Starring Bill (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) Moseley, Sid (Spider Baby) Haig, Sheri Moon (House of 1,000 Corpses) Zombie, William (Once Upon A Time In America) Forsythe
Directed by Rob Zombie
Right off the bat let’s get a few things crystal clear about The Devil’s Rejects. First of all, it isn’t House of 1000 Corpses 2. Yes, it shares characters with the original and is set after the events of that film, and yes, the story here is seeded by events that took place during our last visit with the Firefly clan, but that’s as far as it goes.
Occasionally, a film will come along that does this… takes characters from one film and uses them in a completely different type of story; Road Warrior and The Chronicles of Riddick spring to mind as examples.
Secondly, it’s difficult to label as a horror movie. Dr. Satan and all his horrific experiments aren’t even mentioned. We aren’t told what happened to that underground lair and all of its contents, leaving us to guess at what happened.
Both of those things make it difficult to review, as both can distract from what The Devil’s Rejects actually is. While I have no doubt that many people will defend its position as a horror movie, I struggle to see that myself, and given that Zombie’s directorial debut was heralded by quite a few of the people that saw it as the saviour of horror, a lot of people are going to be disappointed by the fact that Rejects isn’t balls out horror.
Corpses followed a fairly traditional horror template. We first meet the victims and then stay with them as they fall into a world of murder and mayhem. The story revolves heavily around the Firefly clan, but really it’s the story of Bill and his friends. From beginning to end those are the characters we’re feeling and fearing for. To me that is a fundamental aspect of a horror movie — not just characters we’re afraid of but characters we fear for, and it’s something that Rejects doesn’t have.
Really, though, I don’t want to overstate this point. I’m only making it because we here at Dread Central are focussed on horror. We debate what is and isn’t horror, and sometimes, no matter how much we want to cover a particular film or game, we have to turn our attention away from it. As a sequel to a horror film, many people are going to expect it to be just like every other horror sequel out there, and you can only be disappointed if you have expectations.
Which would only be unfair on Rob Zombie and his movie. Rejects isn’t a horror movie, but it is violent, brutal, bloody and better constructed than Corpses. It’s far from perfect, but it’s nearer perfect than Corpses.
Basically, what Zombie has delivered is something akin to Natural Born Killers. The film opens with the Firefly clan surrounded by the police, forced into a massive firefight in order to get out alive. They don’t all make it, and it’s this opening that really sets the tone for the rest of the film because despite what we know about them, we want to see them get away.
Rejects is their story. It follows their bloody steps along the way as they murder and steal, never more than a few steps ahead of the police. There are no innocents brought along for the duration of the ride for us to feel attached to, and as a result, more often than not we find ourselves cheering on, or laughing along with, the Firefly family in spite of ourselves.
The first compliments need to go to Rob Zombie himself. Whereas Corpses felt almost like Rob was trying on every directorial style, and trying out every trick in the book, Rejects sees him settling into a style. Apart from some overly shaky camera work in the opening scene, he’s consistently solid here; more confident to just let the actors do their thing. That’s not to say he hasn’t kept a few of the tricks we saw on display in Corpses, but the ones that return are the ones that worked best. Scenes again play out in montage. Zombie again lets a period 70’s-era soundtrack, with no other sound at all, play out over graphic violence, arguably to greater effect.
He still hasn’t quite found his own unique voice, borrowing this time more from Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino than from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper. It doesn’t feel like plagiarism so much as trying on the style to see if it fits, and while in many ways it does, I hope he finds his own tune soon. He certainly feels a lot closer to it.
Most importantly, his added confidence transfers into the cast, who seem on a tighter leash this time and turn in better performances as a result. Of all the returning cast members from the original, it’s Sid Haig who excels. His role is greatly expanded on, and seeing Spaulding unmasked and relaxing with his family members for the first time gives us deeper insight into the character while giving Haig more to work with. He stole the show in the first one, so Zombie is much more comfortable to let him be the show this time around. His first few scenes are better than his scenes in Corpses, and while the other Fireflys are fish out of water, Spaulding is able to just be himself here in ways he wasn’t able too before.
Sheri Moon Zombie should receive a lot less flack this time around, thanks to a much more subdued take on Baby. Like her husband Rob, she seems to have learned to settle into her role and plays it with more subtlety than before as we get a better sense of how much of the Baby we saw in the original was her playing in front of her victims. We still see that hyperactive side of her character, but now we see it’s not what she’s like all the time, elevating Baby from caricature to character.
Bill Moseley seems to lack a little something he had in the original Corpses however. Otis isn’t the preacher he was in the first film. His philosophical ramblings on mortality are missing, as is his artistic, creative side. It makes him seem more of a typical cinematic psycho, and without the comforts of home Otis isn’t really given a chance to have fun with his killing the way he did in the original, which is something I missed. It is a good performance though — a more measured Otis forced to focus a bit more is still a force to be reckoned with. You can see the tensions coming out in anger towards his family in a way he didn’t display in Corpses, and perhaps a more subdued Otis will play better with a wider audience.
Otis isn’t the only character who doesn’t come off quite as well as in the original. Tiny is sadly underused here, and it’s a shame given the strength of his performance and how fascinating a character he is. There’s much less personality here, and I was really hoping to get to know more about him. Matthew McGrory does well with the time he has, but it’s far too brief for my liking.
Those Firefly family members who are being played by different actors this time around all do a good job thankfully, as it really helps to smooth over the transition, but it’s still a shame we couldn’t get everyone back. Leslie Easterbrook did wonderfully as Mother Firefly in fairly demanding circumstances, and her scenes are amongst the best in Rejects. Full marks there.
At its heart though, Rejects is a road movie, a very bloody road movie, and like all road movies we meet a lot of people on the way. Many will be very familiar faces to the horror movie fan.
Ken Foree puts in an outstanding performance as the owner of a whorehouse and plays the pimp with believable relish. Hopefully a prominent part in a film such as this will get Ken more parts of this calibre, as he certainly proves himself once again here. There’s a feeling of joy in seeing Ken given such a meaty part to chew on, and he doesn’t disappoint. But he’s not the only person who deserves credit, and there are many other notable faces putting in memorable turns. It’s Priscilla Barnes, Danny Trejo, Michael Berryman, and P. J. Soles who really shine in their brief time with us.
Oh, and I should definitely mention again that it’s bloody. There’s a very predictable moment in the first act when a character is given an exceedingly messy death, but the predictability is forgiven based on the aftermath of it. You might see it coming, but you probably won’t expect it to be quite so messy when it comes. To describe any of the gore or violence in detail would be to suck all the air out of the film. It’s brutal. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, and even when all of it isn’t shown onscreen, the concept of what’s taking place will probably still get to you. It was certainly more than some of the audience could take as there were a few walkouts, which is usually a pretty good gauge of how violent a film is.
What is strange about it, though, is that it’s hard to know just how much you’re meant to be associating with the Firefly family. They certainly haven’t changed, and any hell that comes their way you’d be hard pressed to say they didn’t deserve. It makes the film a little difficult to digest at times because you’re not sure what Rob was going for with some of the scenes. A lot of the time, I didn’t know who I was meant to feel sorry for, if anyone. While this could have lead to a degree of detachment, ultimately it’s something you can’t take your eyes off. At the very least you want to know what’s going to happen around the next bend of the road, even if you don’t really care about any of the characters it happens to. By the end of the film, if only for having been with them every step of the way, you almost want the Firefly clan to avoid capture if only so that the journey doesn’t have to end.
In closing, it’s best to quote Captain Spaulding himself. “You like blood? Violence? Freaks of nature?” Then you’re going to be satisfied by Rejects. It might not be as fun as House of 1000 Corpses was, but it’s certainly a more even and better-constructed film. The things I liked most about Corpses aren’t present in Rejects, but that’s no criticism. It’s a very different film, and when it isn’t trying too hard to make you empathise with the Fireflys, it’s one that definitely works very well either as a stand-alone film or as a companion piece to the original. Lions Gate has let Rob make the film he wanted to make, and while it’s not going to be seen as a classic years from now, I do think it’ll hold up better than Corpses.
4 out of 5
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