Heavy-metal rocker-turned-cult filmmaker Rob Zombie has fashioned another bloody grind house valentine in “The Devil’s Rejects.” Recycling the trio of butchers from his 2003 surprise hit “House of 1000 Corpses,” pic is a brutal, punishing yet mordantly amusing work that far outpaces its predecessor in its grisly single-mindedness of vision. If you can stomach the violence — and despite the R rating, that’s a big if — it’s hard to deny that Zombie has made exactly the movie he set out to make, guaranteed to satiate his considerable fan base and sicken just about everyone else.
Where “House” came across as little more than a ghoulish curio, set in an outre Texas deathtrap and steeped in arcane serial-killer mythology, “Rejects” takes a less self-conscious romp through 1970s backwoods Alabama. Shot on desaturated Super-16 stock that gives it a fittingly rough-hewn look, this is lean, mean exploitation fare that proceeds with a menacing clarity of purpose.
That homicidal brother-sister duo — Otis Driftwood (chillingly stoic Bill Moseley) and impish blond Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie, the scribe-director’s wife) — is back, as well as Mother Firefly (albeit played by a new actress, the spectacularly screechy Leslie Easterbrook). Wanted for a horrific series of satanic ritual murders involving organs and refrigerators, the family is ambushed by police in pic’s tense opening shootout, which sends Otis and Baby on the run while Mother Firefly winds up in police custody.
The siblings eventually reunite with wayward pop Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), a grinning, clown-faced sadist whose mugging in “House” suggested a cross between P.T. Barnum and Ed Gein. (Clown-phobic auds should, by and large, avoid Zombie’s movies.) Meanwhile, the police operation tracking them down is headed by Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), who has his own personal agenda: His brother was one of the family’s victims.
Transplanting the action to the road turns out to be Zombie’s most inspired decision, excavating the film from the hoary funhouse cliches that bogged down its predecessor. It also lends a genuinely sad unpredictability to the quintet of innocents Captain Spaulding, Otis and Baby eventually terrorize: While the idiot thrill-seekers who stumbled into “House” more or less asked for their fate, the group here is simply in the wrong place (a rundown motel) at the wrong time.
What follows is at once the film’s most gratuitous, objectionable sequence and its gripping raison d’etre: The victims, holed up in a motel room, are dispatched in all kinds of sickeningly creative ways, the most inventive (and hilarious, to judge by the howling applause at premiere screening) involving a mask made from a human face and a giant truck. The women, in particular, Gloria (Priscilla Barnes) and Wendy (Kate Norby), are forcibly disrobed and reduced to the cruelest of physical spectacles.
On a basic narrative level, sequence serves no purpose other than to supply the requisite sadistic kicks, and it will be the likely walkout point for moviegoers not on Zombie’s particularly heartless wavelength. Those who stick around will find the story shifting gears and losing some momentum as the increasingly unhinged Sheriff Wydell, fancying himself the smiting hand of God, decides to take vengeance into his own hands.
He’s aided in this by two bounty hunters (Danny Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page) and an unwilling accomplice in the form of Captain Spaulding’s old pal Charlie (a solid Ken Foree). The violent climax could amount to a critique of vigilante justice, if pic did not take such obvious relish (which auds may very well share) at the sight of its predators turned into prey.
What rescues “Rejects” from puerility, aside from the indelibly raw perfs (especially from Moseley and Forsythe), is the sharp, undistracted focus of Zombie’s direction. Every scene feels stripped down to its bare bones, with deft handheld camerawork and editing by Phil Parmet and Glenn Garland, respectively (although print screened featured a few unintended jump cuts that will be removed before theatrical release).
The tasty soundtrack is pure ’70s heaven — not a word that can applied to this film in any other context — and makes memorably ironic use of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”