Thursday, July 16, 2015
Film Appreciation - A Cleansing of the Wicked
Film Appreciation goes to hell as Cody Hamman marks the tenth anniversary of Rob Zombie's
The Devil's Rejects.
Musician/filmmaker Rob Zombie's feature directorial debut House of 1000 Corpses had a troubled post-production, getting bounced from studio to studio, but it was a box office success for the distributor it ended up with, Lionsgate, and Lionsgate wanted more. One year after Ho1KC finally reached theatres, Zombie was in production on a sequel, albeit one with a very different style than its predecessor.
While Zombie's first movie had been an over-the-top, colorful, music video nightmare, he took a much more grounded approach to the follow-up, shooting it on 16mm in desert locations, largely during daylight hours, and for the most part effectively capturing the look of a 1970s movie for his 1970s-set story.
The events of House of 1000 Corpses occurred on and around Halloween of 1977, and The Devil's Rejects picks up on May 18, 1978 with the aftermath of those events. One of the victims in the previous film was police officer Lieutenant George Wydell, played by Tom Towles. His murder was business as usual for the family inhabiting the titular corpse-ridden house, but it has severe repercussions for them here.
Nearly seven months after his brother's death, Sheriff John Quincey Wydell (William Forsythe) leads a belated raid on the family's home that immediately becomes a shootout when the killers, wearing Ned Kelly-style armor, and the authorities open fire on each other.
Not all of the villainous characters or the actors playing them returned for the sequel. Dennis Fimple, who played Grampa Hugo in Corpses, unfortunately passed away before that movie was even released, and Hugo's absence is never addressed in this one. Attempts to bring Karen Black and Robert Mukes back as Mother Firefly and Rufus were unsuccessful, so those roles were filled by Leslie Easterbrook and Tyler Mane. Mane/Rufus doesn't last very long.
By the time the gunfire has ended, Rufus is dead, Mother Firefly is arrested, 7'6" Tiny Firefly (Matthew McGrory) is hiding in the woods near the property, and Baby Firefly and Otis B. Driftwood (Sheri Moon Zombie and Bill Moseley reprising their roles) are on the run. That's partially why this isn't called House of 1000 Corpses 2 - it's not set in the house.
Another Corpses character seems to have been entirely ignored in The Devil's Rejects: Walter Phelan as Dr. Satan, the search for whom led the victims into the clutches of Driftwood and the Firefly clan. There was a short scene written and filmed in which Dr. Satan was pulled out of the house, his ghoulish appearance causing him to be taken to the hospital... where he promptly tears out the throat of a nurse played by Rosario Dawson. The scene was cut out because Zombie felt Dr. Satan didn't fit in with the more down-to-earth style of The Devil's Rejects. Dawson getting cut out is the real loss there, but then again, she should have been given a role with more than forty seconds of screen time anyway.
Otis and Baby contact local gas station/murder museum proprietor Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) to join them on the road, because as it turns out, Spaulding is Baby's father. While they wait for Spaulding to catch up with them at their designated meeting spot, the remote Kahiki Palms Motel, they torture, demean, and murder a group of people: musician duo Banjo and Sullivan (Lew Temple and Geoffrey Lewis), their wives Wendy and Gloria (Kate Norby and Priscilla Barnes), and their roadie Jimmy (Brian Posehn).
The scenes depicting what Otis and Baby do to these people are brutal and disturbing. This isn't fun escapism, this is unnerving, realistic tragedy playing on the screen. The intensity of these scenes is driven home by the incredible performances of the actors playing the victims. It's very reminiscent of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972).
While the killers are adding more victims to their body count, and eventually move on to partying with Spaulding at a whorehouse owned by his brother Charlie Altamont (Ken Foree), Zombie also reveals more to us about Sheriff Wydell.
Wydell isn't a by-the-book lawman seeking to bring criminals to justice, he is on what he perceives to be a righteous mission of vengeance. He intends to avenge his brother by wiping out the Firefly clan, taking any means necessary to do so. There's a burning rage inside him that's driving him over the edge into insanity.
A reference-spewing motormouth critic confirms to Wydell that the aliases Firefly, Hugo, Rufus, Otis B. Driftwood, and Captain Spaulding all come from Marx brothers movies, but that doesn't get him any closer to tracking them down. It's a pair of bounty hunters - Diamond Dallas Page and Danny Trejo as Billy Ray Snapper and Rondo - who lead him to Charlie Altamont's whorehouse, where the storylines merge and Wydell gets his shot at revenge.
House of 1000 Corpses had been a disappointment to me upon first viewing, but The Devil's Rejects was the total opposite. A massive improvement over Zombie's first film on every level, this one blew me away.
I didn't like the style of Ho1KC, but I love the style of TDR. The look, the tone, the music - this film has one of the coolest soundtracks out there, with a great mixture of classic rock and country. I was a fan of several of the songs before this, but the soundtrack did introduce me to a trio of beautiful songs by Terry Reid.
As with the previous movie, I had the soundtrack for this one before I had even seen it. It took me a couple weeks to get to The Devil's Rejects, because I was on vacation when it came out. The first thing I did when I got back home was go to the mall, to a Hot Topic for the first and only time, and buy the soundtrack CD. The cashier asked me if I had watched the movie yet, and was surprised to hear that I hadn't. She then told me that a friend of hers had worked on it, as part of special effects artist Robert Kurtzman's crew. Hearing this from a cashier in a mall in this area of Ohio made sense, because Kurtzman (the K of the effects group KNB) had left Hollywood to return to his Ohio hometown and start working from there.
The cashier would probably be glad to know that I ended up seeing TDR in the theatre twice, thoroughly enjoying it both times.
It's hard to believe that was ten years ago, but to this day when I rewatch TDR I still thoroughly enjoy it. Although, I seem to enjoy it in a different way than many of its fans do.
The Devil's Rejects totally draws me in and evokes an emotional response, but it never makes me feel sympathy for Otis, Baby, and Spaulding like a lot of viewers do. Zombie meant for the lines between good and evil to become blurred as the film goes on, the idea being that you'll come to care for the killers and be rooting for them once Wydell catches up to them and unleashes his fury on them. I don't, I can't get beyond what Otis and Baby do to the Banjo and Sullivan group. There's no way for me to care or feel bad for them after that, I'm on Wydell's side, and I want him to make them pay for what they've done. Sure, I'm a fan of the actors playing the killers, there are fun moments with them, but that doesn't redeem the characters.
Also, Forsythe is amazing as Wydell, badass and unhinged. The moments when he stares into a mirror and forcefully repeats "Lord, I am your arm of justice" and when he monologues to his prisoners are two of my favorites.
The cast Zombie assembled is amazing as a whole. In addition to those named, there's also Dave Sheridan, E.G. Daily, Michael Berryman, P.J. Soles, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Ginger Lynn, Mary Woronov, Daniel Roebuck, Duane Whitaker, Steve Railsback... No matter how small the role, chances are that it's going to be played by a familiar face. Zombie often gets mocked for the "genre all stars" nature of his casts, but I enjoy seeing movies populated by actors from beloved films of the '70s and '80s.
The Devil's Rejects is an awesome film. I have had issues with Rob Zombie's movies from time to time, but not with this one. As far as I'm concerned, it's his masterpiece.