A cleansing of the wicked: The Devil’s Rejects

The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

It is hard to believe that this great sequel was made by the same man responsible for the atrocious first movie, which is a surprising improvement

The Devil's Rejects

Written and directed by Rob Zombie. Starring Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Ken Foree, Matthew McGrory, Leslie Easterbrook, Dave Sheridan, Lew Temple, Danny Trejo and Michael Berryman.

Here is a curious thing to observe. When you watch The Devil’s Rejects, follow-up to Rob Zombie’s atrocious House of 1000 Corpses (2003), it is hard to believe that it was made by the same man responsible for that movie (whose gore fest was only repellent and no fun). And when you stop to consider that he came up with this sequel only two years after that huge load of crap, it makes it even more surprising and exemplary, as though Zombie had finally seen the light and figured out super fast what makes a horror movie tick – and why his first one so disastrous in the first place. Points for the guy, he did see the light.

Let’s first consider the plot, which is a thousand times superior to House of 1000 Corpses in many more ways than one. Right in the first scene, we learn from a creepy, descriptive text on the screen – which, of course, brings to mind the opening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – that the film takes place on May 18, 1978, when Sheriff John Quincey Wydell (William Forsythe, badass) and local authorities led a “search and destroy” mission on the decaying farmhouse of the white trash Firefly family for more than 75 murders, where they found diaries and scrapbooks detailing their gruesome crimes. The family became known as “The Devil’s Rejects”, an awesome, very colorful name.

Then the movie kicks off with a woman being dragged naked through the woods by a very large hooded man who shows us his scarred, burnt face – the guy we knew in the first movie as Tiny Firefly. A pig head hangs over the entrance to the infamous farmhouse, through which the police come in, armed to their teeth. That’s when we witness in a very well-conducted and well-edited scene the S&D mission to take down the murderous family – or what, according to the Sheriff, “the Lord would refer to as a cleansing of the wicked.” It is an excellent beginning, with a hilarious dialogue, a sign that Zombie did his homework and is now apparently a superb filmmaker.

The whole scene is directed like a spectacular overture in a classic Sam Peckinpah Western, including freeze-frames and a greenish cinematography inside the house that looks gorgeous with the dust falling in slow motion, until we are hit by credits and music that have ’70s written all over them. Epic stuff. Even the TV news archive looks creepy, telling us about parts in a refrigerator and decomposed bodies found in the basement of the house.

From then on, the narrative splits into three sub-plots: one that follows Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie, who looks a lot like Elizabeth Shue, by the way), on the run and making a group of musicians hostage in a run-down motel; another one that sees Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, always hilarious) on his way to meet them; and finally Wydell trying to force Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, a step down from Karen Black, unfortunately) to tell him where he can find the runaways so that he can avenge the brutal torture and murder of his brother in their hands.

Making use of a delicious dark sense of humor even in the most gruesome situations, Zombie fills The Devil’s Rejects with welcome references, like Groucho Marx and the presence of horror icon Michael Berryman of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and everything seems like it could have been made by Quentin Tarantino – yes, this is how good everything looks, from the elaborate camera movements to the stylish editing that also slides the frames out to the sides, to the flawless digital effects used to create gore in scenes of objects coming in direct contact with the actors’ skin. And while the scene involving a film critic may seem unnecessary in its conception, Wydell’s reaction to a commentary about Elvis’s death is so funny in its absurdity that it works better than anyone could think. The same can be said about an incredible moment in which two characters discuss the logistics of how to obtain sexual pleasure from… chickens.

But still, it is in its message and purpose that Zombie actually stands out. There is a specific dream scene that couldn’t be more meaningful as it makes us understand – hell, even root for – Wydell as he sets out to enforce the “wrath of the Lord” upon these Devil’s Rejects, in a fabulous inversion of the roles of victims and executioners. It is almost impossible not to rejoice in his obvious psychopathy as he uses his twisted sense of divine justice to obtain revenge against this family of unexpected anti-heroes – and I found myself surprised (and not at all ashamed, to be honest) to wish to see them die the most painful death imaginable after all the horrific things we witnessed them do in both movies. It is not any director who can pull something like this off without seeming nihilistic and despicable (Eli Roth, I’m looking at you).

Finding a way to subvert any possible expectations by refusing to end it like an episode of The X-Files would – which is where it seems to be going for a shocking moment –, Zombie surprises us until the very last scene, which should provoke a gamut of feelings in us and couldn’t be a better conclusion. And for that reason, I must say he really made me reconsider my opinion about him. Mr. Zombie, your movie is awesome.

June 26, 2016

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The Devil's Rejects (2005)
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