Corpses

House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

First published by Movie Gazette

It’s the night before Halloween, somewhere in the South, and some local cheerleaders have gone missing. Four teenagers in search of material for a book on offroad sideshow attractions stop at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madness, where Captain Spaulding himself (Sid Haig), dressed as a clown, tips them off that the legendary madman ‘Dr Satan’ was hanged nearby. The four then pick up a hitchhiker (Sheri Moon) in the pouring rain who says that the ‘hanging tree’ is next to where she lives. When a shadowy figure, seen by us but not by them, shoots their tyre, the hitchhiker invites them to come stay at her house while her brother repairs their car. Soon the foursome meet the freakish inhabitants of the house, and find themselves contributing to the ‘simple pleasures of Halloween’ in ways they could never have imagined.

Rob Zombie was previously best known as lead vocalist for the goth metal band White Zombie, but his debut film House of 1000 Corpses also establishes him as one of the most promising writer/directors working in horror today. His thorough understanding of the genre ensures that fright fans will be kept on their toes by plenty of knowing allusions to other horror films, but the two principal points of reference here are the oddball camp of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the claustrophobic terror of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

House of 1000 Corpses is knee-thumpingly funny, full of the smartest, most irreverent dialogue (and T-shirt logos) to have graced the screen in a long time. At first the humour keeps undermining the scares, making it unclear whether this is supposed to be a horror film at all, so that when the real terror starts, the viewer is made to feel as disoriented as the protagonist Denise (Erin Daniels) – an effect which is greatly aided by the director’s jarring use of jumpcuts to samples from old movies, or to previously unseen characters raving to camera about hellfire and suchlike. From here on in, House of 1000 Corpses becomes an unremitting onslaught on the senses, as Denise has all her last hopes stripped away one by one, and, dressed up variously as a schoolgirl (with dunce cap), a rabbit, and Alice in Wonderland, she enters an inverted world, straight out of Marilyn Manson’s worst ever nightmare, from which there can be no escape.

The viewer’s sense of labyrinthine, paranoid entrapment is only increased by the fact that the whole story is introduced in black-and-white by one ‘Dr Wolfenstein’ (Gregg Gibbs) as part of his ‘Creature Feature Show’, even though the story itself is in colour and in it Dr Wolfenstein’s show can frequently be seen on TV sets in the background. Indeed, like all the best horror films from the 1970s (when this one is explicitly set), House of 1000 Corpses plays like one hell of a bad trip, and will leave your psyche feeling traumatised, fragile and exposed, while still tickling your funny bone. I can think of no higher recommendation.

© Anton Bitel