The Devil's Rejects Movie Review

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House of 1000 Corpses, the last song on Rob Zombie's 2001 album The Sinister Urge, also served as the title track to the metal frontman-turned-filmmaker's 2003 directorial debut, but the cut's country twang-inflected ghoulishness would have made a more apt musical accompaniment for Zombie's The Devil's Rejects. Less a sequel than a spiritual follow-up, the director's latest revisits House's serial-killing Firefly clan as they're cast into the backwater dustbowls of rural America by a sheriff (William Forsythe) intent on exacting vigilante revenge for the murder of his brother. A gritty Western-via-grindhouse modern exploitation flick imbued with the ferocity of independent '70s horror, Zombie's splatterfest wisely alters virtually everything (narratively, stylistically, thematically) that characterized his campy, cartoonish and awkward first film. And from its coarse, graphic visual aesthetic, profusion of classic Southern rock tunes, and portrait of unrepentant mayhem, his film reverentially exults in the deranged spirit and impulsive, unpredictable energy of seminal genre masterpieces The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes.

The Devil's Rejects diverges from its predecessor beginning with its opening frames, in which the depiction of the Firefly residence - no longer a remote, forest-shrouded funhouse of horrors but, rather, a dilapidated structure situated in a stretch of open land - speaks to the film's rejection of atmospheric claustrophobia in favor of wide-open anarchy. A fascination with rampant disorder certainly fuels the tour de force intro sequence, a bullet-strewn siege on the Firefly home by Sheriff Wydell (Forsythe) and an army of police officers heightened by Zombie's sly use of freeze frames, Sergio Leone-esque close-ups, and The Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider." Exhibiting a directorial maturity devoid of his former MTV-ish gimmickry (no hyper-edited montages with varying film stocks or bludgeoning industrial heavy metal here), the director orchestrates the chaotic events with feverish abandon, his shaky handheld camera set-ups and scraggly, sun-bleached cinematography (courtesy of Phil Parmet) placing us directly inside the carnage. By the time murderous siblings Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon) escape their now overrun home to seek shelter in the rotting, blindingly white desert, Zombie has demonstrated a newfound adeptness at lacing nasty action with a breakneck thrust and vicious wit.

Bleak humor permeates The Devil's Rejects, such as when Firefly patriarch and gonzo clown Captain Spaulding (the great Sid Haig) - waking from a nightmare about screwing, and then being killed by, a sexy prostitute (porn legend Ginger Lynn) - is asked by his ugly wife whether he's had a bad dream, to which he replies, "Eh, 50-50." Otis and Baby's flight from capture takes them to a motel where they terrorize a group of traveling musicians (including Geoffrey Lewis and Three's Company's Priscilla Barnes), and in these cramped scenes Zombie deftly interweaves a sense of unbridled sadism and madness with mordant sarcasm. The malicious games Otis and Baby force their soon-to-be-victims to play (like having one captor repeatedly slap Barnes in order to be allowed to use the bathroom) are simultaneously unsettling and amusing, examples of reprehensible maliciousness made entertaining by the actors' devilish glee and refusal to soften such material with self-conscious winks to the audience. And though scatological X-rated bits about bestiality and incest (as well as a prolonged dig at film critics) are juvenile and ineffective, Sheriff Wydell's eventual stabbing of Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, assuming Karen Black's role) while cooing sexual innuendos - a model of comical overacting - further exploits the ever-present connection between sex and violence.

Cast as a righteous avenger obsessed with eye-for-an-eye retribution, Forsythe's Sheriff Wydell soon devolves into a figure of Travis Bickle-like fury (replete with a hellfire-stoked speech to himself in the mirror). And Zombie's script, at the mid-way point, switches its sympathies (and asks the audience to do likewise) from the increasingly off-the-rails Sheriff to the Firefly family, who - once they reach the bacchanalian whorehouse of friend Charlie (Ken Foree) - are depicted as a severely dysfunctional but fun-loving trio of oddballs. It's an ethically dubious storytelling reversal in which the murderous protagonists are freely mythologized, a modus operandi perceptible in Otis' bragging that "I am the Devil. And I am here to do the Devil's work" and in a finale featuring the Fireflys' rebellious, guns-blazing charge into immortality. Yet such an indefensible stance nonetheless imbues the film with the type of brazen disregard for morality, propriety and decency that enlivens the best horror movies. Via his transformation of every character (including Wydell) into a despicable monster, Zombie refuses to didactically punish the wicked and praise the (non-existent) virtuous, shuttling his horrifying and hilarious film into a netherworld of immoral malevolence. In doing so, he also turns the wantonly depraved The Devil's Rejects into an exhilaratingly sick joke.

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The Devil's Rejects Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 2005

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