In 2003 Rob Zombie made his writing and directing debut with the gritty horror film House of 1000 Corpses. The success of this movie spawned a sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, and a third entry in the series, 3 From Hell, was just released on digital and physical video this month. Let’s take a look back at these films about the infamous Firefly family, including my thoughts and Rob Zombie’s insights on each of these twisted tales.
I remember seeing this movie when it came out in 2003 with my friend Brian. Neither of us realized going into the theater just how crazy House of 1000 Corpses was going to be. For the uninitiated, it’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on acid. It’s very clear how Rob Zombie was heavily influenced by Tobe Hooper’s most iconic film. Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Zombie’s debut movie is set in the 1970s. Both feature a crazy family that likes to murder and mutilate people, and Chain Saw and House feature unsuspecting passersby who get caught up in a crazy, nightmarish situation. What Zombie does different is add in his own music, some LSD-inspired transitions, over-the-top gore, and a cast of characters that are even crazier than what Tobe Hooper conjured up.
According to Rob Zombie, “There’s a feeling I used to get, watching movies, that’s just gone. I remember when I was a kid, you’d go to the drive-in and see great films like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and shitty films like Mother’s Day or whatever, but there was just that feeling. You don’t get that from Ghost Ship. I haven’t seen it, but it just feels like a big, slick Hollywood movie. Whereas I really wanted to capture that strange, sleazy, ’70s feeling that horror was this other thing—not a mass-marketed, mass-produced cookie-cutter type of film, but weird movies made by weird people for other weird people. I believe House of 1000 Corpses really captures that feeling.”
House of 1000 Corpses is a film that almost never happened. Universal responded positively to Rob’s idea for the film, and it was in the can by 2000. However, the studio changed its mind after watching the movie. Zombie said that an executive told him, “I can’t, in good conscience, put out this movie.” Naturally, he wasn’t pleased with this development. However, rather than let it bring him down, Rob reached out to other studios. MGM expressed interest and financed the final edits of the film, yet it backed out of the project as well. Finally, Lions Gate picked up House of 1000 Corpses and released it in 2003.
At the time that I saw House of 1000 Corpses, I don’t think I fully appreciated it. Now I do. Aside from the obvious Texas Chain Saw influence, I now see how Brian De Palma’s directing style heavily influenced Rob Zombies. From generously using split-screen to providing viewers with an over-the-shoulder shot where a person’s face is in the foreground, which is inspired by a classroom scene in Carrie, it’s enjoyable to see how Zombie pays homage to those who paved the way for his theatrical success.
Rob Zombie’s film debut did exceptionally well. The budget was $7 million and House of 1000 Corpses brought in nearly $17 million worldwide. While it wasn’t a massive success, it was profitable and popular. More importantly, the public loved the characters from the film, especially Captain Spaulding, played by veteran character actor Sid Haig. Since people became so attached to these characters and wanted to get to know them better, Rob Zombie decided to write and direct a sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, which came out in 2005.
Many fans consider The Devil’s Rejects to be Rob Zombie’s best film, and rightfully so. It’s the most focused out of everything he’s done thus far. When he’s not focused, he creates abominations like Halloween II. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. The Devil’s Rejects is better than the film that preceded it in many ways. That said, they are purposefully different in the way they’re presented. For example, House of 1000 Corpses was colorful and vibrant. It was also heavy on humor and overly reliant on retreading a story that had already been told in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. By contrast, The Devil’s Rejects has muted colors, a film grain overlay, and it’s far more serious than its predecessor. There are still wisecracks, but they aren’t as plentiful this time around. These changes help differentiate the two movies from one another and set their respective tones.
“Rather than recreating the same storyline—’Oh, more people come to the house’—the new film is all about Captain Spaulding, Otis and Baby. It’s more about the characters you like,” said Rob Zombie. “It’s funny, they’re so radically different, but in a way I believe everybody is going to like. To me, the first film was this semi-violent, kind of wacky horror movie. This new one is a really true-to-life, violent story. It’s got the same tone as something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. There’s nothing fun-loving or wacky about it. We’ve tried to turn Otis, Spaulding and Baby into very real characters and make all the situations realistic so that it’s much more intense.”
In The Devil’s Rejects, gone are the Brian De Palma shots and the LSD-inspired transitions. It’s clear that Rob Zombie grew as a writer and a director in between these two films. One thing that isn’t different is Rob Zombie’s appreciation and use for character actors. Expect to see P.J. Soles, from Carrie and Halloween, as well as my buddy Diamond Dallas Page, and a wide range of skilled character actors throughout this film. “I hate watching movies where you have your couple of leads and everyone else is just ‘Who gives a shit?’ I wanted everybody in Devil’s Rejects to be someone you’d get excited about. If you’re going to have a character just in there for one scene, then make it worth it. We’ve tried to use people in different ways than they are usually. Basically, I just cast people I liked from other movies, who I thought were really good and whom I’ve always wanted to see do more,” said Zombie. Clearly, his approach worked because The Devil’s Rejects made even more money than House of 1000 Corpses and fans still sing its praises to this day.
Just like House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects is as compelling now as it was when it was released. Objectively, I think that it is superior to House of 1000 Corpses. However, I enjoy both movies equally for their respective differences. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the final film in the trilogy, 3 From Hell, which came out this year.
The Devil’s Rejects had a great ending that concluded the Firefly family story. When talking about The Devil’s Rejects Rob Zombie said, “Lions Gate will probably make another one of these films with or without me, and they have the right to do that. I just felt that there was something I could do with this one, so I wanted to do it. This film does come to a conclusion that would make it hard for anyone to create a third one. not that that has every stopped anybody before…” When asked at the time if he wanted to make a third movie about the Firefly family he added, “I don’t really want to because there is a sort of rule that says the first one is what it is, and many times you can make the second one better. The third one is always horrible. So this will be the last one, and the tears will flow.” Famous last words, I suppose, because here we are in 2019 and the third movie is out and available to the masses.
Unfortunately, 3 From Hell isn’t good. At best, it’s mediocre. The movie starts off in a promising way but then it completely unravels to the point of boredom, which is one thing a horror should not be. It’s really a shame because Rob Zombie wound up doing exactly what he said he shouldn’t do: make a horrible entry in what is otherwise an inspired and creative franchise.
“What inspired the 3 From Hell script was, over the years, those characters just existed as characters in the real world, with action figures and t-shirts and posters and things. They kind of took on a weird life of their own. That was the inspiration for the movie where I go, ‘Okay, 15 years later, these criminals, with the fame they would have achieved. Where does it go?’ They go from unknown rednecks to these sort-of famous killers. And that kicked the whole thing off. It was based on the reality of what was happening with the actual characters in real life,” said Rob Zombie.
The problem with the premise outlined above by Rob is it’s very similar to The Devil’s Rejects. These characters were already well known in that movie for having committed the murders documented and referenced in House of 1000 Corpses. You also run into the problem of explaining how all of them aren’t dead. The Devil’s Rejects ends with Captain Spaulding, Otis and Baby driving toward a barricade of cops guns blazing. Before the credits hit, their already heavily damaged bodies get riddled with bullets by the police. Rob Zombie does his best to try and explain in the beginning of 3 From Hell how these characters survived, but it’s more implausible than someone returning from the dead in a daytime soap opera.
The biggest problem with 3 From Hell is the absence of Sid Haig. Sid recently passed away, and he was extremely ill when asked to take part in this project. He was only able to come in and film for one day, and after the first 10 minutes of the movie he’s never seen or heard from again, which is a shame. The script had to be entirely re-written prior to shooting because of Sid’s inability to get medically cleared to take part in the entire movie or even 50% of it. According to Rob, “The movie is like a living, breathing creature. It takes on its own life. It goes where it has to go. The biggest wildcard was Richard Brake as Foxy, because he came into the process so late. Instantly, I have to quickly sandwich him between Sheri and Bill, who are returning to their clearly established characters. But quickly he found his place among the two. We charged forward and never looked back.”
3 From Hell was originally supposed to be about Captain Spaulding, Otis and Baby. As noted above, once it was clear that Sid Haig could barely participate in the movie, things changed dramatically. All of a sudden, there were only 2 From Hell with a third one shoehorned in: Winslow Foxworth “Foxy” Coltrane, who is supposed to be Otis’ half-brother. Richard Brake does a fine job with this role, but he’s no Captain Spaulding. Even worse, Rob Zombie didn’t know where to go with the script because he didn’t postpone the movie to rewrite it. Instead, he rewrote it on the fly and hoped for the best. Clearly, that didn’t work out as the last two-thirds of the film feel like nothing happens that’s inspired or compelling. As one Amazon reviewer put it, “This was a pure rehash of The Devil’s Rejects, just without soul and meaning. All the plot points were the same and they included around 20 lines from the first 2 movies. Very uninspired and lazy.”
Firefly Trilogy Final Thoughts
Rob Zombie’s Firefly trilogy is worth watching, especially if you’re a horror fan. The first two movies are highly enjoyable, with inventive characters, gripping visuals, brutal violence, and a healthy dose of humor. Together, they make a great double-feature that tells a tightly woven tale about a psychotic band of murderers. The third movie, 3 From Hell, is an unnecessary sequel that tarnishes an otherwise top-notch series. That said, you should watch all three to comprehend the full scope of the Firefly family…and be thankful that you’re not related to them.