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House of 1,000 Corpses

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  • Noel Vera
    Recipe for horror Noel Vera Singer-songwriter-impresario turned filmmaker Rob Zombie s debut film House of 1,000 Corpses is famous for having been shelved by
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 24, 2003
      Recipe for horror

      Noel Vera

      Singer-songwriter-impresario turned filmmaker Rob Zombie's debut
      film "House of 1,000 Corpses" is famous for having been shelved by
      its production company, Universal Studios, thanks to allegedly
      intense violence and abundant gore; the film languished for some
      three years, its reputation growing to near-cult status, until
      Lion's Gate agreed to become its American distributor and show it
      the light of day. You have to wonder why they bothered.

      "House" doesn't have a very complex story: four rather generic smart-
      alecky college students stop for fuel at a backwater gas station,
      and are treated to a lurid carnival ride by Captain Spaulding (Sid
      Haig of various prison flicks, often co-starring Pam Grier). He
      tells them stories of Doctor Satan, a cannibalistic serial killer
      who was to be executed but escaped, and draws them a map showing the
      tree where he was hanged. On their way there they suffer a flat tire
      and are invited to the Firefly household, where Otis (Bill Moseley),
      Rufus (Robert Mukes), sexy Baby (Sheri Moon), enormous Tiny (Matthew
      McGrory), and handsomely sensual Mother Firefly (Karen Black, the
      most easily recognizable name in the cast) hold one of the more
      outré domestic dinners this side of the Manson family. It isn't long
      before the students are tied up and subject to all kinds of
      picturesque tortures and mutilations.

      Obnoxious college students; backwoods family complete with
      ramshackle house and thick Southern accent; mazelike hidden passages
      concealing inbred freaks of nature; helpless hostage cheerleaders,
      bosoms straining against the tight rope; nearby town with clueless
      police officers--Zombie has pretty much included every element in
      every notable drive-in horror flick of the past thirty years, from
      Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to Wes Craven's "The
      Hills Have Eyes;" overlaid it with shrieking loud rock music (some
      of which he composed himself); and used production design presumably
      inspired by the horror and sci-fi influenced rock concerts he staged
      (Rob was previously the singer-songwriter of White Zombie). To
      please the hip crowd he's thrown in songs from The Ramones and
      Lionel Richie; named several of his characters--"Captain Spaulding"
      and "Rufus Firefly," among others--after the more famous characters
      played by Groucho Marx (why Groucho I haven't the faintest idea);
      and even makes a Hitchcockian appearance himself, as a mad doctor's
      assistant.

      It's a generous brew of schlock and blood and heavy metal, with
      maybe a dash of the sublime (the Marx Brothers' reference); given
      skill and some tender loving care, this might have become a low-
      budget comedy-horror classic. But Zombie, in trying to infuse
      something of himself into this considerable collection of borrowed
      references and stock horror clichés, has fallen back on the familiar
      music-video techniques of his earlier career: shock cuts, inserts of
      grainy handheld footage and home video, an occasional split-screen.

      The result is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach (though
      the hard of hearing might enjoy the soundtrack), but neither is it
      for hardcore horror fans. Disgusting and horrifying things that
      include but are not limited to flayings, cannibalism, necrophilia
      and worse are performed onscreen, supposedly--we hear them
      threatened often enough, hear the victims scream loud enough--but
      you just can't quite be sure; for all you know they could be doing
      nothing worse than sharing a cup of tea, with some friendly tussling
      over the watercress sandwiches.

      Which is unfair--unfair to us (the hapless audience whose appetites
      have been whetted by three years' worth of waiting); unfair to the
      enthusiastic cast; and unfair most of all to Mr. Zombie, who shows a
      flair for horror on precisely two occasions--first, when a police
      officer is held at gunpoint for an uncomfortably long time; second,
      when one of the college students is lead to believe her father had
      finally come to rescue her (the cruelty of the deception actually
      made me sit up for a moment).

      Other than the two instances, Zombie demonstrates little control
      over his material, or even any kind of indication that he knows what
      he's doing. The secret to effective horror filmmaking should be
      simple enough, yet we see fledgling practitioners (and sadly, the
      odd veteran) screwing up time and again, so often that you despair
      for the future of the genre. Given that the best horror is the
      quietest, there is room for the kind of over-the-top spatterfest
      that "House" obviously aspires to be (Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead 2" and
      Stuart Gordon's "Re-animator" are perhaps the best examples of this
      subgenre). The trick is to cut the gore with some other element--in
      the case of Raimi's and Gordon's works, with humor. The horror in
      both "Evil Dead 2" and "Re-animator" give the comedy real teeth (the
      best jokes are sad, even horrifying underneath), the same time the
      comic storytelling helps discipline the material, give it snap and
      shape (it might be said that the timing necessary to create a comic
      sequence isn't so different from the timing necessary to create a
      scary or suspenseful sequence).

      Zombie has the right ideas in mind--Haig, for one, spends most of
      the picture in clown makeup--but lacks the skill to pull it off; he
      has his cast mug to the cameras (B-movie veterans Haig and Karen
      Black are guilty of the worst excesses) and stuffs the film full of
      in-jokes, but little of this comes across as even remotely funny. He
      subjects his movie to high heat from the beginning, and the
      resulting mixture boils over long before the film reaches halfway
      point; by then the audience is too numbed from the loud music and
      incoherent camerawork to care what happens next (if they could
      understand what's happening at all), much less what happens in the
      end. You imagine Zombie heaping the various elements of his film
      together and hoping the heat of fusion will transform them into a
      new kind of horror--an ambitious and rather risky way of working,
      though it's one method used by artists to create art; unfortunately
      it's also the method used by farmers to create fertilizer out of
      warm compost.

      (First printed in Businessworld, Oct. 17, 2003)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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