To appreciate what Rob Zombie has accomplished as a fledgling filmmaker over these last four years, one need only look at his origins for some manner of perspective. He was a cult metal maestro, leading his band White Zombie through the typical hard rock paces when Mike Judge, via his cultural commentary gig Beavis and Butthead, championed his bouncy video "Thunder Kiss '65". It wasn't long before the unknown band was an MTV favorite. Always mentioning his love of horror and old fashioned exploitation in interviews, his self-directed macabre music clips illustrated he could probably handle a full length feature. Universal agreed to finance his first film, House of 1000 Corpses, but turned their back on the man once they saw the initial results. MGM then stepped in to finish the film, but it later reneged on releasing it. Lions Gate finally took over, but by then, the buzz was deadly. The film was considered a failure, and no one thought Zombie would make another movie.
Two years later, he was back, helming the sequel. And wouldn't your know it, critics ate it up. While still a 'love it or hate it' proposition, his The Devil's Rejects provided respectability that House had failed to deliver. Parlaying that power into a move into the mainstream, Zombie now faces his biggest challenge to date - reinventing John Carpenter's slasher epic Halloween. As the August 31, 2007 release grows closer, Lionsgate is looking to capitalize. The solution? A repackaging of both of Zombie's previous movies in their original DVD release presentations. Not bad for a guy who, for a while, was considered a one miss wonder.
House of 1000 Corpses (Score: **1/2 out of *****)
After stumbling upon Capt. Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen roadside attraction, four young people learn of the legend of Dr. Satan, a psychotic who used mental patients as fodder for his foul experiments. While looking for his grave, they run directly into the Firefly family - flitting Momma, ditzy Grandpa, beguiling Baby, titanic Tiny, rugged RJ, and the spectral and sinister Otis. Apparently, they're a clan of serial killers, working directly with the demented medico to continue his craven calling. As the clan's murderous intent becomes clear, the local sheriff investigates. Naturally, nothing ends well for those who confront the Fireflys. After all, they live in a House of 1000 Corpses...give or take a few more.
The Devil's Rejects (Score: ****1/2 out of *****)
When local lawman George Wydell dies at the hands of the Firefly clan, his brother John Quincy vows revenge. He hires a couple of corrupt bounty hunters to track down the brood, who have split up to escape capture. While Mother sits in a jail cell, refusing to speak, the remainder of the family - Otis, Baby, and the corrupt Capt. Spaudling - set out across the barren backroads. At a dumpy dive motel, they run into a country and western touring act. Things do not end well for the traveling troubadours. Then they face off against the paid trackers. Eventually, it's just the twisted trio versus the police. But they don't care. After all, they're The Devil's Rejects, criminals so repugnant even Satan himself won't own up to their heinousness.
Obviously conceived to coincide with the rocker's remake of the John Carpenter's classic Halloween, the Rob Zombie 3 Disc Collector's Set is really nothing more than the original House of 1000 Corpses release (complete with separated name "Lions Gate" logo) and the special two disc version of The Devil's Rejects presented in a flip fold case. Reviews of both releases can be found here, here, and here. Whether you need to own these then depends on what you already own, and how much you enjoy each film individually. A look back at each title may help your otherwise confusing decision. Let's begin with:
House of 1000 Corpses
It's clear from the opening moments of this movie that Zombie recognized the rarity of being able to direct a film. Thousands dream of the chance, yet few if any ever really get it. So as his (conceivably) one and only shot at bringing his love of the horror genre to the screen, this full blown macabre obsessive was going to make every second count. That is why House is so overwhelmingly busy, teeming with ideas, and seismic in its tonal shifts. Zombie more of less filtered his fright Id through an undying love of exploitation fare and forged the kind of reference heavy homage that only equally batshit film fans would adore. From the far too clever casting (Spider Baby's Sid Haig as Capt. Spaulding, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2's Choptop Bill Moseley as Otis) to the occasional clips from classic terror titles, this is the man's sinister scrapbook come to life. Granted, a lot of its doesn't make a whole lot of sense, especially when our sole survivor ends up in the lair of a poorly defined Dr. Satan, but the ride is filled with exceptional individual moments. If anything, House proved that the sensational follow-up, The Devils Rejects, wasn't some fluke. Within its scattered sense of narrative and primordial self-indulgence, Zombie showed he could indeed make a movie. All he needed was the support of a studio willing to let him handle the production as he saw fit, and the results would be simply amazing.
Which, of course, brings us to the issue of the long rumored "unrated" cut. Zombie has taken great care to deny the existence of another version of House, stating that any material missing from the original release is "no longer available". Whether this means that rights issues exist between the studios (Universal and MGM) formerly involved in the project, that the footage was actually destroyed, or that there is some creative or commercial impasse for putting it out on DVD, the truth remains that there are aspects of House that feel incredibly incomplete. Again, with regards to the Dr. Satan material, this is a movie which, plot-wise, promised a massive payoff to its main villain. But once we arrive in the fiend's underground lair, we spend about five minutes, and then the movie is over - and most of that time finds our heroine hobbling around in standard scream queen mode. Then there are those solarized and optically reversed sequences. Clearly utilized to remove MPAA mandated material, they take away from the overall effectiveness of the film. Quentin Tarantino might be able to get away with the switch to black and white during the 'House of Blue Leaves' section of Kill Bill, but the psychedelic stuff just doesn't work here. Maybe a few years from now, when Zombie's commercial clout is established, he'll be able to go back and "fix" House to reflect his original vision. What we have now is fascinating, if deeply flawed.
The Devil's Rejects
Stephen King loves to proclaim that he is the only "critic" to pick this House of 1000 Corpses' sequel as one of 2005's best films. Well, sorry to disappoint you, oh master of literary horror, but a few of us in the online community championed this potent exploitation exercise the minute we saw it. One of the most significant films of the last decade, Zombie's decision to drop the campy kitsch that marred some of House in favor of some good old fashioned grindhouse violence was a pure aesthetic epiphany. It was as if, once he got all the backed up audacity out of his system and could actually concentrate on making his next film, he found the genre gem he was looking for. In this brilliant deconstruction of the standard crime thriller, the Firefly family has reverted to a kind of feral state, their desire to stay alive marking every action they take. The brutality inherent in such an approach is matched only by Zombie's spot-on recreation of the '70s drive-in dynamic. This movie looks plucked from a Southern passion pit, the use of hot colors, exaggerated close-ups, and frequent fade-outs and freeze frames recalling the immediacy and intimacy of those roadshow greats. Unlike Robert Rodriguez's exaggerated excess in Planet Terror, or Tarantino's verbose Deathproof, this is the real recreated sleazoid schlockfest.
In startling contrast to his previous film, Zombie gets everything to gel here. The humor matches the horror, the bloodshed complements the bravado. By streamlining everything, taking away the unnecessary flourishes and self-satisfying callbacks, he taps directly into the zeitgeist that inspired his passion for perversion in the first place. This is a nasty, cruel epic, the kind of craven collector's item that every genre lover secretly pines for. It would be unfair, however, to hinge all the success on the man behind the camera. The cast is absolutely fantastic, a first rate collection of artistic talent that takes what Zombie has wrought and simply runs with it. Bill Mosley is magnificent in this film, focusing all of his holier than holy rants in a manner that makes much more sense this time around. Sid Haig takes his decrepit Captain Spalding to new, diseased heights, and newcomers Leslie Easterbrook (replacing a reluctant Karen Black) and William Forsythe (as a vengeful sheriff) sizzle, especially in their scenes together. With a finale that fulfills all of the movie's magnificent pledges (the use of "Freebird" is a stroke of genius this filmmaker can live off of for at least another five years) and an overall '70s vibe that captures the Me Decade is all its self indulgent decadence, The Devil's Rejects is the kind of movie that, 20 years from now, the foreign press will be heralding as a great American masterpiece. And you know what - they'll be right.
Again, there is nothing new here. This entire double dip is a matter of packaging, not presentation. Therefore, any previous issues, pro or con, with the earlier transfers definitely apply here. This critic only saw House on a crappy Lions Gate screener. The present 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image therefore looks pretty damn good. Similarly, The Devil's Rejects has a nice desaturated documentary feel, a visual purpose made even more potent by the DVD's sensational preservation of its original aspect ratio. For those interested in ratings, House retains its ridiculous "R". Rejects remains blissfully unrated.
Again, everything mentioned above remains the same when it comes to the sound. House gets a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, while Rejects receives both a 6.1 DTS and 5.1 Surround EX offering. All are excellent and serve the film's content - dialogue and amazing musical underscoring - very well.
When he previously viewed the added content of House of 1000 Corpses, this critic was not overly impressed. Aside from the full-length commentary and the wonderfully unhinged full motion menu screens (featuring the characters from the film interacting with you and your selections), the rest of the bonus content could easily be called panderer's padding and nothing more. These are special features as fraud, a deception to make you think you're getting good inside stuff when the bulk of the material is no more than two to four minute snippets of pure puffery. The Behind the Scenes featurette shows very little about how the film was made. It does feature Zombie and cast standing around a lot. An equally non-illustrative "Making of" is mostly a montage of people patiently waiting. The stupid and crude "Tiny F***ed a Stump" is just the main characters cracking a dumb as dirt joke over and over and over again.
The rehearsals and casting offer video diary style moments from pre-production which provide minimal insight and interest, and the interviews are seven or eight title card queries posed to the main cast members (and makeup effects supervisor Wayne Toth) that fluctuate from serious responses to in-character craziness. Even an extensive gallery and those incredibly clever full motion menu screens just can't make up for the shallow version of the special edition ideal of DVD. As for that director's narrative, well, Rob Zombie couldn't sound more displeased. He normally has a dry, droll personality, but over the course of the film's running time, he sounds positively bored, depressed, and uninterested in talking about his own movie. He constantly references changes, deletions, and edits and then, instead of describing what they were, says simply, "so let's not talk about that." For another take on this content, one can always look here.
As for The Devil's Rejects, a link to our own Ian Jane's excellent review will guide your appreciation of that tasty two disc special edition. This critic heartily agrees with this gore guru's assessments. As for 30 Days in Hell, the two hour plus making of documentary that followed this film from beginning to end, let's just say that such Behind the Scenes features usually don't provide this much detail. Zombie is upfront and focused, proving he really is a premiere filmmaker. It makes the wait for Halloween seem all the longer.
In the end, it's hard to offer an opinion as to what the consumer should do here. House of 1000 Corpses does get better once your expectations have been tweaked back down to Earth, and on a second viewing, Zombie's vision deserves a Recommended rating. On the other hand, The Devil's Rejects is so resplendent in its repugnance, so stunning in its splatter, it easily earns the DVD Talk Collector's Series score. Put them together, and they average out to Highly Recommended. Unfortunately, this fails to take into account those who already own one or both of these releases. Had Lionsgate done anything to differentiate this dip from any other calculated cash grab, the evaluation would be that much easier. However, the second highest score will stand, since it best represents the content present, not the retail issues involved. If Halloween is a success, it will be interesting to see where Rob Zombie goes next. Does he wander outside the genre? Does he tackle other classic creatures? Maybe he returns to this arena for an unnecessary tre-quel (which could be kind of hard, considering...). Whatever he does, he remains a filmmaker to watch. The two intriguing titles presented here are definite proof of that.
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