10/28/09

Halloween Top 13: The Sequel #4- The Devil's Rejects (2005)

Rejection. Rob Zombie knows plenty about that after the pair of debacles that were his Halloween films. Of the current horror film directors, there’s no one (except perhaps Eli Roth) that splits genre fans more down the middle. Some people love Rob’s white trash take on the genre, and some people think he’s the worst kind of hack. For my money, he started his film career strong with House of 1000 Corpses, a film that was full of the love and mythology of ‘70’s grind house cinema. It was like Tarantino by way of the trailer park. When 1000 Corpses turned out to be successful, the studio wanted a sequel, but rather than directly extend the story of the first film, Zombie turned the serial killer genre on its ear and made the killers the heroes of his next tale, The Devil’s Rejects.

The film opens with Texas Sheriff John Quincy Wydell (William Forsythe) leading a raid on the Firefly family home to arrest them for the commission of over 75 murders. A massive shootout occurs leading to Mama Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) being arrested, Tiny (Matthew McGrory) going missing, Rufus (Tyler Mane) getting killed, and Otis (Bill Mosley) and Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie) going on the run. Otis and Baby make their way to a hotel where they terrorize members of a country band while waiting on Baby’s dad, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) to come help them. Meanwhile, Mother Firefly proceeds to break down Sheriff Wydell by taunting him with details of how they killed his brother. With the help of a pair of bounty hunters called “The Unholy Two”, Wydell tracks down Spaulding, Baby, and Otis at the Charlie Altamont’s (Ken Foree) whorehouse. Taking them into custody, the unhinged lawman seeks to exact retribution on the Fireflys and put an end to their reign of terror.

Looking like the long lost bastard child of every exploitation film ever released on 42nd Street, The Devil’s Rejects took the world that Zombie set up in House of 1000 Corpses and brought it to a new, rawer, and more disturbing place. There are no good guys in Zombie’s world only villains and victims, the two not being mutually exclusive. The Firefly family are your murderous protagonists, a group that is vile and despicable, but still charismatic and entertaining. Sheriff Wydell should be the hero, but he is so bent on revenge that he sinks to the same level as the bad guys he’s trying to stop. Few other films have reveled so heavily in the mythos of an antihero. Zombie actually makes you relate and perhaps even care about characters who we see perpetrate some of the most vile and disgusting acts to make it to the cinema screen in the last twenty years.

Before I get into the amazing cast that inhabits this film, I want to talk about the style of the film. Enlisting Phil Parnet, a cinematographer who had worked on the seminal documentary Harlan County, USA (1978), Zombie strove for a realistic quality in the filmmaking. He made the movie look gritty and realistic, but he also applied the an overexposed, blown out quality to the film that left the grit in your teeth long after the credits have run. By giving the film a look like real life turned up too far, the violence seems so real and in your face. The camera never shies away from anything. Murders, nudity, or just the simple emotions that come with the acts are all laid out before you.

If it were not for the charisma of the actors playing the parts of the murderers, this would be a really hard film to watch. Roger Ebert has over the years notoriously slammed horror and genre films alike, but when it came to The Devil’s Rejects he had this to say , "There is actually some good writing and acting going on here, if you can step back from the material enough to see it.” Zombie did a great job writing the script because it builds these murderers up to be likeable, amusing characters, but then shocks you back to reality with their level of brutality and violence. One moment they might be needling Otis to pull over so they can get some Tutti Fruti Ice cream, and then the next, Otis might be wearing someone’s face as a mask.

When I think about this film, or House of 100 Corpses, the first thing that comes to mind is the maniacal clown known as Captain Spaulding. If there’s a person more qualified to play such an unmitigated scumbag as the Captain, I sure wouldn’t like to meet them because no one can play scummy quite like Sid Haig. For almost 50 years, Haig has been one of the steadiest working character actors in the business. From Coffe, to THX 1138, to The Big Bird Cage, there are very few actors who’ve starred in more memorable cult films. He even appeared in Spider Baby, Jack Hill’s film that is almost a spiritual predecessor of Zombie’s films. Haig makes Captain Spaulding the most likeable of the trio, but that’s really not saying much. It’s an iconic role that will probably be the defining moment of a lifetime of work.

Another legendary horror film actor appears as a Reject as well. I said a few days back when I was talking about Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 that he’d be back again, and here he is, Mr. Bill Mosley as Otis. Mosley’s Otis and his TCM 2 character Chop Top seem like they could be best friends. Well, for a while until one of them killed the other. In Devil’s Rejects, Otis is arguably the most despicable of the three leads, but he retains a likeability that can only be attributed to Mosley’s charisma as a performer. His most memorable scene has to be when he molests Pricilla Barnes’s character Gloria in a hotel room. It’s a chilling scene, and the fact that by the time the last act rolls around you’re rooting for him and his family is a testament to both the actor and the script.

The last of the Rejects is Baby played by Mr. Zombie’s wife Sherri Moon. In the first film, the character was limited to what Sherri described as “the angelic bait to get the victims”, but in Devil’s Rejects, we get to see the demonic side of the character. Many people have criticized Zombie for casting his wife in a major role in the film, but I really like the funny, scary, childlike performance that she gives. She is however the lesser of the three good/bad guys and never shown committing much terror. I do really like the scene she shares with Pricilla Barnes’ Gloria who thinks she got a drop on Baby by stealing her gun. After throwing a knife into Gloria’s chest, she recovers the gun, reveals it to have no bullets, and says, “It’s all fucking mind power.” I think this is one of the keys to the film. The Rejects are humans, though sick and twisted, their reign of terror and the havoc they cause comes from their power to instill fear into the minds of their victims.

Now, I want to take a few moments to discuss the other side of the law, William Forsythe’s Sheriff Wydell. From his first appearance, you can tell that Wydell already has a tenuous grasp on reality. By the time he uncovers more about the family and Mother Firefly begins to mess with him, he totally goes off the deep end. The descent into madness is visible in almost every action of the character, and it’s interesting to watch the character who should be your hero goes down a progressively darker path. It took a seasoned actor like Forsythe to pull off the part and make it really work. Forsythe might be best known for his roles in Raising Arizona and Once Upon a Time In America, but you may not recall his turn as Flattop in Dick Tracy, his bad guy going up against Segal in Out for Justice, or his performance in the Brian Bosworth classic Stone Cold. I could go on, but as Wydell says, “I’m sure your knowledge of bullshit is limitless.”

Rejects is also enhanced by a slew of little performances from some of genre film’s best actors. Every scene Ken Foree is in as Charlie Altmont is picture perfect, and I could watch him discuss the merits of Star Wars themed hookers for hours. Michael Berryman, most known for his role in The Hills Have Eyes, also joins him in several of his scenes. His scenes are small in number, but the look on his face when someone accuses him of being a “chicken fucker” is priceless. I also have to give it up to Leslie Easterbrook for taking over for Karen Black in the role of Mother Firefly. The change is barely noticeable, and it doesn’t take away from the character or the transition between the two films. It’s hard to say which one of them was better in the role as they are both creepy as hell. There’s also a plethora of cameo performances from the likes of Ginger Lynn Allen, Danny Trejo, Diamond Dallas Page, Brian Posehn, and Geoffrey Lewis, which all add that extra layer of awesome to the film.

I could go on and on about this film. I don't even think I've managed to skim the surface of my thoughts on this one. I could have written at least this much on the soundtrack alone. (I love the use of "Midnight Rambler", "Freebird", and Buck Owen's "Satan Will Have To Get By Without Me") There will always be people who discount Rob Zombie as merely a musician who thought he could direct films, but from the strength of his first two films alone, I will always be ready to check out what he’s up to next. Zombie is not afraid to challenge an audience with difficult, unlikable characters and situations that may not be most comfortable to watch. With The Devil’s Rejects, he provides a balance between the horrific and lighthearted that will leave you laughing, cringing, and maybe even a little more scared of clowns.

Bugg Rating



For today’s list, I thought I would cast against type, and chose the person whose taste runs the furthest from The Devil’s Rejects of anyone who submitted. So today, the list comes to you from my good friend Ryan over at The Realm of Ryan. I love this guy. I love his writing, and if you don’t read his blog you should be. I’ll let Ryan take over from here:

1. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935) Possibly the greatest sequel to anything, ever. And yes, I’m counting Godfather 2.

2. The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisherer, 1960) A sequel to the 1958 Christopher Lee classic that doesn't have the Count in it at all—but it has the ass kickin’ Van Helsing played by Peter Cushing, and one of the coolest ways to kill a vampire that I’ve ever seen.

3. Damien: Omen II (Don Taylor, 1978) Fairly dopey compared to the original, but it has a very re-watchable charm because of the crazy deaths and the jazzed-up Satanic chorus score from Jerry Goldsmith. The elevator crash-n-slice of Meshach Taylor is a classic—especially if you really really hate Mannequin.

4. House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944) It's a sequel to… everything! Therefore, it must be included.

5. Alien3 (David Fincher, 1991) Most people will put Aliens here. I love that film, but it doesn't exactly scare me like the original does. But Alien3 is one mega-bummer of a bleak horror show, and considering its poor original reception, I’ll take any chance to defend it. And we would never have gotten Se7en or Fight Club without it.

Some great picks there, Ryan. I haven’t seen The Brides of Dracula in a lot of years so thanks for bringing that back into my brain. That’s it for today. There’s only three more to go. So I’ll be back tomorrow to give you Number 3. Until then, watch what books you go reading out loud.

7 comments:

  1. I guess this just goes to show that I wasn#t the right target audience for Devil's rejects, but I was rooting for Wydell throughout the movie and never felt that he wasn't the hero or had become as bad as the Fireflys.

    I think the problem with Zombie as a director is that he isn't really willing to take any risks or challenge himself (and to a lesser degree his audience). I guess this might sound somewhat odd given the movies he's made so far, but what I believe to be his major problem is his unwillingness to portray "normal" or happy characters in his movies in a sympathetic light and always sides with the anti-heroes. This might be edgy if it happened once in a while and happened to be the exception from the rule, however, given Zombie's background and (pre-existing) fanbase, it's as close to playing it safe as producing "polite" PG-13 horror is for a mainstream director.
    In the case of devil's rejects, his apporach worked for once, however Halloween (and to some extent 1000 Corpses as well) clearly needed something else and his unwillingness to "expose" himself and move beyond the "badass worldview" his fans seemingly expect from him is probably one of his most frustrating shortcomings and will probably ultimately keep him from becoming a good director.

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  2. You make some valid points. I would also add that Zombie needs to diversify and get out of the white trash genre. He's kinda done it to death (no pun intended). I am curious to see what he'll do with his remake of THE BLOB which he says will have a more science fiction than horror emphasis hopefully signaling a change in direction.

    That being said, I do love THE DEVIL'S REJECTS also and IMO is one of the best horror films to come out this decade. One of the things that works for me is how it is not just a horror film but also has a kind of gritty Peckinpah western vibe. The opening credits sequence esp. which makes me think of Peckinpah's version of THE GETAWAY.

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  3. I love it! I loved it the first time I watched it, and I'll love it the tenth time(which is not far off). Great review....I think I'll watch it now!

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  4. Why is it that the people who leave the longest comment never want to own up to who they are? I can see your point Anonymous, and I have no love for the Halloween films. I can surely see your point, but as a fan of the anti-hero in general, I will usually side with them over the lawman.

    JD good call bringing up Peckinpah. There's loads of his influence in the film and I wish I had thought to bring it up. The Getaway for sure but also Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

    Fran, I know you loved it the first time. One of my best movie going experiences was attending this with you and the wife. I recall Ms. Directed (as well as many of the people in the theater) being mortified at some of the moments that we both thought were funny.

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  5. Thanks for letting me contribute to the lair. And yes, I love the "casting against type" comparison with The Devil's Rejects, as far removed from the 1930s Universal backlot as I can imagine!

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  6. I love this film. It's my favorite one out of those that Rob Zombie has done so far. I love it on so many levels. Great review of it.

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  7. I knew you were going with Rejects when you mentioned that Mosley would be showing up again - I was so happy by the thought! I kinda like Halloween…it wasn’t quite as bad as some make it to be, I think H2 was a pile of dog pooh, and I’m not big on Corpses, but I love The Devils Rejects! Love it!

    Zombie is incredibly talented as a director, those who don’t see that are ignorant. He does have big issues with reeling his ideas in and settling on a style - and his writing is a bit of a mess sometimes. He does go over board and tries too hard to be all trashy for the sake of trashy, however, The Devils Rejects is Zombie at his best and it is the film where his style and writing all come together perfectly.

    I think Sheri Moon is fine in this film…she plays psycho well enough, plus, I like her butt crack. And Bill Mosley is phenomenal! His performance summed up in just a few words…”Boy the next word that comes out of your mouth better be some brilliant fucking Mark Twain shit. Cause it's definitely getting chiseled on your tombstone!” I could keep going on about this movie, but I just want to express how happy I am that you gave it the props it deserves. I would have put it on my list, but I always feel like it is so different from Corpses, that it is almost a standalone film.

    Incidentally, I had Haig sign my DVD copy of Coffy - He was surprised by it!

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