Beyond the Slimy Wall: House of 1000 Corpses
By Stephanie Star Smith
July 8, 2004
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
House of 1000 Corpses
In the uncertain world of horror films, veteran fans develop over time some guidelines to help them wade through the mounds of waste-of-celluloid dross to find the few bits of gold. After viewing House of 1000 Corpses, I have added a new rule to my list: Any controversy about graphic images in a horror film is in direct inverse proportion to the actual scare factor of said film.
It's not like Rob Zombie's maiden effort is the first such film not to live up to its hype. For years, I heard people talk about how frightening Last House on the Left was. Even the VHS cover proclaimed it the most frightening film ever made (a cover which led to my creating the Rule Against Excessive Use of Exclamation Points). After finally renting it, however, I discovered that it not only wasn't scary, but it was deadly dull and boring. I didn't even make it to the end. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn't fare much better; you'd think a film based, however loosely, on an actual serial killer would pack quite the visceral punch. Alas, outside of a marginally-interesting character in Leatherface, and the sight of a human getting hung up on a meat hook, the film was one long snore. I managed to avoid suffering through The Blair Witch Project when a fellow horror aficionado whose opinion I value told me it was one of the biggest snooze-fests she'd ever seen. But still I soldiered on, thinking that perhaps, given the fact that the original distributor dropped the film when Zombie wouldn’t make the requested cuts, this time would be different.
Some people never learn.
To put it bluntly, watching this exercise in tedium is 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back. I should have realized I was in some serious trouble when the title sequence started with graphics right out of Magical Mystery Tour. Perhaps that was a cue that the film is more enjoyable if the viewer is stoned, I don't know. Unfortunately for me, I was stone-cold sober at the time, and thus proceeded to be bored to tears for the next hour-and-a-half.
What went wrong? Oh, let me count the ways. For one thing, it didn't help that the film suffers from what Roger Ebert calls the Idiot Plotline: If any of the characters acted like they had half-a-brain, the film would be about five minutes long. My horror corollary to that is that some day, Hollywood is going to run out of people who've never, ever seen a horror film in their entire lives to cast in these films, so that once they hear reports of an escaped maniac or mad-dog killer and the very first mysterious thing happens, they'll all gather in one room in the middle of the house, turn on all the lights, barricade all the doors and windows, and stay put until sunrise. That version would triple Ebert's Idiot Plotline running time, but have the same result.
Another problem can be laid at the feet of a first-time director, and one that unfortunately believes he's already an auteur. The maiden-effort mistakes just abound in this film. I'm not sure when, if ever, the negative-effect shot was considered avant-garde, but I am absolutely certain that it's been many, many years since that time, rendering it horribly clichéd. And just a little clue to Zombie about building suspense: if you do blipverts throughout the course of the film that not only show who are the butchers and who are the lambs being led to slaughter, but also preview some of the bloody acts in store, it tends to bleed all the tension out of the plot. Having the lambs overreact to everything doesn't increase the apprehension level, either. Yeah, fine; it's the proverbial dark and stormy night and you've got a flat and no spare out in the middle of nowhere on your way to view some legendary haunted place, and the chick you just picked up hitchhiking has proven she's not a poster child for mental health. But for the love of Heaven, when you know she's gone to fetch her brother and his tow truck and someone appears out of the dark who is clearly a human being who is clearly hooking your car up to a tow truck, screaming like banshees is just pathetic. Even the gotcha moments didn't produce so much as a slight start; they were telegraphed so far in advance, and were the product of such incredibly brain-dead behavior on the part of the lambs that I was pretty much rooting for the butchers to hurry up and put us all out of our misery.
Of course, part of the problem lies in the fact that the slasher flick has been done and done, and it's damned hard to do anything new with it. After all, there are only so many ways to kill a human being, and most of them were covered in the first three Friday the 13th films, so you've either got to come up with some interesting take on the proceedings or move into tongue-in-cheek territory, as the Scream franchise did. Simply recycling shots and plot points from every other well-known slasher film that has ever been made just ain't a-goin' to get the job done, son. Unless, of course, you're playing to that aforementioned group that Hollywood continues to cast in their horror films who've never, ever seen a spook movie in their entire lives, in which case you really need that as a disclaimer somewhere so that those of us who have two brain cells to rub together can give the flick a wide berth.
About the best thing I can say for this piece of tripe is that there is a tiny glint of humor to be gleaned from watching dastardly deeds being done by characters named after Groucho Marx characters, even if you have to stretch the convention in order to make it work for your dynamic.
Oh, wait; there is one more good thing: at least now I don't have to sit through the upcoming sequel.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.