Putting atrocities on film and shocking an audience is not particularly difficult. Human history is sufficiently replete with horrors like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, much less Hitler and Pol Pot, that fiction writers don’t have to dream up. What is hard is contextualizing atrocity in a meaningful way that doesn’t trivialize it, but heavy metal rocker Rob Zombie manages that.in The Devil’s Rejects, the sequel to House of 1000 Corpses. It’s not that Zombie explains the psychological makeup of his perverse serial killer family, the Fireflies. Human complexity prevents such simple, trite reducibility. Rather, contrary to some film reviews that have either castigated or celebrated the film for being nihilistic, the movie’s violence is used to explore the ties of family, both by blood and by bonds of personal history. The shattering of these bonds provides both the motivation for the characters and most of the film’s dramatic tension.
The Devil’s Rejects opens with an army of policemen storming the Fireflies’ lurid house filled with the skulls and corpses of scores of past victims. Afterwards, Otis (Bill Moseley, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and his sister, Baby (Sherri Moon Zombie), are left on the run along with their father, the clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, THX 1138). Hot on their trail is sadistic Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe, Once Upon a Time in America), who is seeking vengeance for the death of his brother. To this end, he’s hired two thugs (Danny Trejo and former professional wrestler Dallas Page) who will operate on matters best left outside the law.
The movie is clearly Zombie’s homage to 70s grindhouse flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He is gifted in aping the 70s settings and style, but he ratchets the atrocity level up above all but the most extreme examples in all of cinema – the likes of Cannibal Holocaust and Salo, 120 Days of Sodom. Adding even more dread is that Zombie casts several actors better known for rather bland television work – Lew Temple (Walker: Texas Ranger), Kate Norby, and Priscilla Barnes (Three’s Company) – as characters subjected to assault by the Fireflies. Those three, along with Geoffrey Lewis (Smile), astonish with intensely vulnerable performances that some of them have never come close to or never been given the chance to display before. Haig, Moseley, and Moon also shine in crafting demented killers who are convincing that they are capable of anything. And yet, Zombie, who directed and wrote, ably fashions sympathetic characters all around, at least as sympathetic as you’re going to make ruthless mass murderers.
Still, the movie is so harrowingly vicious and brutal – even more so psychologically than graphically – that it leaves a very unpleasant aftertaste. The extreme violence here, rated R by the MPAA, makes the sex in any NC-17 film seem like nothing on the offensive meter. No matter how terrific the filmmaking or affecting the theme might be, the ugliness on display is what lingers after leaving the theater. After all, humanizing the purveyors of atrocities as gross as these feels like an ambivalent goal at best, and at worst, a celebration of humankind’s worst impulses.