The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
by Steve Habrat
After Rob Zombie’s cluttered and distracted 2003 horror debut, House of 1000 Corpses, failed to make an impression on critics and (most) audiences, the pressure was on the horror-loving Renaissance man to really step his game up as a filmmaker. In 2005, Zombie followed up the tie-dyed House of 1000 Corpses with The Devil’s Rejects, a grimy, snarling, and absolutely humorless decent into Hell. While many have labeled The Devil’s Rejects a horror film, I really hesitate to slap that label on it, as it never really even attempts to scare the viewer. Instead, it takes a page from the exploitation playbook and just continuously crosses the line and gets right in the viewers face just to watch them recoil in disgust. This film just flat out refuses to play nice, but then again, would you expect anything less from Rob Zombie? As if this tale of murder and revenge wasn’t intense enough, Zombie makes the wise decision to force us to root for the bad guys. That’s right, this time we don’t root for some group of brain dead teenagers or even the revenge driven police officer on a mission from God to prevail over this trio of death. Nope, we are rooting for that vile and downright rotten Firefly clan to blast and stab their way across the dusty Texas plains. It almost becomes a western, with the last of the true outlaws making their final stand in the face of annihilation. It is nearly a stroke of brilliance.
The Devil’s Rejects picks up in May of 1978, a year after the events of House of 1000 Corpses, with Sherriff John Quincy Wydell (Played by William Forsythe), brother of Firefly family victim Lieutenant George Wydell, leading a group of heavily armed police officers right to the Firefly’s front door. After a nasty shootout between the police and the Firefly family, Baby (Played by Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis Driftwood (Played by Bill Moseley) manage to escape capture, but Mother Firefly (Played this time by Leslie Easterbrook) isn’t so lucky. Baby and Otis quickly get in touch with their father, Captain Spaulding (Played by Sid Haig), who agrees to meet up with his children so that they can plot their next move. While waiting, Baby and Otis find shelter at a rickety roadside motel and to amuse themselves, they immediately take a traveling band hostage. Spaulding suggests that they flee to a local brothel called Charlie’s Frontier Town, which is overseen by smooth-talking pimp Charlie Altamont (Played by Ken Foree) and his simple assistant Clevon (Played by Michael Berryman), both of which are friendly with Spaulding. Meanwhile, the relentlessly brutal Sherriff Wydell is hot on the group’s trail and he plots a trap that will bring down the rest of the Firefly family once and for all.
There is no doubt that the best part of The Devil’s Rejects is the opening fifteen minutes of the film. Zombie starts things off with a gritty early morning shootout and let me tell you, that shootout is just plain awesome. It is cleanly shot, in your face, and suspenseful from the first shot fired. It certainly proves that Zombie could do all-out action if he really wanted to. After wasting one character and capturing another, Zombie launches into an equally cool opening credit sequence set to The Allman Brothers Band “Midnight Rider” all while the picture keeps freezing to announce cast and crew members. It looks like it was ripped out of the coolest exploitation film from the 70s that you never saw. This opening sequence shows us that Zombie really means business this time around and that he is abandoning the psychedelic approach of House of 1000 Corpses in the Texas sun. From here on out, the film is relentlessly intense, but it never really ever becomes scary. There are sequences of gruesome torture, both mental and physical, but they don’t ever fill us with terror. Instead, they just make us massively uncomfortable, but that is exactly what Zombie wants to do.
Much like House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects is overflowing with colorful creeps to make your skin crawl. Moon Zombie is much better this time around as the giggling Baby, who can be all smiles as she seduces her victims one minute, only to snap into a demon-eyed banshee the next. Moseley is busy channeling Charles Manson as the stringy haired hippie killer Otis Driftwood. He is absolutely fantastic and wildly memorable as the grizzled outlaw who enjoys stuffing his gun barrel down the underwear of one poor woman and carving the face off one of another male victim. Then there is Haig’s Captain Spaulding, who once again manages to steal the entire movie. The first time around, we only saw a few glimpses of how sinister Captain Spaulding could be but here, he is 100% evil. He can be darkly hilarious as he terrifies a small child and he can be surprisingly soft as he howls along with Baby for some tutti fruity ice cream. We also have cult legends Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead) and Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes) as Charlie and Clevon, two shifty pieces of work who enjoy snorting cocaine and bickering about having sex with chickens. Last but certainly not least is William Forsythe as Sheriff Wydell, a stone-cold man of God who may actually be worse than the Firefly clan. He will stop at nothing to trap his victims and when he finally is staring them down, he resorts to some of the nastiest torture out there.
What ultimately turns The Devil’s Rejects into a winner is that Zombie doesn’t appear to be preoccupied with trying to overstuff the film with references to other horror or exploitation films. He is much more subtle this time around with his tips of the cowboy hat. Most of the references here come in the form of cult actors Foree, Berryman, Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000) and even P.J. Soles (Halloween), all of which will have seasoned horror and grindhouse buffs chucking to themselves but never overly distracted. One of my only complaints about the film is the fact that Zombie trimmed the Dr. Satan sequence from the film, something I never thought I’d be complaining about. If you have a copy of the DVD, it is worth checking out this particular deleted scene because it actually grounds the whole Dr. Satan thing in the real world, at least in my humble opinion. Overall, as a tribute to old exploitation thrillers and grindhouse revenge flicks, The Devil’s Rejects is a homerun. It is a twisted and erratic western that can be unbelievably brutal, but never very scary. This is a modern day exploitation classic and a masterpiece for Rob Zombie.
The Devil’s Rejects is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Ghost Rider (2007)
by Steve Habrat
When Marvel isn’t busy trying to force The Punisher on disinterested audiences, they are cramming Ghost Rider down our throats. This fiery badass on a bike just plays too nice in his disposable 2007 big screen debut, a film that only fans of the comic could love. Director Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider is a run-of-the-mill superhero film with the a whole bunch of superhero clichés we have seen countless times in other, better superhero movies. It doesn’t help that the film has no staying power once you have walked away from it. The culprit for all the mediocrity is the fact that the script, penned by Johnson, has holes big enough to drive a tricked out motorcycle from Hell through. Johnson seems like he is eager to deliver for Ghost Rider fans and I applaud him for that, but it would have been nice if he cleaned up his story a bit and, oh, I don’t know, thought outside the box. It would have also helped if he had filled his film with actors who actually care about the material they are working with. The only one who seems like he wants to be there is Nicolas Cage but he has such little talent to speak of that he doesn’t really come up with anything that will save this clunker of a film from a slow, fiery death.
Ghost Rider begins with introducing us to a young stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (Played by Matt Long) and his father, Barton Blaze (Played by Brett Cullen). Barton, it turns out, has terminal cancer, which he tries to hide from young Johnny but the secret finally slips out. Devastated, Johnny slips off to work on his motorcycle when he finds himself approached by Mephistopheles (Played by Peter Fonda), a mysterious man who asks Johnny to ride for him. He goes on to mention Barton’s illness and adds that he could help. Johnny accepts the help but he accidentally sells his soul to the mysterious man. The next day Barton wakes up refreshed and feeling better than ever, something that stuns Johnny. Later that day, Barton is getting ready to perform a new stunt for a huge crowd of fans but the stunt goes wrong and Barton is killed. At the exact moment Barton is killed, Johnny sees Mephistopheles standing by and laughing. After the accident, Johnny sets out on his own but he once again finds himself approached by the mysterious man who says that he will come back for Johnny’s services one day. The film then speeds ahead to present day with Johnny (Played by Nicolas Cage) now a big name stunt motorcyclist who is always cheating death. As Johnny enjoys his fame, a sinister force is walking among us in the form of Blackheart (Played by Wes Bentley), a deadly demon who is searching for a contract that could allow him to unleash hell on earth. In order to stop Blackheart, Mephistopheles calls upon Johnny and turns him into a fiery superhero called Ghost Rider.
Ghost Rider leans heavily on the almost nonstop action at its charred heart. Very rarely does the film actually calm down enough to give us an intimate character moment. Perhaps this is good because the action actually allows Ghost Rider to be watchable for its two-hour runtime. The CGI is very well done, especially the effects on Cage when he morphs into the hissing demon. Things do turn goofy when Fonda and Bentley see their faces distorting into bluish ghouls with row after row of crooked fangs. They would be a dentist’s worst nightmare but they wouldn’t scare anyone else. The action basically sees Ghost Rider stomping around on the screen and battling one of Blackheart’s three grinning henchmen, all of which are dispatched with ease. The sad part to all of this is that Cage and Bentley allow the special effects to do all the work for them. Bentley ends up being guiltier of this than Cage, if you can believe that. Bentley’s Blackheart has to be the least convincing baddie to ever torment a superhero. At times, he seems like someone is standing off screen holding up a white poster board with his lines written on it. He doesn’t bring any menace to the role and in the end, he falls behind voice distortion and layers of CGI to make him an intimidating force. Still, he just seems too nice.
Cage, meanwhile, had to be breathing a sigh of relief that for once, he wasn’t the one ruining the movie. I was actually surprised in the amount of enthusiasm that Cage demonstrated even if he is hit or miss. The performance finds him speaking in a southern drawl that appears and then disappears without warning, something that you would think Johnson would have righted. The rest of the time, Cage just seems to be playing a giddier version of himself. Apparently, Cage is a huge fan of Ghost Rider (he even has him tattooed on his arm) and he really lobbied to nab the role. You would think he would have brought something special to this demon party, being a huge fan and all. Ghost Rider finds Cage’s Johnny Blaze striking up a relationship with forgettable reporter Roxanne Simpson (Played by Eva Mendes), a romance that has absolutely no spark to speak of. Mendes seems to just be going through the motions, very aware that she is only here to be saved by Cage’s CGI alter ego. The great Sam Elliot steps in as the mysterious Caretaker who finds himself the target of Bentley’s Blackheart. Elliot does a fine job with what he has to work with, even if there are more than a few holes in his character. Donal Logue shows up as Blaze’s wisecracking partner, Mack, who gets stuck with the typical one-liners for the kids. Rounding out the main players is Fonda’s Mephistopheles, who seems delighted to be playing the creeping puppet master.
There are aspects of Ghost Rider that are never fully explained to us, with things happening for no reason at all. Cage can apparently manipulate anything he touches, making them look like they were ripped out of the Devil’s imagination. There was also a twist with the Caretaker that drove me absolutely nuts, especially since Blackheart brutally terrorizes him while he does nothing about it. Another problem I had with the film was Blackheart’s evil plot to destroy earth. He gets the upper hand on Ghost Rider because he has no soul, something that Ghost Rider can target and destroy. Blackheart’s master plan fills him with hundreds of hellish souls, all of which can be burned up by Ghost Rider (Didn’t anyone catch this error while writing the film?). The film desperately wants to be a western but it seems that the western didn’t want to be associated with this crap so it spit it back into action territory. Overall, with wiser casting choices and a fully developed script, Ghost Rider could have turned out to be one of the more fun Marvel movies. It could have been a darker alternative to Marvel’s usually family friendly heroes. Instead, it just feels like watered down excuse to sell toys to kids and act as a quick cash grab for the money-hungry Marvel. A throwaway superhero vehicle that feels like it has been done before, and much better at that.
Ghost Rider is available on Blu-ray and DVD.