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House of 1000 Corpses. 2003. Directed & Written Rob Zombie.
Starring Sid Haig, William Bassett, Karen Black, Erin Daniels, Joe Dobbs III, Dennis Fimple, Gregg Gibbs, Walton Goggins, Chris Hardwick, Jennifer Jstyn, Irwin Keyes, Matthew McGrory, Jake McKinnon, Sheri Moon Zombie, Bill Moseley, Robert Allen Mukes, Walter Phelan, Tom Towles, Harrison Young, & Rainn Wilson. Spectacle Entertainment Group/Universal Pictures.
Rated R. 89 minutes.
I don’t post on message boards. Although, I do frequent them to see what people are saying about films. On IMDB particularly, so many people rag on Rob Zombie. But I love him. His music with White Zombie influenced some of my own music I used to write as a teenager. When I first heard he was making a movie it had me sold before it was finished. All the same, House of 1000 Corpses is not near perfect. There are definitely flaws. What Zombie’s debut feature does have is the power of nostalgia.
None of this is ripped right out of other movies, as some will have you believe. The love Zombie has for horror films out of the 1970s shows strong and proud. Equal parts Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, add in a bit of Beetlejuice and Tod Browning’s Freaks to boot. Not only is there plenty of horror, but Zombie gives us plenty of his trademark sense of humour, macabre and over-the-top alike.
The night before Halloween in 1977, a group of friends – Jerry (Chris Hardwick), Bill (Rainn Wilson), Mary (Jennifer Jostyn), & Denise (Erin Daniels) – head out on a roadtrip to find roadside attractions that are, let’s say… different. When they come across a gas station and proclaimed Museum of Monsters & Madmen, a rough-looking man in clown paint named Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) tells them all about the legend of a supposed Dr. Satan. He even draws them to a map where the doctor is said to have been hanged.
Along their way, a young woman hitchhiking in the rain gets into their car. Her name’s Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), and she invites the group to her place a short drive away. A tire blows, so Baby and Bill go on to the house.
Later, once the friends are all there, Baby introduces members of her family. First, Mother Firefly (Karen Black), then her brother Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley). We meet them all. Dirty ole Grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimple). Even some deformed babies in a jar, as well as the deformed giant Tiny (Matthew McGrory).
From there, the legend of Dr. Satan begins to get all too real.
This movie was never going to be for everyone, not that any truly are. Yet Zombie’s style as a musician all but guaranteed his movies would follow similar suit. His style is pervasive, in that it never surprised me how his first horror feature turned out. A lot of the film has a very Tony Scott-MTV-ish sort of feel, which is not necessarily bad. Some people might find that too frantic or fast paced. There are times where it doesn’t work, as if we’re trapped in a music video instead of a proper film. And then other scenes I’m drawn into the way Zombie uses different choices of edits, between the lavish frames sometimes recalling the technicolor vibe of Mario Bava, and the handheld home movies of the Firefly clan. Some of the Otis digressions in the handheld style are truly terrifying. Both he and Baby are disturbing characters, so seeing them in those little videos is unnerving. I dig it especially because apparently Zombie sort of did that off on his own, just him and the actors. So there’s also an admiration I have for his way of indie filmmaking. The commentary on his DVDs is usually pretty great, and he gives insight to some of the ways to try and do things old school, practically, which in turn always helps on the production side of things; no studio or financier could be unhappy with a director who hands money back after wrap. Again, there are flaws, a good deal of them. But House of 1000 Corpses is charming enough to be forgiven. Using homage, Zombie crafts his own version of the creepy house with the even creepier family inside. It comes alive with interesting, weird characters and the use of practical effects to keep things feeling oh-so-70s.
A lot of people don’t find this scary. When I say something’s scary, it isn’t that I’m cowering behind the couch, or staying up at night all due to the terror. Here, I mean disturbing when I say that this is a scary film. Zombie takes his homage, particularly to TCM, to another level. He amps up the strangeness – more TCM2 than the original. But also, there’s the end of the film. Once Otis and the family take the remaining victims out to the fields for more madness, things become viciously unsettling. As they lower two of them down into a hole in the ground, Aleister Crowley (I believe) speaks the words “Bury me in a nameless grave” over and over on a recording. And it’s incredibly perfect for the moment. After that is when the movie gets totally creepy to the ultimate degree. I won’t spoil any further. There’s simply something so dark and sinister about it all. Especially once Dr. Satan arrives. Despite maybe being a bit campy, he actually terrified me. The design of the set for his lair, his physical look, all those mechanical contraptions around hi and the laboratory; so morbid, so impressive, too. Great work went into this aspect, I only kind of wish there were more of the nasty doctor. Maybe someday Zombie will revisit him, tell his story in another film. Please, Rob? Please? Terrify me more.
With an ending I actually expected when first seeing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre nearly two decades ago, Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses is a definite 4 out of 5 stars for me. Like I’ve said, the movie is not at all perfect. There are pieces which could’ve come off much better, as well as some of the acting wasn’t near what you’d hope. Yet the charm and the homage, the creepy eccentricities, all the things we now see as staples of Zombie and his directorial style, they make this a fun modern horror. The actors, particularly Bill Moseley, really do ham it up during some scenes with their darker than dark comedy, but knock you dead with horrific glory during intense moments. Don’t be overly critical. Zombie didn’t try to reinvent the horror wheel, it’s clear he wears his influences on his sleeves, bright and brash, garishly enjoyable. Have a bit of fun with Zombie’s house of ’70s horror.