To the Gallows
by Nick Pinkerton
The Devilâs Rejects
Dir. Rob Zombie, U.S, Lions Gate
When a friend recently noted that my taste in horror flicks tended toward the âgrim and serious,â I had to balkâweâre talking about horror movies after all! But I may be in a minority by virtue of taking that grimness for granted. A lot of my theatrical experiences suggest that much of the horror audience demands and expects nothing more from these movies than a laugh. When I attended Halloween horror marathons back in Ohio, thereâd always be a significant portion of the crowdâobnoxious dorks in Evil Dead tee-shirtsâwhoâd paid their admission just for the privilege of snorting incredulity at whatever came onto the screen; they never imagined that anyone would come to these mangy movies for any reason other than to jeer them on. New Yorkâs audiences havenât proven much different: At a recent MOMA screening of Michael Reevesâs 1968 Witchfinder General many of the moviegoersâ condescending titters at that filmâs autumnally rotten, bleak Brueghal medievalism approached open contempt.
It would just be ahistorical thesis-chasing to propose that a solid wedge has ever existed between what makes people either laugh or scream at the movies. The way we react to films, horror films particularly, is way too complex to allow a clean delineation: thereâs always been a gallows drollery to late-night local TV horror hosts, Alfred Hitchcock presentations, and chattering crypt-keepers. Itâs part of the covert compact between entertainers and audiences that, of course, whatâs coming up on screen will only deliver a fraction of the scares promised, that Norman Batesâs mother is just a lame paper machĂ© âBoo!â etc. But much of the laughter Iâve heard at horror movie screenings is differentâitâs laughter at something that seems strange or awful or awkward or run-down; nervous, protective, scornful laughter intended to diffuse these shabby nightmares. Itâs the laughter of self-congratulating viewers who like the assurance that theyâre a little bit better than horror movies; The Devilâs Rejects, for all its virtues, caters to that crowd.
Rob Zombie, who in the days of fronting his lame Ozzfest act White Zombie resembled nothing more than one of those old horror hosts crossed with a touch of Brazilian gore-maestro Coffin Joe, has presented a second directorial outing heavy on the tongue-in-cheek. It isnât a horror movie so much as a âhorrorâ movie, a consciously retro throwback that affectedly ticks off signifiers, icons, and tropes with a completionistâs zeal. The filmâs cast is a litany of familiar faces from the cult canon, a veritable Chiller Theater convention worth of them: Dawn of the Deadâs Ken Foree, Spider Babyâs Sid Haig, The Hills Have Eyesâ Michael Berryman, Warhol/ Paul Bartel starlet Mary Woronovânary a performer involved in this production comes without a pop pedigree.
Set in the mid-seventies, shot on noisy 16mm stock, with images wreathed in lens flare and the hazy mellow gold of California sunâthe setting is southern, but the vibe is pretty cosmic cowboyâRejects wears all the accoutrements of a venerable grindhouse sickie. But even in its nastiest moments, like Bill âChop Topâ Moseley reprising Willem Dafoeâs motel room âFuck meâ mind-rape in Wild at Heart with Priscilla âTerri from Threeâs Companyâ Barnes filling the Laura Dern spot, thereâs always a release valve around the corner, a dirty joke or a screwball wink-wink scene with a podunk townâs local Gene Shalit look-alike film critic (!). Itâs a movie that seems to be aiming for âharrowingâ but which canât then commit itself to a level of out-there nihilism that risks being laughed at rather than with. Even the filmâs finale, a shoot-out set to the âFree Birdâ soloâs endless triple-guitar crescendo, feels frustratingly opaque, equally readable as lighter-in-the-air sincere or carpetbagger-sniggery parody.
The Devilâs Rejects is a funny if steadfastly unaffecting movieâZombie, who also wrote its screenplay, obviously has an ear for idiosyncratic, picked-up bits of redneck argot. His dialogue is close in spirit to Tarantinoâs best lowlife blue-comedy jive sessionsâyou can easily enough imagine Cheech Marinâs brothel barker in From Dusk Till Dawn (âvelvet pussy, silk pussy, Naugahyde pussyâ) outside the whorehouse in Rejects (sign out front: âClean pussy, VD Tesed, Come Againâ).
The thing that always gets left behind in these rummages through the genre attic is the subsumation of ego that came with working inside formula moviesâitâs hard, unostentatious work, and it took a good squint to notice a director with uncommon dexterity at going through the motions. When Rob Zombie makes a horror film or Tarantino makes a chop-socky actioneer, movies about the movies they like, itâs a lot easier on filmmaker and critic alikeâlike the Zip-A-Tone comic book panels that, presto, turn into art when theyâre blown up and framed; a bit of distance from the material spins trash into gold.
The recent Warner Brothersâ House of Wax, a horror movie in the strictest sense of the word, hit theaters without the benefit of any postmodern armor plating, and as such made a fat pinata for the fourth-string critics whoâre always called in to write about thrillers. These ill-informed tastemakers love to squeeze out a sanctimonious sentence or two about Hollywoodâs dearth of ideas whenever confronted with a remake, though I donât think I saw any reviewer who bothered to make the requisite imdb.com trip, which wouldâve revealed that Andre De Tothâs well-known 1953 House of Wax was itself a remake of 1933âs Mystery of the Wax Museum by Michael Curtiz, itself a rendition of Charles Beldenâs stage storyâŠ
That the film was an adroitly-shot inventory of perversities, bustling with inventive murder and anchored by Brian Edmondsâ great, creepy sets, didnât seem to resonate with writers hung up on the filmâs novelty casting of Paris Hiltonânever mind that in 25 years sheâll be every bit the kitsch grand-dame as Rejectsâ P.J. Soles. The movieâs opening intertitle reads â1974,â introducing a prelude illustrating its villainâs boyhood, but House had the temerity to leave that decade behind, eschewing pop archaeology to attend to the ungrateful business of being a savage, efficient shocker. Itâs a horror film in the present tense, and the allusions it does containâWhatever Happened to Baby Jane? playing at the theater in the small, strange town of Ambrose (a nod to writer Bierce, the author of some potent tales of the bizarre?); an oozing House of Usher finaleâare worked into the material, not ostentatiously draped across it. It confirms the life of the genre rather than bronzing it in homage.
I canât build up too much rancor towards The Devilâs Rejectsâit succeeds on its own terms, channeling the rottenness and raunch of a gas station bathroom stall or waking up still-stoned and sweaty to blaring classic rock on a hot afternoon. What bothers me is the persistence of critics who flatter their discriminating taste by placing âhorrorâ above horror. When Roger Ebert back-pats Zombieâs âmordantly funny approach to the materialâ in Rejects, it just goes to illustrate the sad fact that the only way a horror movie can get a break is through the implication that itâs not taking itself, or its genre, too seriously.