In an effort to appeal to the largest audience possible, Hollywood studios have neutered so many horror films into PG-13 movies that they lack any edge or ability to scare beyond the usual fright tactics. They then release the slightly more explicit R-rated or unrated versions on DVD to exploit devotees who don’t want the sanitized theatrical version. Lions Gate, a small, independent studio, flies in the face of this trend by distributing R-rated independent and international horror movies like High Tension (2003) and Saw (2004) that push the boundaries of on-screen violence. Hard rocker turned filmmaker Rob Zombie has taken advantage of this by making and releasing his first two films through Lion’s Gate. The second of those was The Devil’s Rejects (2005), a gritty, balls-to-the-wall horror movie cum road picture – imagine The Hills Have Eyes (1977) directed by Sam Peckinpah.
Not quite a sequel to Zombie’s first movie, House of a 1000 Corpses (2003), but rather the further adventures of a few of its characters – the notorious Firefly family. Early one morning, the police raid their farm. In the ensuing chaos, Otis (Bill Moseley) and his sister Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) manage to escape with Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) in hot pursuit and bent on revenge because they killed his brother (see House of 1000 Corpses). Otis and Baby take a country and western band by the name of Banjo & Sullivan hostage in a motel room. They eventually hook up with their partner Captain Spaudling (Sid Haig) and take refuge at a whorehouse owned by Spaudling’s brother, Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree) where they get ready for the inevitable confrontation with Wydell.
When Zombie wrote House of 1000 Corpses, he had a “vague idea” for a story about the brother of the sheriff that the Firefly clan killed coming back for revenge. He did this just in case the film did well enough at the box office and created interest in another film. After Lions Gate made back all of their money on the first day of Corpses theatrical release, the studio wanted Zombie to make another film and he started to seriously think about a new story. With Rejects, he wanted to make it more horrific and the characters less cartoonish than in Corpses. He was interested in making “something that was almost like a violent western” and has cited films like The Wild Bunch (1969), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Badlands (1973) as influences.
Zombie hired Phil Parmet, who had shot the legendary documentary Harlan County USA (1976) because he wanted to adopt a hand-held camera/documentary look. To prepare for the film, Parmet watched many horror films but when he and Zombie started talking about the approach they wanted to take on Rejects, they actually connected on revisionist westerns like Hang ‘Em High (1968), Monte Walsh (1970), and El Topo (1970). They also looked to films like The French Connection (1971), In Cold Blood (1967), and Fat City (1972) for inspiration. During pre-production, they decided to shoot the film on 16mm and Zombie cited films like Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003) as jumping off points for how he wanted to shoot his own film. Zombie told Parmet that he wanted to use two cameras at all time and for certain scenes, like the chaotic gunfight at the Firefly house at the beginning of the film, to have as many as six cameras running simultaneously.
Zombie populated his cast with an impressive collection of B-horror character actors: Sid Haig (Spider Baby), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), P.J. Soles (Halloween), and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes). They are not cast for kitsch or novelty value but because they have the acting chops to pull off these meaty roles. Zombie cast actors with interesting faces that have character. Every line or glint in their eyes says so much and he captures them in close-ups a la Sergio Leone. And no one personifies a fascinating face more than Sid Haig who plays Captain Spaulding as the scariest clown with evil make-up that includes black lips and horrible yellow teeth augmenting his already grizzled looks.
After starring in numerous forgettable direct-to-video efforts, William Forsythe finally gets a substantial role. Every once in a while, he pops up in a mainstream film, like Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995) and The Rock (1996), usually playing some generic bad guy role. He harkens back to a bygone era of tough guys, like Lee Marvin or Robert Shaw, who naturally exuded a ferocious intensity that is exciting to watch. With his deep, gravelly voice Forsythe plays an unstoppable force of nature that is just as ruthless in his methods as the Firefly clan.
The dialogue crackles and pops with its own profane rhythm. The tough guy-speak works because it is believable and the actors deliver it with conviction. Zombie breaks it up with some very funny bits and truly laugh-out-loud moments of black humor. For example, the Firefly clan uses aliases of names of Groucho Marx characters. To crack this code, Wydell brings in movie critic Marty Walker (Robert Trebor) and they end up getting into an argument about the merits of Elvis Presley movies that is hilarious and helps relieve some of the unrelenting tension that this film generates.
The Devil’s Rejects is a good looking movie that features a lush glow of reds, greens and blues during the night scenes and then Zombie cuts to one with a minimalist single light source with nothing in the background so that we focus on the two actors in the scene and what they are saying. In contrast, the day scenes have a warm, saturated sun-burnt look. The darkest scene in the movie in terms of tonality actually takes place at high noon and this makes it even more sinister because there is nowhere to hide.
Zombie references all kinds of movies and not just the usual horror movies that other filmmakers quote. When he does refer to other films he does so in a subtle way and not in a look-how-clever-I-am way that Quentin Tarantino does. Tarantino is a cinematic show-off content to sample his favorite scenes from other movies without showing any kind of understanding about how they work. The Devil’s Rejects is a down ‘n’ dirty celebration of outlaw 1970s cinema complete with a fantastic score of southern rock classics from the likes of the Allman Brothers Band, Joe Walsh and Lynyrd Skynyrd. In case of the last band, the way their anthem “Free Bird” is used in this movie is incredible. What could have been so clichéd comes across as a poignant and iconic scene in the film, befitting the song itself.
This film does not quite look like it was shot in the ‘70s but made by someone who grew up in that decade. Rejects was made by a horror film fan for horror film fans. Zombie has created a truly disturbing horror movie with no real redeemable characters, that is refreshingly unpredictable and this is what makes it so scary, like the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Both movies are feverish nightmares except that in Massacre you felt sympathy for the female protagonist. The Devil’s Rejects does not even have that. You may find yourself rooting for the Firefly family early on but Zombie quickly rejects this notion by portraying them as truly irredeemable people. There is no sappy love story or cop-out ending and this remains true to many of the nihilistic movies of the ‘70s. Horror film obsessives always brace themselves for the wimp out ending — it is the downfall of so many horror films — Rejects does not make this mistake. Zombie has shown a real growth as a filmmaker, creating I daresay a modern horror masterpiece.