Thursday, October 14, 2010

Quick re-assessment: ROB ZOMBIE'S The Devil's Rejects

You see that poster right above here?  Take another look at that quote from website  Sure it's, but the writer's got a good point.  Back in the summer of 2005 I first saw Devil's Rejects - not being so hot on Zombie's first feature, House of 1,000 Corpses (or how Oliver Stone remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre, horror-vomit really, dreadful) - I didn't expect much from its quasi-sequel.  Quasi as in it was basically only connected by its fuckin-psycho-ass killer characters, played by Sid Haig (Captain Spaulding), Bill Moseley (Otis T. Firefly) and Sheri Moon Zombie as... Sheri Moon Zombie I guess.  And at the time I saw it... I got only the little I expected, which wasn't much (original review here).  It was as nasty as Corpses, though I did notice Zombie's writing was getting better.  I remembered distinctly how much fun he had with a bit part for a movie critic character going all pretentious on the Marx brothers and getting into a spat with the officers about Marx bros vs Elvis.  Compared to Shyamalan's job on movie critics in Lady in the Water, this scene is still Shakespeare.

But over time I kept hearing good people, people whose opinions I respect and sometimes count on, praising the film, nay, singing so high that it echoed into the far corners of space and time.  That is, in my circles at school and whatever.  After noodling with the idea for some time to revisit Zombie's film - the one that I didn't outright dislike like Corpses or his abominable Halloween remake (yeah, as an aside, 'let's take Michael Myers and *explain* him, and shoot it like an exploitation flick, that won't take the mystery out, right!') - I finally got it among a bunch of horror-exploitation films at the local video store.  

Lo-and-behold, on a second viewing... I liked it more.  Not by the stretch that it's one of the best horror or exploitation flicks of the past decade.  But... it does come about in a different light this time, at least somewhat.  Maybe it's been five years of exposure to more low-budget horror and grindhouse-exploitation-dirty 70's flicks, or tributes to them (not least of which Grindhouse itself, which Zombie was apart of), or maybe I've grown up a little more or been given more of a dip into *bad* horror, but... this works somehow, or works a little better.

What's the effectiveness of it, of what is ultimately a nasty little movie with big ambitions about serial killers of the title on the run from a vigilante Sheriff (William Forsythe)?  I think what I responded to much more this time was that it was a mindfucker.  The first time I wasn't ready for it: a movie where the serial killers who are just a bunch of despicable so-called human beings who psychologically and physically torture a group of folks in a motel - not counting the dozens of bodies left in their wake at their olde farmhouse - are the "good guys"?  No, not so much good guys.  I honestly don't think Zombie wants us to "like" these people the way we would the protagonists of other horror movies who are more or less innocents.  This, actually, is where things get tricky and deranged.  And, in a way, it gives a little too much insight into Zombie himself as a director.  Or maybe I'm reminded too much of Ingmar Bergman's point about Hitchcock revealing a lot of his personality, maybe too much of the darker side, in Psycho.

But what the fuck - it's a horror-exploitation flick, dirty and grungy and (mostly) made out of the stuff of 70's rock and lack of taste.  It is, in a way, about liking these guys and gal, that, perhaps, they being the ones who have the most "fun" or have the biggest personalities, are the ones we might root for when confronted with the more monstrous Christian-thumping evil of the Sheriff Wydell.  Sympathy for the Devils could be the slogan on the set.  Or is there sympathy?  By the end we get a supremo-epic finale as our Rejects, bloody and bruised and beaten and stabbed and shot, are driving on the road and come up to a bunch of cops blocking the road awaiting them with guns locked and loaded.  Lynyrd Skynyrd's Free Bird blasts on the soundtrack to such a degree that it's like it's Custard's Last Stand Alabama-1972-edition.  And it feels epic.  It feels kind of tragic, in a Thelma and Louise sort of way.  But really, why not go out like that?

It almost works to Zombie's benefit in this case that at best he's got a good grasp of the old-school exploitation flicks (after seeing the Ozsploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood I see quite a lot of influence, in good, constructive ways, that the bad-motherfucker serial killer movies had on Zombie for this movie), since that's at most what a Grindhouse director needs.  The other side of it is that Zombie's script is really sharp and clever and funny, and takes the sadism parts so seriously on one hand and understands the sociopathic nature of the Rejects as well.  I loved hearing the characters talk in certain instances, like with the ice cream argument in the truck, or some of the reparte over at Ken Foree's place.  Even Danny Trejo gets some good liners in there.

The nastiness of it still gets to me, and I squirm in that big torture scene with the Sheriff and the Rejects.  This time, unlike the last five years ago, I mean that as sort of a compliment.  Sort of.  I still can't shake the feeling that Zombie pushes the envelope so far he doesn't see what taking it to the edge does to the audience's mental well-being.  It's a nightmare roller coaster ride where the innocent get corrupted (i.e. the ones at the motel) and everyone else in the minor character territory gets savaged in a not-subtle parodic way.  Matter of fact, that's what works to Zombie's favor most of all: he skates a kind of crazy line between it being a parody, as he tried desperately to do with Corpses, and a straight-up kick-out-your-fuckin-ass serial-killers-on-the-run flick.  That he's also having fun making it, as are the cast, gets one through it.   

It's not a movie I can see myself revisiting over and over; it's not, for example, Grindhouse, which succeeds wholly as their own movies and homage at once.  But I was glad to revisit it and give it the second chance.  The Devil's Rejects is a look at the ugly side of life, and it's a hell of a ride to get under that rock to look at the worms and beetles underneath.  Or as another critic noted, it's a "Yellow Dog of a movie".

3 out of 4 limbs

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