Written and directed by: Rob Zombie
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"I am the Devil, and I'm here to do the Devil's work."
After the modest success of his directorial debut, House of 1,000 Corpses, Rob Zombie turned his thoughts towards creating a sequel that continued the exploits of the Firefly clan. Upon beginning production, Zombie set out to make the follow up an entirely different experience from the original film. Whereas House of a 1,000 Corpses was a send up to horror-exploitation films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Devil’s Rejects finds its inspiration in the road films and revenge flicks from the same era. The resulting film is something so unlike its predecessor that one has to wonder if the two films can even be considered as part of the same series.
The obvious link between the two films is the Firefly family. Set about six months after the events of House of 1,000 Corpses, the opening prologue of The Devil’s Rejects explains that sheriff John Quincy Wydell, the brother of George, the unlucky investigating cop in the first film, had lead a task force charged with apprehending the Firefly clan. The film begins with a bombastic shootout between the family and the police, with some of the Fireflies surviving while others are apprehended and even killed. The film then shifts its focus towards the fugitives: Baby, Otis, and, later, Captain Spaulding, as they attempt to shake Wydell’s unrelenting search.
As the film unfolds, it essentially splits into two narratives: the Fireflies’ attempt at escape, and Wydell’s slow descent into a vengeful madness that begins to consume him. Stopping at nothing to track down the Fireflies, Wydell even goes so far as to enlist a couple of bounty hunters called The Unholy Two (Danny Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page). The Fireflies, on the other hand, hide out and torture a couple of families in a hotel room, a sequence that is among some of the most disturbing I’ve ever witnessed on a theater screen. I’ve seen worse in other films from bygone eras, but, like its predecessor before it, The Devil’s Rejects truly pushes the envelope as far as mainstream theatrical releases go. There's implied necrophilia, rape, torture, bludgeonings, impalements, and everything else you expect from an exploitation film.
Aside from the returning characters and the film's penchant for unrelenting vulgarity and violence, The Devil’s Rejects has very little in common with its predecessor. While the latter was a sometimes surreal, psychedelic slasher film, the former is a grimly realistic. It’s hard to believe that both films are meant to take place in the same universe. Gone are the “fairy fables” of Dr. Satan—in fact, the mad doctor is never even mentioned in the film, though a scene involving him was shot. Zombie eventually removed it, however, because he felt that Dr. Satan didn’t belong in the universe established in the film, a sentiment that I share with the director. It should be noted that the film's DVD allows viewers to see the this as a deleted scene. There are no strange, random, and colorful sequences in the sequel either, as the previous films rich color palette is replaced by a more earthy hue that reflects the film’s grittiness. I don’t think there’s been a sequel this different from its predecessor since Sleepaway Camp 2.
Besides the stylistic differences, the two films’ narrative structures a wildly disparate. Whereas the first film recycles slasher film staples to propel its narrative, The Devil’s Rejects plays out more like an action film, a crime drama, an exploitation film, and a revenge film at various points. Indeed, the film makes it clear from the start that the Fireflies are our protagonists, a process that was actually started in the latter stages of the first film, as the kids there became an afterthought by the third act. On the other side, Sheriff Wydell acts as the antagonist in this cat and mouse game. Within this dynamic, it is interesting that we follow the hunted rather than the hunter, which is not what we’ve come to expect from traditional narrative structures.
Thus, the film turns certain genre conventions on their heads by effectively switching the good/evil dynamic. Even though the Fireflies are reprehensible and irredeemable, they somehow become anti-heroes along the way, as we begin to see them as more than monsters—they’re family who obviously care for each other (if not anyone else). In his review of Psycho, Wes R. astutely points to how Hitchcock essentially manipulates the audience into rooting for Norman when he attempts to cover up a murder. Zombie is up to the same thing here, as, by the end of the film, we begin to see Wydell as the villain in the film who is ultimately no better than the monsters he’s hunting. All of this is reinforced by the religious themes running throughout the film, as we eventually see that those proclaiming to do God’s work resort to the same methods as those who claim to do the Devil’s work.
While there are certainly shades of grey involved here, the film is an excellent exploration of the themes of good and evil, as it seems that the latter only is prevalent in the film. Though it’s hard to say that one comes to fully sympathize with the Firefly clan, Zombie does at least open a dialogue that seems to be commenting on the nature of the horror genre itself. Think about what’s happened to all of our favorite horror icons over the years: Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and, more recently, Jigsaw—each of them eventually became the star or anti-hero of their respective series despite their heinous deeds. By doing the same with repulsive characters like the Fireflies, Zombie seems to be questioning such a trend, and the film’s ending seems to make the strongest statement in this regard. Zombie’s manipulation seemed to work with the audience I saw the film with during its theatrical run, as most of the crowd was cheering for the Firefly clan by the end of the film.
As you can see, The Devil’s Rejects is deceptively complex. While it seems like a simple exploitation or revenge film on the surface, there’s a lot more going on that Zombie won’t get credit for, as many won’t be able to get past the vulgarity and the violence. If you found House of 1,000 Corpses to be repulsive, you won’t find The Devil’s Rejects to be much better in that regard. On the other hand, if you give it a chance, I think you’ll find that Zombie has made strides in his abilities as a director between the two films. The film is wonderfully shot, and there are still a number of interesting stylistic choices throughout the film that set it apart from standard horror fare. Even though I was less than kind towards Zombie in my review of his Halloween film, I do think he knows his way around a camera, and this film proves that. Though his writing is pretty standard and often exhibits cliche and borderline juvenile dialogue, Zombie is helped out by the impressive cast he assembles, with the film containing especially outstanding performances from Bill Moseley and William Forsythe. Also, there’s an assortment of familiar faces for horror fans here, as Ken Foree, Michael Berryman, and PJ Soles all appear throughout the film. The film’s soundtrack also warrants a mention, as Zombie does a great job in meshing music with several of the more dramatic sequences, including the final few minutes. I’ll just say this: you’ll never hear “Freebird” without thinking about this film’s conclusion again.
All told, like House of 1,000 Corpses, this film won’t be for everyone. It’s hardly a standard horror film; in fact, it’s barely a horror film at all, as there are very few attempts to actually scare you. Instead, the film is unnerving in its unrelenting dedication to disturbing the audience with the characters’ actions and words. There are some nice moments and suspense, but this one is rooted in the exploitation sub-genre, so you know what to expect going in. As far as the home video presentation goes, the film has an absolutely excellent two disc release that includes “30 Days in Hell,” a documentary on the film’s production. The picture quality of the feature film is top-notch, as it reflects Zombie’s gritty, almost documentary style approach. Furthermore, the DTS 6.1 soundtrack is outstanding, and will give all of your speakers a workout. The film’s opening and closing scenes are especially effective if you have the necessary equipment. If you want an even higher quality, check out the Blu-ray version; at one point, The Devil’s Rejects was considered the reference Blu-ray disc by enthusiasts, a sentiment that I can vouch for after watching the disc several times. No matter which version you choose, however, I advise you to definitely seek this one out; even though it is often repugnant, it remains rich enough to be entertaining. Buy it!
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