deranged. She treats her victims like playthings, making nice with them when they entertain her and turning violent when she doesn’t get her way. Dancing, singing, and cackling her way through scenes, Baby Firefly is a blast to watch anytime she’s onscreen.
Then we get to my personal favorite, Captain Spaulding, played by the late, great Sid Haig. The ultimate killer clown, Spaulding’s actual relation to the Firefly family is not unveiled until the next film. However, it is clear he is in league with them. Spouting out one-liners left and right, he has an infectious redneck charm to him. It’s hard not to root for him when he says such instantly iconic lines as “Most of all, f*** you!” to someone trying to rob his beloved store.
That goes for all of the Firefly Family, really. The Family doesn’t have much beyond their one-note personalities (yet) in this film. But as stated earlier, this movie is a haunted house. Seeing this backwoods family finding new, often blackly comedic, ways to torture the poor teenagers that cross their path is gory fun that never lets up.
Zombie lets the manic malice of the Fireflies dictate the aesthetic of the film. As a result, this makes the structure of House of 1000 Corpses a character in and of itself. Strange filters come across the screen, there are random flashbacks to horrid acts, you get the gist. The film makes you feel as if you’re being driven crazy by a psychotic, murderous family.
By the time we hit the end of the film, where one of the teenagers encounters a grotesque scientist named Dr. Satan performing expirements underground, you simply have to succumb to the madness. House of 1000 Corpses deserves the cult status its received, perfectly conveying its grindhouse midnight-movie intentions to the audience. For his follow-up, however, Rob Zombie had a different idea.
The Devil’s Rejects
What if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was set from the point-of-view of the killers? It’s a risky gamble, one likely to make audiences uncomfortable. But The Devil’s Rejects takes the bet, and it pays off. Big time.
House of 1000 Corpses didn’t ask us to do much but cower, and sometimes laugh, at the Firefly Family. However, The Devil’s Rejects dares us to empathize with them. After their home is raided by a task force led by the vengeful Sheriff John Quincey Wydell (William Forsythe), Otis, Baby, and Captain Spaulding (now revealed to be Baby’s father) are on the run.
The Devil’s Rejects is effectively a road movie. Our central three move from location to location, committing gruesome act after gruesome act, as they evade Wydell. Zombie certainly brings the horror here, namely in a motel scene where the three torture a group of travelling musicians for seemingly no reason. Unlike The House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects plays its horror scenes without any camp. The motel sequence is an unflinchingly realistic portrayal of what three truly evil individuals will do to the innocent, culminating in Otis chillingly saying “I am the devil…and I’m here to do the devil’s work”.
Yet, beneath all the evil, we actually get a peek into who the Fireflies are. Simply put, they are three messed-up people who really care about each other. Baby genuinely has a lot of love for her family and just wants to roam the country having fun with them. Although Moseley gets to be scarier than he was in the first film, Otis genuinely shows a lot of love and protectiveness for his sister. Spaulding is the profane, though loving father figure of the group, of course.
In a way, The Devil’s Rejects almost makes you forget you’re watching a movie about serial killers for a stretch. Seeing the three bicker, get ice-cream, and have a grand old time at a brother ran by Spaulding’s friend Charlie (Ken Foree). It’s almost endearing, until reality comes crashing down by the time the Sheriff catches up with them.
With the Fireflies in his clutches, the Sheriff becomes a monster, inflicting on them all manners of violence. Whether intentional or not, Zombie makes you reflect on the cyclical nature of violence itself. By the time the Fireflies escape his clutches, heading out towards the highway before being gunned down by a squadron of police to Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Free Bird”, it’s tragic and emotional, something I was not expecting.
An inversion of everything that worked about House of 1000 Corpses, I don’t hesitate to call The Devil’s Rejects a horror masterpiece. By forcing us to empathize with such crude, on-the-surface unlikable characters, it creates something that really hadn’t been done before in a horror film and gave the Fireflies a fitting end. Until….
3 From Hell
If you can believe it, somehow Otis, Spaulding, and Baby survive the final events of The Devil’s Rejects. Set to live the rest of their lives in prison (with Spaulding passing away due to Sid Haig’s real-life illness), Otis manages to break out and get Baby out as well. In addition to their cousin Winslow Coltrane (Richard Brake), they make a break for Mexico.
I don’t have much to say 3 From Hell. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of House or Rejects. However, it does take what worked about the prior two films and serves it up to us again for one last slice of Rob Zombie hillbilly horror goodness. The campiness of House of 1000 Corpses returns when it comes to the horror scenes. Zombie plays the gore for hoots and hollers more than it is for actually scaring the audience.
Which I’m fine with, because 3 From Hell is essentially a hangout movie. The central three are as good as ever, with Richard Brake being a standout addition as the vicious Coltrane. There’s not a moment where his wild card nature doesn’t fit in with the rest of the Fireflies. Beautifully, 3 From Hell continues the strange poignancy of The Devil’s Rejects to tell a story about a gang of hillbillies that are getting weary of their running.
Continually throughout the film, the Fireflies grapple with their legacy. The threat of finally being put to task for their crimes beckons them. But they’re not worried about actually facing up to their deeds, they’re worried about their family. Between all the laughs and gory kills, there’s a beating heart here, and 3 From Hell gives the Fireflies the low-key send-off they deserve.
I won’t say anything further, since the film is relatively new and I don’t wish to spoil it for newcomers. But the Firefly trilogy exemplifies the character that makes hillbilly horror such a standout subgenre. I didn’t expect to care this much about a gang of grimy serial killers, but Rob Zombie made it so. –James Preston Poole