In a way, Rob Zombie's House Of 1000 Corpses, when coupled with his own follow-up The Devil's Rejects would have been a much better, and more audience-acceptable Grindhouse experience than the Tarantino/Rodriquez debacle. Zombie is a filmmaker who is so boundlessly wrapped up in celebrating the old drive-in style exploitation flicks of the scabby seventies and the pseudo-slick eighties that I find him hard to dislike, even as inept as a writer and director as we all know he can be. It is precisely his almost clinical determination to mix and match themes and genres and throw linear narrative to the wind that I think is his saving grace. The ultimate fanboy he may be, but his obsessed referential drive to fashion his own takes on horror's cruellest and most subversive sagas - typically those of America's hidden population exacting ritualistic degradations upon a comparatively bland and un-likeable middle class - is somehow sadistically reassuring in an age of CG and glossy big budget banality. In only a couple of movies and a larger-than-life persona that actually masks a very knowledgeable genre-guru, Zombie has already created an oeuvre that, despite being either carbon-copied or actually remade from classic originals, he can still call his own. The words “A Rob Zombie Film” actually mean something ... and it is only the flip of a coin, or the roll of the dice that decides whether that something be as dire as a Uwe Boll movie or actually contain a perverse slice of homage-rife entertainment.
Personally, I hated 1000 Corpses when I first saw it and have, in fact, enjoyed many occasions of Zombie-bashing over the last few years. The Devil's Rejects only seemed to confirm my initial opinions, being so deliberately intended to shock that it singularly failed to do so. Yet, there is something weirdly supernatural about movies and their creators that can see even the staunchest naysayer reappraise them at a later date and even, perhaps, radically alter their viewpoint. Perhaps they generate an obscure phantom life of their own, evolving in the ether even without being altered in any fashion that you can actually pin-point or discern on the screen. But before you think that I'm about to lavish praise upon Zombie's debauched debut, let me just confirm for you now that 1000 Corpses is still a farcical, idiotic, lame-brained exercise in sheer over-indulgence and knowingly camp sleaze. But - and here's the crucial thing, folks - looking at it now, it definitely has a curious addiction all of its own that allows it to be downright enjoyable practically straight the way through.
The plot couldn't be simpler. In fact, what little plot it has, is purely a distillation of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2000 Maniacs, The Hills Have Eyes and even Deliverance, if its hillbilly rednecks wore circus costumes and put on spot-lit variety shows for their victims, that is. Two young couples, with totally unbelievable pretensions to study the sly and screwed-up legends of America's distrusted interior, venture along the backroads towards what will be a calamitous encounter with Doctor Satan, a despicable soul who supposedly conducted bizarre and decidedly unethical experiments upon the asylum patients at his disposal, and his wretched clan of murderous, cannibalistic oddities, residing in an isolated mansion in the middle of nowhere. What follows is completely un-original to the point of being practically complete plagiarism. Torture, mayhem and death are the order of the day, but the crazy manner in which all this occurs is what makes 1000 Corpses tick. It may be overly-familiar, but Zombie is content to take his time with a lengthy middle section that first introduces and then has lots of fun with his maniacal mob of barbarian-bumpkins. That this feral crowd of ne'er-do-wells are vastly more interesting and entertaining than their sneery, loud-mouthed captives is the ace up Zombie's sleeve. Naturally in such a genre-offering, the bad guys are going to be the most absorbing, but this clutch of playful killers go way beyond the norm, becoming a sort of soap-opera-ish family in whose company a few more episodes might actually have been a cool idea.
Commencing with the film's poster boy, the crazy clown and proprietor of a roadside museum of oddities, horrors and freaks, Captain Spaulding (the great Sid Haig) and taking in Bill Moseley (Texas Chainsaw 2's Chop-Top) as a sexual deviant conducting a few “cobbled together” experiments, himself, younger brother Tiny - an impossibly tall, pizza-faced mute - Karen Black's rancid-toothed nymphomaniac Mother, the wildly sexy Baby (played with deliciously aggressive sass by Sheri Moon) and their mutton-chopped geriatric loon-cake of a Grandpa, the psycho-quota for the film goes through the roof. But it is the key factor of such an eclectic casting that grants 1000 Corpses its tangy and ebullient appeal to me. Such B-movie glories as Karen Black, Michael J Pollard, Bill Moseley and, of course, the ubiquitous Sid Haig lifts what would otherwise be a tedious catalogue of dumbed-down depravity into an over-the-top gag-fest that skates over its own bad taste with a smirk on its face and a twinkle in its eye. Haig used to terrify me when I was a kid. He was always popping up as a heavy on TV, but one role in particular used to get me every time. In the cultish, but rarely seen Elliot Gould cop-corruption thriller Busting from 1976, Haig played a really mean-looking thug, whose imposing stature, bald head and fierce beard gave me nightmares for ages. A career spanning the decades has seen him as a TV-show heavy-for-hire and, in fact, it wasn't until Zombie scooped him out of semi-retirement that the doldrums of typecasting that had dogged him for so long began to slip away. The years have mellowed his appearance considerably, which is ironic considering the roles that Zombie offers him. Here, as Captain Spaulding, Haig creates a character that is, at once, comically mythical and wildly menacing. I've never liked clowns, myself (they freak me out, if you must know) but I can't help feeling that the one thing Zombie and Haig get wrong with this guy is his actual look. Somehow, Spaulding just isn't clowny enough. Even so, with his Tarantino-inspired foul mouth and redneck humour, Haig's white-faced, goggle-eyed exhibitor of the foul and extoller of legends is a wonderfully ridiculous trash-horror-icon in the making. Wild and anarchic, Haig's performance is unpredictable and unsettling, for all of its daft irreverence and ribald verbal broadsides.
Black does a fine job too, sending herself up with a salty, white trash turn that she clearly relishes. And Sheri Moon's Baby is a fine discovery - a stratospherically gorgeous sicko who vamps and tramps up the show with lewd humour and an intoxicating giggle. By contrast the supposedly “good” guys are pathetic and unwanted. It is surely not by mistake that Zombie has us craving their demise, although we do get the standardised protracted ordeal-then escape situation a la Marilyn Burns that, in a neat switch-around almost has us caring whether the once-annoying young lady makes it not. To say a great deal more about the plot would be to give the impression that the movie contains set-pieces and scenarios worthy of singling out. Well, to be honest, the movie chops and changes style and tone so vigorously throughout that the end result is like a road-crash of twisted ideas smeared like genre-jam across the screen. Only rushing into the final act do we get the more conventional horror film approach, and Zombie proves, with this segment, that he can come up with some ingenious tricks and nuances when he really tries, wrong-footing the audience with a situation that doesn't quite play out the way you expect it to. The surprising thing is that, despite how well accomplished this finale may be, if he had kept this more serious manner all the way through, then Zombie's film would, ironically, have been a much less impressive movie overall. It is, afterall, his kitchen-sink approach to storytelling that puts wind in its sails.
Well, although it is incredibly tempting to completely hammer Zombie's debut into the ground, I'm obviously not going to. However dubious the filmmaker's talents may be, there is a gleeful insanity at work here and a wholly unsavoury yet infectious love for the splatter-tastic exploitation flicks of the seventies and eighties that is just about enough to help the movie get by. The simple fact is that if you are going to steal the plots and themes of American cinema's darkest and most amoral celluloid excursions then you may as well steal from the acknowledged classics. The “survival” and “torture” horror sub-genres are considerably overworked even to this day and, boiled down to their basic ingredients, even more supposedly high-brow concept-shockers like Hostel and Saw owe a huge debt to the likes of Texas Chainsaw and Last House On The Left, and can definitely be seen as socio-political commentaries on modern mass-media escapism and counter-culture desire. With the early trailblazers, such as the aforementioned Chainsaw and House, and to a much greater degree the even earlier Night Of The Living Dead, the climate and state of the times in which they made are clearly reflected - grisly mirrors held up to the more wretched and base traits of humanity being exposed constantly by news reels and tabloids day after day. Zombie, though, doesn't intend to work with metaphor or allegory, opting instead to just titillate, mutilate and infuriate. And, to be fair, there is nothing wrong with that. The horror genre, more than any other, has the spare capacity to just kick back and indulge in simple sadism for the sake of it without having to probe some deeper sub-textual meaning as it does so. In this respect, Zombie's film more explicitly apes the carnival excesses of Herschel Gordon Lewis and his madcap murder-fests from the early sixties. There is a demented sense of humour running through it, from Captain Spaulding himself to the Clive Barker-influenced Doctor Satan, that immediately drops the nasty factor down a peg or two throughout.
He knows that we don't care about the characters. If he'd wanted us to give a damn about what befalls them, then he would have made a different movie altogether. In fact, on the basis of 1000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects and even, sadly, his Halloween take, he simply doesn't know how to create viewer empathy within this genre. Characters are created for the sake of distress, torment and slaying - nothing else. The only variance between them is how long it takes for them annoy us enough to actually want to see them get wasted. Zombie is the ultimate fanboy with his gory wish come true. But rather than truly lavish his most despicable fantasies across the screen - attempting to up his influences' ante with more blood, more pain, more controversy, say - he can actually come across as quite bizarrely restrained. With this guy, you expect to be disturbed and grossed-out, yet, for my money anyway, he just hasn't delivered the grisly goods with anywhere near enough power ... yet. It is as though that wish-bestowed fanboy I mentioned earlier actually gets cold feet at the prospect of the power he has at his disposal and finds himself cutting back and cutting back. The knee-jerk sensationalism of the brutality in The Devil's Rejects is just that ... knee-jerk sensationalism that offers no resonance after the film has gone by. His films keep getting labelled as “sick” and “depraved”, yet I struggle to see why. His violence is cartoonic, ridiculous and so manically contrived that it comes over as the Billy Connelly equivalent of carnage - ie, no matter how hard, rude or crude it may be it remains steadfastly inoffensive. And House Of 1000 Corpses is definitely the least offensive of the bunch. Just setting out to concoct dirty deeds and horrific murders isn't enough to guarantee dread, unease or shock. You need staging, atmosphere and credibility - three essential things that I would say Zombie rarely chooses to employ. I say rarely as opposed to never because his Halloween Metal-mix at least contains moments of real tension amidst a genuinely more serious, intense and frightening tone.
Never as nasty or as gory as you might have hoped, 1000 Corpses errs dangerously into surrealism with mood-enhancing film-clips, mad montages and visual asides that pepper the movie like shotgun pellets through a tin door. Without a clear intention of being anything specific, it hurls in riffs on everything from slasher to zombie flicks, cop thriller to torture-porn, comedy to Spider-Baby-type family values. Only towards the end does the film truly embrace the horror film and dial the tone all the way around to serious and it is here, in some dank and filthy, corpse-lined tunnels that Zombie remembers that he should be trying to scare us. Acute camerawork cranks up the tension - love the shot of half of the heroine's face in extreme close-up on the left hand side of the frame as something unpleasant creeps towards her down an exquisitely depth-enhanced passage stretching away from us in the rest of the picture. Thus, evidence of greatness can definitely be found even in this lurid and contrived old tosh.
Zany and ridiculous, House Of 1000 Corpses seemed set from the get-go to attain a cult status. That it has also managed to virtually reverse my older opinions about it is nothing short of spectacular. Or maybe I'm just getting easier to please these days. Ahem. Being realistic, the film gains a 6 out of 10, but if you are in the right frame of mind, you should have no problem adding a mark on top of that.
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