(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
The Annual Nashville Tattoo and Horror Convention rolled through town last week, bringing with it many colorfully decorated characters to the downtown area (to mingle with the equally colorful attendants of the Middle Tennessee Anime Convention). So the past few days around town have seen a mix of scary costumes, horror film screenings, and genre-specific celebrity appearances. I didn’t participate much, but I did manage to squeeze in a midnight showing of “The Devil’s Rejects” at the Belcourt, a local indie theater. The opportunity to see Zombie’s masterpiece on the big screen (which I missed on its original release), was made all the more special by the attendance of mother fucking Sid Haig and Bill Moseley.
The two men were exactly as most people describe them: Haig was a no-bullshit, gruffly-lovable badass, Moseley was witty, genial, and retrospective, and both men swear the way most others tell jokes. Of course, twentysomethings still swooning over “Repo!” justifiably honed in on Moseley, but one of the more insightful attendees asked Haig about his experiences on “Spider Baby” with the legendary Lon Chaney Jr., a man Haig knew personally and clearly had a tremendous amount of affection for. I’m still kicking myself for failing to ask him about his experiences on “Jackie Brown,” however; guess I’ll have to keep an eye out for future convention appearances (and grow some balls).
One of the more interesting parts about the meet and greet with Haig and Moseley was listening to their take on “The Devil’s Rejects,” brief as they were. While Haig was sentimental to a degree about Captain Spaulding, Moseley clearly did not showcase the same fondness for his own character, the far-less-likable Otis. Not to say Moseley despised or resented the role – quite the opposite, he appreciated the artistic importance of the character, and has stated multiple times in the past that, as far as steady work flow goes, he would have loved for the character to have survived. But I think that Moseley “got” what the character was: someone you shouldn’t like, and someone you shouldn’t make yourself like, either. It also seemed like he realized a lot of fans didn’t get that, despite the unjustifiably horrible things the character does. There are still hordes of horror fans who cheer when they see Otis.
“The Devil’s Rejects” is the sequel to Zombie’s debut film, “House of 1000 Corpses,” though by no means do you need to see one to understand the other. And whereas “House of 1000 Corpses” served as more of a showpiece to homage grind house horror, “Devil’s Rejects” is an introspective, brutally confrontational deconstruction both of horror archetypes, and of people’s fascination with them. At times, the film borders on scolding the audience for enjoying what it’s presenting, though one could also say that the film is simply forcing viewers to ponder disquieting questions that are frequently push to the back of our minds, and refuses to provide the comfort of a definitive answer.
The story is this: the Firefly family, disparate but close-knit serial killers, is finally forced to pay the wages of sin as Sheriff John Quincy Wydell (the most badass western character ever, played to perfection by William Forsythe) and his forces raid the family’s ranch. Confronted with a force superior to themselves (possibly for the first time), the family initially panics, but soon fall into a strategy that they apparently formulated some time ago, judging by the body armor. After a vicious firefight, Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie) are forced to retreat, while Rufus (Tyler Mane) is killed and Mama (Leslie Easterbrook) is captured. Tiny’s (Matthew McGrory) fate is left unseen.
As the story progresses, the surviving psychopaths must deal with the unholy wrath of Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), who seeks to avenge his brother George (Tom Towles), a deputy murdered by Mama in the previous film. Meeting up with family patriarch Captain Spaulding (played iconically by Sid Haig), the Fireflys cut a violent path of degradation as they attempt to claw their way to escape.
The film is gritty and savage where the first film was schlocky and gratuitous. While “House of 1000 Corpses” reached more for horror tropes and shock value, “The Devil’s Rejects” aims instead to shake you apart my movies end, effectively rocketing you through the spectrum of human emotion as you witness scenes that will make you chuckle and acts of humiliation that will leave you silent with horror.
When making “House of 1000 Corpses,” Rob Zombie said that the character Otis was designed to oppose the feelings of comfortable familiarity horror fans inevitably assign to iconic horror villains. Seriously, what horror fan doesn’t cheer on Chucky, Freddy, and Pinhead? Those guys rock balls. And while Captain Spaulding was clearly designed to elicit those kinds of cheers, Zombie made Otis purposefully horrible beyond the commonly held level of acceptance for most horror fans. Whenever audiences would begin to feel comfortable with the pace of “House of 1000 Corpses,” Otis would arrive to do something shocking and terrible, as if to remind the audience that they’re watching a story that would have no comfort zones if it occurred in reality.
And while that approach didn’t entirely work in “House of 1000 Corpses,” Zombie mastered its application for “The Devil’s Rejects.” In this film Otis truly becomes a character impossible to cheer for: he murders an elderly waitress for her car, aggressively bullies people even after he is obeyed and treated cordially, and in the film’s most unnerving scene, sexually humiliates and rapes a woman in front of her husband.
Since the film’s release, however, I’ve been consistently surprised by how many people didn’t seem to get that they weren’t supposed to like Otis. I volunteered in a professional-grade charity haunted house for two years after the film’s release, and several of the volunteers were die-hard fans of the Fireflys. Not just the movies they were in, mind you, but the characters themselves. For both years the haunt ran a “Devil’s Rejects” inspired room, where I played the designated Otis-type character. Without fail, whenever I quoted the famous “Run, rabbit, run!” line, customers would howl and cheer and give me energetic hoots of “Hell yeah!” They were clearly fond of having been reminded of the character.
I don’t point that out as a criticism; dictating how an audience should respond to any character introduces a level of artistic arbitration that I despise. But sitting in the theater over this past weekend, there were moments where the audience, enthusiastic as they were to cheer the villains on (as any responsible horror fans would), was stricken silent by the material in the film. Otis’ rape of Gloria Sullivan (Priscilla Barnes), in particular, had a sobering effect. Even the two (count ‘em, two) audience members who tried to lasciviously cheer the scene were silenced by others. You could tell, too, that the jovial, almost congenial atmosphere that had developed up until that point had completely evaporated after that sequence. Even if they would soon forget after the credits rolled, for the duration of that viewing, most of us were reminded that this was not a film that fell into comfortable archetypes.
Moseley expresses outright repulsion over the scene in the DVD commentary, and frequently says in interviews that the characters got what was coming to them by film’s end, as does Haig. And while the film’s climax – where the Rejects are gunned down by a sheriff’s blockade to the tune of “Freebird” – is frequently referred to as a “blaze of glory” by some fans, others view the final frames of the film – showing the Fireflys dying brutally, violently, and ugly – as an attempt by the filmmaker to show that there is no glory to be gained here by these characters. The life of the Fireflys was nothing but a waste, and for all their delusions of horrific grandeur, all they’ve gotten in return is a miserable execution under the harsh and unforgiving Texas sun.
But yet: there are still people who refer to their demise with the exact phrase “blaze of glory.” And not just on Wikipedia. They do it on fan sites, message boards, blog posts. Not everyone, mind you – plenty of people believe the Rejects were simply gunned down ingloriously, like rabid dogs – and though, again, I’m loathe to chastise people’s artistic interpretations, I can’t help but feel like those fans glorifying the deaths of the characters seem to have missed some point Zombie was trying to make.
Certainly, the characters become more sympathetic after their ordeal with Sheriff Wydell, but they don’t become actually sympathetic by any stretch. While it’s implied that their torture at the hands of the sheriff lasts for hours, and while said torture is gruesome and cringe-worthy, it clearly doesn’t compare to the tortures the villains have put their own victims through. Certainly not in scope – the title alone of the first film tells you that – and considering Otis’s particular taste for sexual humiliation, hardly in context, either. The villains are left broken by the end of the ordeal, and though it’s up to the viewer to decide if they got what they deserved or not, the film seems to imply that they got off light. As he beats Baby and attempts to burn Otis and Spaulding to death, Sheriff Wydell is driven into a frenzied rage, screaming that the Rejects must be made to feel every ounce of pain they’ve caused others to feel. Though the character is killed, it seems as though he dies not as penance for his actions, but as a natural consequence of losing control – just as the Fireflys will ultimately pay for their inability to reign in their psychotic urges.
There are two general interpretations of the movie that I align with. One, that Rob Zombie is subtly scolding viewers who love violence in horror films without understanding the deeper, disturbing issues such violence represents. Though Zombie, I’m positive, would be loath to criticize anyone for enjoying a good horror movie, it seems like he was determined to show in “The Devil’s Rejects” that there is a certain level of brutality that shouldn’t be enjoyed, but often is. Enjoying horror fiction is one thing; obsessing over real-life serial killers, pouring over crime scene photos, and lingering over the details of reported sexual assault is another. There’s a line between the two types of behaviors, and Zombie seems to be saying something about those who refuse to acknowledge or respect it. It is possibly tragic that those same people aren’t likely to ever understand such chastisement, however.
The second interpretation strikes me as more likely, and that is that Rob Zombie is simply presenting us with uncomfortable themes in an effort to force us to evaluate our views on horror as entertainment, and reflect on our own boundaries between what is acceptable to enjoy and what isn’t. I’m sure someone, somewhere, is likely to say “There shouldn’t be any boundaries,” but even Rob Zombie calls people tools. He’s also an ethical vegetarian, so clearly the man has a personal concept of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior, even if it’s not one that would necessarily match everyone else’s. And let’s speak plainly here: there IS a line between what’s cool and what isn’t cool, and you’re a doofus if you think differently. The hard part, for nearly every fan of horror (and anyone else, really), is coming to a concrete decision on their personal limits regarding enjoyment from horrific stimuli. Why do you want to know so much about the serial killer that was just arrested? Do you want to stay informed, or is your pulse quickening because you know the gory details are coming?
Horror fans tend to revere villains with an almost supernatural level of awe. “The Devil’s Rejects” comments on this several times, most pointedly when Baby, after fatally wounding Gloria Sullivan, points out that the gun she was holding was never loaded (though Otis’s clearly was). “It’s all mind power,” she gloats to the dying woman, following a failed effort on the victim’s part to turn the gun on Baby. An important point the film wants to make is that the villains are just human. Violent humans, but still only human. There’s no supernatural edge provided to them from their use of violence: we simply give them that edge when we submit, whether in fear or in awe. The characters in “House of 1000 Corpses” (a film that did, admittedly, include supernatural plot points in its narrative), are routinely criticized for being almost totally docile throughout the film, and are frequently said to have been so easily picked off because they provided only a limited amount of resistance. And though Otis eventually overpowers Adam Banjo (Lew Temple) and Roy Sullivan (Geoffrey Lewis) when they attempt to kill him in “Rejects,” it is primarily chance that gives him back the advantage.
When the Rejects are eventually caught, they are shown to be practically helpless before the forces against them. Sheriff Wydell and his mercenaries are prepared to use superior levels of violence to capture the Fireflys, but more importantly, they are shown to lack the mystical awe and fear that other characters have displayed. They view the Rejects simply as people, sick people who can be overpowered as easily as anyone else. The same surprise tactics that Baby uses to overwhelm her victims is used against her by Rondo (Danny Trejo), a character even more stealthy and lethal than she is. Spaulding is dismissively hobbled by Sheriff Wydell, after a chest-thumping show of bravado in which he attempts to intimidate Wydell into doubting his own tactical advantage. And Otis, the truest bully in the group, is completely overwhelmed by Rondo’s hulking accomplice, Billy Ray Snapper (Diamond Dallas Page), and thrown through a window. Their resolve, bolstered by the complete domination they’ve become accustomed to having over their victims, completely disintegrates as Wydell tortures them, despite initial bluster. The Rejects are emotionally, mentally, and physically brutalized, and despite their earlier empowering, if rambling and contradictory, exultations of their supernatural imperviousness, they are completely at Wydell’s mercy. Even after they’re saved and Wydell is murdered by Tiny, the mirage of power that generally fuels them is gone. Tiny allows himself to die in the fire, and despite the efforts of Otis, Spaulding, and Baby to go down fighting at the film’s end, they die as little more than gunshot victims, the film’s final freeze frame showing that, essentially, the “legend” of these characters is just an illusion others insist on projecting onto them. They are shredded by irreverent gunfire, filed away as a closed case, and there is no more hope for glory.
I think “The Devil’s Rejects” is working through the tail end of a cycle of misinterpretation, similar to what happened following the publication of Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho.” Too many see it as a reverent homage to the grittiness and violence of grind house cinema, not understanding the comments and questions Zombie raises in the film.
After assaulting Gloria, Otis throws her aside, laughs, and says “You sicken me.” Was he saying this to a woman whose humiliation he was clearly enjoying, or to an audience enthralled with the violation he was inflicting on her?
“The Devil’s Rejects” is a masterpiece, an important and intelligent commentary on horror. It is introspective on the nature of horror fiction, and touches upon the instances of horror that creep into reality. It’s brilliant, bloody, and occasionally humorous, but always unforgiving. It forces you to confront your own feelings about violence, gore and inhumanity, and refuses to spoon-feed you any easy answers. It tears down your conventions and holds your eyes open, forcing you to see what’s really about to happen.
It’s an intellectual sledgehammer of a horror film. And it’s entertaining as hell.