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devils rejects

What does it actually mean to “like” a film? On the basest level, of course, it’s a pretty self-explanatory sentiment: if you “like” something, that means you derived some measure of pleasure from it, either on an aesthetic level (“My, what a pretty film!”) or a more primal one (“What a badass movie!”). Maybe it got to you on an intellectual level (“Now THAT was a smart film!”) or because it was completely successful at its goal (“That was the funniest comedy I’ve seen in years!”). For most of us, liking a film comes with the implicit notion that we’d be more than happy to revisit the film at a moment’s notice: maybe we don’t want to see it four times in the same day (or even the same month) but we certainly shouldn’t balk at wanting to rewatch it at some point in time.

There’s a parallel to “liking” a film, however, sort of a shadowy doppelgänger that stands just outside our field of vision, creeping into our comfort zone inch by relentless inch until it’s managed to assume the pole position: “respecting” a film. From my perspective, “liking” and “respecting” films are two very different things: I might “respect” what Pier Palo Pasolini was trying to do with Salo (1975) but saying that I “like” the film would certainly put me in the same great company as Ted Bundy and Ed Gein. Ditto Deodato’s unforgettable Cannibal Holocaust (1980): I “respect” the ever-loving shit out of what Deodato accomplished but “like” it? Not on your life, buddy.

This notion of “respecting” versus “liking” a film brings us round to our current subject, The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Rob Zombie’s sequel to his feature debut, House of 1000 Corpses (2003). When House of 1000 Corpses first came out, I was a huge fan, a sentiment which only recently waned once I’d had a chance to critically examine the film after not seeing it for several years: this time around, I found the movie to be visually interesting, if a little trite and too-indebted to Hooper’s original pair of Chainsaw Massacres. The Devil’s Rejects, however, was always a different story: more realistic, visceral and, ultimately, disturbing than Zombie’s cotton-candy-colored original, The Devil’s Rejects never really sat right with me after my first theatrical viewing. I found myself reacting to it in some pretty definitive ways, don’t get me wrong, but it was always a little hard to figure out whether I actually, you know…”liked” the film. After re-screening the film recently, it’s become a lot easier to categorize my feelings: I still don’t “like” Zombie’s sophomore film but I’ve gotta respect it, nonetheless, as being a pretty streamlined statement of purpose, an adrenalized, if ultimately unpleasant, examination of how the love of one’s family can produce some pretty terrible outcomes.

Beginning several months after the events of the first film, The Devil’s Rejects kicks off with a massive police assault on the Firefly’s homestead that makes the Waco raid look like duck-duck-goose. Sheriff John Wydell (William Forsythe), brother of the first film’s slain George Wydell (Tom Towles), has come down on the Fireflys with as much righteous fury as an army of angels with flaming swords: in the ensuing chaos, Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) manage to shot their way out, while Mama Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, taking over for the first film’s Karen Black) is captured by Wydell and his lawmen. Meeting up with Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), who’s revealed to be Baby’s biological father, the trio decide to hit the open road and head for the (supposed) safety of the Old West-themed whorehouse/town run by Spaulding’s larcenous brother, Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree).

Sheriff Wydell, however, isn’t quite your average lawman. Rather, he’s a bloodthirsty sociopath who resembles the Fireflys in deeds, if not necessarily philosophy. He’s determined to capture the Fireflys, not because he wants to bring them to justice for all of their crimes but because he wants to personally torture them to death for killing his brother. As Wydell gets closer to Otis, Baby and the others, whatever humanity he once had continues to slip away like water through a sieve. In time, it will be all but impossible to tell the two sides apart and woe to any poor, unsuspecting “civilian” who happens to come between them.

From the jump, The Devil’s Rejects is a noticeably grittier, grimmier affair, both in look and content. Whereas House of 1000 Corpses operated along the lines of a particularly demented fever dream (or, quite possibly, a feature-length metal video), The Devil’s Rejects is much more reality-based: there’s nary a Dr. Satan, zombie or fish-boy to be found in the entire film. The more supernatural-based horror of the first film has been entirely replaced by physical assaults which tend to emphasis sexual violence and rape, elements which were certainly hinted at in the first film but rarely executed with as much zeal as found here. In particular, the scene where Otis and Baby torment the family of traveling musicians at an isolated motel is just about as unpleasant and revolting as similar scenes found in films like Death Wish (1974) or I Spit On Your Grave (1978), albeit markedly less explicit (visually, at least).

For the most part, Zombie’s modus operandi here seems to be fashioning his own version of Oliver Stone’s polarizing Natural Born Killers (1994), the ’90s-era phenomena that sought to make serial killers sexy, fashionable and chic. To that end, we get lots (and lots and lots) of scenes and shots that seek to mythologize the Fireflys to nearly ridiculous proportions, not the least of which is the entire opening sequence. After fashioning makeshift armor, Otis and Baby emerge from their home, guns blazing, to the tune of the Allman Brothers’ classic outside anthem “Midnight Rider.” Via a series of shuddering freeze frames, the Fireflys make quite the dramatic escape, hitting the road like a brother/sister version of Bonnie and Clyde. The problem, of course, only comes in once you really think about the difference between the Fireflys (and Micky and Mallory, for that matter) and Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie and Clyde were a pair of folk-hero bank robbers who captured the imagination of the era thanks to their propensity for telling the “man” to shove it up his backdoor. The Fireflys, by contrast, are nearly subhuman monsters who kidnap, torture, mutilate and murder scads of innocent victims. While it’s certainly possible to associate oneself with the meaning behind Bonnie and Clyde’s actions, if not necessarily the actions, themselves, how, then, does one go about associating with the Fireflys? Is the family supposed to appeal to the (hopefully) minuscule audience of spree killers in the world who fancy carving things into cheerleaders? People who enjoy wearing others’ faces like masks?

To stack the deck even further, Zombie turns the character of Sheriff Wydell into such a rampaging sociopath that it becomes even murkier as to who we’re supposed to throw our support behind. Sure, the Fireflys like to rape and murder but they’re the bad guys: when Wydell gets down with a little good, ol’ fashioned nail-gun torture, he’s supposed to be wearing the white hat. A case can, of course, be made that Wydell’s retribution is only fitting, considering how horrible the Fireflys are: how, then, are we to react when Zombie takes every opportunity to frame the Fireflys as romantic heroes? I mean, fer Pete’s sake, they get riddled full of more holes than Sonny Corleone at the film’s climax, in slo-mo, to the tune of Skynyrd’s “Freebird”…if that doesn’t say “romantic hero,” I don’t know what does.

And here, of course, is where the other shoe thuds to the floor: despite my intense misgivings over the actual content/message of The Devil’s Rejects, the film is head and shoulders over Zombie’s debut in almost every way. For one thing, it looks great: grainy, gritty and sun-bleached like an old grindhouse curio. The cast is impeccable, although Forsythe consumes so much scenery that he becomes a veritable black hole by the conclusion: along with the ever-reliable Moseley and Haig (the best we can say about Sheri Zombie is that she’s much less shrill here than in House of 1000 Corpses), we also get great performances from genre vets like Ken Foree (Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), Geoffrey Lewis, Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes 1 and 2), P.J. Soles (Carpenter’s Halloween)  and Mary Woronov.

The late-’70s period-setting of The Devil’s Rejects is actually much stronger than in the original film: this looks like the ’70s, through and through. The soundtrack is also much more effective, consisting exclusively of ’70s-era soft-rock classic, unlike the metal tunes which cropped up in House of 1000 Corpses. At times, the film has a brittle, desolate feel that manages to seem completely authentic, unlike the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach of the debut. Oftentimes, the film feels more akin to a particularly mean-spirited spaghetti Western than to a horror film, although there’s always another graphic murder waiting just around the corner.

Ultimately, all of this adds up to a film that I end up “respecting” more than actually “liking.” Truth be told, there’s not much about The Devil’s Rejects that actually gives me pleasure, although I will admit some sick kicks every time Brian Posehn’s Jimmy gets his head shot off (nothing against Posehn, mind you, but it’s a pretty bravura moment, nonetheless). That being said, I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t point how well-made the film is: despite its unpleasant subject matter, this is absolutely one lean, mean, sonofabitch. As a fan of film craft, I can’t deny the power of Zombie’s images or the measurable improvement from his first to second film. That being said, I also can’t get behind the wholesale mythologizing of a pretty reprehensible group of people, which also ended up being my big complaint about Stone’s film. In the end, The Devil’s Rejects is proof of the old adage that “here’s something you’re really gonna love, if this is the kind of thing you like.” I didn’t like it but I respected it and that’s gotta count for something.