After a screening of Rob Zombie’s new film The Devil’s Rejects, one of my fellow critics complained that the movie was “amoral, sociopathic, sadistic and fascistic.” He’s completely right, of course, but can you hold it against the movie when that’s exactly what it wants to be?
Rejects is a sequel to Zombie’s debut film House of 1000 Corpses, and although I never saw that film I had no problem at all following the thin veneer of plot that loosely connects the moments of brutality and torture that drive the film. The Firefly family, who seem to be the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family on steroids, wake up one morning to find their carnage-strewn house surrounded by the police. A massive and impossible gunfight ensues, and some of the Fireflys die, some are captured and two escape. Otis, played by Bill Moseley in the skin of Charles Manson, and Baby, played by Rob Zombie’s wife Sherri Moon Zombie, began fleeing from the law, which is what will occupy them for the rest of the film’s running time. They contact their father, the decrepit clown Captain Spaulding and head to a motel that either is or isn’t abandoned (it looks to be, but the ice machine is full!) where they capture and torture a country music band.
There’s a cop hot on their trail who wants vengeance – the Fireflys caused the death of his brother, presumably in the first film. The family goes to hide out at their uncle Charlie Altamont’s whorehouse (which is manned by Michael Berryman, a guy sure to get anyone out of the mood), but find they can’t escape the long arm of the law. Bloodshed happens along the way.
Zombie is hearkening back to the grindhouse pictures of the 70s in a much more authentic way than France’s High Tension did. That film updated the tropes and styles of the nasty exploitation films, but The Devil’s Rejects full out emulates them, down to period setting and even filming style. He does a great job – the movie often feels like a lost gem from that period, a cynical hillbillysploitation film with excellent production values and some pretty good acting.
The Devil’s Rejects is notable (to horror fans – the rest of you may find this next sentence troubling) for it’s unflinching brutality and nastiness. It’s also notable for being rather boring for a film that’s so in your face. There’s something about the mean-spiritedness and ugliness of the film that stops creeping you out and starts making you desensitized. I was amazed by how much Zombie got away with, not only in violence but in full frontal nudity and general tone, but the movie ends up being unengaging enough that the amazement is academic and not visceral, which it should be.
Zombie’s at his best when he’s just being straight ahead nasty. When the film stops to be “funny,” it all bogs down – the Banjo & Sullivan country group who get captured, molested, tortured and killed are lame and unfunny, no matter how much Zombie thinks otherwise. Another scene where a local film critic (and check out the subtle and witty commentary Zombie makes on critics in this scene) explains to the sheriff that the Firefly family are all named after Groucho Marx characters is excruciating. There’s a scene later where a character is nailed to a chair – that seems preferable to sitting through that scene again.
Having not seen House of 1000 Corpses I don’t know why the Firefly clan has those Marx names, but I can only assume Zombie didn’t explain their meaning there and felt the need to give us a grinding bit of exposition. I don’t get why they’re named that way from a more meta point of view – these characters and these films have no bearing on anything Groucho or his brothers ever did. I imagine that Zombie really likes Groucho, but you might think there are other ways to honor him than to name a necrophiliac after his characters.
Rejects also gets boring because you have no one to root for. Zombie is homaging Bonnie & Clyde to a massive degree here, but he seems to have missed how that film worked. Arthur Penn made us care about the characters as people so that we would accept them as criminals. Zombie sees no need to do that, or else he misunderstands the horror subgenre of the put upon monster – films like King Kong or Frankenstein feature monsters who kill and do terrible things, but we know it’s not really their fault and so we can feel for them. Here Zombie makes the clan reprehensible evil scumbags, and so we don’t mind seeing them get their comeuppance. Towards the end Zombie seems to try to fill the characters in a little more to at least be able to get our sympathies, but it’s too little too late. Even I Spit On Your Grave managed to make us feel sort of bad for the retarded rapist.
The movie does have plenty going for it. The performances are solid. Bill Moseley runs the film as Otis P Driftwood. He glows with evil. Sid Haig is Captain Spaulding, de-clowned for most of this film, and the actor gives his character an air of slimy menace. The always great Ken Foree plays Spaulding’s brother with a liveliness that gives the movie a second wind in the latter half. William Forsythe is the sheriff who crosses the line of law and order to hunt down the Fireflys, and he seems to be having the most fun with his role. He chews through scenery like a huge, always working character actor of a termite.
There are other cameo-sized appearances here as well – Ginger Lynn as a hooker, Danny Trejo as a bounty hunter, Priscilla Barnes getting terrorized. Most of these actors are at home in films like this, and they fit – all except Sherri Moon Zombie, whose Baby needed to be killed in the opening scene. Annoying and strangely unwilling to show off the front of her body in nude scenes (the butt’s no problem though), Zombie’s wife is the fly in the soup. Or maybe in the case of this film the fresh fruit in the rancid cake. Or something. She sucks, is what I’m trying to get across to you, and it doesn’t help that she’s playing most of her scenes against Bill Moseley, and making him look like Olivier.
The film also has an amazing soundtrack, made up of 70s southern rock and honky tonk. I expected a Rob Zombie film to feature music he wrote, but he keeps everything period and excellent. In fact he almost makes perfect use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird at the end of the film in a climactic shootout – unfortunately he times the outbreak of violence to the song’s guitar solo, so you have to sit through four minutes of people loading and cocking guns in slow motion.
The farther I get from The Devil’s Rejects the more I like it, and I think that’s because the squalid and mean scenes and atmosphere are what stick with me, and I don’t ponder the interminable bits. I have a soft spot for movies that are this sick and twisted, and Rejects is the real thing, not some half-assed Hollywood take on Motel Hell or Two Thousand Maniacs. Plus, Zombie is an undeniably gifted filmmaker – I just wish someone came in and edited twenty minutes of nonsense from here to make a tighter, leaner film. There’s a great exploitation film lurking in here, but in the meantime I’ll settle for the gloriously offensive and cruel movie on display here. I’m looking forward to seeing what Zombie does next.
7.8 out of 10