House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Thursday, October 27, 2011 at 03:17PM
Ian Simmons in House of 1000 Corpses [2003]

Alice in Redneck Land

It's easy to write off Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the MTV generation". Hell, I've done it myself. But the film has a lot more going for it than flashy, tweaked homages and ultra-violence.

Admittedly, it's hard to separate the fact that the movie is a Rorschach Test for genre fans and pop junkies, to just evaluate it as a horror movie. If you've never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you may find it terrifying, trippy, and original. If you are familiar with Tobe Hooper's definitive slasher masterpiece, you'll either yawn or cheer at what Zombie has done with the kids-run-into-a-family-of-insane-cannibals formula. On another level, one might simply appreciate seeing The Office's Rainn Wilson in an early role, alongside a pre-Nerdist, pre-caring-about-his-health Chris Hardwick or a pre-Shield, pre-Justified Walton Goggins. Further still, there's a lot of fun to be had watching Zombie and Sid Haig create a bona fide horror icon in the filthy, irreverent roadside jokester, Captain Spaulding.

House of 1000 Corpses is not notable for its story. In the late-70s, two friends, Jerry (Hardwick) and Bill (Wilson), travel cross-country with their girlfriends, Mary (Jennifer Jostyn) and Denise (Erin Daniels), to research a book on weird local attractions. They pull into a Ruggsville, Texas gas station where they meet Captain Spaulding, the clown-faced proprietor of a local macabre museum/haunted thrill ride. He tells the guys about the legend of Dr. Satan (Walter Phelan), a madman whose cruel experiments on the mentally ill got him lynched by a town mob. On their way to the famous hanging tree, the gang picks up a sexy, young hitchhiker named Baby (Sheri Moon), who, through a series of manipulations, draws them up to her house.

As you can probably guess from the title, there are a lot of dead people in that house. But they're not nearly as scary as the living residents. Baby's shell-shocked-revolutionary brother, Otis (Bill Moseley), taunts a squad of kidnapped cheerleaders in his upstairs bedroom, while disfigured giant, Tiny (Matthew McGrory), shuffles around his basement confines, waiting to be summoned for menial chores. We also meet Mother Firefly (Karen Black), and a couple other family members whose main role is to be disgusting and insane, and to help procure and/or dispose of fresh bodies.

With numerous Texas Massacre sequels and countless imitators already flooding the market, all Zombie could do, really, was put an aesthetic stamp on this material--which he does with sufficient flair and attitude. House of 1000 Corpses, like any carnival ride, is rarely scary, but it's got just enough of a unique identity to offer the audience something interesting to look at while they're being grabbed at from the darkness. The film "switches channels" frequently, bouncing from the main story to snippets of classic Universal monster movies and local television commercials and news reports. The dramatic use of reds, blues, and greens instantly recalls the comic-book sensibilities of George Romero's Creepshow, while the goofy tone--bordering on camp--is sometimes reminiscent of the Joel Schumacher Batman pictures; oddly enough, I don't mean that as a criticism.

The fact that this was Zombie's first feature really shows. When I first saw House of 1000 Corpses in 2003, I found it to be amateurishly executed and uninspired. It had too much of a spaghetti-against-the-wall feeling. Today, I see things differently. Maybe that's because I've seen the more mature sequel, The Devil's Rejects; maybe it's because I get more of the references the writer/director has thrown into his bubblegum bouillabaisse; whatever the reason, I have a deeper appreciation and respect for his ability to execute a singular vision built on well-tread ground--even when that vision goes off the rails in the last twenty minutes.

Yes, like Texas Massacre, House of 1000 Corpses features a survivor girl (Denise) who must fight her way to freedom. She goes insane in the process, and the film blurs the line between reality and fever-dream. Zombie underscores this by having Baby outfit Denise in an Alice in Wonderland dress and then lower her and a semiconscious Jerry into a "rabbit hole"--really, an underground cavern in back of the house. Once inside the twisty, dank cave system, Denise discovers a society of scummy, mentally ill men who chase her to the doorstep of Dr. Satan's subterranean lab (or, practice, I guess). The worm's-eye-view of her arrival, standing before a red-lit entryway decorated with bones, stones, and old televisions is a stunning image, the natural evolution of what Hooper tried and failed to accomplish with his underground junk kingdom in his own Texas Massacre follow-up.

From the moment Denise enters the caves, the film's narrative becomes unreliable. Does she really encounter a withered, old mutant with robotic arms, operating on Jerry? Is her pursuit by a fang-faced, goggles-wearing butcher the elaborate hoax of a snapped mind? How much of her daylight stumble into safety is true, and how much is it wishful thinking on the part of a doomed, insane person? None of these answers really matters because the end result is pretty much self-evident. But the movie sure makes it fun to speculate.

Crazy editing and creative cinematography aside, the film's real selling point is its characters' personalities. Most of the actors bring a grounded authenticity to their roles, even those playing lunatics. The Goodfellas-esque moment between Captain Spaulding and Bill, in which the sheltered bookworm mistakenly crosses the no-nonsense good-old-boy, is some of the most genuine tension you're likely to see; it looks almost as though Zombie caught an awkward off-camera moment between Haig and Wilson. I also love how Hardwick's geeky, clueless enthusiasm gives way to fear and a bit of an attitude when things turn sour. And in their brief roles as local police, Goggins and Tom Towles turn in fine, understated performances that I'm sure looked cookie-cutter-tough on the page, but which come off as sadly tender and unmistakably human.

My one gripe is with Moon. I buy her as a coquettish nutcase, but her insane laughter comes across as a series of really forced giggles. Again, I'm able to look past a lot of that, based on her development--acting-wise and character-wise--in the sequel. But this first go-round is a bit rough.

This review is awfully full of qualifiers, but that's because I'm writing it as a House of 1000 Corpses convert. I used to really not like this movie; in recent years, after a handful of subsequent viewings, it's grown on me for different reasons. Every time I revisit it, I tend to find one detail that bugs me, one that doesn't bug me as much as it did initially, and at least two that I'd never noticed before--which I love. I no longer see this film as a Devil's Rejects rough-sketch. Rather, I consider it a tonally distinct revamping of a classic horror movie--backed by a personality that has the nostalgic loyalty of a fanboy and the uncompromising vision of a forward-thinking creator.

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