I would not refer to Dee Snider’s Strangeland as a “good movie.” It’s poorly structured, lacks any suspense, and is shot “competently” in the way that word is used to denote “not very well.” Written by and starring Snider himself as Captain Howdy, a body modification obsessed sadist and killer (though the second part is debatable) who blasts bad industrial music at all times and seems to have come up with all of his torture designs after an hour at a low rent sex dungeon, its plodding could charitably be described as amiable, but far from engaging. It’s exactly as cheesy as you would expect a 1998 horror film heavily featuring the internet to be, and its grasping at body modification and BDSM subcultures is more Hackers-lite than anything else. Hell, I’d probably never have taken the time to watch it if the DVD hadn’t been a dollar at the used movie place, because really: how much do you need a horror thriller written by the lead singer of Twisted Sister based on what might as well be a poorly photocopied Nine Inch Nails album cover in your life?
Yet, hidden in its murk of 90’s-style “edginess” (think: Twisted Metal, Tripp pants, the vague concept of “cybergoth”) lies something worth digging out, ill-formed and small as it might be. In the film, Captain Howdy is captured in the first third by the detective dad of one of the teens Howdy kidnaps. Declared not guilty by reason of insanity, he spends a few years receiving mental health treatment and emerges Carlton Hendricks, a meek man with an ugly ponytail who feels terrible about his crimes, and wishes he could take them all back. Moving back into his old house, he wants to just be left alone, but the town still remembers him and screams for blood. As the same detective who put him away watches, a mob of self-righteous townsfolk drag him out of his home, beat him, and eventually hang him in what they assume is murder (the branch breaks and he awakes again Captain Howdy after they leave him to rot, naturally). Carlton exchanges a look with the detective, a look that pleads for help, and the detective ashamedly looks away, knowing what is going to happen and choosing not to protect him. It’s here I realized what I was seeing: Strangeland is, in its own tiny way, Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects for a pre-9/11 America.
Ultimately, removed from its tedious finale and plot machinations, Strangeland is a story about the way in which America is perfectly fine papering over an underlying evil, so long as that evil creates obvious sores that can be called causes and not symptoms. Robert Englund plays one of the people out for Hendricks’ blood, and it’s no mistake that he’s a drunk, an adulterer, an abuser, and is shown later watching pornography that simulates child sexual assault–there is no goodness in the retribution he desires. His motives were never pure, and he himself is an evil man. But he’s tolerated in the community, in ways the reformed Hendricks (who still bears the unremovable face tattoo of his past persona) is never allowed to be, because his freakishness is visible–Captain Howdy is a moral decay you don’t have to worry about finding in your neighborhood, in yourself. It’s to Dee Snider’s acting credit (words I never imagined typing before) that Hendricks’ recovery is never implied to be sleight of hand, a trick to get him back on the outside to kill again. Quarantined away from American culture at large, given help and care and compassion, he seems to have genuinely recovered from what ailed him before. As Captain Howdy, he was unmistakably evil; as Carlton Hendricks, he’s unmistakably full of regret and empathy, perhaps the only character in the movie I genuinely felt bad about being harmed.
Now, the main characters in The Devil’s Rejects are never “good”, exactly–they are even more evil than Captain Howdy, by about a hundred degrees, and the film never attempts to justify their actions. What it does do is execute the same change of sympathies. This time, it’s between our killers and their pursuer, Sheriff John Quincey Wydell, with the family moving from a position of unquestionable evil to, well, still unquestionable evil, but being tortured so grievously by Wydell that he becomes his own kind of evil. Seen now with the strength of hindsight, it’s pretty clear that Zombie set out to make Wydell into a microcosm of American military power (and American culture in general), and what we’re seeing is the war on terror moving beyond all reasonable attempts at justice and becoming a terror in its own right. There’s a point where making someone answer for their crimes turns into an enjoyment of their pain, and it stops being about what’s right and becomes about trying to make someone suffer as much as you have, an aim that has no end. Wydell’s enhanced interrogation techniques (as Dick Cheney might be inclined to call them) serve no purpose besides his own enjoyment; he already has the family in his grasp, handcuffed, absolutely unable to flee. He can leave at any time and get them to the justice system he serves. But he wants more. He wants revenge, and in wanting that revenge more than he wants what’s good and right, he becomes an entirely separate force of sadistic, hateful terror.
Now, I’d call The Devil’s Rejects a masterpiece, and I want to keep that word quarantined far away from Strangeland before it gets any ideas, but there’s glimmers of a similar critique in its retribution narrative. Of course, being made before 9/11, it couldn’t have anticipated the direction American culture would go at the turn of the century, but it is almost chillingly prophetic in its prediction of another American tragedy–the Columbine massacre and its attendant media irresponsibility, which took place a year after Strangeland was released. In their attempts to give the freak what they think he deserves, the townsfolk in Strangeland simply build the monster back up, a surface-visible reflection of their own ugliness, their own lust for violence, for deviant sex, for power and control over others. Captain Howdy wasn’t made by himself–America made him, and America’s rejection of him made him a killer, and it’s all too easy to sweep him under the rug as an outlying freak when, really, he’s just a manifestation of what he was raised on.
There’s a reason that post-Columbine, the often evangelical right wing of America immediately placed the blame on video games, on violent movies, on Marilyn Manson, and ignored a deeper sickness in American culture and its relationship towards violence. Doom is an outlier, they’d hand-wave away, not prescient enough to know it presaged the absolute monetary dominance video gaming would come to have over popular American culture. Natural Born Killers is where they got their ideas, we’d hear as a claim, ignoring that the entire style of Natural Born Killers is a direct (even ham-fisted) reflection of American movie culture and its attitudes towards all the gore, the blood, the guts. It should come as no surprise that nothing was ever said about how Dylan and Eric were able to get their guns so easily. I don’t claim to have a crystal ball that lets me divine motive where plenty of actually qualified people were previously unable to, but it’s not simple coincidence that mass shootings keep recurring in America again and again and again; there’s a deeper, unaddressed evil, lying beneath the cysts popping up to the surface, and Strangeland, for all its failures, sees a rotten core that we’re often too afraid to touch, and it sees it living in the affluent suburb Captain Howdy calls home.
That willingness to bring to light an ugliness in the American fabric unites the two films, despite varying levels of success in execution, and if they differ on the precise subject of their criticism, they’re united in a common view on revenge. Justice and revenge, as much as they’re often conflated (including in that most American of genres, the western), are not equivalent. Justice, however defined, ends at some point when the wrongdoing is addressed and, if possible, rectified, if not, prevented from re-occurring in the future. Justice is a community protecting their ability to live free of unnatural harm and fear. What revenge wants, on the other hand, is something that cannot be satisfied, and when we engage in it we move beyond justice and enter something bleaker, something that ceases to care about safety, about what is right and what is good- we enter a place where what is desired is the unnecessary, pointless suffering of another being.
The evil comes in when Wydell has contained the threat but remains unsatisfied and pushes past justice into a sick joke of the same. The evil comes in when Captain Howdy’s danger to the community has been neutralized but his blood is still demanded regardless. The evil comes in a desire to achieve what isn’t possible: the rectification of damage already done. The ugliness of America is in its inability to come to, if not forgiveness, than at least a view of justice that has an endpoint instead of a never-ending war. Neither film is squeamish or pacifist, and both agree that, sometimes, violence might be necessary to contain violence, but both also see violence as something that needs responsibility behind it; when violence grabs the reigns, an impossible thirst is created that will never be satiated. The subjects may change, the form may evolve, the argument may shift opponents, but, sadly, both remain relevant today, in ways the beating heart lying beneath both of their genre-loving exteriors would no doubt find expected, but despairing all the same.
Strangeland; directed by John Pipelow; written by Dee Snider; starring Kevin Gage, Elizabeth Peña, and Dee Snider; 85 minutes.
The Devil’s Rejects; directed by Rob Zombie; written by Rob Zombie; starring Sid Haig, Bill Mosley, Sheri Moon Zombie, and William Forsythe; 107 minutes.