The New Cult Canon: The Devil's Rejects
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"See, I tried to walk the line, but now I realize there is no line. Now we're here, and we're playin' on a level that most people will never see." —Sheriff John Wydell, The Devil's Rejects
Back in 2006, when extreme horror films were finding some traction with audiences (and a handful of sicko critics like myself), Noel Murray and I did a Crosstalk on the state of the genre, and tried to find some context for where it was going and why. Naturally, the discussion came around to the much-reviled "torture porn" subgenre, in reference to movies like Wolf Creek and The Devil's Rejects, both of which had their ardent defenders, but also reviewers who were digging deep for adjectives to describe how repulsive they found them. Here's what I had to say at the time:
As a horror aficionado, I reserve a special (and admittedly sick) affection for the stark realism of films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Last House On The Left, a tradition that's been revived lately by fine films like Wolf Creek and The Devil's Rejects… To me, these movies hold an almost anthropological fascination: What could be more revealing of what it means to be human than how people respond to mortal stress and agony? The characters in these movies are intensely vulnerable, yet resilient and resourceful, and I feel as viewers that we can connect to their raw experiences pretty deeply. Again, there's skill involved in doing it right, so don't take me for endorsing movies simply for their willingness to feature, say, unblinking torture sequences. But in the best cases of horror realism, I appreciate their immediacy and lack of pretense; by stripping away the heavy effects and artificial plotting, and even any conventional impulse to entertain, these films cut close to the bone. They're about as pure as moviegoing experiences get.
The above passage actually better describes the unvarnished terror of Wolf Creek than Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects, which is far more stylized and thematically ambitious, and not just a test of the characters' (and our) flight-or-fight response. But what I appreciate about all four films mentioned above is that they offer no safety net, no tacit reassurance that the heroes will survive their ordeal or that some satisfying form of justice will be meted out in the end. Horror audiences are trained to expect conventions like the "last woman standing," which holds that the resourceful and resilient heroine will survive no matter how dire her situation becomes or how withered her body and mind. Good will eventually triumph over evil in most horror films, just as surely as some grand, cheesy gesture will get the girl at the end of a romantic comedy. All that bloody mayhem becomes somehow more palatable as entertainment when it's staunched; cut away the safety net and we have trouble finding bottom.
As Sheriff John Wydell says, "there is no line" in The Devil's Rejects, which makes Zombie a dangerous talent, since he doesn't care to observe any limits on what images might be acceptable. Though there's a moral center to the film—which I'll discuss later—the ratings system appears to be the only force keeping Zombie's imagination in check, and even then, he's tricked the board into signing off on the hardest R in recent memory. From an early shot of a corpse being dragged through the woods with the indifference of an animal carcass, the film offers up death, torture, and mutilation that, in concert with the backwoods filth that permeates every setting, give it the ambience of a below-code abattoir. Zombie means to shock, and he devises scenes of extraordinary cruelty to do it, but he has more in mind than just stylized sadism, even if many of his detractors can't be bothered to look beyond it.
First, a little set-up: The Devil's Rejects is a sequel of sorts to Zombie's debut feature House Of 1,000 Corpses, a largely unsuccessful (if occasionally dazzling) attempt to update the Universal horror tradition with his unique brand of redneck, grindhouse brutality. (Universal actually produced the film, then decided it wasn't for them, for obvious reasons. Indie label Lionsgate scooped it up, turned a profit on robust DVD sales, and financed the sequel.) The "Rejects" are a clan of depraved killers who operate from a ranch in Ruggsville, Texas and have the live-free-or-die attitude of a separatist militia group, emphasis on the "die." Sporting aliases with a Marx Brothers theme, they include deranged clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), brother and sister Otis B. Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie), and Mother Firefly, played in the earlier film by Karen Black and here by Leslie Easterbrook.
Among their many victims in House Of 1,000 Corpses, the Rejects killed one Lieutenant George Wydell, and in the sequel, Wydell's brother John (William Forsythe) has come back to have his revenge. One morning in May 1978, Wydell and his men open up on the Firefly ranch Waco-style, and though they manage to capture Mother Firefly, Otis and Baby manage to escape through an underground tunnel and Spaulding isn't on the premises. As the manhunt commences—fueled by scrapbooks and bodies that tell a story of unimaginable slaughter—Otis and Baby wait for Spaulding at a freeway motel. Then they figure that hey, as long as they're there, why not terrorize a touring country outfit that calls itself Banjo & Sullivan? Just because they're on the lam shouldn't stop them from being who they are. (It's a sign of Zombie's exhaustive attention to detail that he and co-producer Jesse Dayton actually recorded an entire Banjo & Sullivan album, even though the band in the film doesn't perform a single song in the movie.)
As the Rejects indulge in all the sadism and excess they can squeeze into their limited time on this earth, the heart of the film lies in Wydell's effort to find them and met out his personal brand of Texas justice. Merely capturing them isn't enough and killing them isn't ideal, either; what Wydell wants to do is make them feel the agony that they've inflicted on countless victims, including his brother. Somewhere in his all-consuming quest for revenge, we watch as his righteous search for three abhorrent killers transforms him into an irredeemable sadist in his own right. Despite having heard the laundry list of the Rejects' crimes and watched them torture and kill the members of Banjo & Sullivan—including one poor woman who's forced to wear her dead husband's face as a mask—Zombie erases the distinctions between the adversaries on either side of law. Once Wydell can no longer "walk the line," he loses his moral authority and our sympathies in kind. Considering what we've seen of the Rejects' handiwork, that shift is pretty astonishing.
It doesn't take too great a cognitive leap to find the parallels between how Wydell responds to the Rejects' atrocities and how the American government responded to the terrorist threat after 9/11. And just as it seemed impossible for the U.S. to blow the sympathies and goodwill of the world in the months and years following the towers' collapse, so too goes our alignment with Wydell once he drops all pretense of being a cop, apprehends the Rejects with the help of some roughnecks who call themselves The Unholy Two, and turns the tables on them. The sharp political subtext in The Devil's Rejects is embedded deeply in the story, more so than the wealth of other post-9/11 horror films (George Romero's Land Of The Dead, 28 Weeks Later, Joe Dante's hour-long Homecoming, et al.) that have it a little closer to the surface. Much like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—the most obvious of many reference points for Zombie—brought the butcherings in Vietnam home, The Devil's Rejects captured the tenor of the times as effectively as any earnest war movie could.
There's no denying that the experience of watching The Devil's Rejects is unpleasant, but Zombie's passion for the genre and for cinema in general comes through at all times, as does his flair for colorfully profane wordplay. Shooting in lovingly burnished 16mm, Zombie doesn't seek just to capture the feel of drive-in movies from the '70s, a la Grindhouse; he wants The Devil's Rejects to look like a lost film from that era, an unearthed piece of outsider art. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre references are obvious, but there are nods to The Shining and Apocalypse Now, too, and a conception of the Rejects that owes a debt to the anti-Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, especially a glorious final shootout (set to "Freebird," of all things) that's like The Wild Bunch for the muscle-car era. For further evidence of Zombie's film-geekery, here's one of the funniest scenes in the movie, when Wydell calls on the local movie critic (with a Gene Shalit moustache) to give him some insight into the Groucho Marx connection:
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In another context, Zombie's white trash heroes could be characters in a John Waters comedy, and The Devil's Rejects isn't far from it, at least in the sense that his is Zombie's sick idea of entertainment. He clearly delights in his profane (and okay, a little juvenile) turns of phrase, and in the unusually scrupulous production design, which makes tchotchkes out of pig's heads and broken bottles. And though he doesn't flinch from their atrocities, Zombie also harbors a sick kinship with the Rejects as outsiders and rebels, which is key to how effectively he toys with the audience's sympathies and sense of identification. When Wydell finally has them tied to chairs and begins torturing them within an inch of their lives, his righteous revenge has curdled into something unsavory and out of bounds. The Devil's Rejects is not a peacenik's movie by any means, but it offers an extreme vision of what happens in a world where the law doesn't apply.
Next week: Fallen Angels
Dec. 11: Exotica
Dec. 18: Reservoir Dogs
Dec. 25: Vacation (not of the National Lampoon variety)