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May 12, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 12, 2006 |

Two years ago, Rob Zombie released House of 1000 Corpses — a film billed as “the most shocking tale of carnage ever seen.” Esoteric groups of fans, frustrated with the watered-down gore in contemporary horror and the copout kitsch of teen slashers, flocked to House in the hope that a true cult connoisseur like Zombie would deliver their salvation. What they got was a masturbatory exercise in camp; an excuse for Zombie to flash his fondness for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes without bothering to create a shocking or particularly interesting flick in its own right.

If I were a betting man, I would’ve guessed that the same thing was heading our way with the sequel, The Devil’s Rejects. I wouldn’t have thought Zombie could grow enough as a filmmaker in two years to iron out the inconsistent gaudiness abundant in his previous movie. I was wrong.

However he did it, Zombie found the means to emulate his idols without coming off as a cheap copycat. On the surface, it doesn’t appear that he’s doing anything different: As before, The Devil’s Rejects is an affectionate homage to B-grade cult horror, peppered with references and stars from that particular genre of cinema. But where House focused on the sociopathic comedy of the murderers, Rejects revels in the act of cruelty and murder itself, evoking the sick snuff of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. It’s a much darker portrait, and ultimately one of the most harrowing grindhouse experiences of the last several years.

Picking up some months after the events in House, the Texas State Police are poised to raid the homicidal Firefly family residence. Led by the dour, ruthless Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) who’s out to avenge the death of his brother, the police charge in, guns blazing, and in the ensuing bloodbath only two Fireflys escape: Otis (Bill Mosely) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie). They join up with fellow serial killer Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and flee the subsequent dragnet, leaving a trail of mangled carcasses in their wake. We’re treated to a grisly visual of carnage and brutality when the trio abduct a pair of couples and torture them with sick aplomb.

Zombie finds the fine line between dark humor and genuine horror he sought but missed in his first film effort. We laugh where we’re supposed to laugh and then shudder where we’re supposed to shudder (sometimes at the same time), and it’s all because this time he has the guts to take the camera and story where it wants to go without stopping to reflect on its own absurd depravity. Characters are painted into a harsh dichotomy of conscience; you’re either a gruesome, merciless killer, or a victim of one.

The actors seem to wade in this kind of ghastly logic as well. Bill Mosely, under a matt of filthy gray hair and beard, evokes the disturbing countenance of Charles Manson, even going so far as to say: “I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil’s work.” Sid Haig performs with an almost affable brutality, stopping for sick jokes and musings between kills. But the real star here is William Forsythe. He’s been typecast as a deranged psychotic so many times that it’s astonishing he can assay such a role again with the grim relish he does here. His character becomes so fervent in his quest for revenge that he ends up as blood spattered and depraved as his prey.

Zombie’s masterwork may be too indebted to his predecessors to rise entirely above its own novelty, but at least this time his vision isn’t compromised. He’s made a true homage this time; a hodgepodge that wallows in blood and guts. It certainly isn’t for everyone; it’s dehumanizing violence that takes a very strong stomach to endure. But for those who can take it, I can’t imagine a more pleasant surprise.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Film | May 12, 2006 |

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