I settled in for The Devil’s Rejects expecting to get another Rob Zombie homage-to-slash-rip-off-of those seminal American horror films of the 70s that inspired his crappy House of 1,000 Corpses, a disposable exercise in sadism whose not-inconsiderable grindhouse nastiness was exceeded by its general incompetence. Generally, it missed its mark. What was so unsettling about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Last House on the Left and their ilk was partly that they were movies that enjoyed their freedom from studio supervision and were ready to try anything. They were scary because they felt genuinely unhinged. What Wes Craven did to those girls in Last House on the Left makes Rob Zombie look like a Boy Scout, so we don’t really need Zombie trying to make Wes Craven movies. Instead, he decided to make a Sam Peckinpah movie.
Put The Devil’s Rejects on a double bill with The Brown Bunnyand you’ll get something interesting: two very different movies taking place inside the heads of men who have decided to recreate the aesthetic of 1970s American filmmaking. Zombie swaps Gallo’s languid pace for a more ferocious narrative, andThe Brown Bunny’s famously explicit blow job finds its sadistic correlative in Zombie’s torture, nudity and rape. The main difference, however, is that Gallo finds a deep poignancy and sadness in the idea of living in the past, while Zombie relishes it. Replete with sordid visuals and bereft of redemptive values, The Devil’s Rejects is a rebuke to what’s become of genre filmmaking.
The Devil’s Rejects recycles Zombie’s pet pervs from the earlier film, the Firefly family of serial rapists, torturers and murderers. The riveting opening sequence, accented by split screen action and punctuated by freeze frames, depicts an assault on the family home; scraggly Otis (Bill Moseley) and sexpot Baby (Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie) escape unharmed, but Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is taken into custody. Otis and Baby embark on a killing spree, aided and abetted by patriarch Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), as the Sheriff (William Forsythe) hunts them down — eventually displaying a blackened heart to rival those of his prey.
To get the right look, Zombie hired Phil Parmet, a longtime documentary cinematographer (his credentials include Harlan County U.S.A. and Scott Caan’s Dallas 362), to shoot the entire movie on handheld Super 16 cameras, followed by a digital blow-up to 35mm. Zombie blew through about a tenth of the movie’s budget licensing songs for the soundtrack, a process that he finished before shooting even began. The strategy pays off in the big climactic sequence, a shootout on the open road cut to the strains of “Free Bird.” Essentially, Zombie sticks his thumbs in the eyes of a certain brand of American myth-making, replacing Skynyrd’s testosterone-sweaty images of glamorous solipsism with a simple band of guilty-as-sin redneck thugs. He also kills his own franchise, sending it off with a finality that says “no more sequels.”
Zombie is specifically interested in the appeal of the antihero, toying with the idea of making his murderous characters appealing in a slapstick kind of way. They’re named after characters from Marx Bros. movies, and Spaulding has a clown persona. To some degree, you can tell (just look to his cartoonish rock persona as reference), Zombie identifies with them. (In a funny touch, the cops end up calling in a film critic, presumably Zombie’s antagonist, to help explain the cinematic references.) But he also indulges a full-on sadistic streak involving mutilation and sexual violence that’s honestly disturbing — I say “honestly” because Zombie takes his killers beyond bad-ass Freddie Krueger or Jason Voorhees caricature, evoking instead the kind of real-world fiends you read about in chilly true crime paperbacks or see represented on tabloid TV. They stop just short of child molesting.
The horror elements do resemble the Texas Chainsaw/Last House breed of psycho killer movie, except that Zombie refuses to give the audience a potential victim (the “final girl” of the slasher genre) or other innocent to identify with. The resulting low-rent Grand Guignol is a bit off-putting; because the film lacks the craft and rigor of something like Taxi Driver or A Clockwork Orange¸ both of which achieve a certain high irony in the depiction of their own raving sociopaths, it comes across as an utterly lowbrow alternative. (Maybe the highbrow equivalent is Michael Haneke’s condescending Funny Games; I’ve always wondered how that would play in a screening for a crowd of horror junkies.) And yet there’s something quite freeing about Zombie’s fundamentally wicked approach — it’s a repudiation of the toothless sort of supernatural PG-13 action-adventure that’s become synonymous with the post-Scream American horror film.