First published by Movie Gazette
From the renegade cowboy to the teen rebel, from the bankrobber to the gangsta, the outlaw has been a fixture of American cinema since its very beginnings – but the decade when such onscreen anti-heroes really came into their own was without question the 1970s, when they gave dramatic expression to the disaffection, desperation and downright dread of an anti-authoritarian counterculture, inherited from the sixties, which was no longer sure whether to exalt itself over Vietnam and Nixon, or to fear itself post-Manson. Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects serves as both tribute to, and elegy for, that decade’s ambivalent streak of rebellion, and the mean-spirited brand of cinema that it produced. There have no doubt been many films since the seventies just as bloody and battering as this (including Zombie’s 2003 debut House of 1000 Corpses, to which this is a sequel) – but few as relentlessly amoral.
It is 1978, the last gasp of the seventies and a year since the nightmarish events of Zombie’s first film, and now the forces of eighties-style conservatism are beginning to close in, led by Sheriff John Wydell (William Forsythe), out to avenge the murder of his brother in House of 1000 Corpses. Opening with a police raid on the cadaver-strewn house, and with the family inside defending themselves in improvised body armour of a kind last seen sported by Ned Kelly, from the outset The Devil’s Rejects abandons the straight horror of its predecessor, repositioning itself as an outlaw-on-the-run flick. Two members of the family are killed outright and Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook, replacing Karen Black from the previous film) is captured, but Otis B. Driftwood (Bill The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 Moseley) and his wife Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie) manage to escape, leaving a bloody trail behind them, and are soon joined by Baby’s father, the foul-mouthed clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Spider Baby Haig). Except that Wydell, for all his reactionary, bible-bashing respectability, is every bit as vicious and sadistic as the redneck mass-murderers he pursues – and the fugitive trio looks set to take its final, gloriously tragic, stand.
The Devil’s Rejects has the look, the feel and even, thanks to down-and-dirty handheld Super 16 camerawork, the grain of pure 1970s grindhouse fare – and it is liberally splattered with cameos from seventies horror icons like Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) and P.J. Soles (Carrie, Halloween). Yet if in House of 1000 Corpses Otis and the Fireflies were simply embodiments of terror, very much in the mould of the family of slaughterers from Tobe Hooper’s classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), here Zombie turns them into absurd, funny, loyal and even strangely lovable characters, while never allowing viewers to forget both the atrocities that they have commited and continue to commit throughout the film. In the meantime their pursuer’s old-testament vendetta against them soon has him torturing, mutilating and murdering with just as much gusto as they ever mustered, while his colleague Sheriff Ken Dwyer is conspicuously played by Steve Railsback, previously best known for portraying the real-life serial killers Charles Manson in television’s Helter Skelter (1976) and Ed Gein in Ed Gein (2000). For as Zombie confounds the viewer’s moral compass at every bend in the highway, dividing sympathies between the devil and the deep blue sea, The Devil’s Rejects comes to occupy an uncharted no-man’s-land between high-tension psychothriller, rebel road movie, brutal hammer-of-god revenge flick, and unhinged Dukes of Hazzard-inflected hillbilly comedy.
Add to this Manson-a-like Moseley and the great, great Haig seeming not so much to play as to inhabit their low-life rôles, some hilariously epic swearing, and a triumphantly Peckinpah-esque finale that elevates the principals into bullet-riddled western heroes and you have a film which is destined to delight and disturb.
Summary: This sequel to House of 1000 Corpses is one disorientingly demented trip through the terrain of 1970s outlaw grindhouse.
© Anton Bitel