House of 1000 Corpses

(Rob Zombie, USA, 2001)


A gormless, whimpering young man on his knees faces a crazy redneck wielding a gun at his head. The camera rises in a slow motion shot that seems to last forever. All sound disappears, the action freezes. Will the villain shoot or not? To discover the conclusion of this quite remarkable moment, you will need to see House of 1000 Corpses.

This deliberately trashy horror film by musician-writer-director Rob Zombie was made four years before it achieved a commercial release. Those who expect a raw, angry throwback to violent classics of the genre like The Last House on the Left (1972) or the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) will be sorely disappointed. But, in its own terms, it’s not bad.

Zombie comes from that corner of pop culture which sees horror essentially in terms of black humour and kitsch, laying motifs of innocence from the ’50s pop and rock’n’roll era over a procession of gory, obscene visions. Imagine an album by The Cramps come to life as a movie, and you will be in the right zone for this. The cast is largely unfamiliar, beyond a gruesome Karen Black hamming it up.

It is a film in which plot and characterisation count for very little – and the title merrily indicates its pitch of camp overstatement. Four young nerds from the city trail the backwoods looking for material for a book on freaky Americana. Their delight upon stumbling into Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) and his gross Museum of Monsters and Madmen quickly turns into fear as they investigate the local legend of Dr. Satan (Walter Phelan).

The horror genre, despite its much-vaunted renaissance during the first years of the new century, has been in a bad phase. Too many films have amped up their visual style without any attention whatsoever to the social resonances built into the standard story templates.

House of 1000 Corpses is no more meaningful than the last dozen horror films unveiled in our cinemas, but at least it knows its level and hits its mark.

© Adrian Martin March 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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