An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · April 14, 2019, 8:17 PM EDT
House of 1000 Corpses.jpg
HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003)

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on April 14, 2003, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

I’m reviewing Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses a bit late for two reasons: 1) There were no advance screenings held in New York, as Lions Gate figured quite reasonably that mainstream critics wouldn’t get it; and 2) Not only did I want to catch it with a regular audience for the full experience, but sometimes a situation like this arises where I want to support the film with my box-office bucks. And House of 1000 Corpses deserves it; while it’s not going to alter the course of horror cinema as we know it, it delivers exactly what it promises: a balls-out tribute to the genre classics of the ’70s that pushes the R rating to the limit and provides a welcome showcase for a gallery of cool character actors.

And let me not go any further without singing the praises of Sid Haig, who earns his top billing in every respect. A veteran of countless Corman films who last graced the big screen in a Jackie Brown cameo, Haig proves himself ready for a career resurgence here. Playing the sarcastic, clown-faced Captain Spaulding, owner of Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen, Haig tears into the role and Zombie’s foul-mouthed dialogue with relish, and his opening scene with Michael J. Pollard and a couple of hapless robbers sets a hilariously high bar of outrageousness. The tone gets more serious after this curtain-raiser, but it serves notice that this is not going to be your typical pop-culture-homage-strewn youth-horror film. (OK, there are a couple of pop-culture references on view, but if there ever is a Scream 4, you’re not likely to see a June Wilkinson nudie shot in it.)

What follows will be familiar to anyone who knows and loves The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes et al.: A quartet of young people researching odd roadside attractions stop in at Captain Spaulding’s, and once they hear about the legend of a local killer called Dr. Satan, they ill-advisedly go off in search of the tree where he was supposedly hanged. We know, even if they don’t, that this is an exceedingly bad idea, and soon enough they wind up in the clutches of the demented Firefly family, who have just about finished with the quintet of local cheerleaders they’ve kidnapped and are anxious for some fresh blood. Meanwhile, the former-cop father of one of the girls (a more obscure and perhaps unintended homage, to John Russo’s Midnight) spurs a police investigation into his daughter and her friends’ disappearance…

And, of course, things don’t end well for too many of them. Despite the MPAA-mandated trims, House of 1000 Corpses sports plenty of the flowing red stuff, but it gets its real juice from its villainous/oddball players. Beyond Haig, Bill Moseley gets his freak on to full effect as Otis Firefly and Karen Black has her best genre role in years as the family matriarch; Sheri Moon, Zombie’s real-life girlfriend and an acting newcomer, oozes sexuality (you’re a lucky man, Rob) and childish menace as Baby. Zombie clearly loves these characters and indulges their ghoulishness while keeping the performances on the right side of over-the-top. In fact, he loves them so much that their victims almost become superfluous; the four terrorized kids, while credibly played, recede into the background during House’s midsection, and without their audience identification, the tension isn’t as strong as it might have been.

Once the subplot with the cops has played out, however (climaxing with a very impressive long and totally silent shot), House really gets down and dirty, and the final third is one long and frighteningly sustained nightmare in which we find out just who will survive and what will be left of them. Unlike many recent directors with music-video backgrounds (including, for handy example, Bulletproof Monk’s Paul Hunter, who on evidence of that movie should never be allowed near a feature film again), Zombie knows that sustaining 90 minutes of story demands a different discipline from rocking them for the duration of a song. He uses plenty of visual tricks (negative images, flash cuts, processed video footage) but does so in short bursts to build an off-kilter mood and gives the movie an overall pace of mounting dread.

He gets immeasurable assist from production designer Gregg Gibbs and makeup FX creator Wayne Toth, whose work is sometimes spectacularly gruesome without calling undue attention to itself, and the gritty images provided by cinematographers Tom Richmond and Alex Poppas. The movie not only walks and talks like a ’70s exploitationer, it looks like one too in all the right ways. Watching House of 1000 Corpses, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in a Times Square grindhouse, and despite what certain New York politicians seem to think, that’s an experience we need more of these days.