Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Rob Zombie's (2005) The Devil's Rejects is one sick movie, and not just for the gore. Sure, there's plenty of violence and sadism: throat-slitting, pistol-whipping, and probably the most disgusting instance of road kill I've seen in a movie -- not to mention torture by cattle prod, nail gun, and rape. This movie is hardcore. But it is also a mini-masterpiece of horror.
A statement like that needs some supporting evidence. Fortunately, film critic Roger Ebert provides some cover with his 3 out of 4 star assessment of The Devil's Rejects as a "gaudy vomitorium of a movie, violent, nauseating" that is nonetheless "really a pretty good example of its genre." The movie is exactly what it seeks to be, a throwback to grindhouse flicks that played in gritty inner-city vaudeville houses or tumbleweed drive-ins (see my notes on Machete to learn more about grindhouse). I've seen it three times and, to this day, I can't quite explain why I enjoy this movie. But I do. The Devil's Rejects is my most guilty of cinematic pleasures.
Why have I seen this movie several times, with plans to see it again? I think my appreciation of The Devil's Rejects comes from its evocation of pop culture detritus. Consider the movie's seventies-sensibility: the country-fried southern rock of the Allman Brothers and Three Dog Night, the sudden freeze-frames meant to convey character traits, and the gritty anti-heroism of the cop sworn to wipe out the killers that haunt his dreams. I also dig the stitching together of various movie genres into a hellish roadtrip with stops at an x-rated western town, a dusty tiki motel, and a haunted house of horrors. It's a movie both for folks like me who grew up too late to be shocked by the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Of course, it's all fun and games until someone gets their face ripped off. And this is where The Devil's Rejects needs to be viewed by fright film aficionados with caution. In one particularly brutal scene, a character announces, "I am the devil, and I am here to do the devil's work." We are reminded of remorseless killers such as Charles "Tex" Watson (supposedly the originator of that phrase) who tortured their victims in monstrous and senseless ways. At this point, a movie review must dip somewhat into the realm of psychology. What pleasure can a person gain from watching such cruelty? One can respect the pacing, marvel at the dialogue, even appreciate the lighting or costume design. One can, in other words, view The Devil's Rejects with some sort of semi-academic detachment.
But this is not like most horror movies. There is no cleansing catharsis at its conclusion. Yes, virtually everyone dies at the end, good guys and bad guys, in a blood-splattered crescendo set to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird." But one gains little from the experience, except to wonder about the hidden cruelty of the flyspeck towns of the world, to gawk dumfounded at the pure awfulness of it all.
In his reviews of horror movies, Roger Ebert often compares the most detestable flicks to carnival geek shows where some poor soul bites the head off a chicken. The show lacks any pretense at artistry: The animal is alive and then it's dead. The Devil's Rejects, while gut-wrenching, is no mere geek show. Rob Zombie builds a strangely coherent world of nightmare imagery and disturbingly humorous dialogue, offering compelling insight into odd convergences of pop culture and violence. It's campy and grotesque, but it's also fun. Just don't watch it with a full stomach and a weak constitution. In The Devil's Rejects, even the chickens face the most gruesome fate.