Horror films are chock-full of familiar faces, themes, monsters, murderers, locations, directors, effects designers and the like, many of which reappear multiple times across cinema history. By approaching these figures and topics from a different angle, curious viewers can break the occasionally stale boundaries of a single genre to uncover new, unexpected fringes of horror. Pay attention, class — this is Macabre 101.
By Phil Lindeman
Subject: Actor Sid Haig
With a shaved head, biker beard, bulbous nose and pockmarked cheeks, Sid Haig is the face that launched a thousand corpses. In the past decade, the longtime character actor has reached new-found levels of popularity as Rob Zombie’s grotesque muse, playing the psychopathic Captain Spaulding in 2003’s House of 1,000 Corpses and its unexpectedly sophisticated sequel, 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects. It’s easy to see why Zombie finds a kindred spirit in Haig: He exudes creepy charm, like a wild uncle who never misses Thanksgiving but probably leads a vicious gang on the side. Or keeps heads in his fridge.
To his credit, Haig’s a workaholic – sort of a necessity for character actors. Now 73 years old, his IMDb filmography lists 125 film and TV roles spanning more than five decades. It’s tricky to tell on screen, but he’s a towering 6’4”, and such menacing physicality made him a favorite of horror and exploitation directors. He was a staple in genre films long before Zombie put him in clown makeup, working with heavyweights like Quentin Tarantino, George A. Romero, Jack Hill, and a young George Lucas in THX 1138.
Haig attracted fierce attention early on with Hill’s Spider Baby, a 1968 mish-mash of horror and comedy in which he plays a cannibalistic orphan under the care of Lon Cheney, Jr., another lifetime character actor who made a name in low-budget horror films. But Haig is far from the sadistic, frightening lowlife he often plays: In a 2004 interview with the website Badmouth – some 36 years after Spider Baby was released – he giddily described working alongside an icon in his breakthrough film.
“I was kind of in awe at the beginning, which is understandable, because when I was a kid I used to go see his films,” Haig recalls. “Now I’m on the set with him, working, as equals. He wanted to be treated as an equal. It was really kind of inspiring from that standpoint.”
For the majority of his career, casting directors saw Haig as a pitch-perfect thug or enforcer. Even in those bit parts, though, he boasted the same brand of self-aware charisma that comes easily to other cult favorites, from Bruce Campbell to Pam Grier. Thanks to a close relationship with Hill, he shared the screen with Grier multiple times during the ‘70s, including in the blaxploitation classics Coffy and Foxy Brown.
On TV – where horror roles were rare – Haig appeared in a huge variety of programs, including episodes of Gunsmoke, MacGyver, Mission: Impossible and the original Batman series with Adam West. He rarely had recurring characters, but when he did, they were playfully campy. His most notable role was on CBS’s Jason of Star Command, a cheap but entertaining knock-off of space operas like Star Wars and Star Trek. Haig played Dragos, an evil warlord with a laser-beam eye who terrorized Jason and his crew. The show lasted only two seasons and 28 episodes, but it was one of Haig’s few moments in the spotlight.
Although Haig made a conscious effort to avoid typecasting in the ‘90s, he reunited with Grier in 1997 for Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and the cultish response to House of 1,000 Corpses rekindled his affinity for horror and exploitation films. Sustained success had long eluded him, and Captain Spaulding was his first starring role since Dragos – it was about time he found a character to call his own. The film made him a hot commodity in the low-budget horror world, and in the seven years since, he has appeared in The Infliction, Brotherhood of Blood, Creature, Zombie’s Halloween remake and nearly five additional releases.
With a deep enough filmography, any actor is bound to have a few duds. But should you avoid any of Haig’s performances outright? Hardly, and not even the painful ones. Since he worked on the fringes of cinema, half of his films are hard to find, even on the Internet. If you stumble across one of the more obscure titles, give it a go – chances are you won’t see it again for a long time.
5 Take-home Assignments:
Spider Baby (1968) – Plays Ralph, the sole male in a family of orphaned cannibals in Jack Hill’s trashy horror/comedy.
Coffy (1973) – Plays Omar, a thuggish pimp in the prostitution ring Pam Grier hunts down to avenge her drug-addicted sister. Also directed by Hill, with plenty of shotguns and nudity to make up for the fact it’s not actually a horror film.
House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) – Plays the iconic Captain Spaulding, the bizarre owner of a hellish roadhouse in Rob Zombie’s directorial debut. It’s alternately brutal and incoherent, but Haig embodies the role to creepy effect.
The Devil’s Rejects (2005) – Again as Captain Spaulding, reprising a cult-making role in the tighter, craftier, but equally sadistic follow-up to Corpses.
Brotherhood of Blood (2007) – Plays the vampire king Pashek, charged with looking after a female vampire killer who could take down the titular brotherhood. Not the greatest film, but he adds gravitas to a silly story.
Look for Haig in a brief cameo manning a bar in Kill Bill, Volume 2. And if you don’t believe the kind of feverish, almost religious following he enjoys for his Captain Spaulding character, Google “captain spaulding tattoos.” There are more than 43,000 results. Frightening.