Location: The battered desert town of Ruggsville.
Date: May 18th, 1978.
Sheriff Wayne Wydell heads a surprise raid on the ramshackle residence of the infamous Firefly clan: a family of deranged, hick serial killers, discovered by the town's law enforcement authorities to have been responsible for the torture and murder of countless numbers of weary travellers and local cheerleaders over an unspecified number of years. In the ensuing gun fight, psychotic Charles Manson look-a-like, Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and his beautiful but deadly stepsister, Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), escape and set-out on a blood-soaked spree of carnage -- culminating in a bizarre and appalling series of events at the "Kahiki Palms" Motel.
Meanwhile, the insane Mother Firefly is taken prisoner by Wydell & his men; while Baby's father, a malevolent, clown-faced psychopath named Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) meets up with the surviving members of his lawless family and leads them to a prearranged safe-haven-in-the-event-of-an-emergency -- "Charlie's Frontier Funtown": a dilapidated, isolated whorehouse owned by Spaulding's larger-than-life brother (Ken Foree). But a vengeful and unbalanced Wydell is hot on their trail, and will stop at nothing to wipe Spaulding and his violent band of unruly miscreants from the face of the earth! The bloody slaughter has only just begun!
Rob Zombie's debut feature didn't make that much of an impression on me. Sure, "House of 1,000 Corpses" was undoubtedly fairly well-made, showcased good performances from its small ensemble cast and demonstrated its maker's clear understanding and deep love for the seedier side of classic seventies horror cinema; but it didn't distinguish itself greatly from a recent slew of relatively entertaining, but ultimately mediocre, attempts to recreate the style and substance of grindhouse horror and sleazy seventies slasher flicks that included the likes of "Wrong Turn" and Tobe Hopper's "Toolbox Murders" remake. Fashionably gory and stuffed full of imaginatively twisted characters with many macabre details it may well have been, but the tedious MTV-style editing, garish multicoloured gel lighting effects and ironic camped-up humour just didn't click with me. The whole enterprise seemed far too detached and self-conscious for its own good.
So, that being the case, Zombie's second feature comes as something of a bolt from the blue! "The Devil's Rejects" is ostensibly a sequel to "House..." and thus, could be expected to be nothing but a pale imitation of it's predecessor's already rather over-familiar pastiche of countless teens-in-peril-from-crazed-maniacs slasher flicks. Instead, Rob Zombie has produced not only the best, most galvanising kick-ass slab of horror cinema of 2005, but probably the best genre flick of the last twenty years! Not since "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" or "Blue Velvet" has an unheralded low budget film made such a huge impact. "The Devil's Rejects" is exhilarating, scary, disgusting, draining, yet hugely funny -- often all at the same time! The film exemplifies one of those rare occasions where every aspect of its hurried thirty-day production -- from Zombie's scintillating dialogue to Phil Parmet's luminous yet gritty photography -- is a total success on every level. Characters who were merely brightly-coloured cartoons first time around have now become all too hideously real and distressingly human -- as Zombie's fantastic script hones in on them in all their grubby, hopeless, yet sociopathically charming glory!
Zombie has cast aside the more fantastical elements of "House of 1,000 Corpses" and recreated the realistic, docudrama aesthetics of classic seventies horror cinema -- probably more successfully than anyone else who has tried it so far! Gothic creations like "Dr Death" or the cavern-dwelling zombies from the former film have been dispensed with (although a scene featuring Dr. Death was filmed but then cut because it didn't fit the mood of this sequel) to be replaced by a dusty, Spaghetti Western look -- with more than a few stylistic nods to Sam Peckinpah in the form of hyper-kinetic editing between a multitude of camera set-ups and the creative use of slow-motion and freeze-framed shots (there are also some cool scene transitions throughout the feature). The director pummels the audience with a relentless display of energetic technique and lavishes the film with a wonderful soundtrack that makes inspired use of classic tracks from the likes of The Alman Brothers, Steely Dan and David Essex (you've never heard "Rock On" like this before!). The end result is a spectacular visual and sonic feast exuding a Tarantino-esque quality of retro-cool hipness. Handheld 16 mm cameras, saturated colours and deliberately generated film grain enhance the film's seventies aesthetics, lending the proceedings a real sense of period authenticity that almost begins to drip from the screen! But the director is also unafraid to utilise the benefits of modern technology to create some believable digital effects that never become obtrusive enough to ruin the illusion of a down-and-dirty seventies drive-in horror flick.
The Seventies influence doesn't just rest on the superficial, surface appearance of the movie though: it extends right down to its marrow and bubbles up in some disturbing subject matter and in the script's unusually vivid emphasis on character. The film is not afraid to slow down and include a few "character moments" -- something which is often considered an unforgivable sin in today's climate of "all-action" cinema -- and thanks to Zombie's witty dialogue (a quality that was never really very evident in the last film) many of these scenes are as memorable as the horrific or disturbing sequences that get the most immediate attention: the Firefly clan arguing over ice-cream or Wydell's clash with an Elvis-dissing film historian (called-in when it's discovered that Spaulding's crew only use pseudonyms derived from Marx Brothers movies) are among many instances where Rob Zombie deftly adds mischievous humour and much flavour-some spice to an otherwise very intense experience.
We can count off the film's mainstream seventies & eighties horror influences from a parade of references in the first few minutes of the film: the family's cluttered house full of ornamental bones recalls "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" of course; a pigs head perched above the entranceway is a neat little reference to "Motel Hell"; while, as he drags a naked female corpse along the ground in the courtyard, the deformed "child" of the family, "Tiny" (Matthew McGrory), is seen sporting a fetching bag-over-the-head-and-dungarees look that brings back memories of Jason Voorhees' attire in "Friday the 13th Part Two". But mostly, "The Devil's Rejects" harks back to a specific form of seventies drive-in exploitation flick (many of which resurfaced in the UK during the eighties' "video nasty" boom) which is rarely seen in today's multiplexes. The successful revival of this much maligned tradition is reason enough to shout this flick from the hilltops! When Otis and Baby terrorise and sexually humiliate their hostages in the motel scene midway through the film, we can see shades of Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" but the relentlessly grim, nihilistic tone comes straight from notorious sleaze "classics" such as "Last House on the Left", "I Spit on your Grave" and "Cannibal Holocaust". The violence -- and its aftermath -- is not dressed up to look pretty here; actresses Kate Norby and Priscilla Barnes aren't made to look glamorous while they are stripped and humiliated by their captors. These unpleasant scenes recapture some of the mean-spirited gratuitousness and gritty determination to repel the viewer that is virtually never seen in modern Hollywood horror cinema these days; it belongs to a quite specific period during the seventies when ambitious young filmmakers used recently relaxed censorship rules to draw attention to their films through word-of-mouth by including ever-more controversial and explicit material. Zombie's film never goes quite as far as some of its dubious influences (all of the exploitation films mentioned above are still only available in heavily cut form in the UK while Zombie's tribute to them has managed to pass through the BBFC uncut) but his is the first attempt that actually succeeds in partially recreating their disreputable ambience.
These films were often problematic in the way they included inappropriate humour in an attempt to provide light-relief from their more disturbing elements. Only "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was successful in this regard, while "I Spit..." and "Last House..." were nothing but inept and clumsy in their pathetic attempts to add slapstick humour to some pretty gruelling material. Zombie manages it here though with deceptive ease -- once again, bringing a very Tarantino-esque quality to the film through an ability to make evil and dangerous characters talk in a recognisable way when they indulge in stupid arguments or bicker among themselves. But also, humour is often used to show that they can be attractively witty and funny even in the midst of carrying out great atrocities -- something which only makes them scarier and their deeds seem all the more macabre and unpalatable.
Besides Zombie and his great crew, the film is blessed with the most fantastic cast; there isn't a weak link among them and even the most minor of characters get at least a few juicy scenes. Zombie's wonderful dialogue is complemented by his ability to let the actors improvise occasionally -- bringing a real depth and believability to even the most outré characters. Although the entire cast is peppered with a long list of faces from seventies & eighties horror & cult genre flicks such as PJ Soles, Steve Railsback, Mary Woronov, Roy Sullivan and Deborah Van Valkenburgh, the film never becomes an excuse for smug cameo-spotting -- in fact I didn't even notice most of the faces on first viewing apart from the unmissable visage of Michael Berryman ("The Hills Have Eyes") and the huge personality of Ken Foree ("Dawn of the Dead") -- and even they are cast against type as a comedy sidekick and a sleazy pimp (roles they essay so convincingly that all memory of their more famous appearances are completely forgotten for the length of the film's one-hundred-and-forty-six minutes!): Berryman and Foree may just have found a classic comedy double-act here! Most of the other faces from the past barely register on a conscious level, but they definitely add a subliminal feeling of seventies authenticity by their very presence. If I were to list all of the other most notable secondary performances I would literally have to mention pretty much the entire cast -- but, restricting myself to just a few of the scenes that stood out for me, I'd single out EG Daily as Candy the constantly drunk prostitute at Charlie's Fun House, who has perfected a neat Princess Lea impersonation for her Sci-F-loving clients; Brian Posehn as the ultra-mellow Rodeo wannabe who becomes Otis and Baby's first victim at the Kahiki Palms motel; Lew Temple as Adam Banjo, the sardonic cowboy whose tough-guy persona is soon shattered by his psychotic captors; and even Daniel Roebuck -- who only appears on a barely-glimpsed tv in the hotel room as cheesy cable talk show host, Morris Green -- gives a fine comic performance despite a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance! (You can see the entire fifteen minute sequence of "The Morris Green Show" on the extras disc.)
But towering over everyone though are the five lead performers: Sid Haig was certainly no stranger to cult cinema before taking on the role of crazed clown impersonator Captain Spaulding; after starring in the weird "Spider Baby" in 1964, the actor went on to appear in a number of WIP and Blacksploitation dramas in the seventies before resurfacing again in the nineties thanks to the attention of Quentin Tarantino -- who gave him several small roles: first in "Jackie Brown" (reuniting him with Pam Grier) and then, recently, in "Kill Bill 2". Haig's Captain Spaulding is a bizarre and outrageous creation but the grotesque owner of "The Murder Ride" had too little screen time in "House of 1,000 Corpses"; here in the follow-up, with his smudged face-paint and grubby, blackened teeth, Haig gives a tour de force performance full of macabre humour and threatening malevolence epitomised by his car-jacking scene where he punches a mother (PJ Soles) and terrorises her small son because of the mother's unwillingness to donate her vehicle in the service of his "urgent clowning business"!
Bill Moseley also resumes his role as Otis though the character now loses his albino-like ghostly appearance and assumes a dishevelled, grizzled look instead. The actor -- who was probably better known for playing Chop Top in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" before taking on the part of the Firefly Clan's most unruly member -- gives a truly outstanding performance, and is genuinely unnerving in many sequences. Like Sid Haig, he is able to introduce pitch-black humour into the most disturbing material -- strengthening rather than diminishing its impact. Otis is a guy who has sex with the corpses of the women he murders, yet still comes across as human when his sister and stepfather cruelly tease him! His stepsister in the film is played by the radiant Sheri Moon Zombie, who turned up in Tobe Hopper's remake of "The Toolbox Murders" before assuming the part of fun-loving murderess "Baby" in "House of 1,000 Corpses". Once again, the actress shows us the attractive side of lunatic lawlessness: the character of Baby embodies a free-spirited form of ruthlessness that can be both exciting and terrifying but also strangely sympathetic and endearing when she herself becomes the "victim" of Wydell's bloodlust in the final act of the picture.
William Forsyth plays Sheriff Wydell with all the hard-boiled swagger of the old-school tough guy actors like Robert Mitchum, early Clint Eastwood or Robert Shaw; except here it is not so clear cut that Wydell is the "good guy". His rage over the death of his brother George at the hands of the Firefly family (a character in the first movie who appears here again briefly in a hallucination scene) is understandable -- but, so consumed is Wydell with righteous indignation and driven to insanity by a need for the bloodiest of retributions, he begins to look even more inhuman than his quarry! In any case, Forsyth pitches the character perfectly: his implacable iron man demeanour coming across in a comedic fashion during the early part of the film but transforming tself into an unsettling portrayal of unhinged cruelty in the final section. The turning point comes when he confronts the captured Mother Firefly in her cell for the final time: in another great performance from Leslie Easterbrook ("Police Academy") Mother Firefly is clearly evil and deranged but by the end of their scene together it is impossible to say which of the two is the more insane!
"The Devil's Rejects" is sure to be remembered in twenty years time with the same amount of reverence and affection as the classics that influenced its appearance and content. It is only fitting then, that the film's future cult status is pre-empted with a DVD release that takes the phrase "special edition" to extremes! The film is available in two DVD versions: the first is a single disc edition that features the theatrical cut of the movie; the second is a fantastic 2-Disc edition in which the first disc sports a cut of the film that features an extra two minutes of material, while the second disc is absolutely packed with hours of extras!
Obviously, the 2 disc set is the way to go: unlike the US DVD release, Momentum Pictures have moved all of the extras onto the second disc, making more disc space for the film, which has a great-looking anamorphic transfer and a powerful 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track (with the option of 6.1 audio). There are also two excellent commentary tracks: the first by Writer, director and producer Rob Zombie, has a nice mix of information on the film shoot and many onset anecdotes. The second commentary is by Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie and Bill Moseley who give the actors' side of the story! Again, this is a good listen and the rapport between the three is a delight.
On disc 2 we find an incredible amount of extras headed by an amazingly thorough, two-and-a-half-hour documentary. "30 Days in Hell", covers every aspect of the film from its pre-production to a day-by-day acount of the gruelling thirty-day shoot which features onset interviews with most of the cast and crew. This is a fantastic document of the making of the movie which would be worth buying on its own!
Besides this, we get a whole host of other interesting material. Unlike many films, the deleted scenes are actually worth watching as they contain lots of great dialogue scenes that had to be cut for reasons of pacing. We also get to see the entire "Dr. Death" sequence, which was cut because it didn't fit with the tone of the rest of the movie.
There is also a blooper reel (5:40); footage shot for the film's Make-up tests (13:30); a stills gallery; the theatrical trailer and a tribute to Matthew McGrory -- the actor who played Tiny in the film but who, sadly, recently died (2:20). We also get the full versions of all the little snippets of tv footage featured in, and shot for, the film: Buck Owens' video of "Satan's Got To Get Along Without Me" is some real footage taken from a Country & Western musical show; but we also get two of Captain Spauldings bizarre cable tv commercials: Captain Spaulding's Xmas Commercial and his "Mary the Monkey Girl" commercial"! "The Morris Green Show" is the full, eight minute version of a mocked-up, cheap, chat show we glimpse on a tv during the film; while "Otis' Home Movie" is the footage of Otis' home-made snuff video from a scene that was cut from the finished film.
"The Devil's Rejects" is a masterpiece of inspired film-making and bloody exploitation -- beautifully acted, exquisitely shot and snappily written. Rob Zombie has really put his name on the map as a filmmaker to get excited about with this movie, and the film gets the show-stopping DVD release from Momentum Pictures it surely deserves. Very highly recommended.