How is it possible not to like a horror flick that boasts characters named after those in Marx Brothers movies? How can someone who grew up on late-night horror double-features not be drawn to a movie that starts with a snowy image on a TV screen of Boris Karloff in James Whale’s The Old Dark House intercut with a cheesy horror-show host called Dr. Wolfenstein (Gregg Gibbs)?
Oh, all right, so House of 1000 Corpses is set in 1977 and the once-lost Old Dark House wasn’t shown on television till quite a few years later. And that kind of unfocused carelessness is exactly the reason it’s possible not to much like House of 1000 Corpses — and the reason that hard-rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie is just a fan who’s made a film and is not actually a filmmaker.
Granted, I don’t know all that much about Mr. Zombie and I have little interest in his music (his songs in Corpses didn’t change that). I know him primarily as a horror-movie fan who, I’m told, reads some of the genre magazines I’ve written for, which makes it not surprising to find assorted clips from The Old Dark House and The Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein in his movie. And I’m the last person to kvetch at seeing — however briefly — Bela Lugosi, Fay Helm, Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart on a screen in a multiplex. (Their presence in the film, in fact, is far more subversive — at least as concerns Zombie’s target audience — than any of Corpses’ excesses.) Unfortunately, these clips are housed in a pretty unpleasant movie that’s all over the map stylistically.
Oh, yes, Mr. Zombie is very clever to insert Melvyn Douglas postulating about the real Old Dark House: “Wouldn’t it be dramatic — supposing the people inside were dead — all stretched out with the lights quietly burning about them?” as a comment on the contents of his own Old Dark House, but where does he go with it? Not much of anywhere. Corpses — depending on where you are in it — is a lot like an art film, a porno loop, a gross-out horror movie, and a music video. But none of these elements — intriguing though some of them are individually — ever turn into a single coherent idea.
Mr. Z. may love the old movies, but he’s mostly remonkeyed some hybrid of a trio of Tobe Hooper movies (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Eaten Alive and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) with weird echoes of Dan Aykroyd’s misbegotten sole directing effort, Nothing But Trouble. Sadly, the rocker/director comes closest to Aykroyd’s clunker.
Zombie has a good grasp of the shock effect, but he seems to have completely confused the merely repellent with the scary – or, for that matter, the funny. The Hooper films’ graphic excesses were acceptable because they were part of a larger, satirical picture (Chainsaw 2 in particular was a vicious satire on the Reagan ’80s masquerading as a gory horror flick). Zombie doesn’t get this at all, dwelling lovingly on images of brutality for no apparent reason beyond the “shock value” of seeing, for instance, someone drag a joke-shop trick razor over skin, leaving behind a line of blood across a screaming actor’s face. Yeah, it’s repellent, but it’s also a big “So what?”
The really sad thing about all this is that Corpses promises — in its first 20 minutes — to be a much better movie than it finally is. The whole setup with a gas station/curio museum/murder ride/fried-chicken emporium run by Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, Jackie Brown) at least skirts something like cheesy brilliance. It’s certainly similar to Neville Brand’s enterprise in Hooper’s Eaten Alive, but it takes the idea to new heights of over-the-top absurdity. The “murder ride” itself is great — possibly the best tribute to a bottom-of-the-barrel spook house ever committed to film. It’s also perhaps the key to Zombie’s approach to horror, which isn’t a whole lot more than having something pop out and go, “Boo!” Indeed, the first “real” shock of the film itself mimics the murder ride’s tendency to have some nasty or other jump out at the spectator.
Taken on this level, Corpses is a bit more palatable as low-rent nonsense. There are good things in it (the opening, a handful of strikingly disturbing images, a nearly brilliant use of delayed shock, and so on), though these choice bits just don’t lead to anything. The ending is especially lame, never offering much in the way of a payoff for our trouble.
Some of the acting is agreeably broad. Hooray for Haig, who really gets into the spirit of the thing. And while Chainsaw 2′s Bill Moseley may not top his Hooper performance, he certainly gives it a try. On the other hand, Karen Black is just embarrassing as Mother Firefly (it would have been a real hoot had Zombie cast the part with someone playing it as a Margaret Dumont-like society matron), while the director’s real-life wife, Sheri Moon, transcends mere amateurishness to become one of the most singularly irritating screen presences ever to not hit the cutting room floor. And what Michael J. Pollard is even doing in this is something I simply refuse to dwell on.
I suppose the real question is whether the movie lives up to its advance notoriety. Produced for Universal and then dropped supposedly because it was too horrific, then picked up by MGM for maybe 15 minutes before they decided against it, and finally getting released through Lion’s Gate, there was much speculation as to whether it really was that horrific or simply that horrible. The 88-minute version playing now is closer to being simply that horrible, but the fact that the version screened at festivals was 105 minutes suggests there may have been some truth to the other claim (and likely bodes the release of an unrated DVD).
As it stands, Corpses is strictly for horror completists, Zombie-philes and connoisseurs of the cinematic equivalent of two-headed cows. That said, it’s impossible not to admire on some level any movie with a soundtrack that includes Helen Kane singing “I Wanna Be Loved by You” and Slim Whitman yodeling “I Remember You!” (And, no, I didn’t keep a running total on whether or not there really are the promised 1,000 stiffs.)