In honor of my favorite holiday, I'll be taking a look back at some of my favorite recent horror/suspense films. This review was originally written in April 2003.
“Rated R for strong sadistic violence/gore …” And that’s the MPAA-approved version.
After being dropped by two studios and threatened with an NC-17 rating, Rob Zombie finally welcomes us to his spookshow, House of 1000 Corpses.
Zombie’s directorial debut was shot nearly three years ago on a modest $7 million budget. Universal Studios was first up, but dropped it due to graphic content.
Next was MGM, which picked up the film in early 2002. But by midyear, it had been dropped again, this time because of a comment Zombie made about MGM during an MTV interview. (“Apparently they have no morals over there,” he said. “They're happy for some blood.”)
Finally, Lionsgate Entertainment has released it, albeit on a limited scale and with little fanfare.
The resultant film is exactly what you would expect from a man who has written songs with titles like “Living Dead Girl,” “Meet the Creeper,” “How to Make a Monster” and “Dead Girl Superstar.” It essentially is a visual representation of his music.
Knowing who is involved and what it’s about, this is the kind of movie where you’ll probably know if you’ll like it before you even see it. It seems destined for “cult classic” status.
On the dark and stormy night of Oct. 30, 1977, Jerry (Chris Hardwick) and Bill (Rainn Wilson) are on a road trip with their respective girlfriends, Denise (Erin Daniels) and Mary (Jennifer Jostyn), researching a book on “offbeat roadside attractions.” Their journey takes them to Capt. Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen, where you can gas up your car, see animatronic reenactments of infamous killings on the “Murder Ride” and enjoy a bucket of fried chicken.
The proprietor, the clown-faced Capt. Spaulding (a riotous Sid Haig, the lone acting standout), tells them the local legend of Dr. Satan, a surgeon who operated on mental patients in the hopes of creating a race of superhumans. Against the girls’ wishes, the couples race off into the night to find the tree from which Dr. Satan was supposedly hanged.
When they have car trouble, a hitchhiker named Baby (Sheri Moon, the real-life Mrs. Zombie), takes them to her home, an isolated farmhouse. The couples are treated as guests and introduced to Baby’s family of Satan-worshipping psychotics: Mother Firefly (Karen Black); her gigantic, deformed brother, Tiny (Matthew McGrory); dirty old Grampa Hugo (Dennis Fimple); and Otis (Bill Moseley), who’s not a family member but depraved enough to fit right in.
The family welcomes the visitors at first, inviting them to dinner and entertaining them with a bizarre variety show. But the hospitality quickly turns to torture, death and other unspeakable horrors (although I’m fairly certain the corpses number fewer than 1,000).
Zombie’s in-your-face directorial style is somewhere between an extended music video (he has directed all of the videos of his solo career and those of his former bad, White Zombie) and the gory horror movies of the 1970s. Zombie also wrote the screenplay, and the retro feel is a refreshing change from the current crop of horror films inspired by Scream that are too self-aware to be anything more than funny.
Zombie, who apparently never met a cockeyed camera angle he didn’t like, saturates much of the film with reds and blues and routinely switches to a dirty, grainy film stock. Key characters and events are expanded upon with flashbacks of even grainier “stock” footage.
At times, the frame is too busy—there’s so much going on that the style is distracting. But Zombie often shows a real visual flair, such as in Denise’s flight through the underground lair of Dr. Satan’s monstrous creations.
In the film’s most chilling scene, two sheriff’s deputies (Tom Towles and Walton Goggins) come to the house to investigate the couples’ disappearance. As one deputy kneels on the ground, Otis holding a gun to his head, the camera slowly pulls up to a bird’s eye view and holds on the shot for what seems like an eternity. Finally, Otis pulls the trigger.
The theater then filled with cheers and laughter. Talk about sadistic.
(Rated R for strong sadistic violence/gore, sexuality and language. 89 minutes.)