Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

Rob Zombie’s peers and fans heralded him as an exciting new filmmaking talent media labelled along with Neil Marshall, Alex Aja, Eli Roth etc as one of the splat pack - a new generation of directors dedicating themselves to contributing solely to the genre they so passionately love. Now many critics and horror aficionados alike universally despise poor old Zombie.

The musician turned film director’s first effort ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ (2003) made as homage to 70’s exploitation cinema was an appallingly executed uneven mess coming across more like a feature length version of one of his self-directed rock videos. It is an infuriatingly bad movie. However, I could forgive him for that, as it was his directorial debut after all. The huge abundance of hate though would not start to set in until his misconceived approach to remaking John Carpenter’s Halloween. This was a mythology that Rob Zombie’s style was just so not suited to and just conveyed how far he has to go as a filmmaker to even be just worthy of washing Carpenter’s feet. More about this in a later article.

Between ‘Corpses’ and mistreating the concept of the much loved horror icon of Michael Myers he did show a great deal of promise and I will also go as far as to say just sublime flashes of brilliance. His follow-up to ‘House of 1000 Corpses’ the pseudo like sequel ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ is a pastiche of horror, western and the road movie. It is an extremely nasty hardcore experience in sadistic violence. It is completely different in style to its predecessor and is more or less a stand-alone film. It takes three of the previous supporting characters of the antagonists, and turns them from cartoonish horror villains into just three of the most horrible, repulsive and vilest psychopathic leads to dirty the silver screen. The redneck white trash Firefly family made up of Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley), Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and his daughter Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, wife of Rob) are the sickest sub-humans but Zombie flips the script from the 1-hour mark.

From the opening action sequence, in an immensely energetic Sam Peckinpah influenced shootout with a mixture of slow motion and frantic editing in a standoff between the Texas police force and the Firefly family in their rundown farmhouse of corpses it is clear from this outset who the heroes and villains are. Leading the law enforcement is Sheriff John Quincy Wydell (William Forsythe) with a personal grudge against the mass murdering family for killing his brother, which is the other connection to ‘Corpses’. It is obvious to us the audience that he is the protagonist who is going to capture and put down this vermin. More so, we really want to see this happen after witnessing later scenes. While Otis and Baby are hiding out in a motel they not only kill four people of a traveling country band and cause the death of the fifth but they also humiliate them before their brutal demises by making them perform degrading acts and verbally abusing them suffering severe psychological torture. Rob Zombie is deliberately depicting these human monsters as the most scummy evil pieces of shit horrifying us and setting them up for us to feel just one single emotion for them - hatred with a passion.

Getting to that 1-hour mark and the line begins to blur in the third act. After their gruesome crimes in the motel as they are in the country band’s stolen van driving to a hideout in a whorehouse belonging to their pimp friend Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree) a humorous argument erupts between the three “Devil’s Rejects” about stopping off for ice cream. Captain Spaulding:You know? I think I'm gonna get me some tutti fucking fruity.” This shows us them to be a likable trio of a dysfunctional family and this portrayal of the psychos remains the same for the rest of the movie. It is a very different contrast to how they are depicted in the first two acts it is an absolute opposite side of the spectrum. Bizarrely while in the company of strangers, they are animals taking pleasure in the torture and murder of outsiders but in each other’s company, there is nothing but warmth and love. 

Juxtaposed to this is the following scene in which shows us the change in our once hero tough guy’s portrayal as a dream sequence ushers in the beginning of Sheriff John Quincy Wydell’s decent into madness. In this dream we see Wydell driving into the Firefly’s farmhouse and searching inside he is confronted by his murdered brother and fellow police officer George Wydell (Tom Towles) as his spirit residing in the house of corpses -

George Wydell: This here’s my fate; I cannot rest until this whole thing is over. I’m asking you brother, Kill ‘em, John, end this shit now.”  

Sheriff Wydell: (stuttering) “I'm, I'm walking the line on this brother. I'm... I'm walking line.”

George Wydell: (sarcastically) “Well, mother pin a rose on me that is so great!” (serious tone) ”I want these motherfuckers dead! Kill 'em!” 

As I said before the line begins to blur “I’m walking the line” so says John but he crosses well over that line when his psychotic state escalates and completely neglects his moral duties as a law enforcement officer and as a human being. He murders the captured Mother Firefly from the blistering opening set-piece in a disturbingly intense scene and he resorts to extreme measures when he finally captures the remaining three Fireflys doing unto them what they have done to others in one hell of a climatic confrontation. However, by this time all four characters have done a complete U-turn and we the audience do not know who to root and sympathize for leaving everything up to our instinctual emotions and forced we have to question our own morality - who do we think deserves what?

The final scene explicitly brings this to the forefront ever more with Zombie’s carefully chosen southern rock soundtrack for the movie. Not only does his choices fit in with all things hillbilly here but with the brilliant Lynyrd Skynyrd song ‘Freebird’ playing prominently throughout the climax makes for an oddly poignant going out in a blaze of glory. This is in a final showdown with a Texas police roadblock as the Fireflys speed towards them with guns blazing. Supplementing this is flashback shots of the three of them in home video like footage of happy family times as they look into the camera smiling and showing much affection for each other. The director is again forcing us to feel one single emotion for these characters except the completely contradictive one this time of sympathy. This makes us feel very uncomfortable with ourselves.

Forsythe is solidly mean spirited, Moon Zombie is capable for once here and Moseley is compellingly convincing in a blazing performance as Otis. Before he beats a man to death: “I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil's work”. Haig is very charismatic playing one of the best insane clowns ever. To a small boy named Jamie -  

Captain Spaulding:What's the matter, kid? Don't ya like clowns?”

Jamie: (shakes his head crying) “No...”

Captain Spaulding: “Why? Don't we make ya laugh? Aren't we fuckin' funny? You best come up with an answer, cos I'm gonna come back here and check on you and your momma and if you ain't got a reason why you hate clowns, I'm gonna kill your whole fucking family.”

Jamie: (continues crying) “Please...

Captain Spaulding: “All right, now get your fuckin' ass out the car. Go on. Yayayayayaya!” (Spaulding starts laughing).

While a lot of the dialogue is memorable and enjoyably quotable stuff a fair amount of it is also cringe making bad with Rob Zombie slipping again into Tarantino rip off mode and it all seems very forced and out of place. One example is a terrible scene between Charlie (Forre), Clevon (fellow genre vet Michael Berryman) and one of Charlie’s prostitutes Candy. This involves a ludicrous conversion about attracting a higher clientele with a Star Wars theme of her dressing up as Princess Leia. This scene along with others with groan inducing writing makes my eyes roll along with letting out a huge heavy sigh.

The only time Zombie’s southern white trash shenanigans have really worked for me ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ while not overall a great film it is certainly a dam good one that borders on greatness. There is just no banana at the end due to some iffy writing in places. So far, in his filmmaking career Rob Zombie has been a terrible writer and a mediocre director three out of four times. With this second effort of the four he was a mediocre writer (some fine narrative writing but the script is let down to an extent by some truly cack handed dialogue) and a good director. Whether or not he can recover from his mishandling of the Halloween franchise remains to be seen but if he can consistently churn out more good work like this then it might just make it a faded distant memory a decade down the line.

*** out of ****

Dave J. Wilson 

©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.

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