On Movies 1: The Devil’s Rejects

The Devil’s Rejects is a fan favorite with a good reputation in the horror community. Directed by one Robert Bartleh Zombie and featuring his wife in a starring role, I had my misgivings. His record on directing horror films is not spotless. However, I did sort of enjoy House of 1000 Corpses and TDR is a kind of a sequel to House so when I saw the film was free on Hulu I thought I should watch it. Eventually. Honestly, I don’t watch a lot of tv these days and I took my time getting to it. There is a lot to talk about in this film, so I’m glad I took the time. I’ll try not to spoil in the paragraphs ahead, but the movie is almost 12 years old, so I won’t be trying particularly hard. Caveat lecteur.

This film is about the fall of the murderous Firefly family, a crowd of marginally clever serial killers who stick together as a family and prey on the rest of the world– mostly ladies– from their decaying farmhouse. This sequel fortunately abandons the paperclipped-on subplot involving the cyborg-building Doctor Satan that semi-hilariously presented itself at the end of 1000 Corpses [is Doctor Satan the titular Devil of this film? If so, he is curiously absent.] and moves on to the day that local law enforcement closes in on the Fireflys (Fireflies?), killing and capturing several of their number and leaving the rest on the run. The film details their attempts to reunite their family and find a safe haven, murdering for convenience’s sake along the way and torturing when they get bored. This continues until the tables turn, forcing them to run from their own monster, and the wicked family meets its end Butch and Sundance style.

For the first half of the film I wasn’t engaged or having a good time. Otis and Baby’s cliched cruelties were not entertaining, and I was distracted by the loose plot threads I saw unraveling everywhere I turned. Oddly, I didn’t mind the myriad problems in House of 1000 Corpses nearly as much as I did in this film. I think my expectations were raised by the higher caliber camerawork and the fact that there were professional attempts to keep the plot moving forward and no random arthouse music videos slowing things down. I found myself mentally talking to the screen– “Nice homemade body armor! Looks cool, but did you know that you can buy those now? For a lot less money than y’all peckerwoods spent overstocking on guns.” and “Yes, leave the body in the road and take the car. No one will find a body in a road. It’s not like cars and drivers have some sort of connection police can use.” “Oh good, quote Charles Manson disciple Tex Watson, no one’s ever done that before,” and of course my constant cinematic refrain “Guns make sounds. Sounds travel. Motels call police when you fire guns.” All of these problems seemed positively designed to convince of the Fireflys’ stupidity. I don’t like horror movies with stupid protagonists; apparently when the protagonists are 90% evil this rule still applies.

Which brings me to a point of interest. There’s an intentional protagonist problem in this film, and this fact pulled me back in when I was watching. Are the Fireflys the protagonists? Or Sheriff Wydell, whose quest for the felonious familias pulls the already over-intense cop over the edge and into the Dark Side? The film can be viewed either way, a twist that I appreciate. In fact, what I think happens is that the protagonist/antagonist relationship flips as the film progresses. At first the Sheriff is the protagonist, trying to bring the family to justice. However, as the Sheriff turns to hired guns and murder and the Fireflys reveal themselves as both pathetic and capable of familial love and sympathies shift. I never felt myself wanting the Fireflys to get away, but I didn’t want to see them tortured to death either.

As you can tell, this film has a depressing narrative. There are a few scenes that help buoy the film, keeping it afloat. I enjoyed the reveal that both the Fireflys and monstrous paterfamilias Captain Spaulding are named after Grouch Marx characters (This was my favorite Easter egg in House of 1000 Corpses. I love both Duck Soup and Animal Crackers where the names come from) even if the film critic character was a laughable (in a bad way) cartoon.

Seriously, <3 the Marx Brothers. Plus they resonate with the film’s twisted “family” theme surprisingly well.

I also enjoyed a scene that parodies Tarantino dialog, focusing Tarantino’s trademarked cadence and intensity on chicken fucking instead of on a “Royale with cheese.” Both of these scenes are probably middle fingers playfully directed at Tarantino himself– a notorious film nerd. This is in keeping with the Fireflys “smarter than you” brand of anti-intellectualism as well, making me suspect that Rob Zombie is putting his voice into the mouths of his least likable characters. That said, RZ is also obviously quite the film nerd, with obvious influences such as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and visual references as diverse as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Jason Vorhees’ original sack-wearing appearance in Friday the Thirteenth, Part 2, and as I’ve already mentioned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Marx Brothers.

I also enjoyed the character arc for Captain Spaulding’s apparent half-brother Charlie. Charlie’s role as the Lando of the Dark Side is amusingly signaled early in the film, not only because he’s the movie’s only non-white character but because he’s a literal Nevada pimp with his own little town that the Fireflys seek refuge in, and one of his employees is adopting  a Princess Leia theme. I didn’t expect a ton of film literacy in an evil clown horror flick, and the nerdity added an enjoyable extra layer to the movie.

On the other hand, I didn’t like the unfunny slapstick of a woman running around wearing her husband’s face as a mask before she gets erased from the film by a truck like she’s Wile E. Coyote. It really undercuts the genuine emotions that Zombie manages to evoke in the second half of the story.

That’s where the screen finally got my full attention. When the story turns a corner and the Sheriff starts outright murdering prisoners, when the Fireflys are revealed as the pathetically human monsters they’ve always been, that’s when the movie got me thinking. For all of their bravado, all their hate speech and cruelty, all of their crimes against the unsuspecting, they are human. They are just as vulnerable to cruelty and brutality as their victims. They can and do sacrifice for each other, and when Baby is hunted the same way she hunted a girl in the first move she runs and bleeds and cries– just like the girl she chased down in House of 1000 Corpses. It’s a kind of corrupt Old Testament justice represented in the Sheriff’s odious person.

Sheriff Wydell is not as hideous as the Fireflys, but he’s strangely less likable… well, less likable than Captain Spaulding. The closest Otis and Baby come to being likable is when they’re desperate and broken. And make no mistake, the whole family is broken by film’s end. They’ll never find their strength again, the false strength that let them be boogeymen… not that they’ll get the chance. Sure, they strap on their brave faces so they can go down shooting in that beautifully filmed finale, but it’s the knowledge that it’s over for them that gives them the strength to make that token effort. Dying is easy, living is harder.

Still, I’m human. When I see a family, beaten and bleeding, on the edge of freedom I’m going to root for them… some. A little bit. Even if they are the worst cartoon villains to adorn the screen since Tranzor Z. If that’s Zombie’s point, then it’s a point well taken.

Both The Devil’s Rejects and House of 1000 Corpses are free with a Hulu subscription, and Hulu’s smart enough to not play commercials during movies, unlike Crackle. Stupid Crackle. A solid ‘B’ effort. If you’re a horror fan you’ll probably want to check them out.

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