Schlocktoberfest #10: House of 1000 Corpses
I made the mistake of watching the well-regarded sequel to this film, The Devil’s Rejects, first. I didn’t know it was a sequel. I watched them both again the other night, and I still think House of 1,000 Corpses is a better film. It succeeds in making a psycho family of murderers similar to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and putting a group of young victims in their clutches, with plenty of original and shocking imagery. Unfortunately neither film is as good as Tobe Hooper’s classic, but Rob Zombie does inject some much needed new blood into the horror film genre with these movies.
House of 1000 Corpses begins with a car full of hipsters showing up at Captain Spaulding’s roadside gallery of oddities, complete with Murder Tour. Spaulding is a rather grubby clown with awful teeth, played by the incomparable Sid Haig, of countless B movies such as Corman classics like Galaxy of Terror, blaxploitation icons like Foxy Brown, and even THX-1138. He’s got great presence, and plays the sleazy Captain Spaulding to the hilt. In fact, he’s my favorite part of both movies- oozing perversion with a dash of pathos, since he’s a bumbling slob most of the time.
The ironic hipsters love the tacky gallery with its oddities like “crocodile boy,” and the legend of Dr. Satan, which Spaulding regales them with on the murder tour. He was a crazy doctor at a nearby asylum who tried to turn his mentally ill patients into supermen through experimental surgery and brain modification. When they hear that townsfolk lynched him at a nearby hangin’ tree, they ask for directions, and head off into the stormy night to see it. On their way they pick up a hitcher, an annoying blonde bimbo played by Sheri Moon Zombie, a sexy broad with a voice like nails on chalkboard, who unsurprisingly mostly appears in her husband’s movies. Like her crazy counterpart in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, she leads them to her psycho family.
The parallels continue, and kept making me wish it was as good as the movie it pays homage to. It’s not bad for a horror flick- the pacing meanders, and it feels a lot longer than 89 minutes, but like a rickety amusement ride with good thrills, it is worth putting up with its flaws if you like the enjoyment of a good horror movie. We meet the Firefly family, with creepy and homespun Mom (Leslie Easterbrook, Police Academy 3 thru 6) who alternates from giving evil glares and wanting to take the boys out back to the shed for ugly-bumpin’; Tiny, a hulking burn victim who ends up being Leatherface meets Freddy Krueger, played by Matthew McGrory from Big Fish); Grandpa, who seems like a vaudevillian with Tourette’s, and Otis P. Driftwood, a sadistic long-haired bastard straight out of a biker exploitation flick.
As the hipsters- including Rainn Wilson from “The Office”- find out the family’s hobbies of torturing cheerleaders, we don’t care much what happens to them. The film’s sympathies lie with the killers, which works against it. The Firefly family are all named in some way after Groucho Marx characters, a point driven home with a sledgehammer in the sequel, and it seems like an expanded episode of “Mama’s Place” with serial killers. When you know too much about a boogeyman, he ceases to be scary, and when you don’t care about his victims, there’s little emotional attachment to the story. Maybe the pleasure to be gleaned is in all the references to older films, but even a reference whore like Tarantino knows that the story and characters have to stand by themselves. Captain Spaulding and Tiny were the only characters I liked seeing on screen, and they have a lot less time than Driftwood and Rob Zombie’s wife.
I liked when one of the victims was turned into a future oddity in the museum; done before, but it was campy and fitting. The Fireflys are much worse than that, though they seem to stop short of cannibalism as in Texas. When the requisite sole survivor escapes from their bizarre woods ritual, she finds herself in the clutches of the infamous Dr. Satan. And I found him and his minion to be infinitely more engaging than Baby Firefly and Driftwood, who get the majority of screen time and are frankly boring, since I’d seen a dozen sadistic killer duos in cinema and they’re far from the most interesting. Dr. Satan is cool enough that I don’t want to spoil just how horrifying his lab is, and unfortunately he is completely written out of the sequel.
So as much as I criticize this film, it is because it had such promise but meanders a lot and disappoints by focusing on what Zombie thought was the interesting part, which I’m afraid I disagree with him on. As a horror movie it’s eons better than The Devil’s Rejects, which was still annoying on second view. The movie is an incoherent mess with a few memorable characters and some great gory visuals; at least he used real blood and not shitty CG blood like in the sequel.