The Devil's Rejects: Director's Cut Review
Note: the version reviewed here is the unrated director's cut. Not having seen the R-rated theatrical version, I have no idea which material here is new, and how much of it there is.
A throwback to the glory days of 1970s exploitation horror, Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects is everything that its predecessor, House of 1000 Corpses, tried but failed to be. Many horror fans espouse the 70s as the Golden Age of the horror movie - rightly so, in my opinion - and a number of the offerings that have emerged over the last few years have made a conscious attempt to return to that particular aesthetic: in other words, brutal nihilism and a rejection of the self-referential humour that emerged in the wake of Scream and its drones. The likes of Jeepers Creepers, Wrong Turn and the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre are probably the most prominent examples of this trend, although none of them managed to capture so successfully what Zombie has achieved here. Even Haute Tension, Alexandre Aja's otherwise brilliant slasher movie, was spoiled by one of those uninspired twist endings that have become de rigueur these days. The Devil's Rejects, by comparison, actually feels like a product of the 70s rather than attempt to imitate past glories. In terms of style, tone and its overarching philosophy on life, it is by far the most legitimate attempt so far to recreate the mood of this bygone era.
Taking place shortly after the events of House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects reunites us with the Fireflys, the ruthless mass-murdering family we first met in the previous film. With their hideout attacked by police officers led by Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) escape, while Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, replacing Karen Black from the previous movie) is captured. Teaming up with their father, the demented clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Otis and Baby head off on a blood-drenched spree of carnage with the rather too emotionally involved Wydell hot on their tail.
One of the many aspects that separates this from so many modern horror films is that there is no point of identification for the audience, and Zombie never makes a serious attempt to provide one. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse, because, while it certainly adds to the air of hopelessness and creates the impression of a completely hostile world, it also means that it becomes difficult to really care about the Rejects' victims. The various individuals that are harassed and killed are depicted in such abstract terms that it seems very difficult to feel anything for them, even when Captain Spaulding and his cohorts get really nasty (and believe me, they get really, really nasty). This is compounded by the fact that, as becomes increasingly clear as the tale progresses, the police (or at least Sheriff Wydell) are capable of being every bit as sadistic as their adversaries. The same problem plagued House of 1000 Corpses (although the victims are admittedly somewhat less annoying here), and it has the effect of coaxing us into aligning our sympathies with the Rejects. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it is a testament to the performances of Haig, Moseley and Moon that they are able to switch between being abhorrent torturers and an almost likeable dysfunctional family - although more often than not we end up siding with them by default rather than because they have any redeeming qualities. It is in these moments of domestic strife that the film most strongly resembles its predecessor, which for me always worked best when it pushed the comedy angle rather than horror. With The Devil's Rejects, Zombie has clearly learnt a thing or two about filmmaking and manages to balance both elements with considerable skill.
Indeed, the overall high quality of the production makes it difficult to believe that the film was put together by the same individual responsible for House of 1000 Corpses, or that this is only his second feature. Zombie shows considerable skill with the cinematography, getting some very impressive shots out of the largely handheld camerawork while mercifully choosing not to indulge in the distracting video inserts that plagued the previous film. Admittedly, the handheld nature of the photography does at times lead to an over-reliance on that same "shakycam" effect that makes Michael Bay's films so intolerable, but this technique is wisely kept in check and is not allowed to intrude in the less hectic scenes. As befits the exploitational pedigree of this movie, the colourful, candy cane visuals of House of 1000 Corpses have been replaced with gritty, desaturated 16mm film stock that gives it an almost documentary-like feel and is most reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As befits the work of a director best known as a musician, the choice of music is inspired and also does a great job of making this feel like a period piece. In terms of casting, fans of 70s exploitation are in for a treat, with appearances from the likes of Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) and P.J. Soles (Halloween). The presence of such recognisable faces does at times feel slightly self-indulgent, but the performances are on the whole so good that you do get the impression that they were chosen for their acting abilities first and their track records second.
The Devil's Rejects will surely not be for everyone. Many will, no doubt, find the sudden shifts between abject horror and juvenile comedy jarring, not to mention tasteless, while others will find the gleefully anarchic behaviour of the characters, especially Baby, infuriating. Ironically, though, it is these same traits that make the film positively endearing to me: a bizarre blend of hilarity and terror that never fails to surprise and remains riveting viewing throughout. Of all the films released in 2005, I have to say that this is the one that has proven to be, for me, the most enjoyable, bang for buck.
The film is presented on DVD in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced. The look of the transfer is reasonably good, especially given how difficult it must be to effectively compress grainy, frenetic material such as this. Even so, the transfer does leave some room for improvement. The image is quite heavily filtered and also suffers from a small amount of edge enhancement and some compression artefacts that, while not too distracting on a small screen, become fairly prominent on larger displays. All in all it looks pretty decent, but I've seen far better representations of 16mm material on DVD (the UK release of Thirteen, for example). The sad part is that some of these problems could probably have been avoided by offloading the rather plentiful array of bonus features on to the second disc.
The audio comes in DTS and Dolby Digital flavours, and is generally excellent. My first thought, when eyeing up the soundtrack options, was that a mono mix would surely have been more authentic for a film attempting to ape the vibe of 70s exploitation, but once I actually started watching the film, I had no complaints whatsoever. The dialogue is consistently clear and easy to understand, and the rears and subwoofer are used aggressively throughout. English and Spanish subtitles are provided for the film but not the extras.
Lions Gate have certainly delivered when it comes to bonus materials. While they have sadly not included anything as hilarious as the menu screens for House of 1000 Corpses, the overall package is about as all-encompassing as you could hope. The first disc contains two audio commentaries, one featuring Rob Zombie all on his lonesome and the other teaming up the three lead actors: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Sheri Moon Zombie. Of the two, the latter is the more immediately entertaining, although Moon's habit of narrating everything that happens on the screen does get a bit annoying after a while. Zombie's commentary is more dry, but more consistently solid from an information standpoint.
A large number of shorter features fill up the space on the first disc, including a surprisingly amusing blooper reel (I generally find these infuriating, but found myself laughing at this one a number of times), various trailers, an image gallery, make-up tests and music video. Also included is a full-length version of The Morris Green Show, a mock-up talk show glimpsed briefly in the film itself, that runs for 13 minutes in its unexpurgated form and is incredibly funny. Trailers for two Captain Spaulding TV commercials are also featured, in addition to a bizarre "home video" featuring Otis assaulting a cheerleader. There are also 13 minutes' worth of deleted scenes, which unfortunately must be watched sequentially as they are not indexed, and a tribute to Matthew McGrory, the actor who played Tiny, who died shortly after the film was completed.
The second disc houses a documentary by the name of 30 Days in Hell: the making of The Devil's Rejects. At 144 minutes, this is a hefty piece of material to get through, but the task is thankfully made more straightforward by the inclusion of chapter stops, dividing the documentary into five different sections. The approach taken is that of a "fly on the wall" piece, charting the arduous 30-day film shoot in minute detail while allowing the footage to speak for itself rather than relying too much on voice-overs or interviews. There are snippets of various cast and crew members talking to the camera, but this is a long way from the glossy "talking heads" affairs that you tend to find on most DVDs. It is valiant attempt to chart, in detail, the production of every single scene in the movie, it does become a bit repetitive after a while, but the wealth of behind the scenes material on offer here is not to be sniffed at. It's just a shame that it focuses so heavily on the film shoot, while largely ignoring the equally interesting pre-production (glanced at briefly) and post-production (omitted entirely) phases.
As befits a film that made them so much money at the box office, Lions Gate have splashed out to deliver an excellent DVD release for The Devil's Rejects. While the transfer has some flaws, the audio tracks are excellent and the bonus materials are of a very high standard, making this an essential purchase for fans of Captain Spaulding and his cronies.