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The Devil's Rejects   B+

Lions Gate Films / Cinerenta

Year Released: 2005
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Rob Zombie
Writer: Rob Zombie
Cast: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe, Ken Foree, Matthew McGrory, Leslie Easterbrook, Geoffrey Lewis, Priscilla Barnes.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

Though Rob Zombie shows no flair for dialogue and has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the kneecap, The Devil's Rejects is easily one of the finest examples of brutal, uncompromising terror filmmaking. Like Jim Van Bebber's recent The Manson Family, this one looks like it was dug out of a vault circa 1972, and captures the visual texture, spontaneity, and mania of 1970s shock cinema classics like Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Since his debut effort House of 1000 Corpses, Zombie has not only grown as a filmmaker and discovered more compelling ways of sustaining dread, using a freaky-deak soundtrack to convey madness and menace, and stopped relying on direct homage to his favorite movies in order to make his point -- he's also tapped into something that we've known since the Universal masterpieces Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man: that the monster is generally more fascinating than the victim.

Zombie shifts his entire focus and stays with the homicidal, cannibalistic Firefly clan, who live in a macabre shack out in the desert with furniture made of flesh and bones and poor little children kept in cages down in the basement. To the casual reader, you should know by now what you're getting into with The Devil's Rejects, and if you don't have the stomach for it you shouldn't bother finishing this review. Go see the equally nihilistic Mr. and Mrs. Smith and pretend it's wholesome. I prefer my bleak cinema to be honest.

A Waco-style police raid on the Firefly shack sends raggedy maniacs Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) on the run through the desert, pursued by relentless Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe). Even as Otis and Baby shack up in a backwater motel to torture and murder a couple of unlucky travelers -- and Zombie doesn't shy away from their brutality one bit -- we see the gradual transformation of Wydell from Christian avenger, wanting payback for the death of his brother, to psychopathic witch hunter. It's here that The Devil's Rejects becomes -- for lack of a better word -- thoughtful and contemplative about what it is.

Sheriff Wydell puts these monsters into a kind of focus, because he's as sadistic as they are, yet far more hypocritical. Avenging in the name of justice, he pursues the monsters with the intent of binding them to a chair, torturing them mercilessly, then killing them as savagely as they would their own victims. Wydell suffers from not being as self-aware as the demons he's chasing. And when he finally does catch up with them to carry out his scheme, audience loyalty cannot help but shift to his victims even if the victims in question are a family comprised of evil, heartless murderers. Audience identification gets pushed to a breaking point.

Zombie has a penchant for dumb gross-out jokes (there's a scene where the dialogue is all about what it would be like to have sex with a dying chicken) and an infuriating bit of sentimentality at the climax nearly undermines the horror show that preceded it. But he saves himself in a final scene that feels as epic and expressionistic as Sergio Leone, and benefits greatly from his terrific cast of genre veterans. It's a treat to see Ken Foree, from George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, playing Captain Spaulding's old buddy Charlie, though they might as well have called his character Lando Calrissian since he serves the same function here.

Otis, Baby, and their delinquent dad Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, having a ball in sicko clown makeup with bad teeth) are all loathsome, irredeemable characters. As spectators, we pity their victims even as we're fascinated by their transgressions. Zombie identifies with them because of their otherness, their ability to not be normal. Baby struts around half-naked and petulant like a teenager. Captain Spaulding has a sense of showmanship and a taste for the good life (first seen having sex with a beautiful girl, later wrapping his lips around a joint as if he'd died and gone to heaven). We can't forgive them or admire them, but we're certainly interested. It reminds us of a time in American cinema where we didn't have to sympathize with the protagonists -- we merely needed to be curious.

Finally, I'm wondering how Zombie achieved an R rating from the MPAA, since the unbelievable violence and full frontal nudity is taken to obscene proportions. Some might label him satanic, others cathartic, but whatever you call him, Rob Zombie has guts.

Review published 06.17.2005.

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