Tuesday, July 26, 2005

I loved The Devil's Rejects. God help me.

After seeing director Rob Zombie's second feature film, The Devil's Rejects, I felt like I'd been smacked upside the face as I left the theater. Some of the acts depicted in the movie are so horrific that I'm astonished it got past the MPAA with an R rating, and it showcases characters engaging in behavior so vile that some part of me is embarassed to admit I even watched the thing.

So why can't I just dismiss it as exploitive filth? Because The Devil's Rejects also happens to be a stunningly well-engineered movie, an uncompromising, riveting, smart, well-acted, and darkly funny cinematic valentine to old-school grindhouse excess. Just don't tell anyone I said so; I'll plead the fifth if you do.

It picks up right where its predecessor (Zombie's feature directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses) left off, with members of the homicidal Firefly clan escaping a bloody police standoff and heading across the arrid South. Unlike House's Grand Guignol setup, though, The Devil's Rejects plays more like a mutant hybrid of Sam Peckinpah grit and post-Charles Manson era biker flick degeneration. It's harrowing as hell to watch, but also exhilarating as all get out, and a massive improvement over its predecessor.

House of 1000 Corpses was several steps shy of perfect, but it earned some major bonus points for at least trying to buck current horror trends. Zombie defiantly cast the movie with veteran character actors instead of chiselled J. Crew models, conjured up some impressively disturbing images, and avoided the self-referential jokiness of most current scare films. In concept, HO1000C was a deliberate throwback to visceral horror classicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes. In execution, it was more interesting for what it tried to do than for what it actually achieved.

The Devil's Rejects sports no such disparity between theory and practice. It captures--with ramshackle visual fidelity--the dusty backroads of late '70's America. Few mainstream Hollywood efforts have gotten the mood, look, and sound (dig the spot-perfect southern-fried '70's soundtrack) of the Bell-Bottom Era so raggedly, unforcedly right, and as a pitch-dark action picture, it's positively absorbing. The framing and editing of the action scenes pays scruffy homage to Peckinpah and Monte Hellman (Phil Parmet's bleached-out cinematography explicitly references Hellman's '71 cult classic, Two-Lane Blacktop) as well as to the trashy biker and horror epics that Zombie absorbed as a kid.

Many of House's principal actors resurface in fighting form, even better than the first time around. Sid Haig's foul-mouthed, dentally-decimated Rejects patriarch Captain Spaulding remains a nastily hilarious highlight. Sheri Moon Zombie (yep, Rob's wife) gives Baby real nuance this time out; she's a Bad Seed variation on Daisy Duke. And Bill Moseley brilliantly modulates the loathsome Otis, making him a lot more intelligent, unpredictable, funny, and creepy the second time around.

The new additions to Zombie's stock company play against the returning players admirably. William Forsythe gives a great, intense performance as Wydell, the revenge-fixated lawman on the Rejects' trail; it's terrific to see one of the great character actors of the '90's back in the saddle again. Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree, meanwhile, plays Spaulding's seedy yet oddly dapper pimp brother with off-the-cuff charm. The director further strokes movie-geek pleasure nodes by unself-consciously continuing to pepper his films with a host of familiar character faces. The attention-deficient casting directors of most modern horror flicks should be so smart.

All of these very good actors labor in service of a surprisingly taut, solid script. No, it's not Tom Stoppard (this is, after all, an exploitation flick about necrophiliac cannibal serial killers on the lam), but the director's screenplay takes time out from the action-carnage rollercoaster for periodic detours into laid-back humor and off-the-cuff character shading. Zombie's got a knack for natural-sounding, profanely funny dialogue. In classic '70's style, he also serves up plenty of moral ambiguity and an appropriately bleak, damn near sequel-proof ending.

So, yes, The Devil's Rejects impressed me mightily. But--and I can't emphasize this enough--it is first and foremost an exploitation picture, and one helluva BRUTAL, RELENTLESS, VIOLENT, UGLY, AND UPSETTING one at that. It is not for the anally-PC, and it is absolutely not for the squeamish.
If you've got the stomach for it, though, Rob Zombie's blood-soaked and breathless hellion of a sophomore effort will blow the back of your head off as completely as it did mine. Then there'll be no hope for you, either.


Vince said...

Wow. You've almost convinced me to go to this one, Tony.


Eric said...

We saw a screening of this one a few weeks ago (w/ a Zombie Q&A after) and I walked out of there thinking that when it came out, it would be the most controversial movie in a long time, parents screaming that it got an R, congressional hearings, all sorts of stuff. Turns out, there isn't much hoopla yet, but it did earn it's budget ($7 mil) back the first weekend. My buddy who manages a theater said lots of folks were asking for their money back. I really dug it, too, as nasty as it was. Zombie said they cut almost 2 minutes out of that awful hotel room scene . Crazy stuff - looking forward to the next one.


PS Thanks for the plug last post - you rock.

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