I rewatched Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects this past weekend, and though at film’s conclusion I was told by my wife (who hadn’t seen it before) that I’m “messed up” for liking it so much, I remain convinced of its near-greatness. And I don’t mean “great” in an ironic or campy sense, either. I honestly think it’s one of last year’s best films, an audacious, assaultive example of shock cinema that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do – namely, to scare and repulse, as well as to question and challenge its audience’s responses to such grisly material. Of those two goals, the first (to revolt) places it firmly in exploitation flick territory, while the latter (to deconstruct revolting stuff) makes it a kindred spirit to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. Refreshingly, neither aim is carried out with the punches-pulling gimmickry of a High Tension or the juvenility of, well, of any recent Hollywood horror effort. Zombie knows that horror films, by design, are meant to horrify, and even though his sequel eventually winds up slyly commenting on the very nastiness it peddles, it thankfully never once devolves into the wink-wink self-consciousness that has become the hallmark – and the primary reason for the decrepit state – of modern horror filmmaking.
Consistently unnerving, The Devil’s Rejects is the rare contemporary genre film that unabashedly embraces the notion that disgust is a valid response to try and elicit from viewers. Unlike studio-produced dreck like Saw, Boogeyman or the remakes of The Fog and The Amityville Horror, Zombie’s movie recognizes that verbal abuse, humiliation, and unpredictable mayhem are far more unsettling than any cheaply utilized “jolt” stunts or CG-sculpted creatures. In particular, his staging of the motel room scene – in which Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) terrorize a traveling country music band – is nothing short of masterful in part because of it’s unrelenting cruelty; Baby’s taunts and Otis’ gunpoint sexual assault, however unpleasant they become (and they become pretty unpleasant), are never juxtaposed with a comforting counterbalance that might lessen their impact. Dissimilar to his cartoonish, derivative, mixed media-obsessed House of 1,000 Corpses, here Zombie doggedly avoids stylistic or narrative filters that might alleviate the action’s sick tension. And despite its twisted sense of humor (such as when Captain Spaulding does his best to psychologically scar a young boy during a carjacking), the film is legitimately, unapologetically, shocking, a not-inconsiderable feat in an era in which Internet-streamed al-Qaeda beheading broadcasts (a cinematographic influence on Phil Parmet’s work, according to the great DVD making-of doc 30 Days in Hell) are readily available to any curious soul with a broadband connection.
While its hardcore viciousness makes it a worthy heir to the seminal ‘70s exploitation and grindhouse classics whose style it deliberately assumes, what makes The Devil’s Rejects more than just an homage-y torch-bearer is its subtle self-reflexivity. Beginning with the van scene in which the Firefly clan debates stopping for ice cream, Zombie shifts his film’s sympathies away from the vengeance-driven Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) and to the titular murderers. Upon initial viewing, this attempt to compel the audience to root for Spaulding, Otis and Baby struck me as akin to a sick joke. But it’s clear that the director is after something more subversive than simply flipping the bird to moviegoers (and critics) who might desperately yearn for their demise. By making us feel for his serial killers, Zombie seems to be forcing us to admit that we love horror film monsters, that it’s the Freddy Kruegers, Michael Myerses and Hannibal Lecters – and not their generally bland, indistinct prey – who function as these movies’ primary attraction. In this light, romanticizing the Firefly brood, and ultimately refusing to condemn their behavior, isn’t amoral as much as it is an honest owning up to the fact that we watch such films specifically because we want to see villains slaughter the innocent. And thus The Devil’s Rejects compassion for its predators is ultimately sick only insofar as we, as an audience, are sick for wanting to be disturbed, scared and excited by the sight of fiends indulging in inexcusable bloodshed.
Either that, or as my wife said, I’m just “messed up.”