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Tension In Dead Wood: A Review of Rob Zombie's "House of 1,000 Corpses"
"A place where life and death are meaningless and pain is God."
The first thing that should be noted is Rob Zombie's post-Gus Van Sant/post-Jodorowsky non sequitur moments. Perhaps the best and most quintessential scene to implement this tool is the one that comes in the second act of the film. Otis (Bill Moseley of Texas Chainsaw Massacre II fame), the sadistic "revolutionary" villain, is standing over a deputy with a gun and the camera captures it all from a high-angle (distant) shot that defies description.
The suspenseful music and tongue-in-cheek slow-mo images of concerned father and sheriff gettin' snuffed to upbeat oldies selections segues into this high-angle beast! All music is sucked away violently and suddenly like in David Lynch's better work, and the audience is left in waiting for a good 20-30 seconds as Otis holds the gun to the deputy's skull from far below...When the final surprise hits us, all we do is chuckle heartily in relief.
It is confirmed: Zombie has reserved his new place among such visionaries and kooks as Jim Jarmusch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Dennis Hopper, Clive Barker, Terry Gilliam, Kenneth Anger and Stan Brackage.
But let's flashback to the beginning of the macabre blockbuster...TERROR! THRILLS! HORRORS! The words flash across the screen more satisfyingly than the color-saturated Oompa Loompa sing-a-long sequence in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Doctor Wolfenstein, a retro-50's creature theater host comes on with his classic drama queen of the cemetery shtick and tells us, "I will be with you until the end." These words seemed reassuring at the time.
We have arrived at Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters & Madmen, an esoteric roadside attraction somewhere out in Bumblefuck, No Man's Land. Just as the wily Spaulding, bedecked in grease paint and floppy shoes (not to mention the seemingly ubiquitous tooth decay), is being stuck up by two inept robbers who, as you might have guessed, meet a tragic fate...But not before the Good Captain gets to rattle off a series of Fuck Yo Family Members! insults and other hysterical epithets. We've seen our first blood.
You have entered Thunderpiss '77, the cinematic equivalent of Hunter Thompson's weird, ether-tinged Red Shark barreling through Barstow, or Natural Born Killers' desert tableau. Badlands. Not to be fucked with! You coon shit! You fudgepacker! Get with the program, Grandpa! America---Love it or we'll fucking kill you!
Gummo-esque opening credits sequence follows, much to my jubilation, as Rob Zombie belts out in the titular movie song...cut the flesh and make it bleed...a very foreboding overture to a tale of terror and trauma. As the credits slow to a halt and the grind comes to a respite, the early dialogue of a grease monkey reverberates in my head. "Planet of the Apes doll stuck up his asshole!"
"And out of the darkness, the Zombie did crawl.
True pain and suffering he brought to them all.
Away were the children to hide in their beds,
For fear that the Devil would chop off their heads..."
from 'Hellbilly Deluxe'
Before I go into any rants, giving away any major spoilers that will no doubt ostracize me from the true fanboys, I think I will refer to an e-mail that I sent to my editor after going to the House of 1,000 Corpses screening at the ultra-modern and friendly Farmingdale Multiplex Theater.
"The movie was unlike anything else I've seen of late. And I can see why. Zombie is a motherfuckin' visionary man! & he is 1 savvy sonovabitch. He gives us retro-50's creature theater hosts, Ed Wood/exploitatian-style female dance psychedelia, Jodorowsky-esque visuals and a general sense of unease.
Jarring images, kick-ass music blending the best in System of a Down-style tribal harmonics and Zombie's trademark monster rock, and an uncanny, tension-drenched ultra-violence. This movie has all that and much more! Perhaps bordering on low-rent nihilism or the evil aspects of voodoo and shell-shocked savagery, House drags us through the grueling experience with the characters."
That's what I said. And I meant every goddamn word of it, you yellow-bellied Yuppie swine!
Now, let it be said that nothing about House of 1,000 Corpse's plot is particularly original or innovative. The plot, mind you! Other elements are very fresh and sparkly. But, yeah, so the plot is average and maybe even cliché at this point. Everything from its plot to its Mother's Day-esque conclusion is what a less open-minded critic would call derivative. But what exalts the movie from the rest of the revisionist slasher films is its style, wit and seemingly brilliant juxtapositions of cult film stereotypes and Gothic horror mythology. The combination of sub-genres alone (gore/exploitation/black comedy/mock-snuff film/avant garde) is worth the price of your ticket...even though I didn't have to pay for mine. (I finally feel like a vindicated journalist!)
For the die hard horror aficionado, Zombie's House will delight with a series of interminable homages to films as diverse and bizarre as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ed Wood's Orgy of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, The Evil Dead, The Serpent & The Rainbow and Last House on the Left. For those Zombie fans who thought Rob as a Clockwork Orange "droog" in the music video for Dragula was the best in-jokey tribute to be expected, there is in House a myriad of Texas Chainsaw Massacre references (most prominent being Otis' "bitch hog!" remark, and "Don't just stand there like some prize dog dick!")
From here on in, I'd buckle your seat belts, a**holes! Cuz it's only gettin' weirder.
...GOD IS DEAD sign on side of van like Greek Chorus symbolism (an ode to Hitchhiker's blood on side of truck in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, perhaps) foreshadowing what will happen to the 4 arrogant, queer little s.o.b.s who wander into Captain Spaulding's one night while on a road trip cross-country to research a book on roadside attractions...Blurry memories of scene with Otis feeding a dog. How anachronistic, I must say, in retrospect...Otis is a leader of the Rebellion, by his own proclamation. He looks like a sociopathic reincarnation of some mutant hillbilly-Ozzy Osbourne hybrid with hideously discolored teeth & chancred skin. He prances around a room full of bound and gagged cheerleaders with fury in his eyes and a sick look on his pale face. His long white/blond hair hangs in coiled craziness around his gargoyle-like shoulders.
After insisting that Captain Spaulding give them a map to Dead Wood, an infamous place where the legend of Dr. Satan has been spotted in the past, the foursome of "disposable teens" stop to pick up a sexy blonde hitchhiker (played by Sheri Moon) in the middle of a slight rainstorm. The girl, who is, very clearly, Living Dead Girl-meets-Barbarella-meets-Ellie May (of The Beverly Hillbillies), volunteers to show the horny guys and their prudish girlfriends the place where Dr. Satan once played since it is, coincidentally, right near her house.
On the way, they get their tire blown out, unbeknownst to them, by the shotgun blast fired by a deerskin-covered catatonic madman. So the girl, named Baby, takes the capricious and stupid young people back to her house where her sleazy, green-fanged Mother Firefly (Karen Black) seduces Jerry (Chris Hardwick, who will be seen next in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) while his girlfriend stares at her with contempt.
Shortly thereafter, the kids realize that their hosts, or rather, their captors have no phone. They are invited to a dinner and they accept. Hereupon, Otis walks into the room, carrying a fetus in a jar. Mother Firefly greets him with reverence, commenting about how she didn't think he would come to the table. She accepts the fetus as a beautiful offering, a great gesture.
From here on out, Otis runs the show, correcting the teens sharply with his caustic words and freaking them out more than they even know. "You gotta demon stickin' out yer ass!" he screams at some point. And it all goes to shit when they try to leave after one of the girls trounces Baby in a jealous PMS rage.
They try to leave, but the boss just ain't havin' it. The gate is locked and the usually obnoxious and sharp-tongued Bill (Rainn Wilson of TV's Six Feet Under) has to get out to open it. Only one problem, the scarecrows hanging from nooses on trees seem to be swayin' in the breeeeeeze. And it's just about then that Ole Otis jumps down from the tree in a fucked up H.R. PuffnStuff-type mask, knocking the bejesus out of Bill, Jerry and the Girls with a lead pipe and breaking their windshield.
From here on in, the real insanity and fun begins. But wait! Did I leave something out? Oh, yeah! Grandpa Hugo (Dennis Fimble, better known to the world as Dr. Screwloose from TV's short-lived Captain Jackson) performing lewd stand-up for the four teens in the parlor before girlfriend # 1's hissy fit. "It's Showtime!" Kaleidoscopic images whirling around and an old white man getting naughtier than Red Foxx. Okay, there! I said it! Moving on...
I am momentarily distracted from the movie by some man leaning into a relative's grill in a seat behind me and saying, "She had to wear a chest harness." Well, good Lord! I never!
Split screen madness ensues!!! Argento and Jodorowsky influence kicks in with force as the spookiness mounts and the ultra-violence grows in fierce rivulets of blood and almost comical oddball imagery (the deceased Bill's mangled, contorted cadaver). It was then that I realized that House is one of those movies and, moreover, one of those movies that people can come to expect from distributor Lion's Gate Films. Ya see, this movie takes you to the very edge of grotesque and truculent back to twisted, almost cartoonish humor in the blink of an eye. Take, for example, Tiny The Freak Boy bringing a box of Agatha Crispies cereal to kidnapee Mary (Jennifer Lostyn), one of the two girls and also the chick that has, it seems, been voted Jamie Lee Curtis of the Movie by virtue of her good looks and endurance.
I don't want to give away anymore key scenes or anything so, for brevity's sake, I will try to wrap this one up and put it in the ice box (like in Texas Chainsaw Massacre). But let me say this: House of 1,000 Corpses is as close to the Grand Guignol Theatre as cinema has ever gotten. And Zombie's Pink Floyd reference ("Run, rabbit, run!") during a crucial escape sequence was pure gold! And no critic should overlook the craftsmanship here from all involved.
Not only has Bill Moseley achieved a dramatic performance that reaches far beyond his loveably psychotic, almost cartoonish portrayal of Choptop in Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (visit: www.choptopsbbq.com), but the production design rivals that of all its cannibalistic predecessors (see also: Ed Gein, Deranged, Delicatessen, Ravenous and Bad Taste). Bones and feathers ala TCM and a floor covered in blood and paint like some psychotic Pollock painting are but a few of the stylistic nuances of the film's look.
Zombie uses practically every visual and technical trick in the book with this movie, employing the aid of a gifted shakicam operator for some key sequences (ala Blair Witch Project, Evil Dead and Woody Allen) while utilizing everything from slow-mo to psychedelia. There's even extreme close-ups of eyes bloodshot with terror (e.g. Marilyn Burns in Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and the sporadic faux-Jason Goes To Hell sound effect.
If the artistry and concurrent amusement here is a sign of things to come, Hollywood is Doomed to Fire & Brimstone & eerie green lighting. Dieu dispos`e.
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CHECK OUT MY INTERVIEW WITH ROB ZOMBIE HERE.