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House of 1000 Corpses   C+

Lions Gate Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Rob Zombie
Writer: Rob Zombie
Cast: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon, Karen Black, Chris Hardwick, Erin Daniels, Jennifer Jostyn, Rainn Wilson.

Review by Michael Scrutchin

Horror fans have been waiting for Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses for three years now. After Universal Pictures deemed it too extreme to release and a subsequent deal with MGM fell through, the movie finally found a home at Lions Gate, an indie studio that has no qualms about releasing controversial films (see Bully and Irreversible). Threatened with an NC-17 rating, Zombie's movie was re-edited and submitted to the MPAA several times before receiving an audience-friendly R rating. Through it all, the fans waited. Surely a genre connoisseur like Zombie would deliver the goods and rescue American horror cinema from the clutches of post-Scream self-referentiality and post-Sixth Sense precocious-children-with-spooky-perceptions syndrome, right?

Well, gee. After such a buildup, how could we not be disappointed? It's best to try to appreciate House of 1000 Corpses on its own terms, removed from the hype, for what it is: a campy tribute to gritty '70s horror and exploitation that struggles to find its own voice and occasionally uncovers it, but relies too heavily on echoes from the past. It's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reimagined as a psychedelic carnival spook house music video.

Like Tobe Hooper's seminal masterpiece, House of 1000 Corpses (set in 1977 on Halloween Eve) follows four college-age kids as they pay the price for stumbling into a family of backwoods psychotics. While Texas Chainsaw Massacre sustained unbearable ever-building tension every step of the way, Zombie undercuts most of the potential tension in House of 1000 Corpses by using rapid-fire editing to insert clips from old horror films, wickedly humorous interviews with the backwoods clan, and grainy black-and-white and color-tinted flashbacks. The intensity is all but drowned out by the flashy wink-wink style. Of course, Zombie is a veteran music video director.

The soon-to-be-dead twentysomethings are so bland and poorly sketched that they barely deserve a mention, but the villains are a hoot. Among them: Bill Moseley as Otis, a raving lunatic who likes to torture cheerleaders and experiment with dead bodies, and the unnervingly funny Sid Haig as Captain Spaulding, a foul-mouthed hick in a clown costume who runs a roadside Museum of Monsters and Mayhem. But it's Sheri Moon (Zombie's real-life girlfriend) who owns this movie. Moon plays the pretty but disturbed Baby with a maniacal innocence that's at once cute, seductive, and almost frightening. The scene in which she dances to the Commodores' "Brick House" while smiling, giggling, and helping Otis torture a young man with a razor blade is one of the few times House of 1000 Corpses truly springs to life.

That's not say it ever feels dead. It's just that Zombie is so intent on paying homage to (or stealing from) the horror and exploitation classics of yesteryear -- including The Hills Have Eyes, Spider Baby, and The Funhouse -- that it rarely succeeds in eliciting any genuine shock or surprise. It's certainly amusing and has an ugly sadistic streak, but it never comes close to being as suspenseful, scary, or disturbing as the films that inspired it.

Then again, there are moments like the "Brick House" scene in which Zombie's perverse sense of humor cooks up something special. When a cop looking for the missing kids opens up a farmhouse door to find mutilated dead girls hanging from meat hooks, the near-brilliant centerpiece of House of 1000 Corpses begins: a slow-motion execution sequence set to Slim Whitman's country ballad "I Remember You" that achieves a breathless, heart-pounding intensity and climaxes with the film's only bona fide jolt. Moreover, the Alice-in-Wonderland-on-bad-acid climactic sequence has a certain ghoulish charm and, thankfully, there are no precocious children anywhere in sight.

Review published 04.14.2003.

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