Sid Haig has a face your nightmares won’t let you forget. With sunken eyes, heavy brow, swollen features and grizzly black beard, this hulking menace of an actor oozes gravitas with every carefully considered sentence that growls through his leathery lips. Today as the Californian sun beats hard upon his signature bald skull, he stands a looming 6’4” tall and cloaked entirely in black, commands presence that is undeniable.
Our interview is held in a plastic-cupped seaside café, halfway along the famous Santa Monica Pier, one of Hollywood’s favourite film locations and the point where western civilization ends. For over forty years, Sid’s vicious visage has found him cast in over fifty feature films and three hundred television appearances, mostly as the “heavy with a gun”. Odd really, for his onscreen roles belie a warm, charismatic and down-to-earth personality in the flesh.
Sid Haig’s first acting role on celluloid was in a UCLA student short called The Host, directed by Jack Hill – a crossing of paths that spawned a career-long collaboration and association with gritty genre pictures. Hill cast Sid as a demented murderer in his first feature Spider Baby (1968), the cult horror classic that featured a singing Lon Chaney, Jnr. and he quickly became an exploitation regular in films such as The Big Dollhouse (1971), Coffy (1973), and Foxy Brown (1974). Cast as one of the Slumber Brothers in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), he even managed the lucky task of tossing a Bond girl from a Las Vegas hotel room and of course his shaven-headed appearance was a definite advantage when he auditioned for THX1138 (1971).
Due to dissatisfaction with his continual casting as heavies, Sid abandoned acting in 1992 to become a hypnotherapist. Yet he later joined the likes of John Travolta, David Carradine and Robert Forster with a career revival at the hands of Quentin Tarantino, playing the Judge in Jackie Brown (1997), the director’s ode to blaxploitation.
His next role was the most significant of his rejuvenated profession, playing the crazy killer clown Captain Spaulding in rocker Rob Zombie’s directorial debut House Of 1000 Corpses. Sid was actually cast because of the filmmaker’s love of the Saturday morning kids sci-fi series Jason Of Star Command (1979-81) in which he starred as the villainous cyborg Dragos. Fully bearded under thick white greasepaint like Caesar Romero in the sixties Batman, his creepy persona and penchant for murder in House Of 1000 Corpses created a character that many are calling the new horror icon of the 2000’s. Particularly surprising when one considers the panning that the film received at the hands of the critics when originally released. Fans knew better of course, and now Sid Haig is in a jovial mood, for the upcoming sequel looks set to succeed its predecessor in every single department.
“We had a screening of The Devil’s Rejects in Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley with an audience of about five hundred people,” recalls Sid, full of beaming praise for his upcoming feature. “The final scene was taking place in broad daylight and the screen illuminated the faces of the audience. Rob made his way down front so he could get what their reaction would be. It was amazing because many of the women were crying and most of the guys were sitting there with their mouths open. They did a survey and 18 out of the 20 rated the film as excellent and the other two rated it very good. Now House was released at 600 theaters. The last word I got was that the new movie will be released in 2500 theaters nationwide! Lions Gate say it’s the largest release in the history of the company.”
The Devil’s Rejects continues the folklore surrounding the Dr. Satan cult murders created in House Of 1000 Corpses by following the Firefly family on another bloody rampage. Pursued by the brother of the late lamented Sheriff Wydell (played by William Forster) who is hell-bent on bloody revenge, the murderous clan is forced to hit the road. Captain Spaulding takes them to ‘Charlie's Frontier Funland’ a safe house that happens to be his brother’s brothel, a house of ill repute where a final gory showdown takes place.
“Sheriff Wydell may even be a little more crazy than the Firefly family!” chuckles Sid like his demented clown character. “We find out fairly early in the film that Captain Spaulding’s connection to the Firefly’s is that he’s Baby’s father, which is an interesting little twist, having been adopted himself by a young black family. Ken Foree plays my brother and everyone is asking, ‘How is Ken Foree going to be playing your brother?’ He and I both are saying, ‘We’re brothers from another mother!’”
The sequel continues the recent trend in filmmaking to trawl through the back catalogue of seventies horror movies for inspiration. The cast not only includes Dawn Of The Dead’s Ken Foree but also Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s Bill Moseley (reprising his role of Otis with a more rugged, realistic look), Halloween’s P.J. Soles and The Hills Have Eyes’ Michael Berryman. Rob Zombie shoots in a bleached-out, grainy Super 16 film stock and creates a universe where Leatherface could easily be lurking behind a battered pick-up truck or rusted out refrigerator. But what’s with the recent fascination with everything just post of Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Sid pauses and rubs his bearded chin before answering.
“It was a period that horror films were really good and after that everything was kind of predictable, not really very scary at all. There’s not really a whole lot of creativity in Hollywood at this point. I am so pissed that somebody had the brilliant idea to remake House of Wax (1953). That was one of my favorite films as a kid. I was in the theatre the night that it opened and it was one of the first 3D films I saw. I can’t even think about going to see Paris Hilton prancing around - it drives me nuts!”
This time, Sid promises that Rob Zombie has matured as a filmmaker. House’s scenes inside the creepy haunted house ride, Lucio Fulciesque catacombs and the Firefly’s Texas Chainsaw shack give way to a desert road trip scenario with classic Western themes and motifs. The MTV editing has been replaced by a thoughtful, Sergio Leone-influenced style and a move towards realism.
“Horror films seem to have to take place at night. Watching horrible things happen in broad daylight is much scarier,” theorises the actor. “House Of 1000 Corpses was a little campy and cartoony at times. There’s still a little humor, but just not as much. Rejects happens in the sunshine and there’s some really nasty stuff. It’s a very violent film, perhaps even more violent than House. It has a kind of Sam Peckinpah feel to it, very much like The Wild Bunch (1969).”
The bloodbath finale to The Devil’s Rejects is already causing frenetic fan speculation across hyperspace. The original film of course suffered very badly at the censor’s scissors in most territories and it seems Rob Zombie had to present the sequel an incredible eight times to the MPAA before it received the magical ‘R’ rating.
“Everything is much more real,” explains Sid. “It’s not so much a question of cutting the violence out. Rob couldn’t get it because they’d say, ‘We can’t pass that scene.’ He’d reply, ‘I don’t understand. Nobody gets molested in any way. There’s no blood, there’s no gore, there’s not even any cursing. So what’s the problem?’ ‘Well it’s too real,’ was the answer. Isn’t that what film is supposed to be? So it was an educational process for the MPAA.”
Perhaps members of the board were simply victims of caulrophobia, the dreaded fear of clowns. Could the sight of Sid Haig in Captain Spaulding make-up have been too much for their delicate sensibilities? The man behind the greasepaint doesn’t really understand the whole fascination with those evil, twisted monsters with venomous red noses and squirting flowers. Not to mention those enormous feet, fit for stomping small babies:
“I had really never heard that much about clown phobias until I did this film and people are just totally freaked out. I just think it’s the visual thing of this totally weird clown with the beard, the frown and the black eyes. Then other people just love the fact that this wacky clown is so evil and just does terrible things. Actually, a young lady was getting married and wanted me to perform the service as Spaulding. I said, ‘Well I can’t do it. I’m not ordained.’ So she got on the Internet with all my information and I’m now an ordained minister. I married them at the Chiller Theater convention in New Jersey in full makeup and insulting as hell. Everybody was drunk, laughing and carrying on.”
With Captain Spaulding sparking the imagination of young audience, a new generation is discovering some of Sid’s early work and most notably the wonderfully warped Spider Baby, another tale of a murderous family with a penchant for cannibalism. That low-budget movie enabled Sid to work with one of the masters of screen horror, the Wolfman himself, Lon Chaney, Jnr. during the twilight of his career. It was a last hoorah for a star who had truly fallen to the depths of bottle, a performance that would have been a fitting final bow instead of his ending up as an embarrassing bit part in Al Adamson’s campy but crappy Dracula Vs Frankenstein (1971).
“That was an amazing experience,” recalls the bearded genre icon. “Lon was so grateful to get that job, that somebody thought enough of him to offer him a part like that. He was really dedicated to what he was doing and dried out to do the film. I could see he was unhappy with where he had been and I could see how much joy he was taking in what we were doing. That was probably the best eleven days of his aging life and career.”
The tiny budget of the production forced the crew to be creative with their limited resources. Sid recalls how Al Taylor the director of photography – whose work in Spider Baby is one of the greatest assets of the film – once had to contend with having no electrical power to light a murky interior shot:
“Al bounced light off of six reflectors; the yard to the front door, down the hall, through one room and into another room to get light on the actor’s face. That’s pretty amazing. Most guys would just throw up their hands and say, ‘Oh we don’t have any light. Let’s go.’”
But during filming of Beware Of The Blob (1972), Larry Hagman’s comedic sequel to the 1958 original, Sid faced the true horrors of working within a miniscule budget.
“I was playing a cop and I caught these two kids smoking dope. Suddenly the Blob came down and devoured me,” he grimaces. “And there I stood in fifty-five gallons of dipee-dee-do, the most vile crap that anybody could put on their hair, let alone their entire body. So I turn and thankfully it’s all over. But there’s no shower! Oh my God! That was pretty sick.”
With Sid creating such a memorable screen persona with only ten minutes of screen time in House Of 1000 Corpses, his starring role in The Devil’s Rejects could unleash a new horror phenomenon. Could the misadventures of Captain Spaulding and his harem of homicidal hicks soon become a trilogy?
“Rob doesn’t want to do a third one. The reasoning is that if the first one is a success, the second one is usually better, but the third one sucks and he doesn’t want to go there. But I’m sure that some of us will get a call from Lions Gate saying ‘if you’re up for a third one, come and play…’”
Captain Spaulding is a rich, freakish multi-layered killer with some of the best caustic dialogue for a villainous champion of chaos since Freddy Kruger toyed with his hapless victims on Elm Street. This new bogeyman for the twenty-first century is a character that for once would actually create a welcomed franchise to a flagging Hollywood horror industry. It’s a strongly crafted, warped and still a strangely realistic role that only veteran Sid Haig could play with such true grit. Send in the clowns indeed.
(Photos and words - Copyright Mark Berry)