By Admin | April 15, 2003

As Rob Zombie’s name twitched over the seizure-inducing opening credits sequence of “House of 1000 Corpses”, one highly eager dude in the 1/4 filled theatre gamely raised his fists and shouted, “Rob Zombie Rules!” As the closing credits rolled an unbearably slow 88 minutes later, I’ll bet that same guy contemplated raising his fists again and announcing, “I apologize for rushing to judgment.”
New filmmakers accused of ineffectively emulating auteurs like Scorsese or Hitchcock can be forgiven for over-reaching. However, when you try to direct a movie that apes the grotesquely fun but truly artless snuff-film technique of Tobe Hooper, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and early Wes Craven, and still fall ridiculously short in the competence department, you’ve got some serious penance to do.
Before discussing what Rob Zombie did wrong – and this will take a great deal of restraint – I’ll start with all the things he did right. Casting relative unknowns (Sorry, Chris Hardwick.) in the leads was smart, because in movies like this the maniacs run the show. Imagine how distracting it would be to watch Gwyneth Paltrow struggle against someone with acromegaly and all-over burn makeup.
Setting the film in the late 1970s was also a knowing move. Many of the boner-popping archetypes of 70s splatter films and the 70s themselves are present: an almost naïve trust in hitch-hikers, mutant children, well-meaning macho sheriffs, gratuitous nudity, vehicular breakdowns, redneck clowns, a decided lack of cell phone technology, backwoods creeps, spooky houses, Halloween, and, of course, Karen Black. Sound good? It isn’t.
Unfortunately, “House of 1000 Corpses” rips off so many splatter movie tricks at once that it becomes totally frustrating. Should you focus on Captain Spaulding’s roadside horror ride, especially since he’s established as perfectly homicidal right from the outset? Should you care about those missing cheerleaders? What about the legend of Dr. Satan, the psychotic surgeon hanged by his own neighbors? Or the horrors contained in that dark and isolated house – the last one on the right? Or the silent, horribly charred brother? Naturally, it turns out we should be worried about all of them as they’re all connected but not in any significant or surprising way.
Zombie also messes with his own vision by limply re-creating any true sense of the 70s beyond the winky pop cultural signifiers he has tossed in the mix. “House of 1000 Corpses” is only low budget by contemporary standards; it’s still far slicker than the movies to which it pays tribute. The hot and h***y hitchhiker (played by Sheri Moon), with both the physique and acting abilities of a Vivid Video porn star, especially stands out as an unmistakably contemporary creation. And the soundtrack is dominated by the anachronistic sound of Zombie’s flesh-ripping guitar, which has all the spooky subtlety of, um, Rob Zombie.
An even more basic problem with this film is that, although Rob Zombie may understand how to appreciate horror, he has no clue how to write or film it. Instead of establishing a sense of genuine mystery, he intercuts narrative scenes with jumpy montages of “jarring” imagery and future-tense mayhem. Most scenes play out longer and more uncomfortably than prison sentences. Unnecessary time is invested in establishing characters who are shot in the face one scene later. Weirdness is often piled on gratuitously and thoughtlessly. (“Dude, I found a bunny costume in the props department. Can we use it??”)
Worst of all, the maniacs of “House of 1000 Corpses” are far too forthcoming about their motives. Much of what made films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and “I Spit on Your Grave” so unsettling was the characters’ and audience’s complete ignorance of why all this violence was happening. The random and senseless nature of the torture and murder brought it closer to our own real fears. “House of 1000 Corpses” gives its maniacs so much time to speechify that it forgets how much scarier it can be to just watch an innocent person get hit with a hammer and dragged behind a shed without explanation.
So why see it? For pure, unadulterated onscreen massacre? The violence level of “House of 1000 Corpses” is definitely above most multiplex-ready horror films, but it’s a tame ride compared to the straight-to-video films of contemporaries like Stuart Gordon or terror-torture classics like “Last House on the Left.” In fact, while “House of 1000 Corpses” completely fails to honor the films that came before it, the screening I attended did manage to revive some of that lost movie-going tradition. The majority of people in the audience were high or drunk, and I’m pretty sure some guy in the back row was getting a handjob from his girlfriend. If only Rob Zombie could have achieved any of that sweet nostalgia onscreen.

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