With rocker Rob Zombie writing & directing you just knew it was gonna have a good soundtrack at the very least. I wonder how many people really expected it to be a brilliant film as well. It's a goofy slasher on one level, & much of it resembles Tobe Hooper at his best (part Texas Chainsaw part Funhouse).
A flat-out description of events wouldn't make it sound like anything more than the usual, but add to the slasher formula some of these unexpected aspects:
1) First-rate acting by character-actors who seemed really pleased to be in the film & not just slumming for lack of better work; 2) slasher bits that are genuinely imaginative & off-the-wall, building up to 3) actual supernatural creepy monster mayhem that gives a sense of climax even beyond the endless sequences of bloodshed.
Add also 4) a highly decadent sense of macabre aesthetics, so it's actually quite a pretty film as well as gore-drenched; & 5) a catalog of weird pop-culture clips & quick-cuts & references that keep it visually lively on more levels than just the spurting blood.
I'm not usually a real big fan of the spurting-blood horror film, preferring horror of atmosphere & story. But House of 1,000 Corpses (2003) is no mere "Oh look, an axe in the head!" childish gag. Despite the gore & the jokes, it is transcendant.
Rob Zombie avoided everything that is merely stupid about slasher films, & slasher gags, & textures this as something greater. Even at the point of the story when the supernatural enters, the simple fact that it relies on actors & make-up artists & is devoid of CGI effects is a surprising plus for tone & quality.
The lack of CGI gives the film a "period" feel like it's a 25-year-old classic we might've seen as kids at a drive-in in the 1970s, but at a much higher level of art.
It's broken up into segments of a sort. The opening segment is non-supernatural with menace & a long sequence of justified bloody mayhem (victims being armed robbers so deserving all they get), set at a roadside-attraction gas station & chicken shack run by Sid Haig as Captain Spaulding, the coolest creepiest clown ever seen on film.
Captain Spaulding is assisted by an underutilized Michael Pollock who I've loved since Bonny & Clyde or longer. The teenagers who drop by the roadside attraction get a great show -- this is the best roadside attraction that ever was!
An earful of Local Legend about Dr. Satan sends them on a badly advised quest to uncover the secrets of the bad Doctor.
When they get out of the roadside attraction alive & entertained rather than hacked to bits by Captain Spaulding, they continue down the road to meet the Addams Family Deluxe, with Karen Black as nympho psycho mommy, & Bill Mosley as body-artist Otis, those two standing out in a truly maniacal family.
They're celebrating Halloween, which to a family like this one is Christmas, Ramadam, & Rosh Hashanah rolled into one.
Our four teenagers, & the cops that come looking for what's happened to them, provide the bulk of the long sequences of imaginative gore.
The third portion of the film takes place underground in Dr. Satan's supernatural hellworld, where we also get to see what became of the Creature from the Black Lagoon after he lost his gills in The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).
Each of these three main segments could've been the basis for superior stand-alone horror films, but by covering so much ground in half-hour bites, this film is just more jam-packed with imagination than I've ever seen in a blood-everywhere style of film.
Even the humor does not detract from the films absurd plausibility, as there is always sense that this awful family really could exist.
To speak of just one of the simplest scenes, there's a bit with Otis holding a gun to a police officer's head.
He stands there & stands there as the camera pans back & back & back, he waits what seems like an eternity before shooting.
It frankly seemed more like an arty Japanese samurai film at that moment, & Otis was Zatoichi or Toshiro Mifune instead of a mere super-psycho in a psycho movie, standing in a splendid tableau before one sweep of sword (or one shot of pistol) becomes all the motion required to complete a scene.
That scene's effective simplicity stands in stark contrast to the images of Dr. Satan who is like a baroque over-the-top version of a Brothers Quay puppet.
For aesthetic impact the last thing I can remember seeing with anything similar would be the cage-displays in The Cell (2000), not the dream sequences of The Cell, but the actual place where the dreaming psycho had built some of his fantasies in the real world.
The actors who play the victims give them more personality than usually expected, & it's not possible to tell at the beginning which if any of them might survive for a sequel.
But it's the actors who play the local yokals who matter most in this film. It's hard to imagine Rob Zombie could equal his achievement with a mere sequel, but I'm eager to see especially Otis & Captain Spaulding reprised.
Some of the extras on the DVD are really entertaining for a change. The menu itself is an hysterical short subject with Captain Spaulding cussing out the viewers for not picking something on the menu & stop watching him.
The short subject Tiny Fucks a Stump is appallingly comical, but also a winner because it captures how much fun the actors were having working with Rob on this film.
The intitial theatrical release was repeatedly delayed, as both Universal & then MGM chickened out, so I guess non-horror-fans found something far too disturbing in it, big studios preferring to flush their investment down the toilet rather than release it.
But Lionsgate made money when the film was finally released, insuring that there would be a sequel, in which, Rob promised from the start, the likeable evil of the disgusting family will be severely undermined as to likeability, in order to avoid the "increasing campiness factor" of most such sequels, & go for more of a thriller-crime-story film noir feeling of despairing (rather than comical) violence.
That Rob is so clear on not wanting to just repeat himself suggests a great horror filmmaker at work.
It's been a while since I've felt there was a new horror director of mighty talent. I've worries at times there is no new generation as good as George Romero or David Cronenberg willing to devote their creativity to the sport of horror cinema, as so many good directors have used horror as a jumping-point to afterward make what they mistake as "serious" Hollywood films, if not the worlds crappiest television shows.
Rob Zombie could well be a new addition to the ranks of devoted geniuses of sleeze. If he can sustain anything like 1000 Corpses' level of sick beautifulness across a body of work, he'll go down in the history of horror cinema as one of the giants.
See also Rob's second gore-fest masterpiece:
The Devil's Rejects. 2005
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl