Twelve years on, is Rob Zombie’s sequel still his greatest work?
Who made it?: Rob Zombie (Writer / Director / Producer), Mike Elliott, Andy Gould, Marco Mehlitz, Michael Ohoven (Producers), Lions Gate.
Who’s in it?: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sherri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Ken Foree, Matthew McGory, Leslie Easterbrook, Danny Trejo.
Tag-line: “Hell doesn’t want them. Hell doesn’t need them. Hell doesn’t love them. This world rejects them.”
IMDb rating: 6.9/10.
Few modern filmmakers have come close to matching the grimy allure of a grindhouse classic, but Rob Zombie pulled off the task with alarming panache in The Devil’s Rejects – a perfect title for the gallery of grotesque characters found within. While it never manages to be as good as any of the films that inspired it, there’s a power and technical competence to Rejects which suggested, back in 2005, that Zombie could become a gifted craftsman. In a decade that saw Found Footage prosper and “torture porn” reign supreme, there was something reassuringly old-fashioned about this demented, Gonzo gore flick, and it remains Zombie’s best work.
To its credit, Rejects looks and sounds like it was discovered in a vault of 70s filth. It bottles up the atmosphere of neo-horror that defined the period, with scenes of protracted violence and knife-edge tension diffused by gallows humour. It’s a hollow homage on many levels, but no modern alternative has recaptured that grit quite so intuitively. Filmed on grungy 16mm, the stock of choice for many budding auteurs back in the day, and full of hardcore violence, The Devil’s Rejects manages to transcend the thinness of its influences to become a genuine cult delight. The success of the film is all the more surprising given the failings of its predecessor, House of 1000 Corpses (2003), which has attained a following despite being rubbish. Calling Rejects a sequel to Corpses is kind of missing the point. Both films feature the same characters, but tonally and stylistically, they’re as different as night and day.
Zombie’s debut failed to impress me. His knowledge of the genre was congratulatory, and I was amused by the obvious nods to those old favourites, but the film didn’t work as a whole. It was incoherent, photographed in a schizophrenic fashion, and clearly the product of a musician (most of the film felt like an extended advert for the soundtrack rather than a stab at entertainment). Yet, it was enlivened by moments of ingenuity. The macabre humour was wonderful and the murderous family Zombie created was filled with fascinating personalities. The Firefly clan – Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie), Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley), and Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, who replaces Karen Black) – were both fun and frightening in equal measure.
Clearly recognising their potential, Zombie decided to let the gang loose for their own adventure, dispensing with the cardboard cut-out teens that populated Corpses. Over the course of The Devil’s Rejects, these ruthless killers are elevated to the rank of folk heroes, giving Daily Mail readers a fit in the process. Making it a legitimate grindhouse flick, the film was shot on a very tight thirty-day schedule for the small sum of $7 million. One could say that’s a blockbuster budget for a film of its kind, but in today’s monetary terms, that’s really slumming it. Such limited funds forced Zombie to be creative, and the barebones feel only strengthens the old school aesthetic.
As the film opens, the wild and bitter Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) leads a raid on the Firefly house, but the police only manage to capture Mother Firefly – Baby and Otis have fled. They meet up with Spaulding and attempt to keep one step ahead of the authorities. But they might have met their match in Wydell, who is out for revenge after the clan brutally murdered his brother…
Graphic from the get-go, Rejects doesn’t waste any time on pleasantries. The Firefly’s sorely-underused Tiny (the late Matthew McGrory) drags a woman’s naked body through the woods. It’s a quietly effective (and creepy) way to open the film. Phil Parmet’s handheld cinematography doesn’t have any finesse, but that’s largely the point. The washed-out, browning images are all part of the film’s design, and even the editing reflects the era the film apes, with cheesy cross-cutting and wipes. This is all complimented by a sparse musical score, by Zombie and Tyler Bates, which is appropriately moody.
The shock scenes come thick and fast, even taking up some of the opening credits. Zombie uses freeze-frames to bone-chilling effect. Perhaps the first scene to really cool the spine, however, is the one in the motel room, in which Baby and Otis casually torture and kill a Country & Western band who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s an amusing concept on paper, but the sexual overtones make it the most distressing segment in the film. Naturally, it gets a bloody denouement, and unlike the schmoes that bit the dust in Corpses, their deaths have impact. People are shot at point-blank range, beaten, hit by trucks, nailed to chairs, and even attacked with a stapler – all in rather nasty detail. I was very disappointed to hear that most of the blood was achieved in post with digital techniques, rather than 70s methods (mostly due to the limited shooting schedule), but the violence still packs a wallop.
While the film often gets nasty, Zombie does offset the macabre tone with moments of twisted black comedy. The introduction of Spaulding is rather fun, giving us a peek into the psyche of this crazed clown, who has a rather fucked up home life. Wydell’s meeting with a film critic is also priceless, showing that Zombie can poke fun at the material and embrace it at the same time. Thankfully, he has the right cast to walk the fine line between darkness and light. Haig and Moseley carry the film, filling their parts with an authenticity that often unsettles. Moseley even looks a little like Charles Manson here, and the director gives him a few iconoclastic moments to scorch the screen. His “I am the Devil” speech is quite possibly the highlight of Zombie’s entire career.
It’s also a blast spotting the many C-celebrities that fill the film, some of whom are real legends of the genre. Seeing Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) performing together was wonderful, and there’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-them turns from P.J. Soles (Halloween) and Deborah Van Valkenburgh (The Warriors) to add to the films genre credibility. Oh, and Danny Trejo pops up as a low-life killer-for-hire. Because he’s Danny Trejo.
In my opinion, it is Forsythe who walks away with the film. An undervalued actor, he really gets the opportunity to chew the scenery as Wydell. His character is an intriguing creation – a man pushed to insanity following the death of his brother. Deeply religious but clearly unhinged, the audience feels both sympathy and hatred for Wydell before the credits roll. Is taking the law into your own hands a worthy cause? That one question helps to give the film some unexpected subtext… thin, though it is.
In most respects, The Devil’s Rejects is only a “good” film until the conclusion, but it’s the ending that marks it out as a cult favourite. After suffering through Wydell’s torture techniques, the family take to the road, facing their uncertain future. The final scene is like a weird amalgamation of the endings to Thelma and Louise and Bonnie and Clyde – a burst of defiance that concludes the picture in hypnotically bloodthirsty fashion. Zombie’s use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” is so inspired that many of the film’s shortcomings are instantly forgiven. Rough around the edges, but crafted with consummate skill, The Devil’s Rejects is a truly brilliant and highly underrated horror film that Zombie has been completely unable to top. There’s some worth in that.
Bill Moseley’s Oscar moment.
- A scene from the Ed Wood movie Bride of the Monster, with Bela Lugosi, is glimpsed on the TV at one point.
- The character name Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree) was inspired by the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter – where a Hell’s Angel brutally murdered a youth at the Altamont Speedway in California. In the film, Charlie “gives shelter” to the Firefly family.
- Rosario Dawson had a cameo that was cut from the film, since it featured footage of Dr. Satan, a character from Corpses that Zombie chose to leave out. According to him, “it would have been like seeing Chewbacca in Bonnie and Clyde.”
- David Hess (The Last House on the Left) auditioned to play one of the bounty hunters.