What made "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" one of the most popular cult classics of all time? It wasn't the blood or special effects, it came from watching the main character suffer in agony as she ran from the pursuing evil. Wes Craven's "Last House on the Left," still one of the most repulsively wicked movies of all time, is frightening because there was depth to the characters; we cared about those girls.
Written and directed by rock musician, Rob Zombie, "House of 1,000 Corpses" has been one of the most highly anticipated movies these last couple of years by both Zombie and horror fans alike. The movie was apparently bounced around by several studios before finally getting picked up by Lion's Gate. Word quickly got out and everyone soon believed that this movie would be the most violent and immoral film to hit the big screen. Despite all of its glitzy advertising, this isn't the case.
If you only do one thing right when making a horror film, it must have, and I stress, it must have strongly developed characters. If the characters are a bunch of brainless one-line speaking morons, then there's no reason to care when they take a hatchet to the back of the head, because we know there isn't anything under the skull.
Alas, the movie opens with four young adults on their way to a relative's house to celebrate Halloween the following day. The year is 1977 as our foursome rides the back-roads seeking out "offbeat roadside attractions" for a book they're all writing. The two couples include Jerry (Chris Hardwick), Bill (Rainn Wilson), Denise (Erin Daniels), and Mary (Jennifer Jostyn). The girls are sleeping in the backseat while the guys are talking to each other in the front; their conversations give away how idiotic they truly are. Bill, the driver, notices that they're almost out of gas and asks Jerry, "How much gas did you put in at the last stop?"
Jerry cheerfully replies, "I don't know…two, three bucks."
"Two, three bucks? I told you to fill up the tank!"
OK, hold on. It's obvious that Zombie needed an excuse to have our four heroes stranded in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night. But this could have been done so much better. How come the driver didn't notice that only two dollars were put in the tank right after only two dollars were put into the tank? Wouldn't the fuel gauge have indicated only a couple of bucks were put in? But no, Bill didn't notice and they must now find the nearest gas station.
Quickly, before I get back to the plot, I must tell you how annoying and unbearable the characters are. Denise doesn't say much, but Mary is a selfish snob who looks down at everyone not worried that she might ever offend somebody or something. Nope, she won't be missed when her times comes.
Now back to our travelers currently running on fumes. They soon arrive at Captain Spaulding's (Sid Haig) freak show where tourists can refuel their tanks, watch an entertaining sideshow, and even replenish their appetites with Captain Spaulding's golden fried chicken.
Spaulding is one of the more intriguing characters, too bad he doesn't get much screen presence. Dressed in full clown makeup, Spaulding welcomes his guests and invites them to his pointless sideshow attraction called the "murder ride," featuring the history of legendary serial killers. What doesn't make sense is that Mary wants nothing to do with Captain Spaulding and his "murder ride" attraction. But why, aren't they writing a book on this stuff? Wouldn't the group be excited about Spaulding's 10-minute adventure in the back of his gas station?
The presentation comes straight from Spaulding's mouth, which is unusually foul for a friendly gas station attendant. Then again, this is Rob Zombie's screenplay. You eventually get used to all the f-words. During the tour, where Spaulding describes "evil is God," one of his cronies pushes the cart along a track that would have normally been powered by a train had this been a Walt Disney World attraction.
When the tour ends, our four friends get back in the car in search of a mysterious Dr. Satan, despite the pitch blackness and heavy rainfall. Spaulding explains the legend of Dr. Satan, a sadistic madman who enjoyed torturing his patients from his underground lair until he was finally caught and hanged under a nearby tree. While on the dirt path looking for the tree, they spot a hitchhiker who goes by the name Baby (Sheri Moon). After they pick her up--and I'm not kidding when I say this, a mysterious figure in the bushes blows out one of the car tires with his shotgun. Now stranded, Baby tells the group that her house isn't very far and that her brother owns a tow truck. The group foolishly follows, never questioning why she needed to hitch a ride in the first place when she lives less than a block away.
At Baby's house, we meet Mother Firefly (Karen Black). She welcomes the gang and invites them in to dinner, and we soon meet more family members, a bunch all too eager to celebrate Halloween. The two couples are required to wear masks when they eat, listen to Mother's stories, and mind the many candles that cover most of the table surface. Their high pitched voices make Mother and Baby painful to listen to; it will remind of you of "The Wizard of Oz's" wicked Witch of the west. Mother isn't so bad, it's mostly Baby who shrills when she talks and cackles when she laughs. Another character, Otis (Bill Moseley), soon joins them at the table.
At this point, we know something is wrong with this picture, this house. For one, everything looks satanic and all of Baby's family is in costume. Otis, in white face paint, looks like he just returned from a zombie-film audition and is starting to take his job too seriously. From a different angle, he kind of looks like Legolas going on three days with no sleep. And here is the main problem with the movie. We know who the good guys are, and we know who the bad guys are. But the good guys are unlikable, have no personalities, and won't be missed when they start disappearing. The bad guys aren't scary, but instead are goofy looking and even funny. This is a bad mix when we're supposed to be somewhat scared at this point. Unlike "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," there is no horrifying evil, here.
When dinner ends, the four friends get ready to leave, but Mother and her family won't let them. You can thank Mary for offending them. From here on out, the movie is nothing more than a confused 60-70's acid trip with an occasional stabbing and blood splattered sequence.
In an attempt to make a movie with only four possible victims more exciting, the plot supplies us with five kidnapped cheerleaders, located somewhere in Otis's attic. When one of the four friends isn't being chased down, the camera is on a nameless cheerleader who is secured to a bedpost.
These scenes are dealt with in a perverse fashion. The victims are tied up and slowly tortured by the circus freaks. There's a lot of sex-related material and enough graphic violence to make some stomachs turn, but it still doesn't stack up to the hype. I can understand Rob Zombie's R-rated limitations, but I'm sure the eventual un-rated DVD won't be much better.
"Corpses" had the potential to be as violent as it wanted to be, but all of the gory scenes are dark, gritty and hardly visible. One can argue that "Hannibal" is more graphic. You'll understand this more when you're trying to decipher what is happening on-screen, but the camera keeps cutting to a rotating pattern of twirling colors, a popular technique used by low budget horror films back in the 50's and 60's. There is also a lot of crosscutting that gives us a quick background into some of the ghoulish characters, but nothing spectacular is shown. One clip shows Baby performing some type of sadistic dance, which is this movie's method of showing us that Baby is in fact an evil character. A better horror movie would have shown her wickedness through development; not pseudo stock footage. When a character would talk about a past legend, the camera would cut to a 'black and white' documentary-style track intended on being creepy.
The dialogue is awful, comprised of mostly one-liners that go well with one-dimensional characters. They get no pity and no sympathy from us when they are tracked down by Baby or one of her satanic family members, and we are often tricked into thinking someone is being murdered, but he/she returns later on.
The special effects are decent but too decorative. The shelves in the house contain the customary pickle jars, each one with a head, hand or some other human part floating in a colored liquid inside the jar. Lots of surgical equipment and gallons of blood are all there, but those devices are pointless because those are the only impressive aspects of the movie. It's a fresh baked pie with no one there to eat it.
The overall presentation of the film is rough and it looks incomplete. The editing is choppy as we often see a character respond about 5-seconds after reacting to a situation. This is also contributed with poor dubbing and synchronization. There are some good camera shots, but most of the time the lenses are too shy to show us anything worth being scared over.
The conclusion is nothing original, but if I told you what other movie it was from, I'd be giving too much away for those who still care at this point. It does make it possible for a sequel, which can be good or bad. It is mostly bad because part I will deter most audiences away from any sequel or future Rob Zombie movie. However, the overall premise of the movie is intriguing, and I would like to see a sequel if it's done right. This is because I have always been a horror fan, and I easily get hooked into dark stories like this one. For the same reason I wouldn't mind a "13 Ghosts" sequel to learn more about the ghosts, I wouldn't mind a sequel to this to learn more about the origins of Captain Spaulding and his carnival of minions.
Like the conclusion itself, the horror clichés continue. A pair of disposable local sheriffs are thrown in next to the kidnapped cheerleaders just to add to the low body count. Also, we don't hear about another missing group until we are informed by the morbid sounding radio announcer reading a public statement between songs on the FM channel being listened to in the car.
As for scares, most of them are from the cat jumping out of the closet or the boyfriend tapping the unsuspecting girl on the shoulder. When someone does get attacked, the scene goes by quickly and the camera doesn't show us much. Other times, the murder or torture is drowned out by the movie's soundtrack which is mostly a repeat of "Brick House." Again, Brick House was probably not the best choice for the soundtrack. If you want an effective score, look up the original sheet to the original "Halloween." Even songs by Rob Zombie himself would have been a better pick, although he instead chose to use his music whenever the camera would intercut to another jumbled segment.
As I've mentioned earlier, the characters are poorly developed which consequently don't get sympathy from us. The murderous clowns are more goofy than scary; and the four pending victims are stereotypically stupid and too busy stargazing to notice their impending doom until it's too late. There’s a reason why the "Scream" series was so successful; we liked Sidney and grew attached to her. There’s no likable characters in this one.
The title of this movie is called "House of 1,000 Corpses," but 990-something of those corpses aren't seen in the film. What it does have is every element that you would find in the perfect nightmare. I guess that's the problem; the scariest things are nightmares and they only work in dreams. Maybe Zombie should have relied on an experienced filmmaker to tell his tale. Instead, he chose to crash it himself, and boy does it burn. Until someone better comes along, it can be concluded that scary nightmares don't make scary (or good) horror movies.
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