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Face off
A region 2 DVD review of THE DEVIL'S REJECTS by Slarek
 

In movies and in rock music, names count for a lot. One only has to think of Boris Karloff, a splendid name for an actor who became a horror icon but who was born William Henry Pratt, hardly the stuff of Hollywood billboards. Over in the music world there's Vincent Damon Furnier, actually not a bad name for a rock god but not as iconic as his chosen moniker, Alice Cooper. And then there's Robert Cummings, a close friend of Cooper's who has crossed into both worlds, making his name as a rock musician and more recently as a movie director, both careers inspired in part by his own passion for horror films. Of course, Robert Cummings is no name for the lead singer of hardcore rock band, which is how Mr. Cummings became Rob Zombie.

Zombie's directorial career kicked off in 2003 with the low budget House of 1000 Corpses, an entertaining and imaginative riff on Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by way of the same director's The Funhouse, Alex Winter and Tom Stern's Freaked, and at least half a dozen others, liberally sprayed with a coating of MTV. It's only real problem as a horror film was that we never got to identify with either the aggressors or their victims, so fear was never a factor. But the dialogue was snappy, the visual realisation inventive, the performances energetic and the use of music often inspired.

In fashioning a sequel, Zombie wisely chose not to repeat himself stylistically, shaking off the first film's tongue-in-cheek approach and opting for a considerably darker, more realistic tone. Set something like four years on from 1000 Corpses, it opens with a police raid on the homestead of the mass-murderous Firefly family. The raid is led by the furiously no-nonsense Sheriff John Quincey Wydell, whose brother George was killed by the family in the first film and who now sees himself as a sword of vengeance on a mission from God. A massive shoot-out follows, during which brother Rufus is killed, Mother Firefly is captured, and the brother-sister team of Otis and Baby escape.

Right off the bat we are in different territory to the original, with the gloomily observed body of a young girl being dragged naked through the woods by towering figured of Tiny, the family's monster-in-the-attic and this film's weapon from the first act that will find function in the last. The shoot-out that follows vividly captures the mayhem of armed battle, but more crucially invites us to do something we never did in the first film, to take sides. With Sheriff Wydell spouting blood and thunder from the moment he steps out of his cruiser, the Firefly family are presented very much in Western terms as outlaws cornered by Texas Rangers, the James Gang making a last stand against the brutal overkill of authority. With the stylistic shift it's easy at this point to forget that we're dealing with mass murderers, although the transformation of Otis into a Charles Manson lookalike should keep the idea buzzing at the back of the brain.

All this changes when Otis and Baby arrive at the motel at which they have agreed to meet part-time manic middle-aged clown (and Baby's father) Captain Spaulding, where they invade the room of a newly arrived travelling musical group, killing their roadie and mentally torturing and ultimately slaughtering the rest. It's a serious narrative turning point because it's played absolutely straight and is one of the most genuinely unpleasant sequences you'll see in a film all year, as it was meant to be. It is here that our allegiance to the family breaks and we have our faces rubbed in just what it means to make cinematic heroes out of horror movie bad guys. In doing so, though, it relies on some familiar generic gender divisions – men are assaulted, abused and killed, whereas women are assaulted, humiliated, sexually abused and killed. That said, Zombie at no point presents this for titillation, which is part of why the scene is so effective in turning the Firefly family from rebels to thoroughly unsympathetic bastards.

But from here on in things get a little tricky. Having turned us against the killers, Zombie refuses to offer up an alternative point of empathic contact, with Wydell's increasingly brutality and demented religious fervour turning him into a sociopath of equally dangerous potential. It is clear that this is the director's intent, a refusal to see things in simple black-and-white terms, but while an admirable aim in itself, the downside is that there is no-one to emotionally engage with and it becomes a case of just dispassionately watching one side hunt and violently assault the other. Having said this, it's not long before Zombie points us back towards the Firefly family, attempting to drag us, in his own words, "towards the dark side." Unpleasant though this concept may seem, I personally don't have a problem with it, as requiring an audience to sympathise on some level with characters they actually dislike or are even repulsed by has given rise to some of film history's most compelling works. No, the problem I have is in how it does it, relying not on the undeniable intrigue and even dark charisma of the characters themselves, but a series of rather clunky attempts to show them as just a bunch of ordinary, fun-loving guys and gals who are just like the rest of us. This includes a rather irritating whine about wanting ice cream that concludes in one of the hoariest clichés known to movies, as one character repeatedly refuses to do something and on the very next edit are shown to have given in and are doing it, and coming so soon after the previous slaughter, it tends to stick in the throat. Later Zombie goes the whole hog with a series of idealised, home-movie style flashbacks of Otis, Baby and the Captain cavorting like a happy family in a way that is clearly meant to bring a tear to the eye, but made me laugh out loud at its bare-faced cheesiness.

Zombie's extensive film knowledge and love of movie trivia is visible in both the dialogue's post-modernist film-referencing and the extensive borrowings from and influence of other film works, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (obviously a favourite of the director's), Ned Kelly, Natural Born Killers, Taxi Driver, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Shining, The Most Dangerous Game and Pat Garret & Billy the Kid to name a few. This is further reflected in the casting of smaller roles, with familiar faces from cult films of the late 70s – the period in which this film is set – including Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes and Deadly Blessing), P.J. Soles (Halloween, Rock 'n' Roll High School), and Deborah Van Valkenburgh (The Warriors). To Zombie's credit this genuinely appears to have arisen out of his desire to work with actors he admired rather than any winking at the audience, hence the presence of favourite character actors Geoffrey Lewis and Steve Railsback, although the latter's role as the most famed of mass murderers, Ed Gein, in Chuck Parello's 2000 film of the same name can't help but strike a chord.

In other respects The Devil's Rejects is an impressive piece of work. Camera placement and editing are consistently excellent and Zombie's decision to hire DoP Phil Parmet – who began his career working on Barbara Kopple's documentary vérité classic Harlan County USA – really pays of, visually grounding the film in a reality that is nonethless tinged with menace. The performances are pretty much on the nose, with Bill Mosely in particular making Otis a genuinely threatening and dangerous figure. The absence of Karen Black from the first film is more than compensated for by Leslie Easterbrook's explosive turn as Mother Firefly, and William Forsythe spits fire as Sheriff Wydell, a movie lawman of the old school who specifically recalls R.G. Armstrong's brutal, religiously obsessed Deputy Bob Ollinger in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.

A classy piece of work all round that showcases well Zombie's increasingly impressive film-making skills, it also scores points for daring to be dangerous rather than play it generically safe. But in the process there remains some confusion over just what it is trying to achieve. As a Funny Games style attempt to force the audience to reconsider their attitude to movie violence it ultimately fails because it's had horror audiences everywhere cheering for the killers, and the 'getting to like people despite what they've done' angle stumbles because of the aforementioned clumsiness in the engagement process. Some have even suggested parallels with Bonnie and Clyde, which simply doesn't wash, Otis and Baby having none of the likeability and genuine charm that Beatty and Dunaway brought to their characters. It may not matter. A sizeable portion of the film's target audience could care less about moral and ethical issues and will be happy enough with the on-screen violence and sadistic nastiness, and will openly celebrate the fact that portions of the film are designed to cause offence. As special effects make-up artist Wayne Toth observes in the accompanying documentary, "By the end of the film you don't really even know who to root for – is there a good guy or is there not? – it's really just a violent, entertainment spectacle." It seems almost indicative of the film's intermittent schizophrenia that in the very same documentary Zombie claims, "I never wanted the violence to be exciting...I just think it's...stupid."

sound and vision

Considering the film was shot on Super-16 and blown up to 35mm, the image on display here is first rate, displaying a level of detail that would shame some 35mm transfers I've clapped eyes on recently. Colour and contrast are also bang on, the punched-out highlights being a deliberate choice by director and cinematographer. Some grain is evident, but is never intrusive. Exteriors in particular effectively capture the look of 'Out West' horror works of the 1970s, in part because of their sometimes shared 16mm origins.

There are two soundtracks on offer, Dolby 5.1 and DTS 6.1. There's actually not a huge amount to chose between them for the most part, but in key scenes the DTS track really has the edge – in the opening shoot-out, for example, bullets and gunfire come at you from every direction and at considerable volume, really placing you in the middle of the action and the confusion.

extra features

Increasingly, low budget cult films seem to be getting better DVD handling than their more mainstream counterparts, and Momentum's 2-disk special edition of The Devil's Rejects is a prime example.

First up there is a commentary by director Rob Zombie. Zombie is an intelligent and knowledgeable film-maker and provides a consistently interesting and information-packed guide to the making of the film, working with the actors and the handling of individual scenes, not least the tortuous hostage sequence, which was clearly an upsetting experience for both actors and crew, something I actually found comforting. He does tell us that Bill Mosely was happy to play his first scene – in which he is seen sleeping with the corpse of a young girl – in the nude, but Zombie declined because "I didn't want to deal with a naked Bill Moseley all day." He seemed fine with a naked Kate Norby and the stunt girl dragged through the woods for the opening, though. Zombie is clearly very aware of both his film influences and his intent, and supplies some nice technical details – I always warm to news that the director created images for the film in Photoshop on his home computer when the original didn't look quite how he had hoped.

A second commentary with actors Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Sherri Moon Zombie (the director's wife) is less essential, in part because of its more jocular nature, with the three initially laughing at just about everything they see and say, though they do supply some useful background to their approach to their characters and the experience of working with others on the film. Moseley admits he would probably not show the finished work to his daughters, suggesting they go see Howl's Moving Castle ("It's out now! It's good!") instead. He also says "Awesome!" an awful lot.

The rest of the extras are on disk 2.

The main inclusion here is the documentary, 30 Days in Hell: The Making of The Devil's Rejects (144:54). No, that figure in the brackets is not a typo, it's the actual running time – this documentary does indeed run for two and a quarter hours, half-an-hour longer than the main feature. And it's terrific. Essential a third party-shot diary of the production, it covers pre-production planning, rehearsals and every single day of the shoot in a fair amount of detail, with on-set footage cut with grabbed interviews, before-and-after special effects sequences, storyboard comparisons, even the recording of the score. There's a fair amount of praise for Zombie and the camaraderie of the shoot (a familiar claim on low-budget movies, but nice all the same), and Zombie himself comes of as even smarter than he already appeared. It makes for thoroughly enjoyable viewing, and that's coming from someone who, having seen the film four times in a row by this point and thought he'd seen quite enough of it.

Buck Owen's video: "Satan's Going to Have to Get Along Without Me" (1:53) is the full version of a video seen playing on TV in the film. It is framed 4:3 and has REALLY crispy sound.

Bloody Stand-Up (2:17) has Brian Poshen, who plays the unfortunate Jimmy, doing a not very funny improvised stand-up routine in his hole-in-the-head make-up during a filming break.

Mary the Monkey Girl Commercial (1:10) is the full version of the said commercial, seen in part in the film.

Tribute to Matthew McGrory (2:07) has a brief interview with the giant actor who plays Tiny and who died this year, intercut with footage of him on set. The music playing in the background makes it difficult to clearly hear what he is saying at times.

Page 2 kicks off with 11 Deleted Scenes, most of which are less than a minute long, but which include two longer sequences – Otis and Candy Make Funky Music (3:40) and Personal Escorts into Hell (1:46) – that are discussed in the documentary or commentary. All scenes are edited and scored and are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.

Bloopers (5:22) is a fun collection of gaffes, nicely cut together and occasionally enhanced with some crude graphical assistance.

Spaulding Xmas Commercial (1.08) is a second Captain Spaulding commercial, not used in the film but discussed on the actor's commentary.

Otis' Home Movie (0:51) is a dark, flickery, hand-held shot of Otis attacking a woman. A chance for you all to play Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer by repeatedly watching and rewinding it.

Make-Up Test (13:10) is film footage of make-up tests for the lead characters, including Dr. Satan, whose scene was cut out.

The Morris Green Show (13:18) is the full version of the show seen playing at the start of the hostage scene. It's intriguing enough that they chose to shoot the whole thing rather than just one sequence, but it's principal attraction is how funny it is, with Daniel Roebuck running with the role of shallow, self-centred talk show host Green. There's a nice little reference in there too, as Green explains the cancellation of original guest Bob Crane due to the announcement of "shocking revelations in the newspaper." Although actually referring to the raiding of the Firefly house, it alludes to the discovery of Crane's body following his violent murder in 1978.

Finally we have the Theatrical Trailer, which is non-anamorphic widescreen.

summary

Whatever your view on the finished work, if you're a horror fan you most definitely should check out The Devil's Rejects, for its skillful direction, for its sassy use of source music, for its threatening atmosphere, for its performances, and for daring to take its audience to genuinely dangerous places. Far better than some of its detractors have claimed, it's also not the classic it has been championed as by less discerning horror fans, some of whom might do well to reflect on what such uncritical adoration of such unpleasant characters might say about them.

That said, if you were impressed with the film on any level, then Momentum's special edition DVD is an absolute must, for its picture and sound, for its two commentary tracks, for its epic 'making-of' documentary and its bucket-load of other worthwhile extras.

The Devil's Rejects

USA 2005
106 mins
director
Rob Zombie
starring
Sid Haig
Bill Moseley
Sheri Moon Zombie
William Forsythe
Ken Foree
Matthew McGrory
Leslie Easterbrook
Geoffrey Lewis
Priscilla Barnes

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround 6.1
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hard of hearing
extras
Director's commentary
Actor's commentary
Making-of documentary
Music video
'Bloody stand-up'
Commercials
Tribute to Matthew McGrory
Deleted Scenes
Bloopers
Otis home movie
Make-up test
The Morris Green Show
Trailer
distributor
Momentum
release date
26 December 2005
review posted
20 December 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews