Mark Reviews Movies


1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rob Zombie

Cast: Erin Daniels, Jennifer Jostyn, Rainn Wilson, Chris Hardwick, Sid Haig, Sheri Moon, Bill Moseley, Karen Black, Dennis Fimple, Harrison Young

MPAA Rating: R (for strong sadistic violence/gore, sexuality and language)

Running Time: 1:28

Release Date: 4/11/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

House of 1000 Corpses is a fascinating train wreck of a horror movie. Shelved for three years because of ratings concerns and lack of distributor, the movie arrives amid intense speculation about the degree of its carnage, and while there's certainly enough gore to satisfy those who like that sort of thing, there's little beyond that to satisfy anyone else. Writer/director Rob Zombie certainly knows grotesquery and sadism and lunacy (oh my), and he has a visual and stylistic panache to make it all incredibly interesting. Interesting, yes, but not anything approaching anywhere near any form of entertaining. The thing about a project like this is that we can be fairly confident in addressing Zombie himself as the driving creative force and in determining his role as a filmmaker. What I get from his debut is a flair for the visceral, an imaginative drive for the demented, and a narrative focus for the unintelligible. The first two qualities show promise but when combined with the third, they reveal themselves as an empty, hollow shell surrounding a cinematic mess.

Four friends are taking a road trip across the country to research a book on roadside oddities. Let's call the friends Denise (Erin Daniels), Mary (Jennifer Jostyn), Jerry (Chris Hardwick), and Bill (Rainn Wilson), because while anonymity is part of the movie's ideas about character, it doesn't make for good synopsis. To go a step further to make these characters a bit more distinguishable, let's call them (respectively) girl with worrisome dad, other girl, guy, and guy with glasses. That's all the character development you'll get, so deal with it. Anyway, they stop for gas at Capt. Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen, run by none other than Capt. Spaulding (Sid Haig), a demented clown who sells fried chicken and has no problem dealing with people who try to rob him. During a tour through his house of horrors, the group learns about a local serial killer named Dr. Satan, who is supposedly dead although a body was never found. Of course, the guys want to go see the site where he was reportedly killed, but along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker named Baby (Sheri Moon), who eventually leads them to her family's home.

Needless to say, this wasn't a good idea, but no horror movie would exist without protagonists who make at least one bad decision. Baby's family are the Fireflys, a group of twisted backwoods folk who enjoy the little things, like kidnapping and torturing five cheerleaders and mutilating people to make sick displays like "fish-boy" (like a centaur or a satyr but with fish parts where the horse or goat hindquarters would be). When the future victims—sorry—heroes arrive at the Firefly estate the movie begins a steep decline. Zombie starts by nudging at the exploitation horror flicks of the '70s, but then he makes the mistake of playing into the genre without the satirical edge. The setup is promising, mixing the dark humor of the bizarre characters with the cheesy conventions of the genre. Then it just becomes disturbing and nonsensical; the humor is lost amidst the piling up of bodies and the physical and psychological torture the characters are forced to endure (the only laugh garnered from here on out is a perfectly timed question mark at the very end). It's grotesque but bland and somehow never scary. Zombie ups the stakes in the climax, a brilliant piece of intense nonsense.

Zombie also scores occasionally, with the help of cinematographers Alex Poppas and Tom Richmond and editors Kathryn Himoff, Robert K. Lambert, and Sean K. Lambert, in regards to his visuals. There are moments of technical skill that betray and reemphasize the movie's shallow exterior. Zombie fancies himself an auteur, making for some flashes of hollow genius. Take an extended shot in which a cop is about to be executed. It comes after an extended slow motion sequence in which a third party discovers the extent of the Firefly family's handiwork. The shot pulls back and pulls back and pulls back, and as much as it should have worked, there's nothing behind it. If we cared about this character or even the idea behind this character's presence in the movie, it could have been an insanely wrenching moment. Multiple formats are used to show the cornucopia of psychoses among the Firefly clan.

The actors who bring warped life to the freaks of House of 1000 Corpses steal the show. There's an inspired dedication to lunacy among these performers that, like the moments of technical prowess, keep this experiment from being completely unwatchable. I'll give the movie credit for one thing: the penultimate scene made me check the back seat of my car before getting into it after leaving the theater. There was nothing there, of course, but that's the similar sense I got from the movie as well. It's like a haunted house: some of it may look scary, but when it comes down to it, you know none of it will hurt you.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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