A sequel-cum-spin-off of 2003's cult-classic-in-the-making "House of 1000 Corpses
," "The Devil's Rejects" swerves to make a 180-degree turn away from that film's psychedelic funhouse nightmare of horror to something much grittier, pulpier and more realistic in tone. The change is, perhaps, disappointing for a minute or twogone is all of the freaky intercut stock footage and camera tricksand then the story becomes so intensely involving that the viewer stops comparing and accepts the film as its own separate entity. With only his second motion picture, writer-director Rob Zombie cements his place as a new master of the horror genre, a stylish auteur who paints a bravura canvas of blood, guts, terror, and on-target character work, all the while paying an affectionate homage to the low-budget '70s movies ("The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Hills Have Eyes," etc.) he grew up with.
While having previously seen "House of 1000 Corpses
" isn't a necessity, it does give this new incarnation a depth and texture that will be lost upon those unfamiliar with the psychopathic Firefly clan. As "The Devil's Rejects" gets underway, the tight-knit family of serial slashers find their house surrounded by a sea of gunfire from the cops outside. Leading the brigade is Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), who is dead-set on making them pay for the death of his own brother. Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is promptly captured, while siblings Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) narrowly escape. With clown father Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) soon meeting up with them, the trio set out to elude the police hunting for them, leaving a new path of death in their wake.
For aficionados of '70s horror, "The Devil's Rejects" will come as a godsend. Filmed in luscious and grimy 16-millimeter, overflowing with technical conventions of that eraslow-motion, freeze frames, sliding scene transitions, and uncompromisingly brutal violenceand cast from one end to the other with great, all-but-forgotten B-movie actors of the past, the film is, indeed, a treat just for its auspicious vision and scope. For newer audience members not so learned in that decade's underground cinema, the movie plays like a nasty, unapologetic wake-up call against the watered-down PG-13 horror crap they are probably used to having shoved down their throats. "The Devil's Rejects" is mean-spirited, graphic, and bubbling over in ultra-realistic viscera, but it isn't without sociological meritsomething that will no doubt be lost upon those who already know this type of flick isn't their cup of tea.
By taking on the point-of-view of the villains, "The Devil's Rejects" walks a fine line between portraying them as both despicable human beings of the lowest, most demented form, and as human beings who, stripped of their heinous crimes, slowly gain our sympathy. In other words, they are humanized enough here that they become more than just psycho stick figuresthey are, after all, a fairly loving family besidesbut director Rob Zombie does not make amends for who they are and what they have done. We as viewers are supposed to hate them and rally behind Sheriff Wydell's journey toward vengeance, but the eventual villains-turned-victims have been written with such a clear eye that one cannot help but acknowledge them by the end as people who have taken an awful path in life rather than just irredeemable monsters.
The performances are mesmerizing, right down to the smallest part, and the plethora of emerging actors from years' past fit in effortlessly without a hint of gimmickry. When Zombie mentions in interviews that he cast these thespians for their talent and not for the sole novelty of it, one cannot possibly watch the film and not believe what he is saying is the truth. From Ken Foree (1979's "Dawn of the Dead") to Geoffrey Lewis (1974's "Macon County Line") to Priscilla Barnes (TV's "Three's Company") to Michael Berryman (1977's "The Hills Have Eyes") to P.J. Soles (1978's "Halloween
") to E.G. Daily (1985's "Pee Wee's Big Adventure") to Mary Woronov (1982's "Eating Raoul"), the actors are exciting, eclectic, and too often sorely overlooked. Their performances, meanwhile, are superb, with Lewis and Barnes particularly affecting in emotionally demanding roles as an ill-fated married couple traveling on the road with their four-person band.
The central cast members are in just as fine a form, slipping back into their previous roles as if they never left. Sid Haig (2004's "Kill Bill: Vol. 2
"), his part welcomingly increased, is brilliant, plain and simple, as the clown-faced Captain Spaulding, the tell-it-like-it-is patriarch of the Firefly family who is equal parts hilarious and frightening. Interesting, too, how he seems to stand back most of the time and let his kids do the dirty work, as if slaughtering innocents is nothing more than a chosen career choice. As bickering brother and sister Otis and Baby, Bill Moseley (1986's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2") and Zombie's real-life wife Sheri Moon Zombie (2005's "Toolbox Murders") get a chance to really strut their comedic and dramatic stuff. Sheri Moon Zombie is especially charismatic, her boisterous laugh and cutesy-pie voice an effectively disturbing counterpoint to the hideous things she does onscreen. And, finally, Leslie Easterbrook (1984's "Police Academy") takes over for party-pooper Karen Black as Mother Firefly and is so dementedly plausible that she makes the role completely her own.
That "The Devil's Rejects" isn't so much a straightforward horror movie like "House of 1000 Corpses
" as it is a road drama involving merciless serial killers doesn't so much as make it a lesser film (although my personal preference still lies with the atmospheric original) as it does simply a very different one. To his credit, Zombie is more assured this time with his expertly crafted script, and knows as well as anyone how to set up sequences of unrelenting dread and no-holds-barred authenticity. The climax, in which Sheriff Wydell transfers the villains' power into his own hands and, in essence, turns them into the hunted, is a fresh, thought-provoking idea that puts a spin on the typical stalk-and-slash scene by making the viewer grapple with where their rooting interest lies.
What Zombie does with the "Thelma & Louise"-inspired denouement, brilliantly scored and edited to Lynyrd Skynyrd's classic "Free Bird," is essential to the natural progression of these characters' inevitable fates. If you stop watching before the end credits (and an uncountable amount of impatient theatergoers walked out during my screening believing it was over when there was still a few minutes to go), you miss almost everything, because what happens in these final moments is necessary. In "The Devil's Rejects," the antagonists may subtly be treated as the protagonists, but it makes no differenceas it should be, good is ultimately bound to prevail over evil when the road comes to an end, at least in the movies. It's a reassuring notion and the only moment of release in a motion picture drenched with glimpses of human nature at its most hopeless and vulnerable.