OK, let’s get this straight: The Devil’s Rejects is a violent, sadistic, brutal horror picture punctuated with humor that’s blacker than the greasepaint festooning Sid Haig’s lips for his clown makeup. There are no likable characters. And if the movie has any message at all, it is undoubtedly reprehensible, since the closest it comes to sympathetic characters is a group of sadistic murderers. The notion of “family values” being preserved by a group of homicidal maniacs with dubious hygiene is still subversive, but it’s been a staple of the genre since Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so it’s hardly an original theme.
The results are for seasoned — even hardened — horror-movie fans only; anyone else need not apply. I don’t have any desire for letters from offended readers saying I lured them into this disgusting descent into cinematic nastiness. Then again, anyone going to an R-rated horror flick directed by a fellow calling himself Rob Zombie and expecting Merchant-Ivory gentility probably needs a reality check.
When Mr. Zombie (real name: Robert Cummings, which could cause no end of confusion for old-movie and ’50s TV fans) first hit the movie scene with House of 1000 Corpses, I remarked that he wasn’t so much a filmmaker as he was a fan who’d made a horror picture of his own. And that’s still true, even though I admit to owning the DVD of his fascinating mess of a debut and have seen it more often than I have a lot of far better movies.
His new film is less of a mess. It’s tighter, better made and generally more successful at being a kind of replica of ’70s low-budget horror. It’s also the work of a director who has learned more or less to stay inside the lines of what the MPAA will and won’t allow in an R-rated movie. (The frequently incomprehensible release print of Corpses is 17 minutes shy of the film’s original running time on the film-festival circuit. And where, Mr. Zombie, is the director’s cut with that footage restored?)
Rejects plays by the rules — if only barely –and has a more coherent story, and a different look. The almost painfully sharp cinematography of Corpses — its reliance on colored gels and filters, the aggressive editing, the inclusion of hallucinatory split-screen work — is rarely to be found here. And the new film, while more cohesive, is perhaps less fascinating in the bargain.
The visual approach is much grittier. Rejects has a frequently bleached-out, dusty look to it, giving it more the quality of a perverted Western crossed with ’70s exploitation horror movies like Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes — and that’s deliberate. What do you expect from a movie fan turned writer-director? (It must have tickled Zombie that his movie opened on the 116th birthday of iconic horror director James Whale.) The visual departure from Corpses is a bit jarring if you take the two films together, and the differences don’t end there.
Zombie has streamlined his story and ignored aspects of the original that have no relevance to the events presented here. The entire story line involving S. Quentin Quale/Dr. Satan (Walter Phelan) has vanished (possibly as fodder for a hinted-at third film). And the somewhat grandiose claim of 1,000 corpses (I never counted them) has been reduced to news reports of a more economical “over 75 bodies.”
Even so, Rejects picks up more or less logically from its predecessor, with the police raiding the Firefly compound in a decidedly effective sequence that pits the bizarrely armor-clad Firefly family in a shoot-out with the cops, wherein Mother Firefly (Police Academy veteran Leslie Easterbrook taking over for Karen Black) is captured and everyone but Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) appear to be killed. Otis and Baby take it on the lam — pausing to contact Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and strongly suggest that it would be in his own best interest to follow their example — with Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe, City by the Sea) in hot pursuit. Wydell has his own agenda here, since his brother, Lt. George Wydell (Tom Towles), was gleefully offed by Mother Firefly in the original film.
What follows is essentially a chase/revenge story with stopovers for random bits of sadistic violence from the Firefly gang, which turns around and becomes sadistic violence inflicted on the Firefly gang. It mostly works on a visceral level, and a lot of it works on a sick-humor level, thanks largely to the great Sid Haig, who walks off with every scene he’s in. (One person I know has yet to stop repeating Haig’s dialogue from the scene where he torments a small boy on the topic of “Don’t you think clowns are f***ing funny?”)
Haig’s role in the original was more tangential. Here he’s more central to the film, and that’s probably its strongest point — though the performances of Bill Moseley, William Forsythe, Leslie Easterbrook (making Karen Black look actually restrained) and the great horror-exploitation icon Ken Foree are not to be overlooked. (Foree is joined by other such horror-exploitation figures as Michael Berryman, P.J. Soles, Ginger Lynn Allen, etc., in lesser capacities.) The only clinker is the same one that threw off Corpses — Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, whose backside often figures prominently in the frame (we knew he didn’t marry her for her acting). Shrill and unconvincing, she’s more annoying than effective, and has zero sense of comic timing.
In some ways, the new film seems a little dumbed-down from Corpses. The classic horror clips that added to the first movie are only represented here by a quick flash of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. Worse, the quirky use of character names taken from Marx Brothers movies that was a nice touch in Corpses is here spelled out in tedious detail in a scene that’s pointless to film fans and not nearly as funny as it wants to be.
But the movie is still a breath of nicely nasty air in a genre that has been pretty toothless of late. And love it or hate, The Devil’s Rejects is anything but toothless. Hell, it even made me nearly like the song “Free Bird,” and that’s quite an accomplishment. Rated R for sadistic violence, strong sexual content, language and drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke