House of 1000 Corpses

How much you enjoy Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses depends on your tolerance for grubby ’70s grindhouse horror. Sure you’ve seen Halloween, but what about Mother’s Day? You might’ve caught Last House on the Left, but how about Last House on Dead End Street? And you may have seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but you can’t call yourself a die-hard horror freak unless you’ve also seen Slumber Party Massacre. If your reaction to any of these lesser-known titles is a blank stare, you’d better skip Zombie’s long-delayed homage to the gritty and the nasty; he made it for horror fans like himself, which may not include you.

I can applaud House of 1000 Corpses on at least one level: The movie has absolutely no interest whatsoever in sanitized horror. Rob Zombie wallows quite comfortably in squalor, doling out mutilation, gore, sweaty close-ups, bad teeth, bad skin, fetid-looking clutter everywhere. Even the four college students — two male, two female, by the book — whose agony provides most of the fuel for the plot motor are not empty UPN/WB clones. Zombie has made a conscious and, yes, loving throwback to nuclear-family geek shows like Chainsaw, Mother’s Day, and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. If it doesn’t sound original, well, it isn’t. Zombie never designed this to be the new fresh thing in horror; he simply wants to blow away all the shiny teen crap that passes for horror nowadays and cover the audience in grime, spit, intestines. He even sets the film on the night before Halloween 1977 (and uses the Ramones to fine effect on the soundtrack).

The four college kids are on a cross-country trip, documenting various offbeat out-of-the-way attractions. They stop for gas at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen (which doubles as a convenience store and fried-chicken joint), whose eponymous owner (Sid Haig) gives them the “Murder Ride” showcasing various psychos, including the local Dr. Satan, who mutilated patients at a mental institution and was hanged. The kids want to go see the hanging tree, which happens to be right near a dilapidated house near a cemetery. A comely hitcher they pick up, named Baby (Sheri Moon), lives there and takes the kids home with her to meet the family. That includes the voluptuous Mother Firefly (Karen Black), the disfigured Tiny (Matthew McGrory), and the vicious Otis (Bill Moseley).

Much gnarly sadism ensues. Structurally, House of 1000 Corpses is like Texas Chainsaw Massacre with no hope of escape at the end. Zombie and his team of cinematographers (there were two) and editors (three) keep the grainy flash-cut imagery popping, like Natural Born Killers directed by Roger Watkins. The story is stolen wholesale from Chainsaw, which I consider the greatest American horror movie, yet I wasn’t offended; Zombie has made a movie that shows he loves Chainsaw as much as I do. What he hasn’t done, unavoidably, is to touch the genuine pain and stench of Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece. Zombie goes as far as anyone has ever gone to reproduce Chainsaw‘s aggro power, but it’s still a reproduction.

That said, House of 1000 Corpses is nowhere near as bad as you may have gathered from its largely negative web reviews and its kiss-of-death history (original distributor Universal dumped it in bewildered disgust; Lions Gate rescued it and finally unleashed it in just 595 theaters in April, when it should’ve had a beefy Halloween release). This movie was never going to save the horror genre single-handedly, but it probably deserves a place on your shelf (once the uncut version emerges on DVD) next to Basket Case, Motel Hell, and all those other indefensible gorefests you rarely admit to seeing, much less owning. The fun thing about the movie is that Rob Zombie seems to have made it to put it on his shelf alongside the same stuff.

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