Jacob Farley comes to 10YA for the second time in as many months to discuss the queasy power and grim brutality of Rob Zombie’s second film, The Devil’s Rejects.
When I was a kid at summer camp, there was a big farmhouse bordering one edge of the property. We were told that the family lived there was called the Campbells, and they were bad news. They were crazy, the counselors said, and they hated little kids. They’d fire shotguns from the porch at anyone they saw near their property; they’d once chased a counselor down a hillside, waving knives and shouting behind him. I never saw any evidence that all this was true, of course, but still I held my breath when I had occasion to be near the edge of that farm, either stumbling across it accidentally during a game, or taken there on an illicit nighttime hike orchestrated by one of the counselors who particularly enjoyed scaring campers. Even when I grew older and became a counselor myself, the stories about that farm were never decisively refuted. Don’t go out there—it won’t end well.
Of course, thinking about it as an adult, well, it’s hard to imagine that the YMCA would actually allow a camp to operate proximate to an active murder family’s compound. Still…I don’t know.
Rob Zombie’s second film, The Devil’s Rejects, is every story about that family, every half-remembered childhood fear and legend about the folks in the hills, cranked to eleven, soaked in gasoline and left to bake in the desert sun. It’s possibly the best movie I could never ever, in good conscience, recommend to anyone. It’s a horror movie only because it is horrific, not because it follows any traditional horror clichés or stereotypes. It is, rather, an ordeal.
One of the appeals of the horror genre, paradoxically, is how safe they are. Often, the message at the end of a scary movie is that everything will be “OK.” The monster is defeated (for now, at least), and our remaining heroes can take a well-deserved break. Left purposefully unmentioned is the lifetime of therapy and rehabilitation the surviving characters would inevitably need, but the characters aren’t really the point of a horror movie. The point is the rush of release and endorphins we get from “safe” fear. We, the audience, get all the charge and none of the actual danger. This is what distinguishes The Devil’s Rejects: There is absolutely no predictability. It isn’t telling a typical horror story (if anything, it has the plot of a road movie—a blood-drenched Easy Rider where every main character is that guy in the truck with the shotgun), and as a result, its commitment to grim brutality is completely disorienting.
The story is simple: In 1978, somewhere in the deserts of Texas, the zealous Sheriff John Quincy Wydell (William Forsythe) raids a remote farmhouse in what a voiceover paired with an intertitle informs us is a “search and destroy” mission. The dilapidated farm is occupied by the Firefly clan, a sadistic gang of loosely related serial murderers who, we’re told, are responsible for at least 75 murders within a hundred-mile radius, and that’s almost certainly a low estimate. After a firefight which leaves one member of the family dead and the matriarch (Leslie Easterbrook) in police custody, the two most dangerous members of the family escape out a secret tunnel. On the run, Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) contact their “father,” a local small-time celebrity clown known as Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and warn him that the police are on their trails. They lay low at a roadside motel, where Otis and Baby entertain themselves by torturing and murdering a touring country band called Banjo and Sullivan. Once Spaulding arrives, they flee to his half-brother Charlie Altamont’s (Ken Foree) desert brothel. Eventually they’re captured there by Sheriff Wydell and two bounty hunters (Danny Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page), who return them to the Firefly family house. Once there, Sheriff Wydell tortures the three before finally being killed himself by Tiny (Matthew McGrory), another Firefly clan member who had been hiding in the woods. Baby, Otis, and Spaulding, all horribly injured, drive off into the night. The next morning, they are killed in a shootout with a police blockade.
That description is lacking in…certain details, shall we say. Virtually every single moment of this movie is drenched in brutality. It’s not fun, though it’s also not without a certain sense of humor. Take, for instance, the scene where Baby, Otis, and Spaulding bicker about whether or not to stop for an ice cream cone as they flee the scene of their latest killings—it’s breezy, funny, well-acted, and well-paced by Zombie. It contains what might be the funniest moment in the film, a punchline cut from Otis promising the two that there is absolutely no ice cream in their future to Spaulding and Baby happily chowing down on their cones. In this moment, the group actually seems like a real family. It’s an incredible relief to come to this scene after the harrowing Kahiki Palms Motel sequence, and a very smart choice on Zombie’s part.
There’s also the scene where Sheriff Wydell consults a local film critic regarding Marx Brothers films. (All the Firefly clan member’s names are taken from various Marx Brothers movies.) The critic is pompous, cartoonish, self-important, and has perhaps one of the most ridiculous mustaches ever committed to film. He’s come prepared with all sorts of factoids and stories about Groucho, but is tossed out on his ear when he has the temerity to complain that Elvis’s death overshadowed Groucho’s. The scene is funny and weird and seems quite out of place, but I think it’s a crucial moment in understanding Zombie’s purpose. Wydell brought the critic in because he hoped to glean some kind of insight into the behavior of the Firefly clan, but the secret in the dark heart of the movie is that there is no reason. There’s no motive for their crimes that can be understood, or broken down, or related to. They require no justification for their own behavior. They kill because they can, and that’s all. Regular people can’t really understand it. Wydell knowingly sacrifices his humanity to get revenge on the Firefly clan. (His brother was murdered by them, and he makes a point of telling them that it’s the reason he’s so bent on vengeance.) Even so, he can’t just do it so casually, the way they can. He rehearses the badass things he imagines himself saying to them in a mirror. He has to get very drunk during his torture of the captured family in order to stomach his own actions. He’s spurred to action after a guilt-laden dream about his brother. Wydell has reasons for behaving this way and thus, even as he pursues them and descends to their level, he can never truly understand how they do what they do or how they live with themselves.
This concept relates strongly to what, in my mind, gives The Devil’s Rejects its queasy power. In real life, when horrifying and tragic events occur, we get no real understanding of the why behind it. Oh, we can come up with particular triggers or patterns or justifications, but we’ve never gotten any closer to actually stopping spree killers or serial murders before they start or understanding them in any fundamentally useful manner. In this way, Zombie draws much more directly on real-life American horror stories in this film. While there are certainly nods to films like Bonnie and Clyde or Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, I was far more struck by imagery and sequences that resonated with real history. I can’t testify to how intentional all this was on Zombie’s part, but I believe he’s a smart guy, and everything I noticed took place during or prior to the 1978 setting of the story. Here is a list I kept as I watched of some of the overt visual and conceptual references to specifically American fears and stories Zombie drew from: Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy (Otis and Spaulding’s visual appearances are the most explicit references in the film), the Vietnam War, the Zodiac Killer (indeed, one murder sequence early in the film could almost be mistaken for a scene from David Fincher’s Zodiac), Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, the murder of Kitty Genovese, the Black Dahlia, and the Kennedy assassination. There may well be more.
The movie also deals in a somewhat unsettling (but much more offhanded) manner with the concept of religion: Otis claims to be the devil himself, and forces a character to futilely pray for salvation before mocking and murdering him. Ironically, Otis receives stigmatic wounds at the climax of the film, when Wydell nails Otis’s hands to a chair. Wydell also has several speeches in which he attempts to convince himself that he is acting as the righteous hand of God’s vengeance upon the Firefly clan, but his thirst for blood ultimately kills him just as surely as the Firefly’s lust for murder kills them.
The real engine of the movie’s terror, though, is the Kahiki Palms Motel. This sequence alone is so striking that the rest of the film deflates in its wake. The sheer level of unpredictable, grotesque torment that this group of entirely innocent individuals undergoes at the hands of Baby and Otis ratcheted my heart rate up for the entire rest of the movie. It’s so effective that, even though I’ve seen the movie several times, it still feels like a gut punch. I know my mom will read this (hi mom!), so I won’t go into too much detail, but nothing else ever tops it.
Really, Zombie’s triumph in this movie is his successful and absolute deromanticization of the concept of movie violence and movie horror. There’s no one to sympathize with, no heroes, no hope of salvation—there is only death, torment, and more death. There is explicit sexual violence, torture, sadism, body horror, murder of all stripes, kidnapping, and more. About the only grim touchstone Zombie avoids is cannibalism, and one gets the sense that it’s more out of a lack of time than anything else.
All that said, it sounds like a movie like this should be unwatchable, but it absolutely isn’t. Zombie paces it so well, throws in so many clever touches and moments, and gets such fantastic performances out of his actors that it compels even as it repulses. Zombie’s clear desire to actually entertain you, the discerning horror enthusiast, is what elevates the movie above the likes of A Serbian Film or Funny Games. That’s why I can’t, in good conscience, recommend this movie to anyone but the most hardened of horror fans, but for those who think they can take it, there’s nothing else quite like it. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
– Banjo and Sullivan, the band murdered by Otis and Baby, actually have an album. It was produced by Zombie himself to add to the verisimilitude of the movie. It’s actually not bad, if you were interested. The second-to-last track is titled “Lord, Don’t Let Me Die in a Cheap Motel,” so that’s fun.
– The Devil’s Rejects is technically a sequel to Zombie’s first film, House of 1000 Corpses, but it’s so stylistically distinct that it bears almost no relation to the first film. In fact, I didn’t even see House of 1000 Corpses until a few years after first seeing The Devil’s Rejects, and I feel no regret about that. House is much more beholden to the rhythms of music videos and lurid pulp horror, and often feels like a hodgepodge of the various Texas Chainsaw Massacremovies. It’s alright, but inessential.
– When the film first came out, there was some talk about how it was an allegory for the U.S. response to 9/11. I think that’s a valid enough interpretation of the film, but that arc (Wydell’s descent from righteous seeker of justice to gleefully blood-soaked murderer) is really nothing that Nietzsche didn’t already point out in his quote about looking into the abyss.
– I do wonder whether or not Wydell is partially inspired by Art Schley, the sheriff who captured Ed Gein. Schley was reportedly so disturbed by what he found in Gein’s house (I do not recommend Googling) that he beat him so badly in custody that Gein’s first confession was ruled inadmissible.
– I can’t overstate how terrifying yet charismatic Bill Moseley is as Otis. He actually reminded me a lot of a subsequent pop-culture psychopath: Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V. I kind of assume Dan Houser is a big fan of this movie.
– I suspect the year 1978 resonates very strongly with Zombie: it’s the year he turned eighteen, as well as the year that three of the most notorious serial killers in American history were captured—Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and David Berkowitz, each of whom gets an explicit nod in the film. It’s also the year the original Halloween was released, single-handedly kickstarting the slasher genre. Additionally, I Spit on Your Grave and Dawn of the Dead came out that year, as well as, perhaps most horrifically of all, Grease.
-Speaking of Halloween, it baffles me how Rob Zombie can so fundamentally misunderstand what makes that movie scary (that is, Michael Meyer’s blankness as a personality and his complete, unrelenting malevolence) when he so successfully employs similar psychological effect in this movie. Zombie’s Halloween remake is far too concerned with Michael as a “troubled child,” seeking to somehow explain what should be unexplainable.
– The soundtrack to this movie is really really good.