Title: The Devil’s Rejects
Genre: Crime, Horror
Director: Rob Zombie
Screenwriters: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley
I am tempted to give Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects a positive review just to spite all the people — and there will be plenty — who will call the movie “vile” and “repugnant” and act like they are actually contributing to the discussion. Vile? Really? Repugnant? No kidding! Adjectives pose as criticisms a lot in this game, but a movie like this seems to positively invite it: viewers and critics will express their outrage, moral or otherwise, and pretend that they’ve just made some sort of trenchant statement on the film, the director (who will become a depraved loon), the horror movie industry, what have you. I am writing this on Wednesday; it would be wonderful to be proven wrong on Friday.
Oh, The Devil’s Rejects is a bad film, but its badness has little to do with adjectives like sickening, repulsive, disgusting, etc. No, the reason it fails is considerably more mundane than any of that, essentially amounting to the fact that Zombie (or, as the New York Times will no doubt refer to him, Mr. Zombie), despite having a number of interesting ideas, has no idea what, if anything, he actually wants to say. There are stretches during which this becomes a very intriguing film, toying with all sorts of notions about justice, retribution, vigilantism and violence, but in the end, nothing glues together, and Zombie’s morality (for surely morality — or lack thereof — is the focus of the movie) remains a muddle. There are times during this 101 minute effort when Zombie seems, alternately, like an utterly amoral being, an eye-for-an-eye moralist, a sneering detractor of traditional notions of right and wrong, and, indeed, a depraved loon. I would argue that had he held tight to any one of these characterizations, The Devil’s Rejects would have been worthy.
It’s tough to fault those who recoil from Zombie’s supremely unpleasant gorefest, since the initial reaction is certainly to hate it, to despise it with a passion usually reserved for Karl Rove and Uwe Boll. It’s a movie about a family of serial killers, and it shows the torment and torture of their victims in all their resplendent B-movie glory. I will admit that for the first 80 minutes I was stricken with the same sort of moral repulsion that I denounced in the first paragraph; I hated the film viscerally, and wanted to leave. I’m not sure I was necessarily wrong in doing so at that point (not leaving, but wanting to leave), since up until then the movie had done nothing but depict and wallow in unspeakable acts of brutality.
Then, unexpectedly, Zombie does something potentially intriguing. He turns the tables on his main characters, making them the victims of a vigilante sheriff with a bloodlust borne of righteous indignation. His vengeance is every bit as bloody and merciless as the killers’ exploits, and for a while The Devil’s Rejects seems to be pointedly playing with the concepts of retribution and vigilantism in much the same way The Punisher did. In earlier scenes, Zombie inspired much the same bloodlust in us, the desire to see these bastards punished as hideously as possible, and once that does indeed start to happen, he seems to be asking us if we’re satisfied. Does it make us feel better? Is there catharsis? The answer, at least for me, was no: it’s not fun to watch people beg for mercy, no matter what they’ve done.
This, of course, has all sorts of implications, from morality to criminal justice and back to morality. I perked up, wondering if Zombie hadn’t pulled a fast one on us, coming up with a sneaky treatise instead of the filth we thought we were watching. But no: a plot twist later, Zombie had copped out of this fascinating course, tearing toward an incoherent Thelma and Louise ending that effectively negates any of the ideas he might have proposed in that one beguiling 15-minute stretch of cinema.
In the end, I wasn’t sure of Zombie’s attitude, if any, toward his characters, or what he was trying to do. The ridiculous sunny flashbacks in the last scene might suggest that he sympathizes with or admires them, but that’s far too simplistic an interpretation, and it seems childish to assume that he had no ideas just because he fails to communicate them clearly. But the movie is a mess, and a punishing one at that. You should undertake this particular journey only if you enjoy (and have the stomach for) this sort of B-movie horror and don’t mind untangling a bloated mess of intellectual conceits that finally amounts to nothing.
Zombie, whose House of 1000 Corpses remains unseen by me, has decent filmmaking instincts — the opening shootout, punctuated by chilling freezeframes, is masterfully done. But he needs to do less wild fantasizing and more thinking. He’s done a good job creating a world that is an utter moral abyss — although too often he seems to do this using really bad teeth — but he needs to learn to make something of it.