Saturday, July 23, 2005

REVIEW: The Devil's Rejects

How did Rob Zombie survive the goth/metal implosion when so many of his more critically lauded fellows perished? Simple: He never visibly bought into the "romance" of it. While other late-90s metal acts were dolling up like Anne Rice archetypes and immersing their stage presence in the realm of Ankhs, serial-killer mythos and morose humorlessness, Zombie took a different path: His music was hard-driving, infectious and (gasp!) danceable, and for imagery and inspiration he plumbed the depths of spook-shows, haunted houses, carnival-freakshows and old horror movies. One part Metallic and one part The Munsters. I fondly remember a day in my otherwise rueful High School existance where my film-geek ability to cite and explain the various references in some of Zombie's songs and videos temporarily made me extremely "interesting." (btw, the big-head robot is from "The Phantom Creeps.")

No, it wasn't the deepest music, and it never terrified the culture the way Marilyn Manson did, but when "goth" metal stumbled under the weight of it's own pretense Zombie carried on without so much as a missed step. Semi-androgynous guys dressed like The Crow had had their day as the reigning cultural fad... but the bearded horror-host looking maniac in the mandatory top hat, that schtick was already around before Zombie himself was even born for a reason.

Having absorbed so much of his energy from horror movies, it was innevitable that Zombie would make one of his own. The result, of a few years back, was "House of 1,000 Corpses," a busy throwback to the mid-70s deluge of "Texas Chainsaw"-knockoffs about a group of young people who fall prey to a family of boundlessly-creative mass-murderers on Halloween. Uneven but hugely entertaining, plus solidly directed, the film now has a sequel in "The Devil's Rejects"... structured in such a way that, if you happen to be among the many who never gave "House" a chance you won't be completely lost. It's also, overall, the superior film.

Briefly: Following (presumably) the events of "House," a crazy-in-the-religious-sense Sherriff Wydell (William Forsythe) leads a massive armed raid on the farmhouse of the crazy-in-every-sense Firefly Family. The raid yields a motherload of bodies, plus a captive Mother Firefly, but survivors Otis (Bill Mosely) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) escape. Teaming with their father Captain Spaulding (Sig Haig,) the remaining Fireflys begin a murder-spree as they seek safe haven with their "uncle," (Ken Foree,) a brothel-proprietor named Charlie Altamont. In pursuit are the increasingly-insane sheriff, plus a pair of hired guns (Danny Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page) called The Unholy Two.

This is, plainly, one proudly odd duck of a movie. Zombie is working a series of pretty specific cinematic fetishes here, and not only is it not garaunteed that any one of them has enough adherents to make a hit out of this, it's not even sure that the various stratas of film buffs would be able to stomach it all in one package: The Fireflys, plus the level and manner of violence they inflict, are straight out of the nastiest gorefest. The settings... dusty highways, rusty trucks and sparse dives... are the stuff of "Walking Tall" hicksploitation nirvana. The soundtrack eschews metal in favor of searingly well-utilized southern rock classics. It's like Zombie went on a bender of post-60s exploitation self-education and made a screenplay out of his crib notes.

This is no "Kill Bill" of semi-segmented genre-dissection, this is styles-in-a-blender, and it's made even stranger by the imposition of a "revenge drama" story arc upon these outlandish characters: The Firefly's are ruthless thrill-killers, and their pursuers are equally vicious in their own right, but the film plays out as though it's Butch & Sundance with pickup trucks; framing the Firefly's in the terms of a "wacky but loving" family of miscreants and seemingly rooting for them to triumph over the cops. The pace never breaks it's flow between, for example, horrific scenes of the Firefly's torturing and slaughtering a random family they happen upon at a motel and later scenes of family comedy over whether or not to stop the car for ice cream.

But I digress. It's up to the film scholarship of the future to discern whether or not the road/revenge/southern-rock/gore/horror/comedy genre was anything of note; what can be said here and now is that Rob Zombie has made the best possible entry in it I can seriously imagine. I loved this, whatever it is, unashamedly. I don't think I'm the only one, the actors all seem to have had a great time: Sig Haig once again proves an incredible screen presence, Sheri Moon Zombie is once more the year's most alluring murderess, and Mosley has actually toned down his bit as Otis (btw, this time around the inside joke of the Firefly's copping the names of Groucho Marx characters becomes a key plot point) to great effect, utilized this time out as the "straight man" to his more absurd family members.

Zombie has improved exponentially as a filmmaker, and his "money" scenes of gore are just as self-assuredly inventive as the movie containing them: Hands are nailed to chairs, skulls are bashed in, ammo-clips are emptied, axes are swung, knives are thrown and even staple-guns get memorably employed at one point. In terms of bloodletting-as-artistry this is the best boot-to-the-guts gorefest since "Sin City," bar nothing. And if that sounds like your kind of night at the movies, then get out and see it. In terms of the not-yet-"converted" getting into this at all... look, I honestly can't tell you. It's just a hugely difficult film to classify.

I guess it comes down to this: One scene in the film involves a carful of hateful, remorseless (and by that point thoroughly horrific-looking) serial killers engaged in a pitched gunbattle against a phalanx of police that becomes a blur of blood, bullets and wounds all set to the (complete) tune of "Freebird." If that even approaches something you'd be entertained or even impressed by, you can see it in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 9/10