House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

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*. It would be easier, and perhaps more charitable, if I just said this is a terrible, terrible movie and leave it at that.
*. But I won’t. Why not? Because I don’t want to do that for every bad movie I see, and because this movie has a particular claim to our attention in being the directorial debut of Rob Zombie.
*. I give Zombie credit for at least one thing: he does have a distinctive style. You can’t really mistake a Rob Zombie movie for anything else but.
*. That said, it’s a style that’s a hyperkinetic pastiche of other styles, most notably that of the music video. It’s not a style that’s much use for storytelling, but proceeds by way of rapid cuts and sudden shifts between different types of film speed, colour, exposure, and texture. There may be a rationale for some of this (Zombie says the rock-video interruptions are meant to be visions of what’s inside various characters’ heads), but mostly it seems random, and even includes footage Zombie shot while on tour.
*. The typical Zombie plot is also entirely derivative, being a bunch of bits and pieces adapted from the horror canon. I suppose the most obvious influence here is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with the gruesome backwoods family torturing the dumb kids who take a detour off the main road. I’ve never seen a horror movie about hillbilly, redneck killers tormenting middle-class city kids before.

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*. And yet for all its heightening of Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s look (the crude-but-effective sets from the earlier film are turned into something almost operatic here), it’s decidedly less shocking or disturbing. It’s not even that gory, when you get down to it. Instead of the matter-of-fact unpleasantness offered up by Tobe Hooper, what Zombie delivers is manic, even hysterical action.
*. Not being scary is one thing, but the degenerate family here are downright annoying. Sherrie Moon’s giggling and the hammy overacting of Sid Haig and Bill Moseley all get old really fast.
*. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Zombie just doesn’t give a damn about the murder and mayhem he’s dishing out. He doesn’t seem invested in it at all. Listening to the DVD commentary, one starts to feel that he’s motivated less by how well a scene will work than how “hilarious” or “cool” it seemed on the day of shooting.
*. Another thing that struck me while listening to the DVD commentary is how improvised it all was. Apparently the whole Dr. Satan angle was going to be a hoax, some elements were simply added on a whim (the cheerleaders, for example), and a whole sub-plot about a Skunk Ape creature was dropped, leaving residual references to it floating in the music-video ether. Making a movie in this way plays havoc with any sense of structure.
*. But does Zombie care about structure, suspense, or characters? I don’t think so. The characters, for example, are either victims or grotesque caricatures of juvenile evil. Tiny is a hulking giant. Otis is an addled artist. Poor Karen Black is all make-up and tits. Baby just wants to “have sex with dead bodies and dance around” and likes “to get fucked up and do fucked up shit.” How interesting is any of this?
*. The only thing I really enjoyed was listening to Zombie’s commentary over the end credits where he muses aloud about who all these people were and what they did. Now that was funny.

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*. I guess someone finds it interesting, as I can’t explain Zombie making a career out of doing the same shtick for so long without finding an audience. My guess is that the people who like it are younger than I am.
*. So while I’ll admit Zombie does have an enthusiastic fan base, for the life of me I can’t see what they find in his movies that they think is worthwhile. His movies aren’t original. They’re not disgusting. They’re not scary. They’re not witty or funny. Are we supposed to laugh at the random obscenities that the characters bark at each other? They’re no funnier than the crude slogans on the novelty t-shirts that everybody’s wearing.
*. In summary, the best I can say for Zombie’s work is that it has a reckless energy to it, though it isn’t put to any end other than to be hilarious and cool.
*. But when a horror film is only a self-indulgent quest for hilarity and coolness it loses its edge. Great horror-comedies have to hold a real threat in reserve: the laughter comes partly as nervous release from the ratcheting up of suspense or our investment in the characters and what will happen to them. If the genre is just being sent up as a manic joke then the film never develops any traction or has any weight. Hysteria follows from exhaustion. Even irony has its limits.

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