The Devil’s Rejects (Rob Zombie, 2005)
The psychopathic Firefly family from director Zombie’s freshman effort, House of 1,000 Corpses is back, more despicable than ever, with three of them, the clown-faced Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), wild-haired Otis (Bill Moseley) and eternally giggling Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) now on the run from a Texas Sheriff (William Forsythe) out for blood vengeance for the murder of his deputy brother (Tom Towles, an actor most regarded for his portrayal as the reprehensible Otis in Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, showing up here in one of the numerous stunt cameos that Zombie is so proud of) at the hands of the brutal clan, as witnessed in the first film, House of 1,000 Corpses.
Currently up to Zombie’s likely white-trashified ‘re-imagining’ of that iconic knife-wielding killing machine known as The Shape, née Michael Myers, in my viewing of all things franchise “Halloween”, I decided to concurrently follow a tangent of catching up on the cinematic output (I struggle to to refer to it as ‘oeuvre’) of the heavy metal superstar turned filmmaker.
When I first saw both of these backwoods Firefly clan sagas back in the cinemas (at a time when I was still faithfully going to see new horror releases… those days are loooong gone now), I despised House of 1,000 Corpses in all its emotional vacuity, constant parroting of modern classic horror film imagery with nary a glimpse of understanding of the context that made those earlier films so memorable, and idiotic pride at celebrating the nastiest of brutal violence, and only considered The Devil’s Rejects an ever so slight improvement (in understanding narrative storytelling and pacing, anyway, and not just throwing in cool images randomly to indulge in narcissistically pronouncing favorite cinematic references), while also recognizing it for the same that “1,000 Corpses” was – a juvenile, dehumanizing and grotesque white trash freak show where every performer is directed to operate as if they’re pumped up with rage on steroids and the camera never stops jittering about, with images cutting so furiously it’s as if the editor was working on a 4-day cocaine bender, never in tune with the content of the scene, unsuccessfully working to impose a sense of emotional resonance to material that the grandstanding director on his own was incapable of achieving.
And a revisit to both of these films… hasn’t changed much of my initial impressions.
Zombie’s low-brow abrasive approach renders scenes such as the prolonged one of the Firefly’s sexually molesting and humiliating a small travelling musical band they hold hostage in a grimy desert hotel room (including member of Clint Eastwood’s acting ensemble and father of Juliette Lewis, the wonderful, unfortunately now deceased Geoffrey Lewis and three others, all forced to act in that stereotypical low-brow trashy way that seems to mean so much to Zombie) so unsettlingly distasteful… and I don’t mean in the convincing way of, say, the brilliant and unforgettable brutal house invasion murders in the aforementioned “Henry”, but in a way that feels less like a moment working to achieve something and much more like mere spectacle and lurid grandstanding from a filmmaker who doesn’t understand the difference. It makes the whole thing feel like, to paraphrase something an astute compadre of mine Stuart Andrews said on his podcast, not like we’re watching characters being sexually assaulted, but the actual actors.
Zombie’s bombastic approach also kills most of the attempted black humor (of which his favorite cinematic source of inspiration was spilling over with – not because it wasn’t also sledgehammer – which it most determinedly was — but because it had social relevance, and came at a time, many moons ago, when this type of fare was original, and not derivative).
Many of the familiar horror faces (the better to woo the low-brow horror fanboys with!) do their best with all the shrieking and hysteria they’re asked to spew out. William Forsythe, a favorite character actor of mine who I have always felt has been mis-used and never given a role worthy of his potential… well, with all the boring shrieking about God and vengeance required of him, he certainly wasn’t finding it here. Haig and Moseley are fine, but Zombie’s wife Sherri Moon is as gratingly irritating as ever (not much of a surprise that she isn’t exactly finding a film career outside of his films). She’s still sexy, of course – with the constantly recurring shots of her desirable derrière, both naked and in those tight-fitting jeans, creating the impression of Zombie gloating to the geeky fanboys about the hot ass he’s delving deep into after production wraps each night… and they’re not (not exactly a series of shots he’d be getting away with with many other female actors, without leaving himself open to some serious #metoo charges, that is).
With all the talk from Zombie on how keen he was to create the look and feel of a 70’s exploitation film, going so far as to using the original camera lenses and finding out-of-use film (or some such thing), the siege of mindless cutting and barrage of loud brutal noise has nothing to do with these films of yesteryear (which is fairly trite to be trying to ‘recreate’ at this point anyway). While it’s always nice to hear familiar rock and roll songs, like Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” and the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider”, they feel more like another thrown in element, working too hard rather organically creating environment or making a statement.
Saying that, there is something approaching inspiration in the final scene, swept along as it is around southern band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s not exactly unknown song “Freebird”. Of course, the emotions Zombie’s trying to capture are way off and completely contrived (I mean… home movie footage of the three skipping along together during ‘happier’ times? Are you kidding me??) and he can’t stop himself from suddenly throwing in another ending moment right after it, pivoting to suddenly parroting the classic final image and accompanying sound of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (not understanding that you can’t follow all the bombastic bells and whistles he just went for… by then trying to recreate a much more beautifully realized and mature sensibility… and think it’ll create resonance!). And yet… the sheer chutzpah (or perhaps blissful ignorance) with which he approaches this final Skynyrd blitzkrieg left me – even upon seeing it this second time – kind of slack-jawed that it actually happened (even with all the annoying slow motion effects). Which is… I guess… something.
As with “1,000 Corpses”, with this sequel the director is basically tearing his shirt off and flexing, showing you how bad-ass and rebellious he thinks he is; but, as with so many of these blowhards (and with much of metal and metal heads, unfortunately), he’s misguided in the most juvenile, reactionary sense. The films work just fine within today’s consumer, military war complex society (with the weapons fetishizing in the films just a small part of that larger ideology). Alas… next up… he directed a “Halloween” film, which he then parlayed into a sequel, so I guess – sigh – I remain committed to continue viewing his films all the way through.
Rob Zombie would be at the tippy topp-iest of my list of filmmakers absolutely wrong to take over the “Halloween” franchise. The brilliant strengths of the original John Carpenter classic — the quiet moments between the killings, the eeriness of the imagery throughout, the use of iconic representations to create new modern myths — are things so far beyond anything Zombie has shown. Zombie is a filmmaker who has shown little clue (or interest) in how to deal with a quiet moment (even when he tries, like he did with the long pulling-back still shot of the cop shooting in “Corpses”, as striking as it was, standing out in stark contrast to the endless brutal barrage of bloody pop art imagery, still lacked any real context to bring it meaning). He’s a director who seems to have never met a human he understood; or an experience from which he was able to decipher meaning and translate to cinema. His perspective is as mind-numbingly primitive as the white trash caricatures he throws up on the screen again and again, with his idea of attaching personality to them by having, say, Captain Spaulding having a dream in which he’s fucking Ginger Lynn (associated fanboy cameo of the porn star included, naturally).