***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras A+
starring Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, William Forsythe
written and directed by Rob Zombie
by Walter Chaw The Devil's Rejects is a minor grindhouse classic that betrays writer-director Rob Zombie as a self-hating cinephile (he inserts a movie critic character only to abuse him) who saddles his villains with Marx Brothers aliases and cribs scenes from sources as varied as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Taxi Driver. His family of Ed Geins (Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), her brother Otis (Bill Moseley), their uncle Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig)) proceed to Petrified Forest a family of rodeo cowboys (Geoffrey Lewis and Priscilla Barnes and others) at a motor inn after a rousing break from a siege on their farmhouse of horrors, then get hunted down and tortured by avenging angel Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe). His tongue firmly in cheek, Zombie casts a couple of '80s sitcom queens from TV shows worried about family dynamics (Barnes of "Three's Company" and Deborah Van Valkenburgh of "Too Close for Comfort") in meatbag roles while spinning southern rock classics like The Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider" over a virtuoso credit sequence (shades of Scott Caan's exceptional debut Dallas 362) and Lynrd Skynrd's "Free Bird" during its conclusion in a way that actually manages not to feel ironic or snarky. That's the tightrope Zombie walks here and he walks it with a surplus of style and skill: it's an exploitation flick about audience culpability, a splatter flick about morality, and a post-modern film that actually cares about movies.
The conversation to have over The Devil's Rejects is the extent to which Zombie jerks the audience between identification with those innocents our charismatic villains humiliate, rape, bludgeon to death, and skin and the villains themselves once the sicko lawman on their scent nails them to chairs and douses them with gasoline. Indeed, the objectification visited on Barnes's rodeo princess in front of friends and family is a mirror of sorts to the humiliation that had been visited on her by the same friends and family for a ride on a bull featuring her breasts as the main attraction. The line between sexual ribbing among pals and sexual violence amongst strangers is examined here with the common denominator being that we, the audience sitting there in the dark, are abashed voyeurs to both. Its conclusion suggests Bonnie and Clyde and the reviews for The Devil's Rejects will most likely run the same gamut as they did for that film--it's explicit and belongs to a school of devalued cinema, but it's also smart as hell about itself and the fonts from which it springs. ('80s teen dream P.J. Soles is here, too, as are porn legend Ginger Lynn, professional wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, The Hills Have Eyes' Michael Berryman, original screen Charlie Manson Steve Railsback, and Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree.) For whatever else that can be said, Zombie has established himself as a director of skill and vision.
There's an honesty to the depravity of The Devil's Rejects. There's no attempt to glamorize the murders (something that aligns it with John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (and that film's Otis, Tom Towles, has a role here as well)) so that the ultimate impact of the picture is one of discomfort. What separates The Devil's Rejects from a Michael Bay film, however, is that Zombie implicates the viewer in the atrocities, indicting our desire to see that girl from "Three's Company" sexually assaulted at gunpoint. He's expressing the repressed in a way that's gratifying to the worst parts of human nature and instead of doing it for cheap thrills, he's doing it--self-consciously--to point the finger at the whole phenomenon of spectatorship. What is it that we're hoping for, exactly, when we buy a ticket to the latest serial killer flick? If this movie makes you feel bad, it's supposed to. Zombie inspires sympathy for these devils, and he casts light in the process on the uncomfortable things about the way we are that make wickedness so damnably attractive.
A film that improves with each viewing (particularly after a screening of the disappointing Wolf Creek), the unrated Director's Cut of The Devil's Rejects arrives on DVD from Lions Gate in a 2-disc package sporting a beautiful 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation misidentified as 2.35:1 on the packaging.* The new footage could have been better annotated, but comparing this redux to my memory of the theatrical experience, some disquieting suggestions of necrophilia, a few extensions to the already-heavy gore, and a slightly more explicit approach to the sex scenes appear to be the major revisions. Hardest to watch is a seemingly longer version of Barnes's torture. Yikes. What's most interesting about the uncut edition is that for as much as we're hoisted on the petard of our own prurient interests by the picture, Zombie really pushes our faces in depravity to the point that it begins to feel as though you're suffocating. Is there such a thing as "too much" in a film like The Devil's Rejects? I think the answer is yes, but I also think that the line is one for the individual to draw and keeps moving as each person loses parts of their innocence.
As far as the transfer itself is concerned, I couldn't detect a hint of edge enhancement and the textures are pleasingly filmic. Notice in particular Captain Spaulding's face paint and how it's not so much crisp as detailed and, appropriately, disgusting. I couldn't pinpoint any compression defects or processing delay in the slightest--something notable given the whip-pans and jittering action sequences. I was looking at those as measures of quality mainly because as The Devil's Rejects is meant to evoke the look and texture of the '70s grindhouse, it's difficult to judge the image against that of the film's contemporaries. This aside, the pinpoints of light on Priscilla Barnes's forehead during her character's introduction never fail to kill me. DD 5.1 EX audio sounds bright and explosive, the perfectly-metered music selections benefiting most from the encoding--but if you want the full-force of the opening shoot-out and the unfortunate truck accident, switch over to the perversely loud (and muscular to boot) 6.1 DTS-ES alternative.
Rob Zombie contributes a commentary track that betrays the man as not only very smart, but very funny, too. Congenial, self-deprecating, witty, and super-informative, he spots where he's shooting day-for-night, provides production anecdotes that actually augment the viewing experience, and in general makes The Devil's Rejects impossible to dismiss as exploitation schlock. During the gruelling hotel/torture scene, Zombie reveals that as it was shot on a closed, four-wall set, things got claustrophobic and hot and his actors became increasingly upset. Rather than equivocate, Zombie says that he wishes in retrospect that he'd made a film set entirely in that miserable little space. (Something to look forward to, I guess.) I love how he justifies the extreme gore of one shot as part of a desire to keep the film grounded in humanism. Later, he explains why he didn't give an actress a swollen-looking eye because, in his mind, an actor's eye is among their main tools and when you take that away, you start handicapping your cast. Spoken like a real director. The three "rejects" (Moseley, Haig, Moon Zombie) team up for a second yakker that finds them reminiscing about the shoot in a convivial, enjoyable way. Herein, Moseley reveals that Kane Hodder (Jason himself) was the stunt coordinator--something I guess I should have noticed but didn't and was delighted to learn. More silence than I would've expected follows, but moments in which they marvel at the tastelessness and brutality of the film (Moon Zombie covers her eyes during several sequences, squeals during numerous others) are genuinely funny and unaffected. Moon Zombie, I confess, sounds like a doll. Gotta say that I enjoyed the hell out of both commentaries--and that's almost as rare as a purely unrepentant exploitation flick.
A "Blooper Reel" (5 mins.) features the cast cutting up in the way that people in high-tension situations tend to cut-up. William Forsythe flubs a couple of lines and then needs to excuse himself for a minute. He ain't laughin'--fact is, he seems like he's going to kill something for real. The mock-up "Morris Green Show" (13 mins.) is so good at aping an insipid '70s talk show that it's nearly impossible to sit through, though it does shine a light on how little this type of programming has changed over the years. In "Mary the Monkey Girl Commercial" (1 min.), Captain Spaulding hawks his brand new attraction: a stuffed monkey in pearls and a dress. A "Spaulding Christmas Commercial" (1 min.) is more of the same, with our jolly old imp portraying that jolly old imp. "Cheerleader Missing: Otis Home Movie" (1 min.) is a mock-up snuff film on fake Super8 (w/multiple camera angles to boot) of Otis killing a cheerleader. "Satan's Gotta Get Along Without Me" (2 mins.) is archival footage of Country legend Buck Owens singing the titular song. The clip appears in The Devil's Rejects on a television just before the hotel room torture scene.
That may be a lot, but it's not all as the second disc includes Craig Weaver's 30 Days of Hell, a 144-minute making-of documentary so comprehensive that it's almost forty-five minutes longer than the film itself. Amazingly, not much is regurgitated from the two yak-tracks, and there's a remarkable amount of transparency as Zombie and his crew bitch about how much they have to pay for certain people and cameramen and vent their frustrations about working on a low budget with a stringent shooting schedule. Zombie looking at sketches of a woman's jeans and figuring how much it'll cost to keep his cast costumed throughout is not only a sight for the ages, but also a glimpse into the hell of being a director. He observes that life as a touring rock star helped him manage a large production team (the guy, I'm serious, is sort of a genius) and earns my eternal fidelity for taking an out-of-left-field shot at "Walker, Texas Ranger". And the B-roll here, of on-set stuff through every aspect of shooting the day's scenes (costume, stunt, crane, lighting), is just fascinating. It's better than a set visit, because there's no heat and there's no waiting. The film is already moving towards a queasy cult following--and it's been matched now with a DVD release worthy of its own growing status. Originally published: December 7, 2005.
*Also available in a single-disc, R-rated fullscreen edition.