Devil's Rejects, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/21/05 23:53:00

"Imagine 'Salo' without the light and frothy touch"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

A film like “The Devil’s Rejects,” Rob Zombie’s semi-sequel to his 2003 horror opus “House of 1000 Corpses,” seems to have been designed to subvert any type of critical analysis. On the one hand, it is as foul, repellent, brutal and sadistic as any film that I have ever seen in my life. On the other hand, it is evident from the first frames that Zombie has clearly set to make one of the most foul, repellent, brutal and sadistic films ever made. Therefore, do I decry Zombie for creating a gross and unpleasant excursion into some of the most off-putting imagery ever put before a camera or do I praise him for achieving the exact effect on audiences that he intended to inspire in the first place?

For those of you who somehow missed “House of 1000 Corpses” (an excellent idea under the circumstances), a refresher course really isn’t necessary in order to watch “The Devil’s Rejects”. All you need to know is that there is a loosely-related family known as the Firefly clan–consisting of clown-faced Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), psycho-among-psychos Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley), sexpot Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie) and Mother Teasdale (Leslie Easterbrook)–who share both an apparent fascination for Marx Brothers films (from where they have all taken their assumed names) and a love for kidnapping, raping, torturing and slaughtering anyone unlucky to come across their path, not always in that order. As the film opens, their home is raided by a police armada led by the Bible-quoting Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), whose brother was one of the 75 known victims of the Firefly clan. After an extended gun battle, Mom is captured while Otis and Baby manage to escape. After contacting Spaulding, who was away at the time of the raid, they arrange to meet up at a remote motel so that they can make a run for sanctuary at a sleazy bordello run by friend Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree).<

While waiting for Spaulding to arrive at the motel, Otis and Baby decide to kill time by taking a touring musical quartet hostage and torturing them for a while. After the ritual verbal and sexual humiliation, Otis takes the men (Geoffrey Lewis and Lew Temple) out to retrieve some guns while Baby stays in the room with the women (Priscilla Barnes and Kate Norby) and forces them to slap each other silly for the privilege of going to the bathroom. Eventually, Spaulding appears, the hostages are disposed of in the messiest manner possible and the Fireflys are on their way to what they assume is peace and freedom.<

What they don’t understand is that Wydell is smart enough to figure out that their aliases come straight from the works of the Marx Brothers and enlists the aid of a local movie critic to help him track them down. What they also don’t understand is that Wydell may be just as violent and crazy as they are and his pursuit of them may be more out of a lust for revenge than a desire for justice. With the aid of a couple of bounty hunters (Danny Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page), Wydell tracks the Firefly clan and spends a good portion of the remaining running time torturing them with staple guns and the like. Remember the savage compilation that Malcolm McDowell was forced to endure as part of his treatment in “A Clockwork Orange”? The concluding reels of “The Devil’s Rejects” plays like the uncut version of that film.<

For years, Rob Zombie has proclaimed his adoration of grindhouse cinema–the kind of extra-sleazy exploitation film that made up for a lack of money and familiar actors with a willingness to show things on the screen that the major studios either couldn’t or wouldn’t show. Films with titles such as “Last House on the Left” (which marked the debut of director Wes Craven), “The Candy Snatchers” (imagine the sequence in “Dirty Harry” in which the girl is kidnapped and buried alive stretched out to 90 excruciating minutes) and “I Spit on Your Grave” were designed to provoke a reaction from increasingly jaded viewers and the best ones (“Last House,” in particular, is a grim masterpiece) still pack a mighty wallop even to this day. “The Devil’s Rejects” seems to have been designed as Zombie’s grad-student thesis on the subject as every aspect of the film–from the deliberately dingy photography to the casting of familiar genre faces (besides those already mentioned, there are also appearances from the likes of P.J. Soles, Mary Woronov, Michael Berryman, Steve Railsback, Ginger Lynn Allen and two members of the cast of “Streets of Fire”) to the font chosen for the opening credits–is steeped in the traditions of grindhouse.<

As someone who is perfectly willing to admit a deep and sincere fondness for the trash epics that Zombie is celebrating (I am even willing to go along with the theory of “I Spit on Your Grave” being a crudely effective feminist statement instead of the sleazoid rape fantasy that Roger Ebert once infamously described in a legendarily brutal review), I will admit that he has the look and feel of grindhouse down pat and it warmed my heart to see the immortal Sid Haig (best known as the weirdest character on display in “Spider Baby” and for his appearances in the old Pam Grier blaxsploitation films) toplining a major 2005 theatrical release. And yet, while he has the surface details down pat, Zombie isn’t able to get beyond the act of homage to create a film that works on its own merits. It may look and sound like an old grindhouse epic but the sad truth is that is plays like the kind of film that Quentin Tarantino might have caught at the bottom of a triple-bill in 1977 and didn’t venerate as some kind of masterwork.<

One of the things that I object to in the film is the violence–more specifically, I object to Zombie’s handling of the violence. In theory, I don’t object to overt violence in a film as long as there is some consistency in the way that it is handled. I have enjoyed films in which violent imagery is presented in the most brutal and sadistic manner possible (such as “Last House on the Left”) and films in which the carnage is so over-the-top that it begins to work on a more satiric level. (One of the best examples of such a film is Tobe Hooper’s brilliant and underrated “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2".) The problem with “The Devil’s Rejects” is that Zombie tries to mix the two approaches to his depiction of bloodshed and they are two tastes that simply don’t taste great together. I can understand why he would try such an approach–I assume he felt it would keep viewers appropriately off-balance–but the end result is that by blending the two, it becomes difficult to laugh at the more darkly humored moments (it is possible, I suppose, to make an amusing scene out of someone being messily splattered by a truck but Zombie hasn’t found it here) while the more serious-minded sequences seem even more distasteful than planned when juxtaposed with the humor.<

Another problem is that for all of the astonishing brutality that the Fireflys dish out during the film, they remain singularly uninteresting horror villains. We learn practically nothing about who they are, why they do what they do or why we should have any interest in them. This is not necessarily a bad approach–we never learned much of anything regarding Leatherface and his family in the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and it didn’t hurt that film a bit–but Zombie clearly wants us to be on their side throughout without ever giving us any reasons to care about who they are or what they do. This is especially mystifying since in the very grindhouse films that he revers so much, the filmmakers are generally on the side of the victims instead of their tormentors–you don’t go away from “Last House on the Left” talking about how cool the killers were. Instead, he tries to boldly position his mad-dog killers as weirdo folk heroes along the lines of what Oliver Stone did in “Natural Born Killers”. The difference, one of million, I hasten to add, is that Stone took care to make his killers reasonably interesting and charismatic. By comparison, the Fireflys are a singularly uninteresting lot who are never scary for a second for the first two-thirds of the running time–if you demonstrate that you are a moral-free psycho from the get-go, there really isn’t anywhere else to go–and never sympathetic during the final third when the tables are turned on them. By the time they reach their final stand, Zombie is forced to glaze the scene with psuedo-poetic slo-mo photography straight out of Peckinpah and even tries to generate emotion by having “Freebird” playing on the soundtrack.<

Finally, and most fatally, Zombie is so obsessed with sticking in references to his favorite trash-film epics that he winds up undermining the very story that he is trying to tell. If a scene doesn’t feature some B-movie actor making a cameo appearance, then it has been designed as a homage to an earlier and (usually) better film. Of course, Quentin Tarantino did much the same thing in his own celebration of grindhouse cinema, the “Kill Bill” saga, but the difference is that while there were plenty of references that fans could pick out and obsess over, they were in the service of a story that was compelling on its own and they never threatened to overwhelm to proceedings. Here, the references overwhelm the less-than-compelling narrative and do nothing more than draw viewers out of the story and keep any real terror or uneasiness from building–when Baby Firefly forces her two female hostages to beat each other up, for example, most viewers will only be noticing how the entire sequence is simply a rip-off of a similar and far more effective scene in “Last House on the Left”. With that film, the advertisement famously advised viewers to keep telling themselves “It’s Only a Movie!”–here, Zombie himself does it for you in every single scene.

Therefore, to answer the question I posed in the first paragraph, I can comfortably decry both Zombie and “The Devil’s Rejects”–not because it traffics is hateful and disgusting imagery but because it does so in such a singularly uninteresting manner. It is actually a bit of a shame because if you look beyond the dried blood and other crap, there are a few interesting items of interest. As I said, I liked the presence of Haig and there are some unexpected bits of oddball humor that crop up, especially in the scene where the film critic is dragged in to help crack the Firefly case. (While I am certain that most people will go to this film expecting to see and hear certain things, I submit that an analysis of Otto Preminger’s acid epic “Skiddoo” would not be among them.) And yet, even those occasional brights spots are soon overwhelmed by all the other crap on display. I have no doubt that “The Devil’s Rejects” will find a cult among people who will celebrate it simply because of the sheer unpleasantness that it displays in nearly every frame. I can even understand why such people might take it to their hearts–whatever the film’s flaws, it certainly is a change from the recent string of weak PG-13 exercises in pseudo-horror. However, I can only hope that I never come across such people while walking alone in a dark alley or parking lot.

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