I had a choice of films to review this week: Dear Wendy or The Devil's Rejects. Dear Wendy is written by Lars von Trier. I find his films really hard going, because of the way he treats his female characters and the awkwardness of his storytelling. I just couldn't face the head-hammering. So, The Devil's Rejects it was.
Big mistake. This is a truly horrible film. It is only one hour and 40 minutes long, but, unless you are an adolescent boy whose main interaction with the world is via the internet, this is not the amoral torture-fest for you. Perhaps I should have realised something was up when I saw the PR person handing out freebies as we arrived at the screening. A baseball hat, T-shirt, shot glasses and popcorn aren't exactly worth a tax declaration, but they're still gifts designed to win your favour for the promoted product.
And, at first, they did. The pop video director Rob Zombie's second full-length feature is undeniably beautiful: there's not a frame that isn't gritty or gorgeous or well composed, or strangely lickable. It is cut snappily, shot intimately. It looks great. And the actors, mostly at the "wasn't he in . . .?" level of fame (except for Michael Berryman, the bit-parter instantly recognisable from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), give believable, honest performances. The camera zooms in on their rotten teeth, their twitching smiles and their blazing eyes, then flies out to offer us searing images of the American desert, desolate and dust-covered. So far, so impressively modern western.
But I should have read my preview notes. The Devil's Rejects is not just a movie: it's a "shocking portrait of outlaw violence, from one of horror cinema's most original directors". Meaning: it's a slasher, shot by a talent so visceral, it seems like a snuff film. The wafer-thin story is about the Firefly family, a group of murdering redneck grotesques who are staked out by the police in the opening sequences. The brother-and-sister team of Otis (Bill Moseley) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) escape the bullets to join up with their revolting father, Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), who for some reason works as a clown. Chased by Sheriff John Wydell (William Forsythe), the Fireflys go on a killing spree. That's pretty much it, plot-wise. The sheriff does catch them, but the subsequent will-they-won't-they-get-away tension did nothing for me. I couldn't stand a single character and just wanted them all to die as quickly as possible.
This doesn't happen. Even though the narrative skips along like a skimming stone - each shallow character is touched on, then flicked over - the film goes into intense detail during the violence, which is brutal and seems to last a lifetime. It's almost all torture, too: the first half of the film is a single, strung-out sequence involving Otis and Baby finishing off three-quarters of a travelling country band, for no reason other than that they happen to be at the motel where the younger Fireflys are meeting their dad, and dad is late.
After this, we're supposed to start liking our three anti-heroes, because we see them joshing about whether or not to buy an ice cream. See how twinkly the psychopaths can be, how cuddly they are with each other! During the second half, the tables turn on the Fireflys and our sympathy needs to be with them for this to work. But it isn't, not at all; and the film drags terribly, with even the brutality - eventually - becoming mundane. Long before the final shot, I was reduced to pleading out loud: "Please end. Please end."
The director has said of his characters: "Cool gets you a long way in life. You can be a real asshole, but as long as you're cool, it buys you a lot of slack." So he furnishes the sheriff and the Fireflys with a few funny lines, and invests them all with a Sergio Leone-style griminess. But he has forgotten that Leone made his characters interesting and understandable. Cool isn't just having a bum that looks good in a pair of jeans, or wielding a gun like you know how. These characters aren't cool to anyone over 21, because they're ciphers. There is more depth in a Madonna video.
It's a shame, really, because Zombie certainly has talent. He wrote the script as well as shooting it, and that's where his film falls down. Some mogul should give the man some decent material to work with: actors clearly love him and he has a memorable, grimy/luscious style. His directorial debut, House of 1,000 Corpses (Baby appears in that too), was a huge underground success, and I've no doubt that The Devil's Rejects will be just as big with a cult audience. It's ultra-violent, and it looks great. But I don't think that you are that audience, and I don't think you want to go anywhere near this movie.
Mark Kermode is away