House of 1000 Corpses

Friday, September 26, 2003

Gather round, children, for the legend of Dr. Satan. In a place called Hollywood, a man who stole his name said that he had a ghost story to tell, and a studio (Universal) said they wanted him to tell his story, and that they would pay him to do so. When he told them the story, they said that they didn’t like it, and that they would not, as is the folk tradition, pass the story on to others, and Rob Zombie had to buy the rights to the movie back so he could shop it around to other distributors. MGM said they wanted it, until Zombie told Ben Affleck on the set of Daredevil that MGM would release it since they apparently had no morals, ostensibly in jest; the story was overheard (the film crew, there to shoot Zombie interviewing the cast for an MTV special, must have been eavesdropping), related on the MTV website and then in Variety, and MGM canned the project; Zombie was approached by Lion’s Gate, who finally released it.

The prevailing wisdom on why Universal, at least, refused to release House of 1000 Corpses is that it was overly gory and shocking, but viewing reveals that it’s not noticeably more gory than Ghost Ship, and there’s nothing shocking about it unless the viewer was expecting a Pixar film. Alternate explanations, then: Rob Zombie is a pretentious, self-indulgent guy who refused to make even the slightest alteration to his flick, or b) it really stinks and the studio didn’t want it. A combination of possibilities is that Zombie was under contract to release an R-rated film and Universal didn’t think it could be released as an R, which combines the gore/shock idea and the indulgence.

Zombie’s generally accepted and oft-boasted motivation was to revive 1970s shock horror, which is all well and good, but which in practice means of course Texas Chainsaw Massacre, of which 1000 Corpses is a loose remake, without character or surprise, and with doses of some really phony evil stuff which is neither particularly human-themed enough to be disturbing or realistic nor otherworldly enough to be creative. It’s placeholder evil, MacGuffin evil meriting just the briefest explanation before that explanation - and any possible sense - is scrapped, leaving its arrival so completely nonsensical that it’s unclear why it’s there at all, feeling like nothing so much as the fourth act of a one-act play.

As far as evoking the feel of the 70s, other than its shameless Chainsaw jocking, 1000 Corpses has going for it a sparse couple of straight sunlit shots, some lighting-processing-filter combination that recalls the questionable filmstock of much shock cinema without duplicating it, and used to effect it could have been enjoyable, even insightful in its reference, a formal updating of the lapsed years that does in a couple of shots what Zombie aimed for (and missed) in script, gore effects, and style.

Rob Zombie, for his part, cobbles the thing together in a way that makes it look like he’s still working on the More Human Than Human video he was working on in 1993 or so. In fact, the whole movie is an amalgam of Zombie throwing in bits of his own projects for the last ten years or so. He’s using the same music-video filters and camera tricks from White Zombie videos (not, probably, based on any horror music videos from the 70s, and lacking even the dated-effects charm of old Alice Cooper presentations). He adds, obtrusively, from his obsessions with Bela Lugosi movies, carny-kitsch, and the much more successful melding of the two found in Elvira and Ghoulardi. We get it, you like the Munsters. A lengthy (tryingly) sequence gives the distinct impression that Zombie spent too much time wandering around his own maze designed for Universal Studios' own Halloween theme park (coincidentally right exactly when the project was conceived, pitched and greenlit for Universal release), possibly getting lost and wandering for days, which would explain a lot. I’m also pretty sure his evil monsters are bosses from Nightmare Creatures II, which boasts on its cover (as could dozens of games to which he licensed Dragula) "Music By Rob Zombie!"

In the end, just too many modern touches spoil the 70s idea. Texas Chainsaw was great. It’s been ripped off A LOT. Ripping it off again doesn’t make you an originator, or even an homage-payer, just the latest in a long long line of rip-off-ers.

Motivation, hazy at best, is a big part of Texas Chainsaw, and its stark vagueness worked as rebellion against static bad guys and evil plots. No film has quite captured that, walking (or tottering wildly back and forth over) lines of the same ideas, but instead failing to define the terms of their evil or develop the character of the villainy. 1000 Corpses had potential to do it; it plays briefly with setting up evil and finding none - only chaos - in such a way as to applaud Texas Chainsaw and still make a case for actual human horror, as silly as it may be presented here (and that’s pretty silly), a weak presentation of a strong argument: the points aren’t all there, and the person arguing doesn’t know them all, but he’s still arguing the right side. Instead, though, 1000 Corpses goes looking for evil and finds none. Instead of accepting this, demanding it, reveling in it, it loses its way and makes some up, plastic evils in what could have been a beautifully sun-blanched brown wood-and-dirt world.

Reviewed by Matthew Abrams
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