Written and Directed by: Rob Zombie
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"It's all true--the boogeyman is real, and you've found him."
There are many horror films whose reputation precedes them, causing them to become infamous within the genre. Usually, such a process occurs over time, well after the film has been released. In the case of House of 1,000 Corpses, however, this happened well before the film was ever released. Rob Zombie wrapped up his directorial debut way back in 2000; however, Universal Pictures rejected this early cut because the film was sure to receive an NC-17 rating, and this fear was later confirmed. As a result, the film languished without a distributor until 2003 when Lion’s Gate picked the film up for distribution. By the time the film was set to be released in April of that year, the film had become an odd curiosity for fans of the genre, myself included. I can still remember seeing a teaser trailer for the film well before it was ever released and being excited for it, so, needless to say, I went out of my way to see the film when it received a fairly limited release. The question remained, however: would the film live up to its infamous production?
For this reviewer, the answer is a hesitant “yes.” While the film is standard horror fare as far as plot goes, the film is just novel enough to set itself apart from most of the stuff Hollywood has been producing for the last decade. A throwback to exploitation films of the 70s, House of a 1,000 Corpses is unapologetically violent, crass, and, at times, repulsive for a relatively mainstream American horror film. If you can’t handle that, the film will not be for you, but I imagine that Zombie’s reputation also precedes him at this point. It’s certainly not the most disgusting movie ever committed to film, but there’s a reason it initially received an NC-17 rating.
As previously stated, the film’s plot is one we’ve all seen before: in 1978, two couples are trekking across the country in search of off-beat roadside attractions, and they stumble across “Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen” in Ruggsville, Texas. Inside, they find an assortment of bizarre novelties (like a mermaid skeleton, for example) and a “Murder Ride,” a cheap haunted house ride that features Spaulding as its guide. During the ride, Spaulding recounts the tale of a local legend Dr. Satan, a surgeon at a local mental hospital who performed illegal surgeries on the mentally ill before he was lynched by a disapproving mob.
This, of course, piques the interest of Jerry, one of the guys in the group, and Captain Spaulding begrudgingly provides directions to the tree from which Dr. Satan was supposedly hanged. Along the way, the group picks up a mysterious female hitchhiker who happens to live near the hanging tree. Of course, this all ends up being an elaborate trap, as one of the tires on the car is flattened by an unseen gunman. This, of course, gives the hitchhiker the pretense of allowing the teens to come into the house named in the film’s title. Here we meet one of the most depraved families in horror history in the Fireflies, who go on to torture and dismember the teens after they attempt to leave the house
Reminiscent of the Sawyer family from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, the Fireflies are an assorted cast of characters that range from the humorously deranged Grandpa Hugo to the downright paranoid and psychotic Otis. Also appearing is the aforementioned hitchhiker, Baby, a deranged young lady with a penchant for Bette Davis, and Mother Firefly, the family’s deceptively sweet matriarch portrayed by horror legend Karen Black. Among the most unique member of the clan is Tiny, a hulking, disfigured giant whose face was burned when his father attempted to burn the house down with the family inside.
By the time the teens are captured, the focus of the film has shifted firmly to establishing the deranged nature of the Fireflies, and the teens become a bit of an afterthought despite the fact that one of the character’s fathers leads an investigation for them. It’s at this point that the film unravels a bit, as it becomes nothing more than the family subjecting the teens to a series of torture and dismemberments before the film stumbles a bit to its conclusion.
Before this third act moves the focus to gore and torture, however, the film mostly relies on establishing a tense, moody, atmospheric, and sometimes surreal setting that truly captures the feel of the films to which it pays tribute. Set during Halloween, the film manages to capture the feel of the holiday better than any film since Halloween and its sequels; hell, Zombie didn’t even capture the feel of the holiday this well in his Halloween remake. This atmosphere is effectively established from the film’s opening frames, as the film opens with Dr. Wolfenstein, “the ghost host with the most,” who assures us that he will be with us “until the end.” Within the context of the film, Wolfenstein serves as a host for the horror movie marathon on Channel 68, and it’s little touchstones like this that truly make House of 1,000 Corpses feel more like a vintage horror movie.
Zombie’s direction, however, is anything but vintage or standard, as there are numerous, seemingly random disturbing sequences that add to the bizarre and surreal mood of the film. The film is very stylish (some might say too stylish), and it’s this style the sets the film apart from other recent horror offerings. While Zombie certainly doesn’t break any ground with his direction, it’s certainly more elaborate than simply pointing and shooting, and it’s a pretty impressive debut. While many of the sequences seem gratuitous or self-indulgent, they somehow mesh well with the subject matter, and it all ends up working well in the end.
My only big gripe with House of a 1,000 Corpses is the incomprehensibility of the last ten minutes or so. While the film has certainly been surreal to this point, Zombie begins to lose control of the film by veering into an over-the-top, fantastic sequence that seems a bit too implausible. It seems that Zombie is content to give the viewer a lot of strange, surreal imagery here without much explanation and expects it to work on its own; however, this isn’t the case, as it’s never made very clear if the events here are part of some Satanic ritual being performed by the Fireflies, or if the events are an elaborate, hallucinatory dream being experienced by the last surviving girl. I don’t mind a bit of ambiguity in a film, but this final sequence ultimately feels rushed and anticlimactic; furthermore, it contrasts too jarringly with the universe that has been established in the film before this point. I’ve read that Zombie completely re-shot and re-edited the ending, and readers can find the synopsis of the original version online; having read it, I would have preferred the original ending, as it provides a much more satisfying climax, despite Zombie’s insistence of the contrary.
This stumble at the conclusion does not do irreparable damage to the film, however, as the first 75 minutes, while flawed, are a true tour-de-force, the likes of which had not been seen for a long while by the time House of 1,000 Corpses was released. In more recent years, we’ve seen the release of “torture-porn” films like Hostel and Saw (though I use that term a bit loosely with the latter), so first time viewers might find this one a bit diluted at this point. Back in 2003, however, you just didn’t see things like this in theaters very often. While some have dismissed the film as a exploitative garbage, I think there’s enough style and substance here to set it apart from being pure torture porn. Sure, the film is obscene and crass, but there's a reason films like this are dubbed "exploitation" films, and this one especially doesn't set out to be anything but a bizarre exercise of violence and profanity. Everyone won’t like it, of course, but I think any horror fan owes it to themselves to check it out.
The film has only received one DVD release as of this writing along with a Blu-ray release. Having owned both and recently watched the latter, I can say that Lion’s Gate has done this film right on both accounts. Of course, the Blu-ray version is superior technically, featuring a clean image and vivid colors and a bombastic, aggressive DTS-HD soundtrack, but the DVD is no slouch, either, and features Captain Spaulding as its humorous menu host (the Blu-ray version is lacking this, sadly). If you haven’t seen this one yet, you won’t go wrong with either (provided you have the necessary equipment for Blu-ray playback, of course). As far as exploitation and slasher films go, House of 1,000 Corpses is one of the better recent entries in the genre; while the film has a reputation for simply being violent and lewd, it remains just entertaining enough for repeat viewings. As such, I’ll go out on a limb and recommend that you Buy it!
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