On May 18th, 1978, Sheriff John Quincey Wydell, along with local authorities in Ruggsville County, led a “search and destroy” mission on a decaying farmhouse.
Inside the house, police discovered a collection of diaries and scrapbooks detailing the accounts of more than seventy-five murders.
The family responsible for these brutal crimes was forever to be known as “The Devil’s Rejects.”
After the struggle to get House of 1000 Corpses in front of audiences, Lionsgate made back their entire investment in Rob Zombie’s grindhouse horror on its first day on big screens. Naturally, the company were straight on the blower to the dreadlocked rocker for more of that gruesome goodness.
Not really wanting to make a sequel to Corpses, but wanting to flesh out a more stand-alone revenge story that would follow the brother of HO1KC’s executed Deputy George Wydell, Zombie jumped at the opportunity to return to the depraved Firefly family. This time, all pretence at making the violent gang the antagonists was dropped and the focus was put squarely on Baby, Otis and Captain Spaulding as the ones to root for.
“Boy, the next word that comes out of your mouth better be some brilliant fuckin’ Mark Twain shit. ‘Cause it’s definitely getting chiseled on your tombstone.”
Set seven months after the events of House of 1000 Corpses, Rejects sees Texas sheriff John Wydell (The Rock’s William Forsythe) chasing the Firefly siblings (Sheri Moon-Zombie and Bill Moseley) after they escape from the early morning raid that saw their brother RJ dead and their matriarch arrested.
Now they’re holed up in a run-down motel, the psychopathic pair take a travelling band hostage and get comfortable in their room while they wait on an incoming Captain Spaulding. From there, it’s a race against time. Can the sheriff sniff his way onto the trail of the murderous trio before their body count hits biblical numbers? And can the revenge driven policeman fight off the demons haunting him?
“You had to come all fuckin’ big stick, walkin’ tall, like a big fuckin’ hero. Got yourself to blame, hero. Look at you now, hero, you’re gonna fuckin’ bleed to death!”
With a budget that more-or-less matched that of the first movie, but a wealth of film making experiences under his belt, The Devil’s Rejects was Zombie’s chance to show the world what he was truly capable of. What he delivered was a gruesome but thrilling road movie with a splash of classic western DNA. Following our protagonists – yes, the Clan were definitely the heroes of this tale – from place to place as they tried to make their escape was a joyride with some of the most deliciously fun characters ever written. Like Corpses before it, TDR had its The Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw Massacre influences front-and-centre for anyone to see, but now Rob Zombie had a whole new flavour he wanted to add to his film.
The Devil’s Rejects is often called a road movie, but there was no journey of self discovery to be had here. Not for our heroes anyway. For these three, the road was more like the one ridden by The Wild Bunch or Bonnie and Clyde. Criminals, trying to survive in a world they aren’t meant to be in. It was a role the three protagonists picked up and ran with as far as they could take it. Haig just being Haig clearly relished in bringing the fan favourite killer clown back for everyone to see. While Sheri Moon Zombie played up the almost comic-book bad girl tropes, Baby Firefly bounced off of Bill Moseley’s Otis Driftwood perfectly, brilliantly, terrifyingly. Moseley, in a career best turn is on fire from start to finish. Every infinitely quotable line* is followed by a disturbingly heinous act that just makes you love him even more. I said previously that HO1KC was the “best reason to root for the bad guy since Riddick“, but once you’re settled in to The Devil’s Rejects, and you discover – and fall in love with – Bill Moseley’s splendid, next-level performance, it’s more like being the guy that cheers on The Terminator in his hunt for Sarah Connor. You know you shouldn’t, but you just can’t help but love him.
“I’m the Devil. And I’m here to do the Devil’s work.”
On the other hand, our good guy/bad guy sheriff does find himself on a bit of a journey. From regular, maybe a little crooked, law man to full on nut job himself. Haunted by the imagined ghost of his murdered kin, Wydell lets himself enjoy his work a little too much when he starts to shed blood in his search for the Fireflys. His delight in torturing Otis and hunting Baby is one of the best character turns in Forsythe’s career and easily one of Zombie’s best, if less talked about, protagonists (don’t mention Michael Myers, we’ll definitely get to him next week).
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All this leads to undoubtedly the best blaze of glory and gunfire endings ever put to film. What makes the final demise of Otis, Baby and Spaulding such a great finale isn’t some understated, little-understood moment that you need to look for. It’s the balls-to-the-wall full speed drive into a wall of cops, knowing they won’t make it out the other side, guns blazing as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s world famous ‘Free Bird’ plays the trio out of this life – or so we are led to believe. The Firefly Family’s fade to black, as they escort each other into Hell, is a film ending for the ages. One to be admired and worshipped as the moment a heavy metal singing, horror movie director made audiences care for some of the most lovingly violent characters ever to grace a silver screen.
The Devil’s Rejects is still held up as Rob Zombie’s best work. Like Corpses before it, the fight to get it a box office friendly R rating – the film was given a death sentence NC-17 on SEVEN different occasions – and the critical reception was never going to hinder it or stop audiences from finding it. 14 years after its initial release, the following that Rejects found can be described as nothing short of cult and it’s much praised place in horror history hasn’t been questioned once.
*As much as I wanted to quote Baby and Spaulding’s “Tooti Fuckin’ Fruiti” lines, every quote in this piece is an Otis quote. His lines are just THAT good.