Deep in the bowels of the horror genre beyond Stephen King, beyond Richard Matheson and far past even Clive Barker there exists a sub-genre known to the initiated as splatterpunk. Revolving around extreme violence of all kinds, splatterpunk is intended to be read by very few people. If you’ve ever seen a Cannibal Corpse album cover*, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Splatterpunk is known to very few. Yet, its’ writers and directors from the late Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon to Eli Roth and James Wan are worshipped by their bloodthirsty fans. Though it tries it’s best, House of 1000 Corpses is not a splatterpunk film, but it’s worth watching if you like good homages to better films.
*For the love of God if you’re squeamish don’t look up Cannibal Corpse album covers.
Thirty-year-old teens Jerry (The Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick), Bill (The US Office’s Rainn Wilson), Mary (Jennifer Jostyn) and Denise (The L Word’s Erin Daniels) are on a road trip hoping to write a book on zany roadside attractions. Car trouble leads to an encounter with the Firefly family – of which there are too many to list – who kidnap, torture and systematically kill the teens. So far so Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Director Rob Zombie is most well known for remaking Halloween and its sequel in the late 2000s. At least those films knew what they were. House of 1000 Corpses hasn’t a clue what kind of film it is. It lurches, zombie-like (get it), from black comedy to torture porn to police procedural and that’s OK. House of 1000 Corpses might not know what kind of film it’s trying to be, but it knows what it’s doing. As a homage Zombie’s film gleefully sends up the likes of The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left and Night of the Living Dead. It does so without a shred of shame and with all the joy it can muster.
The problem with the above films is that only one of them is actually good. No prizes for guessing which. I’ve railed against The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes on HeadStuff before and won’t do it again. What I will say is if you’re going to pay homage to a film as brutally violent and sexually depraved as The Last House on the Left then you may as well go the whole way. Personally, I’m against the whole rape-revenge concept. I don’t think it’s entertaining or worth putting on page or screen. Still, there’s a market for it so if you’re going to pay your respects, if such a word can be used, then I say go for it. To hell with what the critics, censors and studios say.
The studio had more to say about House of 1000 Corpses then anyone else. The movie was shelved for three years after its completion due to concerns surrounding its gore and necrophilia. No one actually has sex with a corpse in the film. Yet, Baby Firefly (Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon) does masturbate with a thigh bone so close enough. It was eventually released when Zombie bought back the rights in 2003 and sold it to Lionsgate. When it came to opening weekend, people knew what they were in for, just not how much they knew what they were in for.
House of 1000 Corpses has all the extreme close-ups of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre combined with the shaky cam of The Last House on the Left and the pitching and swooping angles of The Hills Have Eyes. Instead of making this an exciting homage it just makes Zombie’s keen eye for technique and loving attention to detail look predictable. Also, it was 2003 at that point. There was already a serious case made for classically shot horror way back in 1978 with Halloween. Honouring the above films by not only emulating but combining their respective styles just makes for a nauseating experience.
Speaking of nauseating, the Firefly family are one of the film’s truly unique elements. More coherent than the Leatherface clan in Texas Chainsaw Massacre – but just as disgusting – they rant and rave and stab and cut with wild abandon. In particular, Otis (Bill Moseley) and family accomplice Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) stand out. Moseley is practically translucent in his white hair and make-up. However, Haig truly steals the show with his bizarre accent and strange mannerisms. Although unique, the two take a backseat to the horror show that is the film’s ending.
The last twenty minutes is where House of 1000 Corpses really comes into its own. Jerry and Denise are lowered into a well where Jerry is quickly dragged off by zombies because why not? Denise is left fighting for her life against crazed mental patients, zombies, a spindly vivisectionist and Rob Zombie’s own interpretation of Leatherface. The ending reveals the film’s most interesting villains namely the briefly mentioned vivisectionist Dr Satan and his axe-wielding, skinless servant Earl. Just as the two police officers in the middle of the film reveal a different road House of 1000 Corpses could have travelled, so too do the ugly duo towards its end. Because of this, the film becomes a wasted opportunity rather than the entertaining genuflection it was for its first hour.
House of 1000 Corpses will confuse anyone looking for a decent slasher or cannibal murder movie. As an amalgamation of all of the horror movies Rob Zombie was raised on it works as an entertaining circus piece. It’s reflective of the amusement park attraction it would eventually become. It won’t satisfy those looking for their next gore fix either but perhaps splatterpunk will. House of 1000 Corpses is a flawed film but if dripping ghouls are your thing then don’t let me stop you.