Case #7: Rob Zombie: Filmmaker or Film …Screw Up…Guy (Part 1)

This Weeks Case: Rob Zombie: Filmmaker or Film …Screw Up…Guy 

Part 1: House of 1000 Corpses

Released: 2003
Written and Directed by: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Karen Black, and Sheri Moon Zombie

Synopsis:

In House of 1000 Corpses, four road-tripping twenty-somethings seeking information about a local serial killer named Dr. Satan, find themselves kidnapped and tortured by a family of murderous psychopaths. Calling themselves The Firefly Family, the band of cold-blooded antagonists are eventually revealed to be directly connected to the nefarious Doc S, who the victims

The Charges:

– Three-peat horror plot
– Mindless references sans original/any context
– Pointlessly violent
– Overly campy
– Cluttered and, eventually, incoherent

The Defense:

House of 1000 Corpses, even months before being picked up by a distributor, was surrounded by infamy. People were talking. Rob Zombie, shock ‘n’ roll progeny and self-professed horror fanatic, armed with an extensive horror video library and a cast of scream cinema veterans, had made a film. It was rumored to be the most pants-shitting experience in gut-eating terror to ever be imprinted onto celluloid by a human being in the history of the universe. Ever.

And then it wasn’t.

Upon its release, Zombie’s film was met with nothing but hatred (from critics) and ambivalence (from fans). Was Zombie’s self-consciously ridiculous musical persona neutralizing any chance that his film had of being taken seriously? Were people simply disheartened by the film’s inability to live up to unduly high and, perhaps, even unfair expectations set by the rumors preceding its debut? Or did the film really just kinda suck a butt? 

I think it’s safe to say that it’s some combination thereof. Zombie was stigmatized as a no-nothing musician with zero claim to the medium, the film certainly didn’t live up to the hype, and, it’s quite arguable that, beyond a sheer devotion to entertainment and the collected history of modern horror, the movie really doesn’t demonstrate all that much. 

And yet the movie manages to be more fun and entertaining than any other theatrically released American horror movie in years. 

Lots of horror fans bitched that House had a generic slasher movie plot and a catalogue of 1970s cultural references so blatant that the movie plays more like a thesis project on Tobe Hooper than an original horror film. It’s true that many of Zombie’s plot points and visuals are culled directly from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its sequels. Though the film tries very hard to free its characters from the references’ context, it never quite manages to fully convince the viewers that it’s more homage than rehash, except during several moments, such as the bunny rabbit costumes and the climactic Dr. Satan scenes, which, though wholly original, are also completely bizarre and detrimental to the film’s overall cohesion.

Fortunately, even if many of the brass tacks formal elements don’t point to it, Zombie’s always self-conscious, often hilarious dialogue does its part to assure viewers that what they are watching is meant more as triumphant cultural reverie than as rote reiteration.
Even the campy Dr Wolfenstein opening should indicate to the audience that what they’re about to watch isn’t meant to evoke the sheer psychological terror of The Shining but, rather, the wink-nudging corn-syrup shrieks of a funhouse. And, just as a funhouse uses iconic representations if traditional horror to present a kind of comfortable fear that we can simultaneously laugh and shriek at, House uses genre tropes and filmmaking techniques as a way to present images of things that, while originally scary, are now part of the traditional American landscape of pop-cultural fears. In this sense, Zombie isn’t asking the audience to experience a new kind of fear but rather to celebrate the finer points of older kinds. In terms of the film’s self-conscious intra-genre referentiality, Zombie’s only shortcoming is his lack of subtlety (i.e. actually including a literal funhouse in the film).

In regard to the claims that the film is too campy, however, I strongly disagree on the grounds of not really knowing what the complaint “too campy” means. Zombie obviously set out to make a film that was overtly theatrical, often hilarious, and occasionally vaudevillian. That kind of camp is excess incarnate. If it comes off as way too campy, it’s doing its job well. I don’t want to over-beat the horsie, but I can’t help but reiterate: funhouse.

The “too violent” thing I don’t really want to get into at length. Yes, this film is very violent. But it’s a tribute to all the unrelenting gratuity of 1970s horror. The PG-13ification of horror has made us shudder at the merest gurgling knife wound. I’m not going to try to over-intellectualize this: violence in movies is fun and cool. If you don’t enjoy it, that’s fine. That’s your personal preference. But don’t use it as grounds by which to discount the quality or relevance of a movie. I don’t like blatant racism in films, but Temple of Doom kicks ass. 

Ultimately, is House of 1000 Corpses too cluttered and incoherent to be considered a worthy horror film? I don’t think so. It makes missteps. The whole story gets kind of dodgy towards the end. But the movie never loses steam, spirit, or it’s sense of fun. In an age of flaccid remakes and turgid-yet-vacuous “thrillers,” House of 1000 Corpses is a welcome breath of fresh air and a badly needed reminder of the ultimate purpose of horror films – entertainment.

Also, the editing is totally sick.

Written by Finley

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