Two couples on a road trip searching for urban legends of murder
become prisoners of a psychotic backroads family of serial killers.
House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Written and Directed by Rob Zombie
Starring Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie, Karen Black, Chris Hardwick, Erin Daniels, Jennifer Jostyn, Rainn Wilson,
Walton Goggins, William Bassett
House of 1000 Corpses is exactly what I expected it would be. Rob Zombie's films have never really been my thing. His dirty, grimy, rapey, nihilistic vibe that all his films seem to have (except probably The Munsters) just isn't something I like to see. It's too upsetting. At least this film, his first, was pretty damn funny too, thanks mostly to Sid Haig's fantastic performance as Captain Spaulding. You get a sense of a filmmaker who just loves to make art his own way, and despite a constant series of roadblocks with every film he's ever made, he's carved out a decent career as a director to go with his epic career as a heavy metal rock god.
We follow two couples as they drive through the backroads of Texas looking for macabre roadside attractions. They run afoul of the vicious Firefly family, namely Otis (Moseley) and Baby (Moon Zombie). One guy is sewn to a fish body, another is operated on by an in-hiding serial killer called Dr. Satan. One woman is stabbed to death after she tries to run, and the other is finally captured and also operated on. It's a bleak fucking ending, but the insanely dark visuals combined with the random bits of dark comedy really hold this thing together.
House of 1000 Corpses is not everyone's cup of tea. But it's far from the complete critical disaster that most critics seemed to hope it would be. People have different tastes, and some of them can be just balls-to-the-wall wild. I'll probably watch it again, as I do believe repeated viewings will make things make sense a bit more. Plus, I won't lie, I really enjoyed Sid Haig's performance.
New York City, and Times Square, in the 70's and 80's was a different place than it is now. It wasn’t the sought-after tourist attraction like today, it was an area with a seedy underbelly that brought audiences in droves to see depraved and demented cinematic creations. Exploitation and horror genres seek to push the boundaries of mainstream films and touch on themes that Hollywood would never touch. For better or worse, some of the most impactful and memorable films came from this little stretch of NYC at 42nd Street.
It is this history that Rob Zombie taps into for his first feature, House of 1000 Corpses. I bring up 42nd Street because that’s where this movie would have played had it been made in the heyday of the grindhouse theater. He has made it well known that horror films from the early days of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff as well as the grindhouse films playing in NYC were influential on him and his music. This film is oozing (in more ways than one) with nods to those films throughout as well as adding his distinctive musical flare.
The story is pretty generic: kids on a road trip pick up a hitchhiker and wind up trapped, tortured, and killed by a crazy backwoods family. Sound familiar? Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Last House on the Left have this same concept but where Zombie lays his mark is the characters in the Firefly family. The colorfully crazy cast assembled really bring themselves to the forefront and make them the stars of the show.
Captain Spaulding (the wonderful Sid Haig) is hilarious with a razor sharp wit but shows just how vicious he is in the opening sequence but his ties to the rest of the clan aren’t known until the end. Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a beautiful and extremely dangerous woman who lures our unlucky couples when they pick her up. Mother Firefly (Karen Black) is the matriarch of the house who seems content to watch as the insanity unfolds around her, letting her ‘children’ play and not complain when they get their hands dirty. Tiny (the late Matthew McGrory) is a massive, mute giant who is just as evil as the rest of the others only he’s not so vocal about it. As with most exploitation fare, the violence and gore is over-the-top as well. Stabbing, shooting, mutilation, dismemberment, and an honest to goodness gaff (look up freak shows to find out what this means, specifically the Fiji mermaid) are all on display in unflinching detail.
When I first saw this movie, I was drawn in by how much this felt like an extended Rob Zombie music video. He wrote songs specifically for the movie and used stock footage as well as clips from The Wolf Man and Man-Bat (I think) to inject his personality into this right until the end when things go batshit crazy. The face that he directed most of his own music videos really adds to the aesthetic. This film had some difficulties getting made (low budget) and released as it changed hands from Universal and Lionsgate. It was even put on the shelf shortly after being completed and still managed to rise from the tomb of obscurity. The reluctance on Universal’s part to put their name on it and Rob Zombie’s unwillingness to change his film has left us with a contemporary grindhouse classic that is releasing its second sequel in just a few months. Long live the Firefly family.
Rob Zombie has become a metal icon. Between his band, White Zombie, and his solo career, he has released some of the most iconic albums and songs in the industry. It wasn’t long before he decided to turn his eye towards directing. And thus, House of 1000 Corpses was born. It wasn’t without its complications though. Shot on a very low budget, studio change-up midway through production, being shelved after filming, and battling the MPAA over the rating, this was not an easy film to get made. But, time has been kind and the film has gathered a large cult following since its release.
Right off the bat, this film is very much a Rob Zombie film. And I mean that in a good way. The dialogue, visuals, characters, and gore immediately spring to mind the many music videos he has done. This is a director who has a style that only he can do. But that’s not the only thing. Let’s talk about the characters, the infamous Firefly family. Being played by several horror veterans like Karen Black, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, and Sheri Moon Zombie (yes, Rob Zombie’s wife), they all bring it. Sid Haig and Bill Moseley are the two standouts as Captain Spaulding and Otis, respectively. And while most people complain about Zombie casting his wife in every movie he makes, she is outstanding here. Haig is hilarious and deadly. Moseley is ruthless. Moon Zombie is sexy and lethal. Even the main kids getting killed off are good. Look out for a younger Chris Hardwick and Rainn Wilson as said kids.
I could go on about this movie forever. It was my second Rob Zombie film I watched (sorry, saw Rejects first). And I immediately fell in love with it. A strong visual style which requires multiple viewings to get everything, iconic villains, and impressive gore all come together perfectly in this movie. Corpses showed not only is Zombie a genius with music, but also movies. He has quickly become one of my favorite directors and this is a standout in his catalog.