“This Blood is Forever” – 10 Years of House of 1000 Corpses
By Kit Rathenar
It’s amazing what ten years can do. Everyone knows Rob Zombie the movie director by now. While his cinematic career hasn’t been hugely prolific by some standards, he’s got several notable titles under his belt – including the remake of Halloween – and whatever critical opinion may say of his movies, nobody would dream, today, of questioning his place in horror cinema history. He’s there, and everyone’s cool with that. Any horror buff can tell you who Rob Zombie is. Yeah, House of 1000 Corpses was his first movie…
Stop right there. Back the truck up. House of 1000 Corpses was… Rob Zombie’s first movie. Let me take you back with me to 2003; where to me and my friends at the time, that simple statement meant the world. We were a bunch of metalheads in our early twenties who’d come through our student days to the strains of songs like “Dragula”, “Superbeast”, and “Living Dead Girl” – huge, thundering industrial-metal anthems, all gravel and gasoline and blood on chrome. The rest of the world didn’t give a damn about Rob Zombie back then, but we knew who he was. A peerless showman and performer, the carnival barker of the devil’s own sideshow with a voice that could peel your skin back and a gift for tapping into the currents of classic American horror on a level so deep that even us Brits felt like we got it. Rob Zombie KNEW America’s twisted, mythic heart, and he knew his vintage horror and video nasties like few others. He took the fear of a kid who knew the boogeyman was real, braided it with the excitement of a teenager watching their first classic slasher or Universal Studios original, spiced them with a touch of grindhouse grime and strip-joint sparkle, and gave us the results as songs that went in through our ears and down our spines without ever seeming to touch our brains. He was the metal scene’s version of that one uncle you were kinda scared of but always went to his house on Hallowe’en anyway, because he had the best decorations and the most candy of anyone in the neighbourhood. Rob Zombie was THAT guy.
So when the word got round that our Uncle Rob had been allowed to make a full-length movie? You can imagine how excited we were. We knew what this man was capable of. We’d seen his stage shows, his videos, the pop-culture nightmares in his liner notes; we’d heard his songs, we knew how his mind worked. The idea of this diabolic genius being let loose in a movie studio was enough to make us damn near cream ourselves. And most of all, this was something of OURS; something from our own rejected, despised, outsider subculture that seemed to spend most of its time being blamed for murders and suicides, getting loose in the (comparative, anyway) mainstream. It’s worth remembering at this point that House of 1000 Corpses had already been put on the shelf once in 2000 by Universal Pictures, who were afraid it would receive an NC-17 rating; Rob Zombie had to buy the rights himself and reshoot bits of it to give us the film that, in 2003, we finally got. I was and am very grateful that this film didn’t get watered down for Universal’s sensibilities, and the critical panning that it got at the time didn’t trouble or deter me or anyone else I knew. We weren’t expecting anything that came from our corner of the world to be embraced with open arms by the mainstream. We were metal fans. We already knew how it felt to be sideshow freaks.
And that, right there, is what gives House of 1000 Corpses its unique magic. It’s B-movie horror made BY a B-movie monster. Rob Zombie starts from the classic narrative of a redneck-killers, backwoods-horror, Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre style staple but his sympathies are with his villains from the start, and he turns the deranged killers of the Firefly clan into three-dimensional individuals with concerns, emotions and quirks all their own. Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding is a grumpy but magnificent old badass with lot more smarts than anyone would expect of a man who runs a gas station while dressed as a clown. Bill Moseley’s Otis is a genius, an artist, and a psychopath – someone you really wouldn’t want to meet on a deserted highway, but he’s got a fearsome charm and a smile that’s given plenty of otherwise sensible women some very strange ideas. Sheri Moon’s Baby is aggravating yet adorable; two-thirds space cadet, one-third damaged doll, selfish, sadistic and vicious and yet also just an overgrown little girl who loves her mom. I really don’t understand why people find fault with Moon’s acting so often, because her performance here is pitch-perfect in my eyes. Meanwhile Karen Black’s Ma Firefly is every inch the perfect mother and lady of the house, kind to her children, welcoming to guests, loving and protective – the fact that her devoted family are murdering maniacs and the guests are destined for oblivion is beside the point. Their logic may be warped, their ideas of fun perverse, and their appetites murderous, but they are never cardboard cutout psychos. Indeed, the role of cardboard cutouts is instead – quite deliberately, I think – left to the four victims whose only job is to give the real (anti)heroes something to chew. Bill, Jerry, Denise and Mary are little more than cliched ciphers, with no futures and little past worth bringing up. The villains are the real characters with the real ongoing lives, even if they are cartoonishly over the top; more human than human, you might say, to borrow a phrase.
But then again, the whole of this film is larger than life, scripted in strict accordance with the Rule of Cool and shot through a lens of greasy psychedelia to capture that kid-in-a-carnival-funhouse sense that this is a world where anything can happen and probably will. Indeed, one thing that I hoped for from House of 1000 Corpses when I first saw it was a film where everything really would happen; one that would make good on the nameless, titillating promises on which so much horror of previous eras didn’t deliver. I was raised on HP Lovecraft, I know how easy it is to create horror by simply declaring the true heart of the abomination to be “unspeakable” and shunting it off-camera, and I’m fond of that technique even if it has been abused beyond all reason by a great many no-budget movies. I’m quite happy to accept that it’s my job as reader or viewer to make up the truly eye-popping details that an author or director is forced to skip over for the sake of good taste, moral responsibility, or FX limitations – indeed, many films that do try to speak of the unspeakable find that they simply can’t live up to the shapeless evocations that are already in the audience’s heads. But if one man could make a movie that would whip back the curtain and show us a horror that would actually justify all the anticipatory chills and excitement? I had faith, back then in 2003, that Rob Zombie was that man.
And indeed if he failed, from my point of view it’s only because he created something both so mind-warpingly gorgeous and so comfortingly familiar to me that it almost wasn’t horrible at all. From that first moment when the camera pulled back to show the signboards for “Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen; Fried Chicken and Gasoline”, I felt at home in House of 1000 Corpses’ mad little world and that feeling has never left me. Shot like a music video, exaggerated to comic-book scale, this was a film that spoke my visual and emotional language perfectly and this is why I loved it then and love it now.
I love it too because for all that it is, yes, brutally and grotesquely gory in places, the gore is a servant to the story, not its master. It feels like we see more footage of the Firefly clan messing around, goofing off and playing mindgames with their prey than we do of anyone actually dying or being hurt. I’m not upset or shocked by the violence in House of 1000 Corpses because I don’t think Rob Zombie is either; he directs the bloodshed as though it’s a simple function of the narrative and characters, an intrinsic element of the universe he’s portraying rather than a deliberate eyepoke of “watch this, isn’t it horrible, aren’t we edgy, are you feeling sick yet?” The camera spends longer and lingers more appreciatively on Baby doing a song and dance number than it does on anyone getting tortured; although speaking of lingering cameras, you can’t talk about House of 1000 Corpses without tipping the hat to that legendary world’s-longest-pause before Otis puts a bullet through Deputy Naish’s head. As an ultimate moment of stillness and silence in a film that’s otherwise a constant barrage of colour and noise, it’s the perfect device to make a single, simple bullet feel like the end of the world. It’s a solitary little touch of manifest creative discipline that says “I could’ve made a whole film like this. I CHOSE not to.” And I love that.
I don’t care that House of 1000 Corpses is cartoonish, unrealistic and utterly implausible. I’ve seen enough “realistic”, “gritty” horror to last me a lifetime. I love it because it’s a carnival madhouse of a film whose director wasn’t afraid to fill it to the brim willy-nilly with everything that he loved and knew his pre-existing fans shared his love for, instead of sacrificing his roots to try and crack a new market. When it came out, House of 1000 Corpses was called too violent, too disgusting, too sick. Ten years after the fact, we’re buried in movies that offer us far more unpleasantness for far less character, fun, or charisma. By contrast to currently prevailing trends this movie feels less like a visit to the slaughterhouse and more like walking into the noise and light and warmth of a party filled with familiar, friendly faces. Okay, so some of those faces are wearing man-skin masks and you don’t even want to know what’s in the punch, but even knowing the hazards, it still feels like home. This is the House, come on in…