Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

I wanted to like this movie, partly because I felt the jaw-droppingly awful reviews it achieved upon its general release in the USA were due to the film unfairly suffering from over-hype, especially since word had spread concerning Universal Studios abandonment of the project following a rough cut they deemed too disturbing, and rumours concerning Zombie’s refusal to edit and re-film several hard hitting sequences.

Nevertheless, despite encountering numerous production problems, resulting in it running behind schedule, over-budget, and meeting a lukewarm reception at the USA box office, Rob Zombie’s directorial debut still managed to bank $12.5 million, which was enough to justify eventual distributor Lion’s Gate in signing up Zombie for a sequel due to shoot this fall.

Now that the DVD can be had on Region 1, and an imminent release is due from Metro Tartan in the UK, the pre-release hullabaloo concerned with the film's attempt to reinvent the horror film genre for the 21st Century has finally subsided. It doesn’t, but to be fair to Zombie, he never claimed to try and make anything other than a tribute to the 70s psychotic-family slasher flicks such as THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, etc.

The film starts promisingly enough, with a nighttime car journey through the desolate rural town of Rugsville for Jerry, Denise, Mary and Bill (Chris Hardwick, Erin Daniels, Jennifer Jostyn, and Rainn Wilson, respectively). It’s October 30th and the crew stop at a gas station, run by Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) who ekes extra cash from passing motorists by serving them fried chicken and conducting tours via a “Murder Ride” in an adjoining ‘Museum of Monsters and Madmen’ (“You like blood, violence, freaks of nature?"). The ride recounts the history of the region’s serial killers, who include Albert Fish, Ed Gein, and local psycho Dr. Satan who was reputedly hanged for maiming and killing hundreds of mental patients in an attempt to create a race of super-humans.

No sooner have they left Spaulding’s museum the foursome pick up a sexy hitchhiker called Baby (played by Zombie’s partner Sheri Moon), who asks for a lift to her nearby home in order to avoid getting drowned in the torrential rainstorm that has broken out. As they near Baby’s house, an unseen gunman blasts their car tyres, but the do-gooders simply mistake the gunshot as a blow out. Baby insists that they take refuge with her family in the house whilst her brother fixes the vehicle. Unfortunately her family, consisting of Mother Firefly (Karen Black), Otis (Bill Moseley), Grampa Hugo (the late Dennis Fimple), and Tiny (Mathew McGrory), turn out to be psychopathic serial killers, whose methods of murder are as twisted as anything served up in Spaulding’s museum.

There follows a series of rather grim, if unconvincing, torture sequences whose shock effects are diluted by the director’s insistence at flaunting every camera-trick he can think of, gleaned from a series of workman-like music videos filmed for the likes of “Dragula” and “Superbeast”, that include split-screen, jump cuts, the splicing in of both positive and negative camcorder footage, (much of it shot in the director’s own basement), scratching, double exposure, montage, slow motion and speeded up footage. Zombie admits that several of the film’s murder sequences were originally gorier, and re-shot to appease a wider audience.

Following inserts detailing the murder of a group of cheerleaders who arrived at the house days before, the script seems to take a turn for the worse with a wholly fantastical ride into the dark underworld of Dr. Satan (Walter Phelan) who it would appear is still practising his evil experiments in a labyrinth of tunnels beneath a field nearby. The surviving travellers are dressed as Easter bunnies, and lowered by the killers down a well that serves as the entrance to Dr. Satan’s lair. Quite why the killers do this is left unexplained and it’s my guess much of this explanation was left un-filmed due to the movie running over-schedule. It could be argued the “Rabbit” theme was intended to denote sacrificial pagan practices, and shots of the psychopathic family leading the victims through cornfields, dressed in ceremonial gowns recall the Summerisle worshippers from Robin Hardy’s THE WICKER MAN leading Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Howie to his fiery finale.

Editing of the finished product is pretty haphazard; flashback sequences are thrust into proceedings at every turn, which have the effect of dispelling any build up of tension that the film may have achieved. The fear factor is also absent, primarily due to some dumb character interaction scripted by Zombie, and unchecked performances by the likes of Jennifer Jostyn, and Rainn Wilson resulting in the victims failing to engage audience sympathy. In fact, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one rooting for the villains throughout.

Despite all this, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES isn’t a total disaster. The film contains some of the best set design that I’ve ever seen in a horror movie, and the sequences concerning Spaulding’s Murder Ride, and a black and white introductory segment involving fictional television horror host by the name of Doctor Wolfenstein (played by the film’s set designer, Gregg Gibbs), serve as a nostalgic trip back to the early 70s when carnival style horror houses, ghost trains, spook shows, and late night television genuinely thrilled audiences instead of just reeling in the bucks with scant regard for their relative entertainment factor. The cinematography by Tom Richmond and Alex Poppas is also to be congratulated, especially since many of the outdoor location shots involve darkened rain-filled skies, filming of which are notoriously difficult.

Equally fine is the inspired casting of Sid Haig, Karen Black, and newcomer Sheri Moon who are all perfect for their roles. Bill Moseley basically reprises his Chop Top character from TCM 2, but somehow he just keeps reminding me of Martin Landau in equally hammy mode, as Bela Lugosi from ED WOOD.

So is the film worth seeing? Well, provided you don’t go expecting too much in the way of shocks, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is the perfect Halloween accompaniment: pumpkins aplenty, continuous lightning storms, assorted spooky visuals, and Amanda Friedland’s fabulous costume designs, ensure this film is a fun-packed journey. Rob Zombie ought to have learned from his initial feature length debut, and I’m pretty sure the sequel will prove another profitable venture for its bold backers, Lions Gate. I, for one, look forward to its successful completion.

Carl T. Ford

Directed by Rob Zombie

English language with optional English and Spanish subtitles
USA / 2002 / 88 minutes

Director Commentary
Audition Footage
Rehearsal Footage
Cast and Crew Interviews
Stills Gallery
Theatrical Trailers
Interactive Menus directed by Rob Zombie

A Lions Gate Home Entertainment DVD
All Region / NTSC / Dolby Digital 5.1 / Widescreen 1.85:1 / 16/9

HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES will receive a cinema release in the UK from Metro Tartan on 3rd October, 2003.


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