The Devil's Rejects (2005)
Tagline: "A Tale of Murder, Mayhem, and Revenge."
Sequels are a tricky proposition for most filmmakers. Often, whatever magic existed in the first film is lost by the time the second hits the screen. This is not the case with The Devil's Rejects, a follow-up to the 2003 low-budget House of 1000 Corpses. Instead of simply regurgitating his first film, director Rob Zombie (of White Zombie fame) takes the legend of the Firefly clan in a whole new direction, and, in the process, he turns out a film which is actually superior to the original.
And in case you missed it, here's a quick summary of House of 1000 Corpses: Four teens stop off at the clown-faced Captain Spaulding's gas station and museum of terror. They become fascinated with the local legend of Dr. Satan and set out to find the tree from which he was hung, but they quickly run afoul of the insane Firefly family. After that, it's not a case of will they die, but rather how they'll die.
Rejects picks up sometime after the events in House, as an early morning raid on the Firefly family compound is led by a vengeful Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), the brother of a law officer murdered in the first film. In the ensuing shootout, Rufus Firefly (Tyler Mane) is killed and Mother Firefly (Leslie Easterbrook) is captured. Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon) and Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) escape and contact their father, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). As the trio cut a bloody swath across Texas, Sheriff Wydell becomes increasingly obsessed with their capture and resorts to more and more questionable methods. The movie culminates in a shootout that is equal parts Thelma and Louise, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, not to mention the fact that it's all in slow-motion and set to Lynrd Skynrd's Freebird.
The first film was more of a monster movie with the strange Dr. Satan and his hoard of traumatized zombies, not to mention an albino Otis, subterranean caverns, and satanic Halloween ceremonies. For the sequel, Zombie sets much of the film in the light of day and transforms it into something closer resembling an on-the-road crime movie. Think Natural Born Killers but with more madmen to choose from (and that's saying something). Dr. Satan is gone from the film, and Otis is strangely no longer an albino. This time our killers are more sadist and less supernatural.
But don't think for a moment that this franchise has lost its bite. It's every bit as horrifying as the original, mainly due to the unsettling events which occur when Otis and Baby run across the members of the musical act Banjo and Sullivan at an out-of-the-way motel. If watching Three's Company vet Priscilla Barnes get raped with a pistol or Eastwood favorite Geoffrey Lewis get beaten to a bloody pulp doesn't bother you, then you're obviously made of sterner stuff than the majority of the American viewing audience. This is not a film for the squeamish, as evidenced by the fact that many theaters simply refused to show the movie. Of course, the fact that they managed to work in the F-word over 500 times in 100 minutes probably didn't help their cause either.
But fans of the genre will not be disappointed. From a killer soundtrack by such southern rock icons as Greg Allman and Lynrd Skynrd, to cameos by such notables as Michael Berryman, Ginger Lynn Allen, and Mary Woronov, Rejects has a lot to offer beyond gore and cursing. And Zombie continues to demonstrate a real eye for casting--getting excellent character actors instead of high-priced "talent." In the hands of lesser actors, many of the roles would seem just plain absurd, but this cast is able make it work and even make us feel a degree of empathy in the process.
And that's Zombie's most impressive accomplishment in Rejects--his ability to make us recoil in horror at the deeds of the Firefly family one moment and then laugh along with them the next. There are several moments when you can't help but like the characters despite the horrors that they've inflicted on others. A few standout moments are an argument over ice cream between Otis, Baby, and Spaulding, and several scenes involving the trio hiding out at a brothel owned by Spaulding's brother, Charlie Altamount (Ken Foree). It also helps that Bill Moseley and Sid Haig give excellent, nuanced performances. Sheri Moon also does an adequate job, although Zombie (her real-life husband) often spends more time getting close-ups of her attractive backside. One can only hope that this movie leads to even bigger opportunities for this deserving threesome.
On the flipside, Sheriff Wydell goes from sympathetic to demonic and back again. While seeking revenge for his brother's death, he is driven to fight as dirty as the Firefly family, even going so far as to disembowel a prisoner, hire bounty hunters (wonderfully portrayed by Danny Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page), and torture his prisoners with a staple gun and hammer and nails. William Forsythe portrays Wydell as a star-wearing force of nature, and there are many similarities with Detective Scagnetti from Natural Born Killers. Both men slowly become what they pursue until it consumes them. But while Scagnetti could be playful one moment and lethal the next, Wydell is portrayed as constantly intense. The performance, while perfectly enjoyable, might have been a bit better if Forsythe had backed off from time to time. But that's just nit-picking on my part.
The one performance I didn't care for was Leslie Easterbrook as Mother Firefly. Karen Black portrayed the character in the first film, but reportedly wanted more money for the sequel and was dropped (like she's got people beating down her door). In the hands of Black, Mother Firefly was a wily old hag who used her fading looks to ensnare men. Easterbrook gives her an outrageous southern accent and plays her as a screaming madwoman. Personally, I was overjoyed when she finally....(OOPS, don't want to give anything away).
I imagine we've seen the last of the Firefly clan, but Rob Zombie has certainly carved out a niche for himself in the horror landscape. Whether he moves on to more commercially appealing projects or continues to make daring low-budget films, audiences can be certain that his imagery and stories will stick with them long after they leave the theater.