Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Thoughts on The Devil's Rejects inspired by Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes

Watching the The Hills Have Eyes has helped my clarify some of my thinking on The Devil's Rejects - I'm sure all of my readers have been anxiously waiting for this to happen!

I had a hard time talking about The Devil's Rejects because while I thought it was impressive for what it was, I also thought that "what it was" was pretty repulsive. Looking at it through the lens of The Hills Have Eyes helped.

In The Hills Have Eyes, the nice, normal, American family is attacked and brutalized by a group of outlaw, mutant cannibals. What's interesting from a po-mo 21st Century perspective is that the American family isn't mocked. Craven doesn't idealize them, either, but the movie is definitely on their side. They are the victims of a monstrous assault and even though they are, in a way, "trespassing" on the mutants territory (though it's more like they stumbled onto their hunting ground), the movie's source of terror is their realization that they are outside the protection of civilization, that they are dealing with true outlaws, and that their only hope is to respond in kind.

Note: as the final shot of the movie makes clear, this is not, like, perhaps, Straw Dogs or Dirty Harry, a movie about how, when all is said and done, a man has to be a man and get his hands dirty because the law has its limits. Rather, the close up of Martin Speer's face in a murderous rage suggests that vengeance/feuding outside of the law leads to a downward spiral into sub-humanism for everyone involved (see also the ending of The Descent).

Now, The Devil's Rejects is like The Hills Have Eyes, except told from the POV of the mutants and, to a certain extent, idealizing their outlaw ethos. Zombie doesn't aestheticize their violent actions, like Peckinpah does in The Wild Bunch: he keeps everything completely unpleasant. At the same time, despite the horrible things they do, they're obviously the movie's heroes: we're meant to root for them to escape the forces of law and order, who are presented as bigger monsters than the outlaws. They're also presented as hypocrites, which, by the movie's values is a lot worse than being a monster.

As a filmmaker, Zombie's major asset is that he's willing to go all the way - he doesn't flinch. This may be a good sensibility for a horror movie director, but, as I've said before, I don't think its enough. Rejects is more assured in terms of tone than House of 100 Corpses, but it seems to achieve that assurance by narrowing its range. It's a more coherent movie than its predecessor, a more completely realized "vision", but, in many ways, it has even less to offer to this horror fan. There's no order here - nothing to measure any fall against, nothing to terrorize.

The Devil's Rejects is one of those movies that is trying so hard to be outrageous - it's so obviously pushing buttons - that I can't help but feel that actually getting outraged about it is kind of pointless. It isn't trying to hide its nihilism, for example, or pass itself off as something it isn't.

Though there's a certain purity to what Rob Zombie does in the movie that I (perhaps against my better judgment) can't help but admire, I still think there's something fundamentally wrong with a movie that is such a fully-realized valentine to violent, nihilistic outlaws. Not necessarily "wrong" in the "I don't think it should ever have been made"-way, but definitely "wrong" in the "I can't in good conscience recommend that anyone actually ever see the movie and I'd even be willing to engage in endless debate with its supporters on the internet"-way.

For what it's worth, I'm interested in seeing what Zombie will do with his Halloween remake.


Michael Blowhard said...

I know what you mean. At the same time ... Well, why shouldn't a movie aim to give the same bad-ass, fuck-it-all thrills that a satanic heavy-metal concert does? (Or that I assume it does, never having been to one ...) It's morally irresponsible, sure. But as long as no 5 year olds are present, why not take a holiday from everyday morality? Kick-ass, cut-loose, bring-it-on-down ...

I mean, part of the fun of action movies has always been destruction, no? Which they'd usually tie up with us rooting for the good guy. Why not be franker about the joys of destruction?

Not sure about this, btw. And just wondering. Anyway, I always like to look at myself twice when I decide I don't like a movie for moral reasons.

I thought Priscilla Barnes was great. How'd you react to her?

Jon Hastings said...

Hi Michael -

Definitely stuff to think about: I've been thinking about my reaction to this movie off-and-on since I saw it two years ago, but it wasn't until watching the Craven movie (which is definitely one of the flicks that inspired it) that I was able to articulate exactly what my problem with it was.

And part of me does admire it: it has, if nothing else, the courage of its convictions, even though I do think its convictions are pretty screwed up.

The difference between this movie, though, and a concert or between this movie and Rob Zombie's music or even between this movie and House of 1000 Corpses is that there's no theatricality here - there's no ritual distance, if you will: instead you get graphic violence and torture and glorification of the people doing the torturing. Like I said - that gives the movie a kind of purity that things like Sin City or Old Boy or even The Wild Bunch don't have, but maybe, when it comes to this kind of thing, a little impurity goes a long way.

I (think I) get what you're getting at by talking about other action movies, but I'm not sure I'd want to generalize about this. That is, my reaction to The Devil's Rejects is based on a number of specific things happening at the same time in that movie (i.e., graphic violence & torture, nihilism, a full frontal attack on my values and those values that actually make civilized life possible, etc.). I mean, I'm sure we can come up with action movies that are just as nihilistic or ones that are even murkier morally, but revelling in destruction is just one part of "action movies in general".

I thought Priscilla Barnes was pretty amazing - what fearless acting!