The Devil's Rejects Review
Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects has been attacked as a disgrace from just about every quarter imaginable. The Daily Mail foamed with righteous indignation, serious horror critics complained about problems of audience sympathy and identification and fans of House Of 1000 Corpses were disappointed that they didn’t get more of the feel-good slapstick slaughter which, in the opinion of this reviewer, hobbled that interesting but flawed movie. The only chink of, somewhat surprising light, from the mainstream critics was a very positive three-star review by the ever unpredictable Roger Ebert.
Well I’m going to admit, upfront, that I think The Devil’s Rejects is a very good film indeed. In fact, on its own terms, it’s just about an unqualified success. The question is whether or not the viewer is willing to accept those terms. I admit to some reservations but I don’t think they should be allowed to get in the way of an honest appraisal of Rob Zombie’s achievement. This is a grown-up, complex film which troubles you in ways which House of 1000 Corpses could never even hope to find. Technically speaking, it's a huge advance - the cinematography is often quite stunning.
In the broadest terms, it’s a sequel to Zombie’s previous film. The depredations of the Fireflies – the deranged family that starred in the first film – have resulted in the powers of the state descending on their house in a violent siege. The police, led by the decidedly unstable Sheriff Wydell (Forsythe), capture Mother Firefly (Easterbrook) but her children Baby (Moon Zombie) and Otis (Moseley) escape and hook up with their depraved clown father Captain Spaulding (the very funny Haig). Wydell, whose brother was killed by the family in the first film, is keen to capture the killers and begins to resort to increasingly psychotic methods to achieve his ends. Meanwhile, the remaining members of the family travel across country with no purpose, it seems, other than to run and kill.
Needless to say, the results are brutal in the extreme. This is not a nice film and anyone who is easily offended is likely to walk out during the first ten minutes. But the serious intensity is one of the interesting things about how Zombie has developed in technique. An avowed fan of the no-shit 1970s horror movie – think Last House On The Left and Texas Chainsaw - he attempts to return to the times when horror was nasty and vicious and, most of all, in your face. This isn’t, surprisingly, evident so much in the violence as in the tone of the film. Most of the worst violence occurs just off-screen and the exceptions – a fantastic road death which is the ne plus ultra of that particular cinematic niche – are more over the top and silly than upsetting. But the sadism that the characters display towards each other really is disturbing and two extended torture scenes take this as far as an R certificate will go. These two scenes mirror each other – in one, the Fireflies sadistically menace the members of a country and western band in a motel and in the other, Wydell torments the three killers with a staple gun and a cattle prod. Neither scene is pleasant to watch and neither is played for laughs. Zombie has grown up and is prepared to give it to us straight.
But what exactly is he giving us? Some concern has been expressed, even by hardened horror fans, that the film violates audience sympathies by expecting them to identify with the killers. After all, they say, the law is just as bad as the outlaws. Well, that’s a valid complaint if you want your horror movies to come with improving moral messages. I don’t think Zombie is interested in playing one side against the other. He manipulates our emotions time and again during the film and I don’t think he sees any contradiction in making us despise the Fireflies one minute and asking us to weep for them during another. All our liberal moral impulses are torn asunder by this film and you emerge not quite knowing where you stand. It’s in the same tradition as the end of Dirty Harry when we didn’t quite know who was more insane – the psycho killer or the obsessive, sadistic cop. Nor is it a million miles away from the end of Bonnie and Clyde when the two pathetic, brutal killers were turned into icons of romantic tragedy and victims of a repressive state. Zombie consciously walks a thin line here and the ending is sure to divide audiences.
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|The exhilaration of the Fireflies final stand against the law as, beaten and bloodied, they prepare to go to their heroic deaths, has a visual poetry which is in the Peckinpah class and the decision to choreograph it to Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” is a masterstroke. Zombie is, effectively, having his cake and consuming it here. On the one hand, there’s obvious irony in presenting the monstrous serial killers as a happy family unit when they recall golden days past; irony which pierces the sentimental lies of a thousand Hollywood films about outlaws. On the other, it’s an emotionally and kinaesthetically affecting sequence which is in that same Hollywood tradition. I think it’s an incredibly daring, audience-baiting conclusion and I can only express my stupefaction that Rob Zombie was capable of pulling it off.|
The film is also unusual, even in the horror genre, for its existential bleakness. The chase doesn't go anywhere; there is very little positive here and what there is tends to come to a bad end. I think it’s grossly simplistic to say, as some reviewers have done, that the police are just as bad as the Fireflies – for one thing, the police haven’t systematically killed over 80 people for kicks. But Sheriff Wydell’s belief in his own righteousness is, in its own way, as scary as anything Otis or Baby can come out with. The audience is denied an obvious point of identification and those who complain that they were forced to sympathise with the Fireflies are revealing more about themselves than about the film. Zombie refuses to make any simple moral judgements on his characters and that’s incredibly rare.
I’m also a little baffled by the complaints of misogyny. Certainly, there are a couple of scenes in which naked women are tormented but they are in the context of an overwhelmingly misanthropic vision. The men don’t come out any better and, if anything, the only completely sympathetic characters in the film are the two women who are captured at the motel. One could also observe that, in Baby, the film offers us one of the few completely empowered women in genre history – but on mature consideration, I won’t. Compared to a Jess Franco or a Fulci (or maybe an Argento), Rob Zombie is as right-on as Andrea Dworkin.
That the film isn’t too bleak for the viewer to bear is due to the excellent cast and Zombie’s absurdist sense of humour. Sid Haig, who walked off with House of 1000 Corpses, is gloriously funny as the nastiest clown this side of Pennywise and has a way with a good line which makes it seem twice as witty as it is. He also gets a great introduction scene in which his dream of fucking a gorgeous blonde goes horribly wrong. Sherri Moon Zombie is ideal as Baby – a combination of Playboy Playmate and human Gremlin – and Bill Moseley gets some nicely iconic moments as the deeply warped Otis. William Forsythe makes Wydell a memorably demonic presence and it’s good to see Danny Trejo given some decent dialogue for once. Best of all, the film is littered with actors from the great days of American movies; you should be able to spot Michael Berryman and Ken Foree without too much trouble but see if you can catch Geoffrey Lewis, P. J. Soles, Mary Woronov and Steve Railsback.
As for Zombie’s humour, it’s more controlled than in the previous film and all the better for it. Some of it is engagingly silly – the use of Groucho Marx character names for example – and some of it has a pleasingly surreal slant – the moment when Wydell brings in a pompous movie critic to help with the investigation for example. But it’s never allowed to overcome the overall tone of the film. If you’re a horror fan, an admirer of American cinema of the 1970s or simply eager to see a film which doesn’t treat the audience like children, then The Devil’s Rejects deserves your attention. It’s also got the best soundtrack of 1970s LA rock since Dazed and Confused - even if you have to put your hands over your eyes, there’s always something to listen to.