More noise than signal

House Of 1000 Corpses

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

Rob Zombie was busy being Marylin Manson long before Marylin Manson was, his shock antics and ‘songs’ about hellspawn and corpses outraging the easily outraged throughout the world. The remaining majority view him more as an eccentric buffoon with an impressive beard. In the two thousandth year of our Lord he decided to make a horror movie. Universal gave him the money and promptly regretted in, the canned film sitting gathering dust on a shelf. MGM sniffed around and also refused. It now sees the harsh light of day thanks in part to the recent revival of the horror genre, but the self proclaimed ‘most shocking tale of carnage ever seen’ didn’t come close to shocking me (at least in the way Mr. Zombie would want it to) and certainly wasn’t worth the wait.

That said, the first half is almost promising. Two teenage couples are taking a road trip across country with the aim of writing a book on bizarre roadside attractions. In the sticks in Texas (presumably, given the accents. Could be a colony.) they find a suitable candidate in the gas station / fried chicken emporium / freakshow owned by a certain Captain Spalding (Sid Haig). What, precisely, he is captaining remains an elusive mystery. We’ve been introduced to him and his overblown caricature of a Texan accent in a prolog of sorts, showing his unique methods of dealing with would-be robbers. He employs the ever-reliable handgun assisted cranial ventilation route, i.e. shoots them in the head after his bare-faced cheek causes his prey to lose their nerve and their lives. Haig is a veteran actor in this dubious field and he’s investing all of his energy here into creating a memorable and generally pretty funny character, and he’s easily the best thing in this movie.

The teenagers, the names of whom are never important in this kind of thing take Spalding’s tour of the hall of killers, and he winds up by telling the tale of the notorious Dr. Satan and his hanging at the hands of a mob. One of their number is so excited by this he pesters Spalding for a map to this site which he eventually receives. They drive off in search of this place, picking up a pretty hitchhiker along the way only to have their car develop a puncture. Their newest friend, Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon, Rob Zombie music video mainstay) says that her house isn’t far up the road and she can send her brother back with a tow truck. This turns out to be a monumentally poor idea for our supposed heroes.

The Firefly household is a wonderfully garish place as befits the film’s 70’s setting. Baby introduces us to her mother Adrienne (Karen Black), and the two immediately get in the teen girls bad books by hitting on their teen boy partners. While Baby’s monstrous brother is dispatched to collect their car, they have some strange conversations as the Firefly’s extol the virtues of Halloween and invite the disbelieving kids to a special Halloween meal.

The entire Firefly family is here, from the pensionable Grandpa, the looney Otis (Bill Moseley) and the ever so ironically named Tiny (Matthew McGrory).The teens get their hackles up by continuing to pester them about the legend of Doctor Satan, and at the post-dinner variety show (don’t ask) Baby further annoys the female contingent by outrageously flirting with the males. The girls try to pick a fight (which is another monumentally poor idea) and are told to vacate the premises, only to be dragged back in kicking, screaming and a little more bloody by Otis, Tiny and co. It seems that they found what they were looking for and the reward is an induction course in torture, seen from the prespective of one being tortured.

The above takes 40 odd minutes to relate, and while I’d hesitate to say any of it was good it’s at least interesting. There’s enough general weirdness and incongruities to keep you interested but it’s a little too weird for its own good. From the outset it’s obvious that there’s something wrong but the overall effect is merely to make you think how silly it all is rather than feel any kind of growing tension. Funny ha-ha over funny peculiar, although there are aspects of both. Unfortunately once those crazy kids have been captured by those crazy craziees, the only thing that’s frightening is how quickly the film heads south.

There are a few little touches that stop it being the absolute bog standard slasher, but they don’t stop it sharing many of the same failings that permeate the genre. Of course, the main one is that it’s not scary which is clearly unforgivable but at least the reasons why it fails are a little more interesting than normal.

Critical to any horror movie is the use of sound and music, a rant we’ve undertaken in many previous reviews. Done correctly it’ll unsettle and break open the door for terror to sneak in, done poorly it my raise a slight shock but the cheap use of loud orchestral stabs is guaranteed to have us breaking out the Vitriol Cannon. Robert Zombie does things a little differently. While, as you’d no doubt expect, he plops a fair amount of rawk music in to reasonable effect including his own title track also heard on his The Sinister Urge album (a guilty pleasure of mine), he doesn’t use it in the scenes you might expect. He uses something quite, quite different.

Consider a torture scene. Generic male teen #1 is strapped to a table in obvious and understandable terror. The embodiment of evil himself Dr. Satan approaches with axe in hand, and I don’t see any firewood so there’s only one thing likely to be chopped. The suspense filled, tension heightening soundtrack to this approaching doom? Brick House by The Commodores. Because nothing says ‘ABJECT HORROR’ like a classic slab of seventies funk. A potentially tense would be execution scene takes place with the delicate warbling of Slim Whitman’s I Remember You laid over the top of it. How shocking!

The intention clearly is to keep you off balance, something heightened by his use of strange little intersticials between scenes. There’s strange little talking heads shots of the Firefly family talking about various mildly disturbing tendencies and a healthy amount of black and whit footage stolen from older films, especially the ageing Italian shockers so beloved of Zombie. It certainly succeeds in knocking you off balance but I believe it’s to the detriment of the film, ruining any atmosphere and sense of foreboding it may have been building. It lightens the mood rather than it darkens, and the overall effect is that of an experimental art-house piece rather than the shocking tale of carnage it wants to be. A less charitable view, and one that a lot of people will agree with, is that the overall effect is that of an explosion in the Hammer Horror archives. At the outset it’s an interesting device but it quickly becomes grating.

There are two ways to make a movie like this successful, either build by sympathy for the victims so you root for their survival or make the bad guys so interesting that it doesn’t matter if it’s not terrifying as you can be entertained in a voyeuristic way by their madcap killing antics. To the eternal damnation of this movie it does neither and all the visual trickery and peripheral insanity it displays can’t make up for that. It’s only truly captivating character is Haig’s Captain Spalding and as he quickly drops out of the picture.

House Of 1000 Corpses is a shipwreck of a picture, it’s hull punctured by the above flaws. For the first half, rather like a sinking ship it’s fascinating to watch but once the second half starts the tragedy of the event becomes clear. Things happen with little sense of coherency, and with no emotional connection to the characters it’s never going to engage anyone or more to the point scare anyone on any level other than the vouyeristic splashing of crimson.

A pity, as the first half shows at least a little promise, visually interesting in a messy way and funny in places (although never scary. Sorry to labour the point but it’s an important one in a horror, in fact the only important factor in judging it). The second half squanders this, sucking the life from the film like a squadron of thirsty vampires. Genre fans may be amused by this, the majority will not. As it’s not frightening, I suppose I should give this a lower score but mitigating circumstances (i.e. Sid Haig) raise it a little, just a little.