Thursday, October 6, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 2: "The Devil's Rejects" by David Pretty

Hey, Theatrical Thrill Seekers!

Welcome to the second installment of my Halloween-inspired horror review series for the month of Shocktober!

Well, although I struck out with my first selection, my second pick really put expectations over the fence:

Actually it's somewhat of a minor miracle that I even gave this film a chance since I despised Rob Zombie's first film House of a Thousand Corpses so much.  In fact, it took me eight friggin' years worth of positive word of mouth about this film to finally overcome my objections.  But, man, am I ever glad I finally broke down and watched it.

Here's the film's hair-raising trailer:

Soooo, needless to say, this isn't the sort of movie you sit down and watch with your nan...

The film follows the exploits of the completely loopy Firefly clan, who you suspect live just up the road from Leatherface and company.  Whereas most families define quality time by hanging out together and playing Clue twice a week, the Fireflys like to bond over such wholesome activities as kidnapping, torture and murder.  After nearly eighty people vanish from the area without a trace, the police finally start looking at the local family which includes an eight-foot-tall burn victim and a creepy clown with atrocious oral hygiene.  As if this isn't enough compelling evidence, there's also the preserved pig head mounted on their front gate.

During the resulting raid, the giant Tiny goes missing, Rufus is gunned down and the clan's matriarch Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is arrested by the cops.  However, two of the clan manage to escape through the charnel house's sewer system.  The fugitives include beautiful but deadly Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie ) and her half-brother Otis (Bill Moseley).  This lethal duo quickly secure transportation after Baby plays possum in the road and Otis gets all stabby on a Good Samaritan who has the misfortune of stopping to help. 

The two re-unite with Baby's pappy/cable access jester Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and together this triple threat of galloping psychotics proceed to blaze a trail of bloody anarchy and random homicide across rural Texas.  After dispensing with an entire country and western band (?), the trio seek asylum at the bordello of Spaulding's brother Charlie (played by the always-awesome Ken Foree).  Little do our repellent anti-heroes know, they're being relentlessly pursued by John Wydell (William Forsythe), a Texas Sheriff who's determined to avenge the murder of his own brother by whatever means necessary.

This sequel has everything that was painfully absent from its predecessor.  The storyline is considerably more fleshed out, yet still feels free-form and unpredictable.  At first the capture and torture of the Banjo and Sullivan crew seems like a pointless deviation, but it really drives home just how dangerously crazy the Firefly clan really is.  In addition to amping up the squirm factor, this entire sequence is capped off with one of the most gruesomely realistic "death by vehicle" scenes ever captured on film.

The film's southern fried visual style is also note-perfect.  All of the sets look sun-bleached or feature garish primary colors that really bring to mind the palette of 70's Grindhouse films.  Indeed, The Devil's Rejects uses it's keen visual eye to evoke shades of exploitative fare, yet it doesn't use it's pedigree to excuse rock-bottom production values.

The production design is also fantastic.  The Firefly farmhouse is evocative of the mansion from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The gas station looks sun bleached, rundown and flea-bitten.  Charlie's brothel, with its lurid use of neon signs and tacky decorations, makes you feel as if your eyes are in danger of catching an STD any second.  Whatever the setting, the film's fine attention to detail really sells the realism and helps propagate a dark mood.  To help compliment the movie's tone, Zombie also employs a sizable catalog of tonally ironic and/or eerily appropriate southern rock and swamp boogie. 

Whereas Rob Zombie's direction in House was alternately uneven, hackneyed and inappropriately stylish,     his efforts here are considerably better.  The set ups, angles and proficient editing make for a very dynamic and incredibly tense experience.  The hotel room scene is almost Tarantino-esque in its level of sustained tension.  The film is also book-ended by two Peckinpah-style slow-mo gun battles which are both gratuitous and well-choreographed.  Indeed, Zombie seems to have learned from past transgressions and takes great pains to invest the action with its own narrative.

The dialogue is also up to snuff, combining a healthy dose of Seventies-style badassery delivered by actors with their tongues firmly encheeked.  When kidnapped musician Adam Banjo begs: "Please, Mister!  This is insane!" Otis tartly replies: "Boy, the next words that come out of your mouth better be some brilliant fuckin' Mark Twain shit, 'cuz it's definitely getting chiseled on your tombstone!"  Or how about when a movie expert makes the grievous error of insulting The King in front of Sheriff  Wydell?  It's great when the lawman screams back: "Son, if you ever say another derogatory word about Elvis Aron Presley in my presence again, I will kick the living shit out of you!"

The dialogue is made better by the amazing Rogues Gallery of cult-film legends that Zombie has amassed  to dispense it.  In fact, it's kinda like watching some dysfunctional, Grindhouse version of the Justice League.  Sid Haig, for example, does nothing whatsoever to change my already piss-poor opinion of clowns.  He constantly oozes menace, perversion and decadence in one gleefully evil scene after another.  Until the end of days, I'll always curse Rob Zombie for giving Haig a "love scene" at the beginning of this movie.  Needless to say, I've been trying to buff that particular image out of my eyeballs with 320 grit silicon carbide sandpaper ever since.

Bill Moseley, who's had a long and storied career in horror films, really deserves a Mirror Universe Academy Award for his genuinely scary turn as Otis.  With his gangly frame, long stringy hair and unkempt beard, he's almost unrecognizable in the part.  He's managed to craft a character that always seem seconds away from a Joe Pesci-style burst of irrational violence.  Indeed, when, after foiling an escape attempt by his captives, he tells them "I want you to see what happens to heroes..." we know that some heavy payback is about to be levied.  

Sheri Moon Zombie's performance in House was pretty amateurish but she's definitely raised her game here.  Although she'll never give Kate Winslet insomnia, she's a helluva lot less one-note in this film.  In fact, in The Devil's Rejects, Baby is perhaps the scariest character since her sex appeal/black widow tendencies makes for an irresistible but deadly siren song to any man.  Even if her line readings are sometimes a bit tin-eared, Ms. Moon does an absolutely amazing job when asked to morph from winsome temptress into a total batshit nutjob.  And let's face it, kids, that's something that even Kate Winslet might not be capable of.

Zombie really complicates the sympathies of the audience by having our supposed protagonist, Sheriff Wydell, go completely bizonkers in his single-minded quest for righteous justice.  The beefy and intense William Forsythe has been playing roles like this since the 80's so he's really in his element here.  As the film's run time ticks by, he becomes increasingly belligerent, unhinged and sadistic, first murdering the defenseless Mother Firefly, then hiring a pair of cold-blooded hit-men and then indulging in his own sadistic whims.  Through it all, Forsythe is like a human cyclone.  What's interesting is that, given just a few changes in circumstance, you can easily picture Wydell fitting in well with the Fireflys.

As if all the leads aren't amazing enough, we also get a slew of fantastic cameos and supporting performances.  For example, Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree and Michael Berryman from The Hills Have Eyes share a side-splitting scene which examines alternate uses for poultry.  Seeing these two B-movie legends in this bizarre sequence together almost tore the cinematic space-time continuum asunder for me.

We also get memorable appearances by Danny Trejo and wrestler "Diamond" Dallas Page as a pair of twisted assassins.  Sad sack comedian Brian Posehn appears briefly as one of the ill-fated musicians.  Halloween scream-queen P.J. Soles does her victim due diligence in the role of Susan.  Former 80's porn queen Ginger Lynn Allen has a cameo as Spaulding's "dream girl".  And finally, the still-lovely Priscilla Barnes has a brave showing as Gloria Sullivan.  Words cannot describe how unnerving it was to watch Teri from Three's Company get abused by these freaks.

Now that The Devil's Rejects has given me irrefutable evidence that Zombie is capable of making a good, tense, well-assembled movie I no longer feel completely opposed to the idea of checking out his Halloween remake.

But that's a tale for another time, kiddies.                 

                                        Tilt: up.

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