Aside from the incomparably creepy Lords Of Salem The Devil’s Rejects, Rob Zombie’s sequel to the infamous House Of 1000 Corpses, is easily the controversial director’s most impressive movie to date–moreover, it was only his second feature film project, making it even more of an accomplishment.
Unlike Corpses, which had a ramshackle structure, was overwhelmingly tongue-in-cheek and owed a considerable debt to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Devil’s Rejects is a well-judged, twisted, and very brutal ode to seventies exploitation movies that has aged remarkably well, and holds its own both as a sequel and a standalone horror flick.
Where Corpses went beyond being blackly comic to just plain funny, Rejects is immediately serious, even disturbing, because the stakes are higher this time around. The Firefly family aren’t running riot in their Texas compound anymore, they’re on the lam, with one of them, Mother Firefly, locked up in prison.
As a result, the flick becomes more of a road movie than anything else (Zombie said in early press that he envisioned it as a western rather than a straight horror film), and it’s stronger as a result. Although the grainy, sun-washed aesthetic retains a seventies feel, the production values are noticeably better this time around.Everything is more considered, and Zombie’s scope is wider. He allows his characters room to play and gives us the opportunity to get to know them better. This is a movie that lives or dies on whether the central trio are well-received, and it succeeds predominantly because of how well Zombie knows his audience.
Loading his cast with Horror Icons, such as Bill Moseley and Sid Haig, along with notable genre character actors like Ken Foree, he ensures that horror fans know he’s winking and nudging towards them, that this is a movie made for horror fans by a horror fan.
The central relationship between Otis and Baby has an almost Riff Raff and Magenta feel to it, with Baby in particular coming into her own here. Zombie taps into his wife’s weird talent for playing adorably unhinged sexiness, to the point where we don’t know whether to be scared or turned on.
Unlike Corpses, which introduced us to these characters as horrible, bloodthirsty lunatics, Rejects heavily implies that we should side with the Fireflies. It suggests that we’re just like them, that we take part in their activities and should feel sorry for them when they inevitably get captured.
The score turns sappy when the cops catch up with them, and again when they’re being tortured in their own home. And, as their defiant facade crumbles, we’re left with the distinct impression that law enforcement are just as bad, if not worse, than they are.
The Devil’s Rejects is a funny little film in this way because, it ultimately leaves us with the impression that maybe we shouldn’t have been rooting for the alleged bad guys all along, thanks to an especially gut-wrenching finale and it also boasts some of the most disturbing sequences in modern horror.
Most of the second act is set in a seedy motel, with Otis and Baby taking hostages and torturing them, both mentally and physically, for an unspecified amount of time. It’s loaded with troubling sequences, the worst of which sees Otis sexually assaulting a woman with a gun.
However, the strangest element is the decision to leave one girl alive, hanging off the back of the door, with a dead man’s face attached to her head. It’s a glimpse into their twisted psyche as it’s all, as Baby delights in telling her hostages, mind control.
The Fireflies don’t need to do anything too crazy to create an atmosphere of discomfort (they don’t even need a loaded gun), which is also Zombie’s message to us as an audience, and as consumers of horror. After all, the original Texas Chain Saw was incredibly low on gore and it’s still stomach-churningly horrible.
The Devil’s Rejects is an insanely quotable movie, which probably goes some way towards explaining how it’s gained so many diehard fans over the past decade. The inimitable Captain Spaulding (who has, horrifyingly, been adopted by juggalos as one of their own) gets some of the best lines, but it is Otis who achieves instant-icon status with the eloquent; “I am The Devil and I am here to do the Devil’s work”.
This is, supposedly, a quote lifted from The Manson Family, who were part of Zombie’s inspiration for the Fireflies. It’s uttered during one of the movie’s already-iconic shots, as Otis brushes the hair out of his eyes, fixes a glare on his victim and tells him exactly how it is. It’s not even an especially bloody scene, but it has a lasting impact.
Zombie took a gamble with the finale for The Devil’s Rejects. After around 100 minutes of carnage and madness, he turns the volume way down, pulls the camera back and leaves his final sequence to unfold slowly, methodically and to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd classic “Free Bird”.
A weird choice for a director who moonlights as a heavy metal superstar, this finale sequence is one of Zombie’s most impressive feats as a filmmaker. It’s painfully sad, inescapably moving, and it has absolutely no right to be. The Fireflies are horrible, cruel, sadistic killers. We shouldn’t care that they’re about to be gunned down by police, because they deserve it.
But, for some reason, when Zombie zooms in to catch their expressions, as it dawns on them what’s about to happen, as they collectively decide to fight one last time, it’s impossible not to feel for them. It’s impossible not to hope they survive.
The Devil’s Rejects was initially criticised for forcing us to side with the villains, but it’s to Zombie’s credit that he does this, and does it well. There’s no doubt that the Fireflies are the real heroes of the piece, regardless of how many people they torture or kill.
Rejects is also one of the best examples of a sequel done right, one that eclipses its predecessor while still building upon the foundations it built. Although it’s a better movie than Corpses, without the characters that first film introduced, there would be no reason for its existence.
It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since The Devil’s Rejects was released. In a year that was packed with genre movies, giving us; The Descent, Saw II and Wolf Creek, along with the requisite remakes like House Of Wax, it’s amazing to see this film stand the test of time as well as it has.
Some of these movies have aged better than others, and a many are more well-regarded than this one, but none have developed quite the rabid fan-base that Rejects has. And for good reason, too. Regardless of your personal feelings towards Rob Zombie, there’s no denying he’s done well here.
On this, its triumphant tenth anniversary, let us take a moment to appreciate The Devil’s Rejects for exactly what it is; a nasty, gruesome, funny, accomplished and ultimately very poignant love letter to horror movies, and horror fans. As Total Film noted at the time, it’s “cruel, sadistic and disturbing”–if that’s what you’re into. And we most definitely are.