MOTEL HELL is one horror's best satires, of other movies in the genre, as well as food, the industry surrounding it, and the people who eat it.
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.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. 1974. Dir. Tobe Hooper. Starring Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, Wiliam Vail, Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, and Gunnar Hansen. Vortex. 18+. 83 minutes.
Between a mix of Tobe Hooper’s raw filmmaking style, and my ability to empathize fairly well, I was absolutely shaken when I first saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s the reason why horror filmmakers are perpetually fascinated by that same recurring plot of “murderous cannibal family lives in the woods and kills people off who wander into their home”. It’s one of the reasons I love horror films in general. It influenced, and continues to influence, a number of generations of horror fans and filmmakers alike. I remember my mother, who isn’t a stranger to horror (she read most of Stephen King’s work when I was growing up and passed all the books of his she owned onto me), telling me about the first time she watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and said it’d terrified her; quote unquote, the scariest thing ever. Of course, being a young male and thinking my mom couldn’t possibly offer me any insight on the horror genre, I went ahead and watched it anyways.
Needless to say, my mom has a fairly accurate opinion about what a scary film is. The first time I saw the movie is forever imprinted in my brain.
There’s something never right even from the very start of TCM, as we get the cringe-worthy sound accompanying the camera flashes while viewing macabre images. Then of course it kicks up a notch after the gang we’re going on a trip with along the Texas highway picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be far beyond stable. Hooper works in a lot of suspense, and an absolutely unparalleled air of dread before finally letting Leatherface loose for the first time. I remember first watching this when I was 12 years old (I was only born in 1985, so it would have been around ’97 somewhere), surely not supposed to be according to my parents. When Leatherface first blows through that door with that shriek of his, attacking the unsuspecting victim, I was absolutely terrified.
Even 20 years or so after first scaring audiences in the mid-seventies, it was still working its magical horror on people on my sorry ass. Today, I can still throw it on and be shocked when first meeting Grandpa; the scene where they try to get him to take some of her blood is at once horrifying, and also darkly comic. After all the years of desensitizing myself with horror of all kinds, I can still find a creepy thrill from TCM.
I put myself in the shoes of these people- imagine encountering something like Leatherface. You’d be petrified. The whole family are disturbing characters in their own right, and they bring some black comedy to such a wild horror film. Hooper’s raw way of filming TCM brought a whole new element to the idea of horror, and people for years to come (and still continuing on into the foreseeable future) would try emulating its feel, but nothing can ever top it for the gritty terror it induces.
You can pretend all you want, but if Leatherface burst out from some shut-up door in an old house where you were looking around, you’d not only be terrified, you would most likely die. Along with letting loose most bodily functions. Isn’t that terrifying enough? Hooper didn’t have to add much to make this terrifying for me except the script itself, and the performances that came out of it. I feel a lot of it, if not all, was very natural, and very much how I would imagine people might really react.
All in all, this movie gets a full 5-star rating. Hands down. One of the best, and continually most frightening horror films I have yet to see. It always makes me wonder when I am deep in the woods camping somewhere, or hiking, if there really may be people out there living in a big creepy house, killing whoever they can manage to get through their doors. Any film that lingers in your mind, making you wonder the impossible is a solid film to me.
I also love how Hooper was partly inspired by the tales he heard of the infamous Ed Gein, whom always played Muse to some of other very famous horror icons including Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, as well as the iconic mommy’s boy Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho; Gein used to make things out of skin, including a ‘woman suit’ he apparently used to put on and howl at the moon. You can clearly see where the inspiration for dear ole Leatherface came from while peering into the dark world of Gein. Not that he was like Leatherface much more than at face value (get it – face?), or any of the other characters, but there are bits and pieces of Gein littered throughout them. The most outrageous, of course, are here in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and I love every last second of it.