You’ve got to hand it to horror movies this year. They keep finding new angles from which to suck. Last month, we had Dreamcatcher, a glossy, A-list kitchen-sink adaptation of a Stephen King book, and now 2003 becomes the year in which House of 1000 Corpses is finally unleashed. Financed by Universal and subsequently dropped because of its heavy violence, the feature directorial debut of Rob Zombie has been picked up by indie house Lions Gate. Following some additional delays, it now comes to theaters, packaged as a gritty throwback to shoestring-budget horror films of the ‘70s.
But these earlier movies have a hungry single-mindedness that House, stockpiled with too many corpses, cannot match. The setup is familiar, almost comforting in its doominess: four callow youths stop at a backwoods roadside attraction, their car breaks down, and they accept help from strangers. They immediately regret it, though not quite immediately enough. The execution, if you will, is simultaneously overstuffed and uneventful: lots of screaming, stumbling around and “colorful” characters, but nothing much actually happens. The first half-hour, when the movie still seems as if it might become intriguing, is a parade of dreary stall tactics: a rainstorm here, a mention of a serial killer there, and a pre-credits murder sequence that has nothing to do with anything else in the film.
House of 1000 Corpses
Chad Bannon, Sid Haig, Erin Daniels, Mary Knowles, Chris Hardwick, Karen Black
US theatrical: 11 Apr 2003 (Limited release)
In fetishizing the backwoods-freakshow aesthetic of ‘70s horror (like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Corpses diverts attention from the task at hand; that is, actually scaring anyone. Even familiar situations can generate suspense; indeed, The Blair Witch Project succeeded wildly by losing itself in the woods. House of 1000 Corpses is no Blair Witch Project, and that’s fine. The problem is that it’s also no The Ring, Jeepers Creepers, or Darkness Falls. It’s not even Blair Witch II, which pretty much makes it the worst movie ever set in the woods.
Instead of suspense, House of 1000 Corpses keeps quick-cutting to images from ‘50s TV horror shows, mixed with porn, mixed with scratched up film stock. I suppose this is intended to evoke different eras of horror and nightmares, but these clips don’t build to anything; they just make the movie look more like a previously unearthed copy of the world’s first death-metal video.
Of course, House of 1000 Corpses is, as the poster says, “A Film By Rob Zombie.” Zombie, a self-proclaimed “hellbilly” (loosely translated as “one who likes his Satanic imagery with a Southern accent”), fronted the heavy metal band White Zombie, and has directed some animation (including a sequence in the Beavis and Butthead feature) and music videos for White Zombie and others. Now that he’s a full-fledged filmmaker, maybe Zombie should start using a distinct term for his films, like “A Spike Lee Joint” or “A Martin Scorsese Picture.” I humbly suggest “A Rob Zombie Thing,” or maybe “A Rob Zombie Collection of Stock Footage and Noises.”
Sound and fury signifying nothing can still work in a horror movie, but Zombie is the Anne Rice of hillbillies. He revels in freakish affectations (in this case, a disfigured family who can barely disguise their murderous impulses, as seen in a whole lot of other horror movies, and their sequels) while a compelling horror story vanishes into thin air. There is some fun to be had, like figuring out whom the lead actors resemble. There’s the girl who looks like Linda Cardelinni (Jennifer Jostyn), a guy who looks like Donal Logue (Rainn Wilson), another girl like Toni Collete (Erin Daniels) and… hey, that really is Chris Hardwick, of TV’s Shipmates! You have to pity everyone onscreen; no one (victim or slasher) is given any motivation, and by the end of the movie, survivors are enacting a near-wordless death lurch, punctuated by occasional screams.
Zombie is obviously dedicated to this material, as you have to be to synthesize such a bloody a mess and stand by it as it rots on the shelf. I admire the spirit of House of 1000 Corpses, if little else. But I find it hard to picture a movie this dull even finding life as a cult classic, no matter how violent the content, or how storied its journey to the screen. The unglamorous death of House of 1000 Corpses is as nonsensically preordained as its characters’.