[Viva La Horror] Rob Zombie’s Firefly Trilogy: Reinventing Modern Horror
Viva La Horror is a bi-monthly column discussing horror films and iconic moments that have revolutionized the horror genre, Sadie Clark looks at how moments in horror history have radically evolved the established order of horror cinema.
What kind of family do you get when it's made out of people even Satan doesn’t want?
Nobody does horror quite like the one-in-a-million musician and director Rob Zombie and his Firefly Trilogy. The saga is composed of three films, House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and 3 From Hell with each one more gritty than the last. As the band of misfit murderers pursue their journey, the bounds of the horror and thriller genres are changed forever through cinematography, terrifying characters and scenes that would disturb even the biggest horror fanatic.
In the first film, House of 1000 Corpses, the Firefly family is introduced, beginning with the infamous Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). From the beginning, there is something very off-putting about the clown, with a painted face and a belting, raspy laugh. As soon as two burglars attempt to rob Spaulding and his coworker on Halloween, the gun is turned back upon them. Here is the first taste of evil the audience witnesses, with Spaulding and his accomplices participating in what can only be described as a massacre. Blood pools and spreads slowly on the floor, waiting to be mopped up before more guests arrive. Little do they know, the house will be one of their last stops.
Set in 1977, youngsters Bill Hudley (Rainn Wilson), Denise Willis (Erin Daniels), Mary Knowles (Jennifer Jostyn) and Jerry Goldsmith (Chris Hardwick) arrive at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen. In hopes of finding content to write about in their new book, they soon hear of the legend of Dr. Satan. Spaulding points them in the direction of where to find him, leading to their own personal hell.
It is here, the Firefly’s take over the story, ultimately trapping the group at their house for some authentic Halloween fun. In one of the many jump cuts throughout the first film, Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) says while laughing, “If someone needs to be killed, you kill ‘em. That’s the way.” This statement only begins to foreshadow the gruesome and unimaginable torture their many victims go through in the trilogy.
In the first film, we're introduced to the many members of the unconventional and quite terrifying Firefly clan. Mother Firefly (Karen Black) is the matriarch of the clan and her eccentric son, Tiny (Matthew McGrory) towers over everyone in the household, startling them with his extremely distorted facial features. “I am the Devil, and I’m here to do the Devil’s work,” states the murderous clan's most infamous brother. If evil had to take human form, it would be through Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley). Zombie seems to pay homage to infamous cult ring leader Charles Manson as Otis is his spitting image. He is incredibly vicious and unstable, never leaving room to spare vulnerability. Together, the band of misfits commit heinous acts that would easily make any sane person’s blood run ice cold.
What sets the first film apart from the latter two is its unsettling and disorganized nature. It is the only one of the three to have that special iconic horror feel. The other films are a blend of thrill and terror. The R rating is well deserved, with an immeasurable amount of sex, gore, violence, and offensive language. In the title sequence of House of 1000 Corpses, there is a montage of naked women blended in a distorted nature that leaves audiences gripping the edge of their seats. A song plays in the background, full of on-beat moans that could only be described as an melodic nightmare. During the film, clips run depicting title characters or foreshadowing clips of talking or much more sickening content. At times, dead bodies pop up on the screen, which is probably the least scary element of the film.
The quality of each clip is very high in contrast and fuzzy, looking like ruined shots from an old camcorder. Sometimes, loud music or chilling noises will accompany the shots, providing yet more foreshadowing. These short, sometimes five-second clips are jump cuts from scene to scene that have rarely, if ever been used in horror. Zombie was a pioneer the technique, paving the way for a new kind of cinematography to enhance the horror of his films. Distorted colors and disturbing visuals make me shudder to think of what really goes on in Zombie’s mind. The pure and unbridled violence unleashed on innocent people in the series is only one of the many ways in which Zombie changed the horror industry.
In the second film, The Devil's Rejects, Baby, Otis, and their father, Spaulding, are running on borrowed time. The entire town of Ruggsville, Texas, and beyond knows of the gruesome acts committed by the Firefly’s. They’ve committed over 70 murders, with many referring to the Firefly home as the worst crime scene in American history.
It does come as a shock that Spaulding is revealed to be the father, with a different patriarch being shown in the first film. Rufus, or R.J. Firefly is the reigning patriarch of the first film who stays back at the family home in the second film to defend it from the pigs. I am not sure if this is a matter of inconsistency or a revelation in storytelling, but Spaulding does not waste time in establishing himself once again as a force of nature. He works as the ringleader of the trio, guiding them along and watching out for them in the emotionally disturbed and neurotic way that a murderous father would.
Throughout the film, they torture innocent people and race against the clock before a near-fatal encounter with police leads to the finale of the trilogy, 3 From Hell. Finally, it seems that justice has been served in the last installment of the Firefly saga. Baby, Otis, and Captain Spaulding have landed themselves in prison after being nearly killed by an army of police officers. Fate has finally caught up with them with Captain Spaulding succumbing to a lethal injection after a long life of crime. However, Otis and Baby’s stories are far from over.
We are introduced to a new member of the clan, Foxy (Richard Brake). Otis, Baby and their long-lost brother, Foxy, make a run for Mexico, into a sticky situation with a deadly gang. Just when it seems that all hope is lost and balance will be restored to the universe with the death of the family, they conquer Aquarius’s gang. As they parade into the distance, the audience is left feeling as defeated as they are curious.
The cinematography in The Devil’s Rejects and 3 From Hell are drastically different. While the heavily edited jump cuts are mostly phased out, there are shifting transitions and other new effects that add to the aesthetic of the films. It helps them achieve a healthy balance of horror and thriller, setting the tone for any future films from Zombie. His newer, grainier shots that mimic classic film cameras pay homage to decades past while setting an example for the future.
We can’t discuss the cinematography of a Rob Zombie film without discussing the soundtracks that accompany them. Zombie is a heavy metal singer and has incorporated many of his own songs into his films. This gives them a personal touch, helping the audience connect on a deeper level with the singer-turned-director. From his own discography came songs like “Stuck In the Mud”, “Little Piggy”, and a rendition of “Brick House,” featuring Lionel Richie. His eerie vocals and chaotic rock background add another layer to the incredible trilogy. Also included are great songs from other legendary artists, such as “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly.
Captain Spaulding, Baby, Otis, Tiny, Mama, and the rest of the clan are like no other characters in horror. Each person has their own unique story that shapes them into the evil reject they become. Zombie’s characters, albeit unholy and wicked, bring up philosophical points about life and what to make of it. In 3 From Hell, Baby seems to question what the point of life is, if it ever gets better or if there is any purpose to it? Even though she is inherently evil, it is interesting to consider this perspective and how even the worst people deal with questions the meaning of life. While it doesn't redeem them, it does attach a modicum of humanity to the rejects.
Restructuring the horror genre is difficult. Something of this magnitude must be both awe-inspiring and bone-chilling. Although Rob Zombie was not a fan of his debut film, House of 1000 Corpses, the film and its sequels stand the test of time. Blending a mixture of beautifully disturbed characters, unsettling cinematography, and exemplary writing, it comes as no surprise that Zombie’s films became cult classics. Captain Spaulding and the rest of the gang created an entirely new hell-scape for horror fans to delve into. The utterly chaotic and disturbing aesthetic in the Firefly Trilogy accompanied by its story and characters sets Zombie's films apart and established them as a blueprint for genre films to follow.
Sadie Clark is an English major at the University of Central Arkansas and contributing writer for Dead Talk News in addition to her bi-monthly column for Slay Away. In her spare time, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, and spending time with her guinea pigs, Ginger and Spike.