Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hey folks. Remember when I said I wasn't going to update until the New Year? Still kinda true, but just so nobody gets too bored and swears never to come back, here's something from the Odds 'n' Sods pile. This is a review I whipped up for The Devil's Rejects as a writing sample in applying for a film-writing gig a couple of years back. I didn't get the job, but that doesn't mean the review can't serve some purpose. So here it is, plugging a hole until I can find the time to write something new. Hope ya like it.


Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects" is a mean and nasty film about mean and nasty people. Stuffed to bursting with violence and immorality, it is a seriously unpleasant movie. Nobody should ever need to see it. Needs and wants, however, can be mutually exclusive. And for those with the temerity required to want to see "The Devil's Rejects", it offers a bracing cinematic experience that is seldom seen in these times.

"Rejects" is a sequel of sorts to Zombie's 2003 film "House of 1000 Corpses". It's a sequel in that it involves members of the deranged Firefly family introduced in "House" -- vicious killer Otis (Bill Moseley), deranged sexpot Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie), grotesque huckster clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and acid-tongued whore/matriarch Mother (Karen Black in "House", Lesley Easterbrook in "Rejects") -- but the similarities do not extend very far beyond that. "House", for all its unappreciated merits, worked at one level removed from the audience. Written and directed in 2000, it was still very much a product of the Age of Irony: The grue and violence were there, but the tone was skewed just far enough away from the scary and towards the sleazy that the film felt like a creepy-cool carnival ride through Zombie's prodigious id. The follow-up, though, skips the camp and takes its premise at face value, thus guaranteeing that those looking for another good time at the pictures are going to be left unsure how to respond.

On its face, the film seems simple enough. The plot, such as it is, follows the adventures of Otis, Baby and Spaulding as they slaughter their way across Texas and elude the grasp of revenge-minded Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), whose brother fell victim to the Firefly clan in "House". It certainly sounds like the set-up for some grisly-minded fun, and to a certain extent it is. More often than not, though, the horrific acts shown on-screen play out as just that -- horrific acts. Zombie thankfully hasn't entirely left behind his black sense of humor (note, for example, the perfectly sick timing involved in the film's centerpiece 'road kill' gag), but his intentions are elsewhere. He wraps his big arms around the audience like snakes and refuses to let up until the prom's last dance (scored, naturally, to "Freebird"). Quite simply, this film is meant to hurt you.

So the question remains: Why would anyone want to see this film? Despite its unpleasantness, the fact remains that "The Devil's Rejects" is a strong, effective and uncommonly well-made genre effort. Zombie's direction has improved in the time between "House" and this -- where the previous film often called to mind "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" re-envisioned as a rock video, "Rejects" takes the rough-n-grainy aesthetic found in many low-rent '70s B-movies and weds it to the expansive big-empty road movie stylings of "Badlands" and "Vanishing Point" (not to mention more recent efforts like "Gerry" and "Twentynine Palms"). The result is a film that feels both agoraphobic and claustrophobic in the same breath: No matter how big the landscape is, it's not big enough to escape to freedom.

The actors, too, get to stretch a bit. The ghoulish caricatures from "House" get rounded out a bit and allowed to be seen in quieter moments as well as nasty ones. There is in particular a dialogue about ice cream that turns out to be a funny and brilliant bit of humanizing, as well as the marking of the sea change in the film's true intent. For while Zombie goes a long way to keep from empathizing with the titular psychos (that, after all, is what the entire motel sequence is for -- so that we don't forget that these people are horrible), his ultimate point is that evil is relative. As the film progresses, the actions of the 'good' character (Sheriff Wydell) become indiscernible from those of the 'bad' characters (the Fireflys). Traditional morality becomes useless in the face of these characters. All we're left with is the idea that there are ordinary people and there are terrible people, and the terrible will do what they will and the ordinary will sit back, powerless, and wonder what the hell can be done. (As Sheriff Wydell says during the climax, "We are working on a level that most people will never see!") Zombie gives us a world with no heroes, only villains, and while that may be nihilistic there can be a certain power in confronting nihilism and walking away: You've stared into the abyss of human darkness and walked away stronger for it. And if that's not enough to get you to run out and buy a ticket, know that the film does also include a wicked strain of sick-minded gallows humor (there's a scene, for instance, where a minor character explains in great detail the particulars of fucking a chicken, and Captain Spaulding's introduction is a great linking of sex-n-violence). Plus, it has a fantastic credit sequence (the Allman Brothers never sounded so threatening), an unexpectedly powerful climax and ample evidence that Rob Zombie is totally enamored of Sherri Moon Zombie's unclothed ass. (As you might surmise from the surnames, the two are married off-screen.) For most, "The Devil's Rejects" is unwatchable; for those of a certain constitution, it's unmissable.


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