31 Days of Halloween, Bill Moseley, cheerleaders, Chris Hardwick, Dennis Fimple, derivative, Dr. Satan, dysfunctional family, Erin Daniels, feature-film debut, Halloween, Harrison Young, horror, horror films, horror movies, House of 1000 Corpses, insane families, Jennifer Jostyn, Karen Black, Matthew McGrory, Rainn Wilson, Rob Zombie, Robert Mukes, Sheri Moon Zombie, Sid Haig, the Firefly family, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Tobe Hooper, Tom Towles, torture, Walter Phelan, Walton Goggins, William Bassett, writer-director, zombies
As a teenage metal-head who just happened to be obsessed with horror films, White Zombie was pretty much the perfect band: ultra-heavy, groovy, brutal and a visual spectacle that relied heavily on shock imagery and schlock culture, I was a fan from the moment I laid ears on them. I followed the band religiously until they broke up before the turn of the 2000s, at which point frontman Rob Zombie decided to go the “solo” route, continuing to churn out the same brand of industrialized rock minus the feel of an actual band. While I’ve always felt that the solo stuff was a pale imitation of the band era, my rationale has always been “A little is better than nothing” and I continued to check out Zombie’s output, albeit with slightly less enthusiasm than before.
When Zombie announced that he would be turning his attention to films, I was immediately intrigued, given his lifelong dedication to all things horror. His resulting debut, House of 1000 Corpses (2003) ended up being delayed for several years, although I can still recall how excited I was to finally get a chance to see the film in theaters. At the time, I was completely blown away: the film was vibrant, entertaining, gory and as sick as they come, with some phenomenal performances from genre vets like Bill Moseley and Sid Haig. I remember being so impressed with the film that I ended up seeing it a couple of times in the theater, a relative rarity for someone who usually has a “one and done” mentality about seeing films on the big screen.
Over the years, I’ve returned to House of 1000 Corpses periodically, although I must admit that it’s been some time since I really paid attention to the film: it had become so familiar, over time, that I had a tendency to just let it play in the background, only focusing on it during any of the numerous setpieces. When it came time to plan this year’s Halloween viewings, I decided to re-screen both House of 1000 Corpses and its direct sequel, The Devil’s Rejects (2005), and actually pay attention, this time. Similar to my re-evaluations of formerly beloved films, I wanted to see if House of 1000 Corpses stood the test of time or whether it would end up receiving a Clerks (1994)-style drubbing from someone who had “moved on,” so to speak. As might be expected, I found that my impression of House of 1000 Corpses changed significantly after this viewing: while there’s still a lot of the film that I enjoy, it’s pretty impossible to see Zombie’s debut as anything other than a thinly veiled, white-trash re-imagining of Tobe Hooper’s gonzo The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). Suffice to say, the bloom had definitely come off the rose.
In many ways, House of 1000 Corpses plays like a more hyperactive, pop-culture savvy and polished mash-up of Hooper’s first two Chainsaw films. From the first movie, we get the crazy killer family, creepy farmhouse setting, big guy with a mask and sledgehammer and an insane dinner scene. From the second film, we get the lurid, cotton-candy-colored visuals, Bill Moseley revisiting his iconic Chop-Top character and loads of over-the-top gore, much of it ruthlessly tongue in cheek. While this relentless referencing of Hooper’s original material seemed easier to accept when the film first came out, there’s something about the whole business that I found rather tedious, this time around, like watching a particular rerun of a TV show for the umpteenth time.
Plot-wise, Zombie’s film is pretty old hat: two couples (Chris Hardwick and Erin Daniels as one pair, the Office’s Rainn Wilson and Jennifer Jostyn as the other) stop off at a bizarre roadside attraction, Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen, and learn about local legend, Dr. Satan. After finding out that the medical madman was reportedly hung from a nearby tree, the group of thrill-seekers get a map from the good Captain (brought to gloriously filthy life by the always awesome Sid Haig) and decide to check it out for themselves. Unless this is your first rodeo, you’re probably going to realize what a truly terrible idea this is, hopefully quicker than our lunk-headed heroes do.
Along the way, they end up picking up a hitchhiker (the director’s wife, Sheri Moon), who leads them to her family’s home after their car appears to get a flat. Once at the homestead, our intrepid young people meet the rest of the clan: Otis (Bill Moseley), the insane “leader” who’s one part Charles Manson, one part Ed Gein; the hulking, mute Tiny (Matthew McGrory), this film’s stand-in for TCM’s Leatherface; obscene, obnoxious and massively irritating Grampa Hugo (Dennis Fimple in a truly disgusting performance); silent, bearskin-bedecked Rufus Junior (Robert Mukes) and the resolutely over-the-top Mother Firefly (genre legend Karen Black, shoveling up scenery as fast as she can chew). Faster than you can say “These folks seem a little odd,” the Fireflys manage to capture our poor couples and subject them to some very disturbing, sick tortures (poor Dwight Shrute ends up getting the worst of it, bringing a disturbing new meaning to the term “merman”), before deciding that their “guests” should get their wish after all: they’re finally going to meet Dr. Satan, even if it’s the last thing they do.
If anything, Zombie’s debut is a pretty great representation of the term “sensory-overload.” For the most part, absolutely anything and everything is thrown at the screen, in the hopes that at least some of it will stick: fake commercials and infomercials, fake horror-movie hosts and their programs, zombies, evil doctors, murdered cheerleaders, Manson-style cult stuff, rudimentary Satanism, demons, creepy graveyards, underground bunkers, graphic amputations and surgical mayhem, deranged talent shows, sub-Tarantino “obscene but clever” dialogue, video game references and, of course, the ubiquitous Texas Chainsaw Massacre nods at every turn. When the film works, such as in the nonsensical but visually arresting Dr. Satan scenes, it’s still a full-throttle nightmare, full of fever-dream logic, crazy visuals and truly nasty gore scenes.
Just as often, however, Zombie seems more than content to simply remind viewers of Hooper’s (much better) original films. Tiny is a pretty weak patch on Leatherface, to be honest, and nothing about the Fireflys’ stereotypically “scary” house is one-tenth as affecting as anything in Hooper’s debut. Zombie’s version of the “wear somebody’s face” bit from TCM 2 is disturbing but nowhere near as upsetting as Hooper’s and Moseley, dynamic as he is, still isn’t doing anything more challenging than combining the characters of the Cook and Chop-Top into one cohesive maniac.
Lest it seem like my recent viewing of the film turned me against it, let me say that I still found it fast-paced, entertaining and endlessly interesting but it’s become rather impossible to ignore the movie’s huge debt to Hooper’s films. At the time of its release, many critics disparaged Zombie’s debut as nothing more than a horror movie “greatest hits” collection, gathering together disparate setpieces and characters from other films and dumping them into a generic “crazy family” story. At the time, I was loath to agree but my perspective now seem much more in line with these original critics, albeit qualified by my (general) enjoyment of the movie.
There are plenty of truly fantastic moments in the film, scenes that still pack as much of a punch today as they did a decade ago: the long, quiet shot as Otis prepares to shoot the deputy is still the greatest thing that Zombie has ever put on film, bar none, and the Dr. Satan scenes are wonderfully goofy, even if they occasionally seem to belong to a Resident Evil film. Sig Haig is awesome (as always), as is Moseley and it’s an absolute hoot to see Rainn Wilson in something like this. When the film takes a moment to calm down, Zombie is able to come up with some pretty great atmosphere: the graveyard scene, with the victims dressed in pink bunny costumes, is the perfect combination of eerie and outrageous, as is the evocative scene where Jerry and Denise are lowered into Dr. Satan’s lair.
Ultimately, my biggest issue with the film ends up being that it doesn’t do enough to stand on its own two feet: in many ways, it feels as if Zombie’s sole intention was to create his own, modern version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a feat which he mostly pulls off. The problem, of course, is that we’ve already seen that movie, just like we’ve already seen its sequel…how much use do we really have for yet another version of the same story, albeit one with a glossier, more post-modern edge?
While my re-evaluation of House of 1000 Corpses didn’t end up damning it to the basement, ala Clerks, it certainly managed to knock the film down a few pegs in my mind. That, of course, is why it’s so important to continually revisit films like this: as we grow and change, as viewers, so, too, do our relationships with these films grow and change. I’m definitely not the same person today as I was eleven years ago and my experience with the film only serves to drive that home. While it may be fun to stop in and visit the Fireflys, from time to time, I’m pretty sure that I won’t be spending much time there. There’s a reason why Hooper’s original is such an amazing film, a reason that Zombie’s re-do can’t touch with a ten-foot pole.