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Devil's Rejects, The Print E-mail
Wednesday, 01 November 2006

Image Rock singer Rob Zombie was long a fan of horror movies, particularly the “slasher” subgenre kicked off by “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th.” A couple of years ago, he persuaded Universal to back him in making “House of a Thousand Corpses,” but it was so gruesome the studio declined to released it. The movie became something of a minor cause celebre among horror movie fans, and it was finally released by another company to moderate results.

It made enough money to finance Zombie’s sequel to “House,” “The Devil’s Rejects,” and that, too, did reasonably well at the boxoffice. If you are a fan of gruesome horror movies, or merely inured to them, you may find “The Devil’s Rejects” entertaining. It’s definitely well acted by a team consisting mostly of long-time Hollywood gargoyles, including Sid Haig, Michael Berryman and Geoffrey Lewis.

There isn’t a single likeable or sympathetic character in the entire movie, which, oddly enough, is both its major virtue and major drawback. It’s a drawback because many people will find the characters so repellent they simply won’t give a damn what happens to any of them. Directors who take this approach—at least those who take it deliberately—run a major risk of alienating so many people their movie dies on the vine. On the other hand, if, as here, the director can keep up a driving pace, offer enough variety, and people his film with weird but almost compulsively watchable actors, he (or she) has a chance of turning out a cult favorite—as apparently has happened with “The Devil’s Rejects.” There isn’t much of a plot. Sheriff John Wydell (William Forsythe, hard-bitten and intense) and his deputies surround a dilapidated farmhouse and call for the family inside to come out. Through their conversations and occasional interpolations by newscasters, we learn this is the Cutter family of murderers and cannibals. The sheriff and his team don’t notice gigantic Tiny (Matthew McGrory, from “Big Fish”), dragging a body through the nearby woods, but we should. The family opens fire and the lawmen return it. Some of those inside are killed, but shaggy, bearded Otis (Bill Moseley) and gorgeous blonde Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) get away by means of a drainpipe. The arrogant, snarling Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is taken captive by the Sheriff.

Elsewhere, a rambling band of country-western entertainers, headed by Roy Sullivan (Geoffrey Lewis) is taking time out at a rundown motel. (Everything in the movie is rundown.) The fleeing Otis and Baby hold them captive in a motel room, killing them one by one. Otis has time to phone his father, James Cutter (Sid Haig), who calls himself Captain Sapulding after Groucho Marx, and who works as a backyard clown. Haig is in clown makeup for the first third or so of the movie. (It may be hard to accept Haig as a children’s entertainer, but that’s what he actually is between occasional movie gigs.) Eventually, Spaulding joins the others, and they set out for a wild west town/whorehouse run by Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree), who regards Spaulding as his brother.

The remainder of the movie cuts between the Cutter gang and Sheriff Wydell as he tries to hunt them down. He has the force of the law on his side, but considers himself a true sword of justice—his methods are no kinder than those of Captain Spaulding and his pals ‘n’ gals. Wydell even stabs imprisoned Mother Firefly to death, as she’d been partly responsible for the death of his brother (seen in a dream). You don’t really care which side wins. For no clear reason, the movie is set in 1978, but doesn’t look it.

As with the original “Night of the Living Dead,” one of the virtues of “The Devil’s Rejects” is sheer relentlessness, although that’s hampered by Zombie’s all-too-gleeful use of extravagantly gory effects. The movie seems to be endorsing torture, humiliation, domination, cruelty and outright sadism. An innocent, terrorized woman fleeing the Cutters is smashed into road kill by a passing truck; it’s shocking, but it’s also treated as something of a joke—even though we see her entrails strewn along the blacktop.

When Wydell does catch up with the murderous Cutters, his methods of revenge are so repellent that some sympathy is stirred for the family of killers—who, if not likeable, are still the central characters. Lead Sid Haig has been doing this stuff well for several decades, and he’s terrific here, deeply into his character and loving every moment.

Is this entertainment? For some, it clearly is, and it’s hard to take the stand that the movie isn’t frequently fun to watch. Zombie is getting more skilled as a filmmaker, too—apparently even while making this movie. The opening raid on the farmhouse is badly staged, with too many quick cuts and no chance for the viewer to orient himself. But the last scene, of the surviving Cutters barreling down on a police roadblock, is shot in slow motion and is superbly cut to well-chosen music. In fact, as Zombie himself is a musician, the score and songs are extremely good.

Furthermore, this is a movie that Blu-Ray’s high definition really benefits. Yes, much of it is shot in low light and at night, conditions not particularly enhanced by high definition. But it’s also a highly decorated movie, with almost every set full of detail; not only can you see the pores on Sid Haig’s face, you can practically smell his dirty drawers (on view in an early scene). For reasons I’m sure a theorist can explain, high definition creates almost as much a sense of immediacy as 3D does. Everything stands out in clear detail, even—probably especially—when the settings are as grimy, cluttered and filthy as many of those here are.

The extras include a handful of deleted scenes, each given its own individual title—“Swamp Escape,” “Dr. Satan Attacks,” “French Tickler,” “Pork Rind,” etc. These are modestly amusing. Rob Zombie provides a friendly-sounding but boring commentary track, full of tiny recalled details not likely to be of much interest to most viewers. There’s another commentary track, too, with actors Sheryl Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley and Sid Haig having a great time as they entertain each other and any viewers who decide to play this extra.

The movie and “House of a Thousand Corpses” are largely variations on the “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” theme; costar Bill Moseley had a prominent role in the first chainsaw sequel. This isn’t as innovative, original and stunningly memorable as the first in the chainsaw series, and it’s more, well, comic isn’t exactly the right word, but at least it’s somewhere in that part of the ballpark. But it’s a lot better than any of the sequels and remakes—though I hope next time out Rob Zombie leaves the Cutters behind.

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