No review of House of 1,000 Corpses can really be complete without a little background. This horror movie, written and directed by musician Rob Zombie, was originally supposed to come out almost two-and-a-half years ago. (I first saw the trailer in August 2000, right before the movie Bring It On.) Zombie turned his cut in to Universal Pictures. The execs there were shocked by the level of violence and gore, and they refused to release the movie. Zombie bought back the rights and looked for another buyer. After a deal with MGM/UA fell flat, the film was purchased by Lions Gate, an indie distributor well-known for releasing bold, adventurous movies that others wouldn't touch, such as Tim Blake Nelson's O or Kevin Smith's Dogma. They were willing to put House of 1,000 Corpses into theaters this week - 595 of them to be exact. Not a super-wide release, but so what? Thank goodness we have a company like Lions Gate willing to let audiences decide for themselves.
Because of its long and interesting history, I was quite curious to see the film, which intentionally tries to recapture the primal shock of 1970's gore pictures like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left. As I walked toward the door of my local multiplex, I stopped to gaze at the film's poster. With its big red block lettering and a closeup of a freaky guy's head (complete with oozing blood), I felt like I was looking at one of those 1970's posters that mesmerized me as a kid. They always seemed to promise a film that would permanently screw you up. (The tagline for this movie reads: "The Most Shocking Tale of Carnage Ever Seen" - a perfect recreation of the hyperbole gore pictures were infamous for.) I honestly had no idea whether I was going to like House of 1,000 Corpses, but I was reasonably certain that I wouldn't be bored.
What unspooled over the next 88 minutes was like someone took the aforementioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left, mixed them with Fangoria magazine, vintage erotica, cheesy late-night horror movie hosts, carnival haunted houses, and the collected body of work of Hershell Gordon Lewis, then shoved them into Rob Zombie's id and blended it all into one bizarre concoction.
Naturally, their car breaks down, and the only place to go for help is the big creepy house just off the side of the road. There, they find a family of deranged murders, cannibals, and psychopaths who torture and kill them simply because...that's what these kinds of people do in these movies. The Firefly family consists of Mother (Karen Black), who takes delight in every evil act she witnesses; Otis (Bill Moseley), a blood-covered lunatic with a penchant for sermonizing; Baby (Sheri Moon), whose Playmate looks hide a vicious streak; and other assorted weirdos and freaks. One of the more grisly scenes involves Otis slicing open Jerry's face with a straight razor while Baby dances to the Commodores' hit "Brick House."
That's pretty much all there is to the plot. It's one killing after another. I don't want to give away the ending, except to say that one character makes it out alive, gets picked up on the road by a passing car, and...well, if you've seen any splatter flicks from the past you know what's coming.
House of 1,000 Corpses is not for the squeamish, to be sure. It features scenes of violence so vile - so repugnant - that many are sure to be completely turned off. That said, I am giving the movie a qualified recommendation. Rob Zombie is, I believe, sincere in his attempt to recapture something missing from today's fright flicks, namely the ability to shock. The best gore movies of the past had a way of unnerving audiences with images of intense horror. I remember meeting noted gore-meister Hershell Gordon Lewis at a film festival in 2001. Explaining his ultra-gory movies like The Gore Gore Girls and 2,000 Maniacs, he said the purpose was to jolt viewers, to show them something they hadn't seen before. I would add that audience members who were in tune with this sort of thing responded to emotions underneath the surface. I recently saw a documentary on the Independent Film Channel about horror movies. In it, Wes Craven explained that the sadistic Last House on the Left came out of his anger over the Vietnam War. Like slam dancing or punk rock, splatter movies are a form of venting rage that cannot be put into words; by jolting the audience out of complacency, the filmmaker knows his primal scream has been heard.
Some would undoubtedly ask why I would recommend a movie that calls back a form of filmmaking which was not totally respectable to begin with. After all, splatter movies certainly had their share of vocal opponents, from film critics (myself included, at times) to women's groups. That answer, I'm afraid, is not so simple. House of 1,000 Corpses is a movie I admired in a weird kind of way because I've always been fascinated by horror films. Seeing Rob Zombie (pardon the expression) bring a dead genre back to life is very interesting to me. He uses an original mixture of stylistic devices - reverse negatives, split screens, image tinting - to create a look that is visually disturbing, while still retaining the tone and feel of the films that inspired him. There are scenes in the film that do shock you. A few are particularly creative in their shock value. One such sequence is shot in slow motion, with a Slim Whitman song on the soundtrack underscoring the action. It ends with a view from above, as the camera looks down on two men. One holds a gun to the other's head. We wait and wait for the trigger to be pulled; it doesn't happen. Just when we think perhaps the gun will not be fired after all, it is. The moment makes a genuine impact. Through these scenes and others, Zombie shows that he has some serious aspirations as a filmmaker in this genre. He's not out to make a quick buck; he's out to pay homage to something that has seriously influenced him.
Toward the end of the film, I became curious about the reactions of the people around me. During the particularly nasty grand finale, I turned around and looked at the faces of my fellow audience members. I am not kidding when I say that no one moved so much as a muscle. Everyone stared at the screen with rapt attention. Perhaps they were enjoying what they were seeing, or perhaps they were sickened beyond words. It doesn't matter. The point is that Rob Zombie wanted to make an old fashioned splatter flick that gave the crowd a freak show jolt. He succeeded. I don't recommend House of 1,000 Corpses for the general audience. This is only for people who understand and appreciate the history and purpose of this genre. That said, I believe this is a legitimate achievement in horror filmmaking.
( out of four)
House of 1,000 Corpses is rated R for strong sadistic violence/gore, sexuality and language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.
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