House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
★★ / ★★★★
Rob Zombie’s debut picture is not unlike most first-time features in that the writer-director attempts to include everything but the kitchen sink into the project just in case he never got a chance to make another one. It shows: the work is propelled by a mix of electric and morbid energy; it is amusing and satirical in parts; and the grotesque, disgusting, frightening, and strangely addictive images demand to be examined by a magnifying glass. I felt like I was on a high end house of horrors tour. And yet the picture does not work as a whole.
One of the film’s key shortcomings is a lack of a defined hero or heroine. Naturally, since the work is a throwback to ‘70s horror and exploitation movies, the group of friends on a cross-country tour must run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. On top of that, they must be driven to learn more about a local serial killer called Dr. Satan. Third strike: They choose to pick up a hitchhiker on a rainy night. Some might say they’re asking for trouble. They’re in for a long night.
We are introduced to Jerry (Chris Hardwick), Bill (Rainn Wilson), Mary (Jennifer Jostlyn), and Denise (Erin Daniels) and although they talk non-stop (especially the men), we are not provided at least one standout or interesting detail about each of them. It doesn’t help that the women look (and act) rather similar. Notice when Mary and Denise are covered in goop and blood later on, it becomes a challenge to tell them apart. The screenplay fails to provide good reasons why these four should survive other than the fact that they are prey to the backwoods oddballs.
Another limitation is a lack of range when it comes to the scares. It almost always relies upon violence to shock or disturb. While some may defend this approach because it is a slasher film after all, the project is supposed to be a love letter to a specific decade and a certain sub-genre of movies. Based on this fact and looking upon what’s provided on screen, I got the impression that the writer-director fixated on one way to entertain: in-your-face, gory shlock—disappointing because horror classics and exploitation pictures from the ‘70s are not at all one-note. At their best (and their worst), they take on so much risk that at times certain projects lean toward experimental.
So it is ironic that although “House of 1000 Corpses” offers hundreds of eye-catching (and, to me, beautiful) shots of severed body parts, lived-in rooms filled with tools for torture and blood rags, sequences of people being scalped while awake, a scene involving human fetus in a jar, cannibalism, and the like, it lacks the willingness to stretch the definition of horror outside of the images. Thus, the longer the film goes on, the more we feel restless; eventually the stench of staleness begins to overpower the picture’s enthusiastic energy.
There is one standout performance. No, it is not by Karen Black, veteran actress who specializes on portraying women with questionable ideals and morals. (She plays Mother Firefly, the matriarch serial murderer.) To me, she overacts and outstays her welcome. The title goes to Sid Haig who plays the clown and gas station attendant named Captain Spaulding. His presence and ways of line delivery reminded me of a tank: imposing and powerful. Captain Spaulding need not try to be scary. He just is. Those eyes can paralyze you. The rest of the crazies might have benefited from toning down the cartoonish vibe.