The most shocking tale of carnage ever seen. Or maybe not.
You just gotta hate hype. Nothing will kill a good time faster than misplaced hyperbole. Just when you think you are interested in something, along comes the Madison Avenue media machine mallet and "BOOM," you are beaten over the head so many times and in so many indiscriminate fashions that before long your desire to indulge in whatever it was you wanted to partake in is wiped clean away. This disingenuous shuck and jive is mostly used in the entertainment industry, where the law of diminishing returns dictates that a movie or television show be pushed to the envelope of enjoyment before you've even sampled a second of it. In the 21st century, hype functions as the storm before the calm, the entire experience in a sound bite or clever ad. And the critical key is repetition. You must be rendered numb, dumb, and glum in the notion that, unless you witness this latest spectacle of overt uniqueness, you will be a loser in life of the highest order. When the news first broke that Universal was abandoning the distribution of Rob Zombie's production of a new horror film, House of 1000 Corpses, the tabloid tattlers leapt on the information like gnats on a sweaty redneck's butt crack, and suddenly, this quiet little movie became as notorious as Snuff in the '70s, The Thing in the '80s, and The Blair Witch Project in the '90s. It was too gruesome and repellent to release. MGM came and went. Weeks of waiting for a release date stretched to months. And all the while a legend was suckled and weaned. Corpses was too awful to release: either as an amateurish effort from a first time filmmaker, or a far too successful disgust fest of blood and brains. Finally Lions Gate came to the rescue, released the movie, and reality started to set it. The question then becomes what do you believe: the hype, or your own eyes?
Facts of the Case
While working on a book about bizarre American roadside attractions, a group of groggy young people stumbles upon Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen (and Fried Chicken Emporium). There, they partake of the local color and the Captain's acerbic personality. He invites them to experience his carnival-like Murder Ride. They agree and are treated to a presentation of great serial killers from the past. One is a deranged surgeon called Dr. Satan, whom legend believed was experimenting on the bodies of mental patients to produce a race of super-beings. He was caught and hung, vigilante style, by the townsfolk. But his body just up and disappeared. Intrigued, the inquisitive "kids" ask for a map to the dead doc's grave. Reluctantly, the Captain provides it. They head out into the dark and stormy night to see if they can locate this gravestone of the damned.
Along the way, they stop and pick up a sexy female hitchhiker named Baby. She tells them she knows all about Dr. Satan, but before they can confirm any details, the car gets a flat. Baby offers her brother's help. Her house is just a short distance away. Eventually they all find their way to the dilapidated menacing mansion on the hill where the Firefly family dwells. In the house they meet Mother Firefly, a nymphomaniac matron with a thing for available young men. We are also introduced to Otis, the angry angular fiend of the home. There is also Grandpa, a perverted old coot, and Tiny, a horribly disfigured giant who looms over everyone. The "teens" insult the clan and prepare to leave, but the Fireflys have a different idea. They are going to keep the gang around for a while, so they can do such wonderful things as torture and dissect them. Seems this foul family may just have a connection to Dr. Satan himself, and they want to help the mad scientist along with his horrible research. After all, what are a few bodies more in a House of 1000 Corpses?
There is a caveat to begin with, an additional piece of the half-truth puzzle of myth. Lions Gate's DVD production of House of 1000 Corpses is not a special edition. Sure, it pours on some impressive bells and turns up the whistles to eleven, but when all is said and done, this is a really a highlight reel of what a true SE should be. Just like the film itself. Adding fuel to those fires of forever so that they burn ever brighter, the movie is only available in a severely cut, R-rated retread that feels cobbled together, truncated, and shortchanged on shocks and subplot. The rumor mill manufactures stories of forty missing minutes, untold moments of eliminated gore, and the complete deconstruction of the plot and story, only to have a bunch of over-educated suits who never made a movie in their life tell Zombie the auteur how to re-assemble them. The result is a third of what the rebellious rocker intended, a third of what the mass appeal purveyors wanted, and a final segment of nonsensical celluloid. Only problem with all this conjecture and assumption is that it actually feels true. House of 1000 Corpses is one of the few movie experiences that seems inherently undermined, that has far loftier goals and desires than what shows up onscreen. But the failure to achieve them is not the fault of the filmmaker. Nor does it appear to be the problem of nervous studios, unsure of their possibility of a profit margin, making unreasonable demands. Indeed, the issues with House of 1000 Corpses are at times as incomprehensible as the images onscreen. They should be working, but for some reason they don't.
One then has to start with the proposition that there was actually some manner of intent when Rob Zombie decided to helm a horror movie. Apparently tired of making horror music and the accompanying horror music videos and touring with a decidedly Alice Cooper-ish horror show, the next move for such an obvious fan of the genre would be to try his hand at creating some scares himself. He obviously loves the symbolism and iconography of fear: blood, gore, skeletons, devils, monsters, madmen, killers, and creatures. And Zombie also likes to add a little EC Comics to the mix and incorporate outlandishly sexy and seductive women who flaunt their available assets and chesty charms for the sake of giving the adolescent mind the full freak out, head to toe (and places in the middle). So starting from the premise of pirating his recollections and addictions to classic fright and turning the new fangled self-reference irony of the Scream style films on their super slick ass, Zombie went out into the fascinating and frightening gore zone, that special realm between reality and sacrilege where demons dance alone and horror hides in the shadows of dusty gravestones. And there he trapped the terrors of his psycho-kinetic mind and transposed those scenarios into a Rorschach test type screenplay, torment and tortures like insightful blots of ink scrawled across page after page. Then, with all the dream-like drama he could muster and the hallucinatory happenstance of the Hollywood magic machine behind him, he went about recreating his cruel and caustic desires.
But we are still left with this burning desire to know just what exactly he hoped to achieve? If he wanted to make a homage to the films of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, his references are either to obvious (let's see, does Mr. Z have a fascination with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or what?) or so obscure (Spider Baby anyone?) that they fail to achieve their goal of happy recognition. We either get it, got it, no longer need to see it, or scratch our heads wondering why this set piece or sequence is included. If he wanted to make a truly frightening film filled with dark and disturbing images, he also misses the mark. Oh sure, there are moments of violence and vivisection that try to substitute gore for suspense and guts for glory, but the uneven editing and obvious exclusions for the sake of a MPAA rating undermines the efforts. This is not a gonad to the grindstone exercise in non-stop thrills and blood spills; the movie never builds up enough of a head of steam to succeed on that level. And as an eccentric character study, a gross-out look at the family that flails flesh together, it's all superficial. Nowhere (except in the dark ride) do we experience the organic alarm of an Ed Gein, or for that matter, a Leatherface. The people populating the pus bucket side of House of 1000 Corpses exist as ideas in the head of a talented, twisted entertainer. They never come alive on screen as memorable villains, viable threats, or even understandable entities. Their motives are clouded in incomprehensible tirades, unfinished thoughts, and mostly hidden motivations.
House of 1000 Corpses therefore plays like a disturbed mental patient's remake of Dan Aykroyd's sole outing as a director, 1991's abysmally maladjusted Nothing But Trouble (which could be renamed House of 1000 Missed Opportunities, or House of 1000 Embarrassed Actors) crossed with a video from Nine Inch Nails. The Blues Brother's bungle was esoteric for the sake of stupidity, trying to recreate the chaotic cruelty of Hooper's Black and Decker dementia without having to bow to its obviously desolate tone. Aykroyd wanted his chills and his comic moments too. And the same can be said for Zombie. For a self-professed hater of the post-modern horror film, there are a lot of in-jokes and jabs at the current state of terror affairs. Anyone who fills his film with cast members from some of the more obscure movies in the horror catalog (Spider Baby, Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, Trilogy of Terror) is obviously hoping that someone gets the joke. And some of the phrases and rants that the characters go on seem like outtakes from a more theoretical Scary Movie script. Indeed, most of the time this movie is so over-the-top with oh-so-clever dialogue and verbal delirium that when the true moments of horror occur (Tiny is burnt alive in his bed, victims are "operated" on by the insane Dr. Satan), they stand out, sharp and jagged. So radical are they from the rest of what's going on that it's almost like they snuck in while the wiseasses weren't paying attention. No matter how hard he tries to avoid it, there is still a lot of winking at the audience in House of 1000 Corpses. Except this time, Zombie thinks it's the "right" audience.
So it's a borderline call. House of 1000 Corpses is either the dumbest, most self-indulgent vanity project for a wannabe rock star filmmaker since Dee Snider made piercing a premiere horror calling card in Strangeland, or it's the most audacious and thought provoking work of misunderstood moviemaking by a musician since David Byrne made fun of Texas with True Stories (which is actually a minor masterpiece). It may just be one of the cleverest combinations of imagination and exploitation ever to hit modern movie screens. Zombie has created some very interesting characters here, especially the filthy mouthed clown Captain Spaulding, who gives off a curiously comical vibe of sour defeat every time he opens his grease painted pie hole to mouth off. Frankly, had the movie focused solely on this horrible southern drawled harlequin and his roadside attraction from hell, the movie could have been a real riotous treat, a combination of Tobe Hooper's underrated Funhouse with Herschell Gordon Lewis's Two Thousand Maniacs and a wicked sense of post-South Park humor. Spaulding keeps the movie grounded, since he seems to move within the realm of reality. He runs a business. He deals with people all the time. He has his spiel down to a potent set of potshots. To see him become unglued and deadly would have been magical, the creation of the first truly original movie madman since Freddy Krueger or Pinhead. But no, after 15 minutes or so we are dragged, kicked and cursing, over to the Firefly house (of 1000 corpses, one suspects) and everything starts to crumble.
It may have to do with the limited scope of the family. Zombie seems to want to create a post-millennial version of the Munsters or Addams, a goofy set of oddballs whose madcap personalities hide a hideous gothic façade. Baby, the bodacious babe seemingly thrown in for nothing other than libidinous eye candy, becomes the "Marilyn" of the group, even when she proves she can be deadlier than the others. Otis is that repetitive combination of messiah and maniac, a man so convinced of his obtuse and misguided moral purpose that he uses murder as a means to an only-in-his-own-mind's-eye ends. Mother Firefly is the corny comic relief, the over the hill matron with a full blooming bosom and come hither harlot hankerings that make Yvonne DeCarlo's Lily or Carolyn Jones' Mortician seems positively nun-like. Add the elderly ickiness of Grandpa, the freak show as human oddity insertion of a giant man named Tiny, and the silent bestial behemoth RJ, and supposedly you've got the makings of a clan to give the Sawyers a run for their hardware. But unlike that saw loving brood, nothing really ties the Fireflys together. One could argue it's their love of carnage, but we never see them indulging in it as a group. Instead of a dinner table slaughterhouse moment as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, our family here actually eats when they sit down to break bread. While the acting on all sides is pitch perfect (of special note is Chop Top Bill Moseley's intense Otis and Sid Haig as the most deviant clown this side of Gacy) and the look of the circumstances seems right, House of 1000 Corpses just can't seem to get its kitsch together and either go completely mental or stay centered and sincere.
The jury is also out on Zombie as a director. He is far too gimmicky, using the modern media shorthand of jump cuts, shaking cameras, and obtuse lens and camera angles to really revive the '70s sense of horror films. He even leaps full tilt boogie onto the post-ironic bandwagon by having a policeman vs. crazy folk gun battle bloodbath scene set to some cheeseball Slim Whitman chestnut. No sound effects, no powder explosions, just a goofy old song sung by a freak with a falsetto playing out over carnage. But then Zombie steps up and delivers a true powerhouse sequence of actual suspense when he holds incredibly long on a slow motion crane shot of a killer with a cocked pistol at the head of his victim. As the camera moves away further and further and the time ticks by (it takes a full, silent two minutes to play out), we anticipate the outcome (even as we figure on how it will end) and the hairs on the back of the neck start to tingle. Also, for a supposed throwback to a more mundane monster movie ideal, Zombie sure is far more comfortable with all the subterranean zombie/ghoul/Dr. Satan stuff. As our last remaining teen stumbles through a corpse-lined corridor into the bowels of Hell itself (it seems), we finally see Zombie in control as a director. As our victim discovers the truth about this underground world, the filmmaker starts style checking Italian living dead horror, the medical malfeasance of Floria Sigismondi's Marilyn Manson video work, and a whole H.R. Giger/Grand Guignol of imagery to show us that all the directorial flair can actually add up to something genuinely creepy and unlike anything seen before.
Perhaps where Zombie needs the most help is in tone and atmosphere. He has a real hard time mixing the surreal with the scary. His tendency is to use sarcasm when seriousness would work better. When our victims-to-be enter Captain Spaulding's Murder Ride, we hope to experience the journey along with them. And thanks to the way he sets up the situation and the set design/look of the attraction, the sequence pays off magnificently. It's not a far leap of the imagination to envision the deranged psychopaths portrayed within coming to life and wreaking a little havoc. But when the events relocate to the Firefly house, everything seems way too askew. It's like the Rocky Horror Picture Show mixed with a real life version of the Mad Monster Party. It's not god-awful; it's just stupid. Zombie pushes stuff into dark comedy when it should just remain sinister. This inability to maintain a consistent climate for the terror is the main reason the movie plays so cold and stilted. We never feel we are involved in the climate with the characters. And then there is the set design-as-cameo conceit of the Red Hot Pussy Liquor store. Just what are we supposed to make of this? Sure, the name is a crude joke, but it seems like a terribly expensive bit of production design for some minor moment of mirth. Maybe there were more scenes shot that aren't here. Maybe somehow it featured heavily in some deleted subplot. But the name and the random nature of its appearance in the film are indicative of Zombie, and House of 1000 Corpses' problems.
For the newer horror fan who hasn't had the opportunity to see many of the classic horror films, like Chainsaw or The Evil Dead or even Friday the 13th in a theater, House of 1000 Corpses will probably play like that glorious cinematic freak show that other generations had the opportunity to be first in line to witness. For generations raised on the Jack Valenti mandated desensitizing of violence and sex, Rob Zombie's worship to the wicked and weird, all drenched in blood and debauchery, will play like a welcome return to the days of Raimi and Romero; times when in camera effects and twisted imaginations made horror films that caused as much disbelief as discomfort. Maybe someone who has grown up loving all manner of fright flicks will overlook the flaws, the moments of mindless visual voodoo, and appreciate the try on Mr. Zombie's part. But the truth is that House of 1000 Corpses is a letdown, a highly touted work of supposed cinematic soullessness that feels and looks like a rock video gone gimpy. There is a great deal to like here. There is also a whole lot to hate with an unbridled passion. But one thing is for sure; House of 1000 Corpses is something not seen in the recent trend toward terror retreads. It's an attempt at an original vision, processed through the fanboy brain of a man whose life has been dedicated to the images inherent in horror, comics filled with cadavers, and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. Perhaps an unrated director's cut will magically appear one day and allow the original "masterpiece" of mayhem to see the light of day. Or perhaps it too will continue to be the stuff of legend, the building blocks of myth that will surely make House of 1000 Corpses seem better and more important than what it really is—a failed experiment in terror.
Lions Gate, who works the "we are the champions" publicity angle by constantly reminding you that they were the only distributor brave enough to handle this film, shows the true yellow streak down their mass marketing backsides by delivering House of 1000 Corpses in a non-director's cut, R-rated special edition that is exceptional in name only. Aside from the full-length commentary and the wonderfully unhinged full motion menu screens (featuring the characters from the film interacting with you and your selections), the rest of the bonus content could be called panderer's padding and nothing more. These are special features as fraud, a deception to make you think you're getting good inside stuff when the bulk of the bunk is no more than two to four minute snippets of pure puffery. The Behind the Scenes featurette shows very little about how the film was made. It does feature Zombie and cast standing around a lot. An equally non-illustrative "Making of" is mostly a montage of people patiently waiting. The stupid and crude "Tiny F***ed a Stump" is just the main characters cracking a dumb as dirt joke over and over and over again. The rehearsals and casting offer video diary style moments from pre-production which provide minimal insight and interest, and the interviews are seven or eight title card queries posed to the main cast members (and makeup effects supervisor Wayne Toth) that fluctuate from serious responses to in-character craziness. Even an extensive gallery and those incredibly clever full motion menu screens just can't make up for the shallow version of the special edition ideal of DVD.
As for that full-length director's narrative, well, Rob Zombie couldn't sound more displeased. He normally has a dry, droll personality, but over the course of the film's running time, he sounds positively bored, depressed, and uninterested in talking about his own movie. He constantly references changes, deletions, and edits and then, instead of describing what they were, says simply, "so let's not talk about that." Anecdotes usually end as anti-climatic as they begin, and when he does get to something good, the story is told in a straightforward fudge-it manner that speaks of either contempt for his listeners or the people who butchered his movie. About the only time he seems interested in discussing his direction of the movie is when he makes a mistake or overindulges in some cinematic device. Then he drones on about the hows and whys of what he was going for. This behind the scenes discussion is really nothing more than the sound of a defeated man having to pass judgment, yet again, over a version of the film that he is just not happy with. With that tantalizing prospect of a true director's cut special edition DVD in the works (just rumors now, but who knows), perhaps Zombie will revisit his commentary track and really dish the dirt, naming names and holding to the flames the feet of those responsible for corrupting his vision. But as it stands now, we get a disgusted director barely holding back his contempt through a veil of disconnected ennui.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps this is a case where unbelievable hype and the dearth of decent horror has lead to unrealistic expectations about what Zombie could or can deliver onscreen. He is only a first time filmmaker, after all, and anyone familiar with his history as a video director knows he is unformed and developing. Yes, he does rely too heavily on mixed mediums and jittery jump cuts. Yes, there are times when the visual method seems lost in a maniac madness that no one could easily decipher. And yet when it comes right down to it, House of 1000 Corpses is miles ahead of Hollywood's recent wussified attempts to revive straight-ahead horror. At least it tries, constantly throwing images and ideas at the screen hoping something will resonate. Besides, as a film and a DVD presentation, this is one movie that is arresting and beautiful to look at. On home digital video, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is sharp with deep blacks and crisp colors. The only grain visible is intended as part of the design of the film. The neon and intensity of other over-saturated situations maintain their visual integrity. Sonically, the 5.1 surround track offers the eerie atmosphere that most of the movie is missing. There are creepy noises, strange rumbling undercurrents, and deadly silences that all work to make the movie far scarier than it is. Not everyone can hit a homerun like Night of the Living Dead or The Evil Dead their first time up to the plate. The good thing about House of 1000 Corpses is that is proves Zombie has the fright flick chops. He just has to lean how to serve them next time.
As a longtime fan of the horror genre, it is always hard to dump on those who try. After all, this critic has spent too many hours seated in front of a television screen watching bargain basement independent dog dung that desperately wants to fright with the big boys but doesn't have the backbone, balls, or basic filmmaking skills to do so. So when Rob Zombie announces that he intends to bring back the lost art of the '70s horror film, rife with sick and twisted images and ideas, there is no bigger supporter in waiting. And thanks to that horrible combination of hype and rumor, House of 1000 Corpses took on a mythical dimension that it frankly could just never live up to. This critic wanted House of 1000 Corpses to be better, to meet and beat the exaggerations and deliver the goods in one grand glorious dose of gory goodness. However, horror is still like comedy, a visceral, viable experience. If it's funny, you laugh. If it's terrifying or suspenseful, you shift in your seat or startle easily. House of 1000 Corpses never achieves that adrenaline moment of pure dread, where the next step a character takes or the next door they open has you covering your head in anxious anticipation. Like the characters of Captain Spaulding and Otis, this movie functions as a lot of good ideas wrapped in a rather confused and occasionally ugly package. Failed potential does not a decent horror movie make. Still, the legend will live on. As long as the elusive director's cut sits out there like a statement of staggering shock just waiting to be unleashed on the unwitting fan base, this version of House of 1000 Corpses will always be a monument of movie as myth, the vacant victim of never-ending hype.
House of 1000 Corpses is found guilty of being a disorganized, discordant work of occasional brilliance and is sentenced to seventeen years in the Shock Corridor of the State Institute for the Cinematically Inane until time comes when it understands the errors of its overindulgent ways. At that time it will be released to the Horror Halfway House to help other fright felons learn from its mistakes. Rob Zombie, though seemingly guilty of many crimes against movies, is reluctantly placed on probation and required to actually watch and learn from the films he loves so much. Court dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Rob Zombie
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