HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003)
Director: Rob Zombie

From Universal's classic monster movies in the 1930s to the slasher movies of the 1980s to the watered-down movies with casts full of beautiful famous people in the late 1990s, the horror genre has taken many twists and turns in its existence as a cinematic medium. However, more dedicated horror fans tend to wax nostalgic for the grindhouse horror of the 1970s. The films were gritty, bleak, and unrepentantly violent. Unfortunately, in the era of the kid-friendly PG-13 horror movie, grindhouse horror seemingly disappeared. Take a look at movies like The Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave. Nobody makes movies like these anymore, but in the hearts of some, the genre still lives. One such heart belongs to heavy metal superstar and avid horror enthusiast Rob Zombie. When he decided to make his own horror movie in 2000, fans of the genre began buzzing, anticipating its release... and then nothing happened. It took three years and three distributors before it was released, but Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses was finally unleashed on April 11, 2003. Despite having a limited release, it served as a stark reminder that before Hollywood began serving up family-friendly horror, films like The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were horror. With House of 1000 Corpses, the horror genre finally got a much-needed look at what made it great in the 70s and 80s.

HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003)Our film centers around two couples: Jerry (Chris Hardwick) and Denise (Erin Daniels), and Bill (Rainn Wilson) and Mary (Jennifer Jostyn). The quartet are on a road trip across America, researching a book about roadside attractions. They stop for gas at a gas station operated by creepy clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), and are convinced to take a spin on the "murder ride" at the Museum of Monsters and Madmen (which is conveniently next door to the gas station). The "murder ride" consists of a bizarre carnival ride where we see models of famed killers like Albert Fish, Ed Gein, and Lizzie Borden, finally arriving at the model of a killer known as "Doctor Satan."

According to Spaulding, Doctor Satan was a mad scientist at a mental institution that was hung from a tree near the gas station by a vigilante mob. Despite the protests of the other three members of the group, Jerry convinces a reluctant Spaulding to give them directions to the tree. They leave, heading in the direction of the tree as a storm rolls in. The four run into a pretty female hitchhiker, and Mary and Denise's protests notwithstanding, the hitchhiker gets in. Introducing herself as Baby (Sheri Moon), she offers up a little nugget of help once a tire goes flat. She lives close by, and her brother Rufus (Robert Mukes) is a mechanic that owns a tow-truck. So why not stop at her house while Rufus fixes the tire? Even if Baby's a little nutty, some help can't be all that bad. The two couples eventually end up at Baby's house, where they meet her equally loopy family: insane alpha male Otis (Bill Moseley), past-her-prime hooker Mother Firefly (Karen Black), seven-foot-tall burn victim Tiny (Matthew McGrory), and foulmouthed standup comedian Grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimple). The four travelers realize that they've stumbled upon the Brady Bunch From Hell, as they're slowly tortured, beaten, humiliated, and murdered by their captives.

House of 1000 Corpses is absolutely nothing like what today's youth knows about horror movies. The film is brutal, violent, disturbing. The main characters are not the only victims of pain and suffering; the audience is too. Once the movie gets going, it never stops torturing the senses. Wild cinematography, intense music, demented violence, and bright colors all attack the eyes and ears. In one scene, the film absolutely stops dead in its tracks for a good minute just before a cop meets the business end of a handgun. It just prolongs the agony we see on screen, making it seem like it'll never end. The movie is Rob Zombie's tribute to the exploitation horror of decades ago, the kind of movies you'd see in a low-rent dollar theater or drive-in. His direction is quite different than you'd see in other movies, emphasizing a more old-school style of filmmaking. We see insane camera angles, split-screen shots (in order to highlight reaction shots without turning away from the main action), and odd color choices. The movie also benefits from visceral makeup effects by Wayne Toth and a throbbing musical score composed by Zombie and Scott Humphrey. I really liked the score a lot, going from a simple eerie ambience to a crunchy industrial sound, sounding just like the movie feels.

However, all is not kosher with the movie. First up, as much as I enjoyed Zombie's directing prowess, but the movie takes a jarring, confusing turn towards the end, when the setting changes from the hellish farmhouse to a maze of subterranean caverns. It really comes out of nowhere, and while it's an intense scene, it really doesn't mesh with what we've seen prior. While I don't blame Zombie for wanting to give us a glimpse of Doctor Satan, it came at the expense of a coherent narrative. I also thought the acting was really give or take, too. I especially didn't like the four victims. There was an annoying wiener, a wimp, and two shrewish harpies, and I couldn't wait for the killers to take them out. However, I enjoyed all the other characters. I liked Tom Towles and Walt Goggins as the two police officers hunting for the four missing victims, and each member of the killer family gives a fun, memorable performance. I really delighted in the offerings of Sheri Moon (who's both bubbly and crazy in one cute package) and Bill Moseley (who I felt was a very bizarre cross between his character from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Charles Manson), but my favorite member of the cast was Sid Haig. He's just a horrible, filthy clown, but is so charismatic that you don't know if you should like him or be repelled by him. The guy is absolutely hilarious to boot, which only makes harder to dislike him.

After seeing the R-rated theatrical cut, I shudder to think what Rob Zombie's original (and heretofore unreleased) NC-17 cut of House of 1000 Corpses was like. It can only be more violent and graphic, right? As it stands, House of 1000 Corpses is a bizarre descent into the depths of Hell, a depiction that hearkens back to what many fans of the genre consider "the good ol' days." While I do enjoy it and really like the movie a lot, I think my initial five star review was a wee bit generous. After ruminating on my original review, I think House of 1000 Corpses is probably worthy of about three and a half stars instead. But star ratings aside, it still gets a thumbs up and a Sutton Seal of Approval.

Final Rating: ***


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