In this first decade of the 21st century, has there been a more controversial horror film than HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES? It seems like people have been either anticipating or dreading this film forever. Already, there has been enough jabber to make even the American version of THE RING pale in comparison. Now, after years of wrangling, the film itself arrives and you shouldn't expect the talk to die down just yet. This is a film that will divide people. Even fans of the genre will be split between those who love it, those who hate it and those will just be confounded by it. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is not as gory as we thought, not as harmless as we thought and definitely not as easy to pin down as we thought.
Appropriately enough, a horror host introduces the film, as words like "TERROR" and "MONSTERS" flash on the screen in a faded black and white reminiscent of my worst post-Pizza Hut nightmares.
Then, we meet Captain Spaulding (exploitation legend, Sid Haig), who runs a strange roadside attraction. He shows freaks of nature in his display cases, hosts a ride covering the history of gristly serial killers and serves his own tasty fried chicken... all while visitors get gas for their trek across middle America. Spaulding has an animated personality and a vicious temperament. His personality switches from John Wayne Gacy and Krusty the Clown's bastard offspring with little prior notice. In the beginning, he is infuriated rather than intimidated by a pair of would-be armed robbers. His reaction basically says, "I've seen the darkness, and you two 'aint it."
But violent as he is, Spaulding is only the host for this tour across hell. He merely baits the four people who visit his shop with his stories of the mysterious Doctor Satan. Wanting to get more information for a book on roadside attractions, Spaulding agrees to draw them a map to the place Doctor Satan's body allegedly disappeared from years ago. On the way, they pick up a hitchhiker named Baby (Sherri Moon). Baby seems like a kooky but fun-loving local yokel who agrees to help the kids out when they run into car trouble.
Eventually, everyone makes it to Baby's home, which looks like a cross between Spahn Ranch and the Ackermansion. Right away, things might be a little creepier than previously thought, as she introduces the reluctant visitors to her family. There's Mother Firefly (Karen Black - as in "The Voluptuous Horror of..."), a cross between Tennessee Williams charicature and Lizzie Borden. Grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimple) is a miserable old coot who doesn't appear like he would be too against in-breeding. Tiny (Matthew McGrory - THE DEAD HATE THE LIVING) is the scarred, deaf giant of a son. And then there's Otis (Bill Mosley - THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2), who seems to be in charge. Otis envisions himself a religious leader, bringing his testament to whoever crosses his path. His god is death and his church is torture.
The rest of the film details the arrogant kids falling prey to the matriarchs of the title location and their desperate attempts to escape.
Rob Zombie has said that he fashioned this exactly in the style of old films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The film also recalls THE HILLS HAVE EYES, SPIDER BABY, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and to a lesser extent HALLOWEEN, MOTEL HELL, FREAKS, Universal horror classics and the films of the Marx Brothers. The film takes place in 1977, and he aimed for a throwback to the grindhouse days of old.
He has succeeded for the most part, but really this is only a film Rob Zombie could do. Beyond the harkening back to the old days, there are instances where Zombie's signature style comes through. It's a style he has honed over the years through his videos, animations and music. Grotesque imagery is shown through skewed camera angles as grinning faces watch on. A use of bright flourescents almost creates a deceptive atmosphere of childlike innocence as the devils perfect their craft on screen.
The dialogue is also pure Zombie. At times it creates the right mood for the highly unique piece. At others, it gets to be a bit too much. The film is filled with psychobilly crazytalk. Some is used just for simple humor. But sometimes the dialogue makes absolutely no sense, like when Otis delivers head-scratchers like, "I bet you'd stick your head in the fire if I told you you could see Hell. But you're too stupid to realize you got a demon stickin' out your ass saying, 'Holy Miss Moley, I got me a live one.'" As you can see, the technique doesn't always work.
It becomes supremely important to Zombie that people don't get used to anything in this film. Few recent genre films have worked so hard at making their audience uncomfortable. In addition to the strange dialogue, hallucinogenic imagery and out-and-out brutality, Zombie uses a highly intriguing motif. To transition between scenes, and sometimes within the scenes themselves, Zombie makes use of strange sequences, shot on low-grade video stock and sometimes filtered through sepia tone, negative effects and other magical uses of the chroma key. These images may consist of anything from hopeless views of a barren and unforgiving landscape to monologues delivered by the antagonists (including some quotes from Manson family members if I'm not mistaken). Other times, there are small vignettes detailing other strange "freaks of nature" across Middle America, most of which have nothing to do with the actual film. The aim is to keep the audience in a constant state of disorientation. And I would be lying if I said it didn't make for a genuinely unnerving sensation.
The kids turn in predictable performances that are passable, but nothing completely special. The real attraction is the colorful group of villains that decorates the film. Sid Haig is excellent as Captain Spaulding, delivering a performance that would be worthy of a film of his own, or at least as the host of a nifty anthology. Mosley seems to be having a good time recalling his Chop-Top days with the Otis character. He makes sure he leaves an impression and I'm sure some audience members will leave the theatre muttering, "Run, rabbit... ruuuuun!" Karen Black turns in one of her better performances, which is to say she's eccentric and threatening without chewing the scenery. She even stands back and lets the others have the spotlight when necessary.
Sherri Moon makes her motion picture debut as Baby. Moon is better known as Mrs. Rob Zombie, and all I can say is Rob is one very lucky man. She manages to be a sexy, childish, animated and terrifying psychotic in her part. I was truly amazed at the great job she did her first time out. It's a performance that some have criticized as being loud and obnoxious. In truth, everything about HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is loud and obnoxious. This is a loud, loud movie and Sherri Moon fits it like a glove.
But they can't all be winners, folks. As Grandpa Hugo, Dennis Fimple is just plain annoying. Grandpa takes very little part in the action of the story, so his part is completely inconsequential. He's there merely to be the spewer of, and target of more strange banter. The same can be said of Joe Dobbs who cameos in a scene at a liquor store, which may be amusing but was certainly unnecessary. Walt Goggins, who does a great job on the television series THE SHIELD, seems a bit lost here. His part as a deputy seems too cartoonish, too much of a charicature for the seriousness he rightly brings to the part. It seems to be one of the wrong turns the film made in the screenplay department. The comical deputy is a tired concept, even as homage.
It should have figured that there would be a sense of comedy emanating throughout the film. Even the mutilation of several unfortunate cheerleaders is given a comedic spin. This film has a sick sense of humor. At certain moments, here was audible laughter in the cinema. Sometimes it was the loud uproarious kind, stemming from the dialogue, sometimes it was the nervous, uneasy variety. The humor hits its good and bad spots, usually with musical cues. The use of "Brick House" for a torture sequence made for a fantastic and memorable scene - as one man's dismemberment becomes a dance party for the amateur surgeons. Another sequence featuring Slim Whitman's "I'll Remember You" is misplaced and unsatisfying. Although this sequence does end with a crane shot that will be impossible to forget. It enhances the film's sadism tenfold.
Much has been made of the torture, sadism and violence in HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. And yes, this is definitely not a film for youngsters (although I suspect they'll sneak in anyway). However, there is a bit less actual gore than some would expect. Much like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, most of the violence is subjective ? dependent more on the menacing tone than the actual gallons of red stuff that should be pouring on screen. That news may upset gorehounds (until the DVD release, of course) but it doesn't make the images any less effective. The same sequences would play the same, with or without a little extra puss.
Rob Zombie infuses his film with the various things that tickle his fancy. It's as if he's using the medium to decorate what he sees as the dream bedroom of a maladjusted 14 year old boy. What does Rob Zombie like? He likes loud guitars, drumming beats, fast cars, bizarre freak shows, the darker side of psychadelica, monster shows, crazy women and horror, horror, horror. He directs everything in his own crazy style throughout, even using a bit of split-screen that would make Brian De Palma proud.
HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES reportedly began as an amusement park ride, and at times, that's exactly how it feels - a dark, nightmarish amusement park ride. Credibility be damned, I could not help but enjoy myself during HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. This is a carnival of the soul, with a strong emphasis on "carnival." It's dark, cruel, sadistic, horrifying and more than anything, it's funny as hell. It has its flaws, but nothing that will keep me from seeing the film again. Despite all it's drawbacks, this is simply a fun movie and I walked out of the theatre with a big grin on my face.
But forgetting all preconceptions, there is no way to tell whether you will love or hate HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. Like I said earlier, this is a film that will divide people even within the genre. Flocks of younger fans that might not even realize what the film is referencing will no doubt be frustrating to many viewers. But there is not one group, probably not even Rob Zombie's fans, who will embrace the film completely. Or reject it completely, for that matter. This is such a strange film that every person will likely have a different reaction. You won't be able to say to your friends, "Oh, you like cannibals, zombies, etc.? You should like this."
There is nothing out there right now even remotely like HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES. Whether that's a good or bad thing is completely up to you.