House of 1000 Corpses ( Rob Zombie, 2003)

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Colourful epileptic gory carnival that is Rob Zombie’s feature debut has been around for close to fifteen years now. A lot has changed in the meantime – Rob Zombie has made a career in the genre, including two atrocious Halloween films and an ambitious, if uneven, The Lords of Salem, the whole torture porn genre has bloomed in  the years following the original Saw and Hostel films. Now that the dust has settled, it’s easier to see the virtues of House of 1000 Corpses.

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There’s no denying that Rob Zombie has a pretty fertile imagination. Sick as his visions may be, there’s a lucidity and vividness to them which marks him as one to look out for in the future. And yet these visions stay on the somewhat abstract, artistic plane – too refined to be just spontaneous, inarticulate trash which the filmmaker clearly draws his inspiration from.

The beautiful electric blues and neon greens of Captain Spaulding’s roadside establishment are captured beautifully by cinematographers Alex Poppas and Tom Richmond. Rob Zombie’s own hand-held grainy insert shots are also effective in their deliberately crude, low-tech fashion.

While the passing of the years may have placed House of 1000 Corpses in a more advantageous light, it could do little to ameliorate Sheri Moon’s performance, which remains just as fake and annoying now as it did back in around 2003. It’s nice to spot Michael J. Pollard (Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse) in a bit part. Rob Zombie’s subsequent films would be studded with genre icons in cameo appearances, from Ken Foree to Richard Lynch, Udo Kier and beyond.

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There’s something endearing in Rob Zombie’s earnest attempt at all-out transgression, his appetite for the bizarre and the grotesque. Even at its most meaningless, monotonous, confusing and crazy the film retains a visionary quality and unfaltering enthusiam which renders it likeable. Maybe it’s the excellent cinematography or the brilliance of Bill Moseley and Sid Haig as the sickos. Maybe it’s the over-indulgent, messy editing. The charm that would be missing from the 2005 sequel  the Devil’s Rejects which is more dry, often visually ugly and leaves an sickly aftertaste, despite retaining cult film heavyweights Moseley and Haig and having a superior narrative structure to House of 1000 Corpses.

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It is of course an abomination to think that it took a whole $ 7 million to make a movie that’s inspired by cheapo exploitation films. Transgress all you want, but had it not been for Rob Zombie’s working relationship with Universal, no way would he have got House of 1000 Corpses made with this high level of production values. The sound mix is amazing and the film is edited with great precision (I’m referring to purely technical quality of the execution, which is a separate thing and doesn’t affect the resulting film’s coherence or pacing).

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When House of 1000 Corpses first came out it felt weird, incoherent, hyperactive, bloody and disgusting yet lacking genuine thrills or tension. It still is all of these things. What’s changed? The whole horror film panorama has shifted. Today, seen in the context of Rob Zombie films that were to follow and in wider perspective of horror genre development, House of 1000 Corpses looks considerably more attractive. Too slick and well-connected to pass for a real grindhouse film, House of 1000 corpses nevertheless has its heart in the right place. And what a dark, perverse bastard of a heart it is!