House of 1000 Corpses (2003) **
The rock/pop star-turned-actor is a phenomenon nearly as venerable as the rock/pop star itself. Elvis Presley and the Beatles are easily the best-known and most successful early examples, but even such uncharismatic and seemingly hopeless individuals as Roy Orbison made the occasional stab at translating their musical stardom to the movie screen. Nor can it be said that this is a thing of the past, as the present-day “acting” careers of LL Cool J, Jennifer Lopez, and Madonna conclusively demonstrate. A rock star-tumed-director, on the other hand... who ever heard of such a thing? Well as a matter of fact, we’ve got one of those on our hands right now, and all things considered, it seems strangely appropriate that Rob Straker (better known by his nomme de rock, Rob Zombie) should be the one to make that leap. After all, having come from a band called White Zombie, and with song and album titles like “Living Dead Girl” and Make Them Die Slowly to his credit, it’s been obvious pretty much from the get-go that Straker is a huge-ass horror movie fan. And because the industrial noise-rock from which he makes his living is descended from punk on its maternal grandmother’s side of the family, it stands to reason that he would have absorbed at least a little of the DIY ethic. The result: the man loves horror movies, and he’s certainly got the money, so why not go and make one himself? The trouble is, there’s a major flaw in the analogy between getting inspired to start your own band and getting inspired to make your own movie. It’s a hell of a lot easier to pick up a guitar and figure out how to string three or four chords together than it is to pick up a camera and put together a film— especially if you insist on performing all of the major creative duties yourself. So I can’t say I’m surprised that Rob Zombie’s directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, is a confused and confusing muddle that succeeds only as a love letter to Tobe Hooper.
Ruggsville— October 30, 1977. (Or so the caption says. Actually this movie looks about as much like the 70’s as it does like the 40’s.) Two masked men with guns hold up a gas station/fried chicken stand/roadside attraction called Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen. Its owner— the clown-costumed Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, from Woman Hunt and Foxy Brown)— and his assistant are not the slightest bit intimidated by the would-be robbers, and soon turn the tables on them. Spaulding’s sole apparent emotional response to being forced to shoot two men dead is some mild annoyance that the robber closest to him sprayed blood on his best clown suit. A couple of hours later (just as Spaulding is finally getting finished cleaning up the spilled blood on his floor) the museum is visited by a quartet of young people from out of town. Bill Hudley (Rainn Wilson) and Jerry Goldsmith (Chris Hardwick, from Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) are traveling around the country doing research for a book on establishments like Spaulding’s (which were already a vanishing breed by the late 1970’s), and have brought along their crankily begrudging girlfriends, Denise Willis (Erin Daniels) and Mary Knowles (Jennifer Jostyn, of Milo and Omega Cop). (Don’t ask me which girl is dating which guy, though. Straker is a writer of the “we don't need no steenking character development” persuasion, and evidently didn’t feel that detail was important enough to go into.) Needless to say, the girls aren’t nearly as excited about Spaulding’s collection of Jenny Hannivers and murder memorabilia as the boys are, and they practically have to be dragged bodily along when Jerry suggests that they go on the Murder Ride, a house of horrors exhibit so low-budget that the train car running through it is pushed along by Spaulding’s retarded cousin. Nevertheless, there is one part of the ride that really fires Jerry’s imagination, and that’s the display pertaining to an obscure local serial killer known by the nickname Dr. Satan. Dr. Satan, or so says Spaulding, had been an intern at a nearby mental hospital, where he had systematically subjected the inmates to sadistic medical experiments in an effort to engineer some sort of biologically perfect master race. The law never did catch up to Dr. Satan. Rather, he was lynched from a big, old tree in the countryside just a few miles from Spaulding’s museum, but when the police went to investigate the following morning, the killer’s body was missing from the noose. Jerry, being the morbid and impulsive sort of guy that he is, wants to rush right out and track down the notorious tree, and to that end, he has Spaulding sketch him a map to its whereabouts. None of his three companions is terribly keen on the idea, but Bill figures it won’t do them any harm to have a look— and it will shut Jerry up— so he agrees to the detour.
Along the way, the kids pass a hitchhiking girl, and since it’s pouring down rain by this time, Bill stops the car to let her in— again over the protests of Mary and Denise. The hitchhiker’s name is Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon), and she lives not too far away. She also says she knows where the Dr. Satan Lynching Tree is located. But before they can get to either place, the car’s front tire blows out; we know that's because a hulking redneck in a bearskin coat (Robert Allen Mukes) turned his shotgun on it, but none of the travelers picked up on that. Jerry (Mr. ADD himself) forgot to put the spare tire in the trunk after filling it up with air for the trip, but Baby has an idea. Her brother RJ has a tow truck, and runs a little auto repair business out of the family homestead. If someone from the car would be willing to walk her home, she’d be happy to send RJ out to collect the rest of them.
Bill ends up being Baby’s escort, and is thus the first of the four to get some definite idea of how bad things are about to get for him and his friends. Everybody in Baby’s family is visibly insane, as is Baby herself once you’ve had a chance to talk to her for a while. Oh, and the house they live in is virtually indistinguishable from Leatherface’s place in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, except that it’s just a little bit cleaner. In addition to Baby and RJ, the family includes two more brothers, Tiny (Matthew McGrory, who played the seven-and-a-half-foot zombie in The Dead Hate the Living) and Otis (The Blob’s Bill Moseley, who is reprising his role from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in all but name), their mother Adrienne (Karen Black, from Trilogy of Terror and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive), and Adrienne’s father Hugo (Dennis Fimple, of Truck Stop Women and Fangs). And though this is concealed from Bill for the moment, there are five other guests stashed in various parts of the house— the five high school cheerleaders the local police have been searching for so futilely for the past several days. None of those girls, in case you couldn’t guess, is in particularly good shape at this point.
Meanwhile, RJ Firefly has arrived at the site of the “breakdown” with his tow truck, and guess what... he’s the sniper in the bearskin coat! All four of the travelers are reunited soon thereafter, and are invited to join the Firefly family for a surreal Halloween celebration (Halloween being apparently the holiest day of the year for this lot). The festivities are enough to send our heroes running for the hills, but they don't get very far...
At least one of those kids is going to be missed, however. The next stop on the itinerary had been the home of Denise’s father, a retired police detective named Don Willis (Harrison Young, from Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering and Reptilian), and when the girl and her friends fail to show up come Halloween morning, Willis starts to get worried. One assumes that the recent disappearance of those cheerleaders has more than a little to do with Don’s unease. Willis places a call to his former boss, Sheriff Drake Huston (William Bassett, of The Naked Cage and the 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars) to ask if he’s heard anything. Huston hasn’t, but there’ve been far too many disappearances in the neighborhood for his taste of late, and he swiftly details two of his men to look into the case. Having been told that the last time Willis heard from his daughter was when she called him from the pay phone outside of Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen, Lieutenant George Wydell (Tom Towles, from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead) and Deputy Steve Naish (Walt Gobbins, of the Humanoids from the Deep remake) stop by to question Spaulding, and learn thereby that Denise and her friends had gone off in search of the Dr. Satan tree. Subsequent investigation turns up what’s left of Bill’s car— with one of the missing cheerleaders locked up naked and dead in the trunk— removing any remaining doubt that something very bad has happened or is happening to the Willis girl and her companions. By a lucky chance, the first place the police (with Don Willis and the sheriff now in tow) look is the Firefly homestead, but this rescue attempt is a failure even by the low standards for such things in slasher movies. Those of the hapless young tourists as still survive will just have to fend for themselves, both against the Firefly family and, as we shall see before this is all over, against the mysterious Dr. Satan as well.
Well, I can tell you this much. On the basis of House of 1000 Corpses, it’s safe to say that Rob Zombie has an abiding love of three things: horror movies, classic cars, and naked girls. I share his affection for all of those, but apparently one of the differences between us is that I’m perceptive enough to realize that liking a thing does not, in and of itself, qualify a person to make a movie about it. What House of 1000 Corpses reminds me of most is an undergraduate history paper. As an undergrad, what research you do is limited for the most part to secondary sources— you read a bunch of books written by other people, and then synthesize what you’ve learned from them, but you rarely do any original research of your own. In House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie demonstrates mainly that he’s seen a whole fucking lot of horror movies. Images, ideas, scenarios, and set-pieces are cribbed from all over the place: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its first sequel, The Hills Have Eyes and its sequel, Motel Hell, Shock Waves, Hellraiser, Vampyr, Tourist Trap, Psycho, Deranged, Maniac, Natural Born Killers, Nosferatu, The Serpent and the Rainbow— hell, even the mummy scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark gets a nod. There are also random clips thrown in from The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and several other old horror flicks that I recognized, but couldn’t put names to. All this material, along with a bunch of short clips in the style of Bunny Yeager or Irving Klaw, is edited together like a music video— that is to say, with visual impact rather than narrative cohesion being the decisive factor— but never do we see any evidence that Straker has brought any ideas of his own to the table. The closest approach House of 1000 Corpses makes to originality is in the character of Baby; I can’t recall ever seeing another psycho family movie in which one of the killers was a sexy girl in assless blue jeans! But that by itself is nowhere near enough to carry the film. If House of 1000 Corpses had been intended as nothing more than a series of videos for Rob Zombie’s music (and at a certain level, I suppose it is just that), then I’d have been fairly impressed, as it can hardly be denied that the film is visually striking to an exceptional degree. It purports to be telling a story, however, and that aspect of the movie is an almost total failure. Perhaps in the future, Straker should try his hand at directing a movie from a script written by somebody else.