One year ago, I revisited Rob Zombie's "House of 1000 Corpses," a movie I loathed in 2003 but was willing to give another chance. My conclusion: still hated it, but got a better appreciation for what it was trying to do.
The sequel, released in 2006 and called "The Devil's Rejects," was even more loathsome to my eyes. That's why I had to wait a full year after re-watching "House of 1000 Corpses" before I took another stab at this one. A person can only handle so much.
What I said then: "Rob Zombie’s ... 'The Devil’s Rejects' is actually MORE unpleasant than its predecessor. Here I had thought 'House of 1000 Corpses' was as repugnant and despicable as filmmaking could be, but no. It gets worse. 'The Devil’s Rejects' is a film of unrelenting ugliness. It features ugly actors playing ugly characters who say ugly things while performing ugly deeds. The awfulness continues unabated for all of the film’s 101 minutes. There is nothing redeeming or worthwhile about a single moment of it, not even in a prurient, I-love-to-wallow-in-debauchery sort of way.... It is simply hateful. I can’t think of a better way to describe it than that: pure, unadulterated, black-hearted hate. I will not hate it back, though. You can go to hell, 'Devil’s Rejects,' but you’re not takin’ me with you. Grade: F [Here's the whole review.]
Here is where it gets interesting!
My negative reaction to "House of 1000 Corpses" put me in the majority, as only 17% of reviews (according to Rotten Tomatoes) were favorable. But while I disliked "The Devil's Rejects" even more than its predecessor, my fellow critics went the other way, with 53% of them filing positive reports. Of the 30 critics who reviewed both films, 11 went from rotten to fresh, some quite dramatically. For example, Jeremiah Kipp gave "House of 1000 Corpses" a score of 1.5 stars out of 5 and "The Devil's Rejects" a B+ (he was writing for an outlet with a different unit of measurement by then); Jean-Francois Vandeuren went from 2/10 to 8/10; and Marc Savlov went from 0.5 to 3.5 stars.
Of course, plenty of critics hated "The Devil's Rejects," including several who had also hated "House of 1000 Corpses." (As far as I could determine, only one person who reviewed both films was Fresh on "House of 1000 Corpses" and Rotten on "The Devil's Rejects.") But the fact that so many writers praised the follow-up gave me pause. The fact that 11 of them were people who had disliked the first one gave me more pause. There was a lot of pause-giving happening.
The re-viewing: When I re-watched "House of 1000 Corpses," I found it far less unpleasant than I had the first time. "There are probably several reasons for this," I wrote, "but I suspect it’s mainly because I’ve seen several movies of this nature in the meantime that were more repugnant and ugly than 'House of 1000 Corpses.'
The same proved true for my re-view of "The Devil's Rejects." As I've become more familiar with the exploitation films (old and new) that Zombie is emulating, I find his work less repulsive. Or maybe it's more accurate to say I still find it repulsive (which it's supposed to be), only now I don't find it completely without artistic merit.
Those changes in my opinion are mostly a matter of degree. It used to be a 10 on the scale; now it's only an 8. But there are some things in my 2005 "Devil's Rejects" review that I totally disagree with now.
One is my assessment of Sheriff Wydell (William Forsythe), the man who pursues the murderous anti-heroes. In 2005, I was dismissive of this character, writing: "In the spot where a good guy should be, we have Sheriff Wydell, a vile, cursing pig who believes he is doing God’s work and who kills a suspect in cold blood while that suspect is unarmed and in custody." I later called him "malignant."
But I had a much different take the second time around, and was actually surprised to re-read my review and see how differently I'd felt in 2005. Sheriff Wydell, vulgar though he may be, struck me this time as a decent man who's out for justice. He's tough and mean, but not unfair. There's a scene where he's nice to a traumatized, Spanish-speaking hotel maid to whom everyone else has been discourteous, and I think this is meant to reflect his basic goodness.
He does murder an unarmed suspect who's already in custody -- but that's the indication that he has changed, not a confirmation of previous characteristics. The revelation that this family of maniacs tortured and killed his brother, coupled with the ongoing horror they've perpetrated in his community, has tainted him. He wasn't strong enough to face darkness of this sort without being dragged over to the dark side himself. "I tried to walk the line," he says near the end. "But now I realize there is no line."
This is a grim, nihilistic view of humanity, and one I don't happen to agree with. Nonetheless, as a character arc, it's fairly chilling. The deviants at the center of the film are so malevolent that everyone they come in contact with is stained by them.
I've also revised my thoughts on the killers themselves, who are brother, sister, father, and mother. I wrote before that they "all seem to hate each other in addition to hating mankind," but I no longer think that's the case. Somewhat grudgingly, I have to agree with the movie's fans who say that the family dynamics, twisted as they are, do convey a certain affection. As the movie progresses, they become more ... not "likable," exactly, but relatable.
Dialogue remains a weak point for Zombie (and for zombies, come to think of it). Much of it consists of nothing more than shouted profanities ("S***! F***! S*** f***!"), and when Zombie tries to get creative it tends to sound like a teenage heavy-metal fan trying to be clever. That's when he's not being hilariously melodramatic, as when he has a TV news reporter declare the psycho family's house "the most horrific crime scene since Jack the Ripper stalked the streets of London!" It's best for everyone to shut up and just kill each other.
Do I still hate this movie? I don't, actually. While I wouldn't ascribe a lot of ingenuity or creativity to Zombie, I do give him credit for manufacturing an effectively grimy, sleazy tone of decay and despair. "The Devil's Rejects" is far from the best of the modern grindhouse-style exploitation flicks, but it works reasonably well as a filth-wallowing exercise in outrageousness. Grade: C+