Originally written in July 2005.
As I write this, it has been about a week since I saw The Devil’s Rejects, writer-director Rob Zombie’s follow-up to his 2003 debut House of 1000 Corpses. The thing is, I liked it—quite a bit, actually—and that thought is a little unnerving and nearly as disturbing as the movie itself.
The Devil’s Rejects is a gritty, mean, violent film in which the only truly sympathetic characters meet horrible ends. The words “protagonist” and “antagonist” are irrelevant. People on both sides torture, kill and mutilate. The only difference is some do it with a smile and one does it out of a bloodlust fueled by vengeance.
The audience will be horror fans, but Zombie has doused the film with a heavy dose of Western iconography and the sensibilities of late 1960s/1970s crime sagas. It’s more Wild Bunch than Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Bonnie and Clyde if Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were members of the Manson family. So different is it from House of 1000 Corpses that it feels wrong to refer to it as a sequel. It features characters from the earlier film and takes place at some point following its events, but those are the only connections. The Devil’s Rejects stands on its own as a forceful cinematic statement. With just his second feature, Zombie has arrived as a filmmaker, blending styles and genres with more skill than anyone this side of Quentin Tarantino.
Zombie starts with a literal bang in the form of an Old West-style shootout at the home of the deranged psychopaths known as the Firefly clan. Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), seeking to avenge his brother’s murder, leads the raid. Cops and Fireflys die. Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) escape, but Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Karen Black, the actress she replaces in the role) is taken into police custody.
Then the hunt begins. Wydell, believing himself to be an instrument of God, rapidly descends into madness. It is unclear who, if anyone, we should root for. The sheriff hires bounty hunters known as the “Unholy Two” (pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, Danny Trejo) and shows no mercy when interrogating Mother Firefly.
Otis and Baby hook up with Baby’s father, the dirty old clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). They hole up at a nearby motel, take hostages and keep on killing. The media dubs them the “Devil’s Rejects.”
Corpses played like a greatest hits of horror movies. With its music video-style editing, cockeyed camera angles, kaleidoscope of colors and Dr. Satan legend, it was often campy and surreal. Zombie has taken the opposite path for The Devil’s Rejects. His aim is realism, which he achieves with a grainy Super 16 filmstock and a subdued, sun-drenched color palette. He uses a stylized approach which in many cases is designed to appear as if it is not stylized. Much of the action is set in broad daylight rather than the dark and stormy nights typical of horror movies. He shoots almost exclusively with a handheld camera, giving the footage an on-the-run feel. Occasionally, he does call attention to style in obvious nods to his influences: the freeze frames of Sam Peckinpah, the intense close-ups of Sergio Leone.
The returning cast members tone down their characterizations to match their director’s altered approach. As Otis, the cruelest of the cruel, Moseley has tanned a bit, packed on some muscle and added a bushy gray beard. He’s less a figure from a nightmare and more intimidating physically. He also has dialed down his performance with stoic line readings. With his calm, matter-of-fact delivery, the line “I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil’s work” couldn’t be more chilling. Moseley’s performance is one of the film’s highlights.
The other actors follow suit. Mrs. Zombie has left Baby’s high-pitched, Evil Dead-inspired cackle back at the House. Haig, who played Spaulding mostly for laughs the first time out, is far more menacing after he loses the clown makeup early on.
Forsythe, the most significant new player, goes a little over the top in his portrayal. Wydell’s homicidal rage takes hold too quickly. But it is necessary for the killers’ transition to antiheroes and, ultimately, victims.
Zombie fills many of the supporting roles with faces familiar to genre fans, including Ken Foree (the original Dawn of the Dead), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), P.J. Soles (Carrie, Halloween) and Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter).
The connection to the past makes The Devil’s Rejects unique. Most horror movies bring to mind pictures that came before but usually with recycled scares and storylines. Zombie recalls a time when Hollywood was not afraid to be daring and dangerous, and puts his own spin on it. The Devil’s Rejects is not for the faint of heart (I cannot stress that enough), but for those who can stomach the violence, it is destined to become a classic.
(Rated R for sadistic violence, strong sexual content, language and drug use. 109 minutes.)