Sunday 16 September 2012

Weird old America, grinning with sharp teeth

Watching The Devil's Rejects (2005), you can't but notice one thing: Rob Zombie's films are ugly. Zombie wasn't the only director of the mid-2000s to cultivate an atmosphere of overwhelming filth and squalor, but he got there early. House of 1000 Corpses set the trend for the extraordinarily grimy, gory horror pictures that came in its wake, and the sort-of-sequel pushed the aesthetic even further. The Devil's Rejects is a profoundly unsettling, even sickening film.

That, of course, says nothing about quality. Zombie is infamous for directing ambitious, envelope-pushing films that suffer from crippling flaws. Rejects is usually considered the best of his oeuvre; and while that consensus is probably correct, I'll always champion the much-maligned Halloween II for its three-legged-puppy charm.

'Sort-of-sequel', I said two paragraphs ago: for while The Devil's Rejects continues the story of House of 1000 Corpses, it is vastly different in tone and plot. Gone, after an initial shootout with police, is half the Firefly clan and with it the fantastical elements of the first film; gone is the fixation on the eponymous house. Instead, Rejects is a Western-flavoured road movie, a story of outlaws on the run from the law. But here, the outlaws are not romantic symbols of freedom: they're sadistic, murderous psychopaths fully deserving of the 'hundred per cent Alabama ass-kicking' Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe) promises. The problem is that Elvis-loving good ol' boy Wydell is himself more than a little disturbed. His hunt for the remnant of the family - wicked hillbilly girl Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), mastermind Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and psychotic clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) - turns into a contest between two almost equally evil parties.

Rejects is the odd one out in Zombie's career in not being a slasher film by any stretch of the imagination, but artistically it's clearly more mature than his debut. The acid trip aesthetic of House is replaced by a look that is both remiscent of cheap 1970s stock and anticipates the straightforward grime of Halloween. The opening credits, too, proclaim the influence of seventies exploitation, and in the tradition of Tobe Hooper and his ilk Zombie is much more concerned with creating a sense of place. Instead of the everywhere-and-nowhere countryside revenge setting of House, Rejects emphatically takes place in Texas and uses an exquisite soundtrack of Southern music, ranging from the Lone Star State (Blind Willie Johnson) to Florida (Lynyrd Skynyrd).

Whatever its merits, The Devil's Rejects left me unsatisfied. On their way the protagonists inflict unspeakable depravities on totally random people, making it extraordinarily difficult to sympathise with them. (This is the point, I know; but most horror films at least gesture feebly in the direction of creating sympathetic characters, and those that do not are not easily digested.) Released at the peak of the mid-2000s torture porn boom, Rejects is also by a large margin the most torture-happy of Zombie's films, which does little to earn my appreciation. It is a well-made but profoundly unlovely film.

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