[Article] House of 1000 Corpses: A Gaudy, Messy Masterpiece

Rob Zombie’s classic HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is one of the most unique horror staples in recent cinematic history. The film has a notorious production history and was anything but well-received upon its initial release in April of 2003. Before finding its home at Lionsgate, it was rejected by Universal Studios, and MGM as well. So, how is it that sixteen years later Universal is giving the movie its own maze at Halloween Horror Nights? This is the same studio that previewed the film and decided to kick Zombie and his crew to the curb. It’s interesting what some time can do to a film’s reputation, and in this review, I’ll discuss the horror community’s collective journey to loving and appreciating this gem of a movie.

I have a distinct memory of seeing the trailer for the movie playing in the lobby of my childhood local theater, and even then I was both terrified and undeniably intrigued by the whole spectacle. I was much too young to see HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES in theaters, but my older brother bought the movie on DVD as soon as it was released, and I couldn’t wait to point my eyeballs at it. I’ll never forget the first time my brothers and I sat down and watched the movie together. As the opening credits rolled, my heart raced—I knew immediately I was watching something completely different. The opening sequence, which remains one of my all-time favorites in any horror film, sets the mood for what’s to come. A roadside tourist trap, owned and operated by a clown named Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig, The Devil’s Rejects), is being robbed by a couple of local thugs. 

Spaulding remains calm and even well-humored throughout the entire robbery. Tension mounts as the score pulses, you can sense the energy charging for something sinister. Suddenly, an ax-wielding maniac, donning a large mascot-like head mask bursts into the room. He cuts down one of the criminals as Spaulding disposes of the other with a gunshot to the head. The maniac removes his mask and laughs wickedly as Spaulding hovers over the dying criminal. He fires his gun multiple times into the camera before the frame goes to black. Then we hear Spaulding proclaim, “God damn motherfucker got blood all over my best clown suit.” And just like that, the world was acquainted with filmmaker Rob Zombie. It’s maybe my favorite introduction to a filmmaker ever. It’s funny, campy, twisted, weird, and it makes you feel uncomfortable for having watched it. Above all else, it’s unapologetically executed in a way only Zombie could. 

This gets us to the heart of why this film has endured and persevered to be eventually regarded as a classic. Everywhere you look in HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, you’ll find Rob Zombie’s soul. The movie is brimming with his touch and, regardless of what works or what doesn’t work, its undeniably his singular vision. Even though he clearly takes notes from the likes of Tobe Hooper and early Wes Craven, Zombie integrates a look and feel reminiscent of his own music videos that ultimately makes the movie stand out in its own right. Knock-out performances from a stellar cast and the dirty guitar-heavy score help flesh out Zombie’s monster creation. It’s not without its flaws, but those too play a role in developing the film’s identity. And yet, in all its successes and failures, in all its messy, stylized glory, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES has gone on to become a modern horror classic that introduced the world to a talented, yet polarizing new voice in genre cinema. 

In terms of plot, the film borrows from the tried-and-true blueprint spread out by early horror films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left. A group of sinful youths set out on a road trip taking them to tourist traps across America when they happen upon Captain Spaulding’s Fried Chicken and Gasoline. Their ultimate goal is to write a book about unique and strange roadside attractions. They ride the adjacent murder ride, which features a nightmarish funhouse of decrepit animatronics inspired by famous serial killers. After the ride Spaulding spins them a ghastly yarn of a local monstrosity called Dr. Satan. Spurred on by the story, the youths set off to find historical sites connected to the murderer. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker named Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie, The Devil’s Rejects), who of course turns out to be crazy and “in on it.”

From there, the film launches you on a roller coaster ride of guts, gore, and some of the most garish visuals your eyes will ever see. Through these bold stylistic choices, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES shines. Zombie’s debut presents a filmmaker still learning the process, and the movie benefits greatly from it. The actors are given plenty of room to flesh out their characters, and career-defining performances are given by genre veterans such as Bill Moseley (The Devil’s Rejects). This film takes risks in a way that Zombie’s following films would not and in result has a playful energy that few movies have replicated. 

I’ll admit, the first time I watched HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, I couldn’t decide if I loved or hated it. This was likely the general reaction from most audiences who saw the movie around the time of its release. I know now that this reaction usually follows viewing something that’s entirely original and fresh. I responded the way I did because I couldn’t fully comprehend what the fuck I had just watched. This is maybe my favorite feeling to have following a horror movie. I’ve always told people that HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is the film equivalent of vomit; it’s gross, violent, acidic, multi-colored, and leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I mean this as a compliment, of course, as films rarely elicit such a guttural reaction. This speaks volumes about how ahead of his time Zombie was, especially given that the film still feels as gnarly and disgusting today as it did during its release. Beyond instilling the film with fiendish visuals, Zombie also injected it with his own brand of humor and camp. A large part of why the movie works at all is because it never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. Though I’d hesitate to call the film a horror-comedy, it feels self-aware of its own absurdity and leans into the laughs at all the right moments.

HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES also remains the most colorful of Rob Zombie’s films, taking inspiration from the giallo films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. One reason I’ve failed to connect with The Devil’s Rejects in the same way I’ve connected with CORPSES is the difference in the color palette used between the films. CORPSES feels like it was shot by a carnie from Hell. The world of the notorious Firefly family is riddled with vivid sideshow aesthetic and gaudy detail. This creates a wonderful contrast from the bleak, beige daytime scenes, which feel completely grounded and subdued in comparison. It feels as if Zombie unleashed decades of pent-up creative inspiration into one film—a feeling he struggles to evoke in his following movies (in my humble opinion).

Through HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, we begin to see Zombie’s creative genetics – shades of classic vaudeville, Coney Island, rickety funhouses, vintage game shows, rock and roll. The best films allow us to step inside the mind and soul of its filmmaker. The best films aren’t always the ones with the best writing, acting, or directing. Sometimes, the best films are the ones with the most heart. I could care less about quality. I all honesty, just give me heart! I want a film to have a soul that transcends the story and all its participants. I want a story I’ll remember because I had never seen anything else quite like it. CORPSES checks all of those boxes for me and continues to with each viewing. I’ve read recently that Zombie himself struggles to look back fondly on the film, due largely to the rough-and-tumble experience of making it, and the negative reception that followed its release. That bums me out to learn, and I hope maybe by some extraordinary chance he’ll happen upon this review and gain a better understanding of how and why people have come to love this movie.

Art that is ahead of its time usually puzzles and confounds only to find its footing with time. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES continues to age like a fine wine or, in this particular instance, like fine fried chicken and gasoline.

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