In 2003 musician Rob Zombie’s directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, came in under the radar. Not many critics reviewed it at the time, and even fewer gave it good marks. However, there were those (myself included) who recognized House as a stylish and even loving attempt to resuscitate the genre of 70’s-era grindhouse flicks. I gave the film three stars, calling it “a legitimate achievement in horror filmmaking.”
Apparently audiences were hip to Zombie’s intentions too, because the movie surpassed all box office expectations to become a minor cult hit. Zombie’s success earned him the right to make a follow-up picture called The Devil’s Rejects.
Whereas House of 1000 Corpses was like an old grindhouse horror show, this new film is more influenced by the “antiheroes on the run” sub-genre of grindhouse cinema. It opens with Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) and his troops surrounding the backwoods home of the Firefly family, where so many grisly murders took place in the original film. After a prolonged shootout, Wydell captures Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, taking over the role from Karen Black). Two of her adult children – Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) – manage to escape. They briefly hole up in an old motel, where they take a traveling country band hostage before torturing and murdering them.
Then they rendezvous with their father, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), a 60-ish, balding, overweight clown who hosts a TV horror movie program and slaughters innocent people in his down time. He has a plan to hide at a local whorehouse until things blow over. The family makes a run for the place, but Wydell is hot on their trail, eventually recruiting two professional hit men to help in the hunt. Naturally, several more murders take place in the interim.
When I was in high school, my English class took a field trip to New York City to see “Cats.” My most vivid memory of the day though was driving down a street filled with grindhouse theaters. Rather than recognizable Hollywood product, the theater marquees advertised obscure horror pictures that sounded gory just from the titles alone. The posters were filled with bloody images that promised a sickening show. I never got to experience any of these films theatrically, and New York’s subsequent revitalization all but eliminated the grindhouses. Home video also played a part in their demise, as viewers no longer had to contend with drug deals in the bathrooms and muggings in the lobby. I saw my share of these films on video, but seeing The Devil’s Rejects allowed me to feel like I had stepped back into a different era – and style – of moviegoing.
Rob Zombie’s story is full of all the things we expect: horrific violence, an undercurrent of sexuality, an ambivalent attitude toward the actions of its characters, and even a subversive sense of humor. (As evil as Captain Spaulding is, he’s also funny and charming in a sick way.) Zombie captures the grainy look of grindhouse flicks and makes that graininess a stylistic choice. Rather than looking cheap, The Devil’s Rejects projects a mood that is appropriate to its pulp influences; it creates a world that is caked in blood and gore and dirt. Zombie also uses old-school techniques such as freeze framing and cheesy zoom-ins.
While the film is certainly packed with evil people committing unspeakable acts of violence upon one another, I admire what Rob Zombie has done: he’s taken a form of filmmaking that was of questionable repute (at best) and elevated it by putting all the pieces together better than most of the form’s original practitioners. Just look at the grand finale - an orgy of slow-motion violence choreographed to the tune of “Free Bird.” It’s a strangely beautiful sequence that proves the director’s intentions to be pure. He takes all this “seedy” material that he loves and makes a unique kind of art out of it. (Unlike, say, the makers of Saw who just created a carnival freak show.)
House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects share a set of characters who are, in their own way, indelible. We get to know them in a little more detail this time around, which serves the movie well. Otis looks like the world’s biggest redneck, yet he possesses a shocking streak of brutality just below the surface. Baby has the body of a Playboy playmate and uses her looks to catch victims off guard. Captain Spaulding, meanwhile, is the sickest clown ever. The fact that he keeps his clown makeup on during inappropriate situations just makes him all the more demented. Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, and Sid Haig all give great gonzo performances, as does William Forsythe, whose character doesn’t seem all that far removed from the killers psychologically.
I’m not sure a movie like this is intended to convey any message, but if The Devil’s Rejects is about anything, it’s about the role of faith in a violent world. At one point, it is stated that Otis, Baby, and Spaulding commit such depraved acts because they are mad at God. (Otis more or less confirms the sentiment just before killing a man.) Wydell, on the other hand, openly prays to God for the ability to kill the killers. You could technically infer that The Devil’s Rejects is about people who are trying to use violence to get God’s attention. They lack a moral compass and hope that God will respond in some way to their actions. Wydell wants a sign that it's okay for him to seek eye-for-an-eye justice, while the Firefly family members commit violence as a way of acting out anger toward what they view as an unfair world, hoping that a change will eventually come.
You could also just take the movie as a sick, twisted, better-than-average horror flick with shocking violence and a naughty sense of humor. Personally, I laughed when Wydell – having discovered that Captain Spaulding is named after a Groucho Marx character – seeks help from a pretentious film critic who bears an uncanny resemblance to Gene Shalit. Later on, several characters hilariously wax philosophic on the art of having sex with chickens. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. By now, you certainly know whether or not The Devil’s Rejects is for you. I’ll close by reiterating something I said about House of 1000 Corpses. I don’t recommend the movie for the general audience; I recommend it for audiences who know and appreciate the genre. Rob Zombie sure does, and he once again proves himself to be a skilled horror filmmaker.
( out of four)
The Devil's Rejects is rated R for sadistic violence, strong sexual content, language and drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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