It is entirely possible that no first-time film director of the 21st Century to date was so transparently ecstatic to be making a movie as Rob Zombie was with 2003's House of 1000 Corpses. It is the work of an unmitigated enthusiast. Much of that enthusiasm is for the entire corpus of horror cinema; it's a fairly direct love letter to a few films in particular, mostly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Motel Hell, and there are clips from I'm not sure how many black-and-white films dating back to the '30s. These are sometimes presented in the form of excerpts from one of those beloved, tacky old local station horror series, the kind hosted by the weatherman from the evening news program - another thing Zombie is obviously enthusiastic for. And he's also enthusiastic for cinema in general: House of 1000 Corpses is full of shocking cuts, split-screens, filters, and camera angles that all sum to suggest somebody who is just way too fucking excited to be on set, telling actors what to do, torn between the desire to fuss over every single composition for hours on end, and the desire to hurry up and get to the next shot, which will be even cooler than this one. It is adorably ebullient.

It is also, much less adorably, messy as hell. There's a reason that we call the various stylistic flourishes present in movies "choices": we take it to be the case that the filmmakers have considered various possible approaches to every moment in a script, whether that be camera position, visual design, cutting, line delivery, or any of the many other things that go into cinema. Having then considered those possibilities, the filmmakers conclude that one of them will be uniquely well-suited to triggering a particular response in the viewer, and choose it. This does not seem to have been the case with House of 1000 Corpses. Oh, choices are being made, no doubt about it - this is the polar opposite of what you get from a director who's just coasting along, taking the past of least resistance and following the rules in the most boring possible way. If anything, Zombie seems to be hellbent on breaking every rule he can think of, and he can think of quite a few.

The thing is, all of Zombie's choices don't build on each other, or even feel like they come from the same impulse. For example, the cutaways: something that happens very often in the film is that the action will be interrupted by a cut to a short sequence, or even just a single shot, generally heavily tinted and filmed on what appears to be scratched, battered film stock (it could also be that the scratches were added later). It's basically like getting some ancient, yellowed stock footage spliced into the middle of the action, as though fragments of film from the actual 1970s were ripping their way through the movie's constructed 1970s. And what these fragments are doing - well, what are they doing? Often, they seem to be serving as counterpoint: we'll hear one of the movie's psychopathic villains talking (there are a great many of them), and we'll see their inner personality acting in in slavering rage. But sometimes, they run in parallel: one of the psychopaths describes something, and we see exactly what they're describing. At least once, it seems like the cutaway is pointing towards a character's daydreams. At least twice, they function as routine cross-cutting - as much as the tinting and scratches can be "routine".

The point being, we have one device, applied haphazardly across the film's running time: there's no pattern, no consistent meaning, not even a consistent point of view, in how that device is used. And the cutaways are perhaps the most distinctive of all the stylistic elements in House of 1000 Corpses for which this is true, but definitely not the only one. The film is basically a slurry, with Zombie dumping every single notion he has in, not paying any tremendous mind to where the various bits and pieces ended up as they were dumped.

The result is a film that can be a bit hard to watch, and not for the reasons it wants to be. And as becomes clear in its supremely gore-soaked second half, it wants to be very hard to watch. But it wants to be unsettling and apocalyptic and gross, keeping us disoriented because we're in the presence of a whole nest of deranged human monsters and we can't understand their worldview. That's not the same as being disoriented because the film just keeps throwing stuff at us without rhyme or reason.

But then, maybe that is what the film wants to be about. House of 1000 Corpses opens with an explicit prequel and then an implicit one: the explicit one finds Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), the clown-make-up-wearing proprietor of a combination gas station/house of horrors in the Texas countryside of 1977, fending off a pair of robbers with his big dumb buddy Ravelli (Irwin Keyes). And here, "fending off" means "shooting to death". This has just about nothing to do with what follows, except that we're already getting an itchy sense of the derangement the film is interested in when we see Haig's white face and giant blue eyes curled into a sneer of rage. So we don't quite know what to do with him when we get back to his establishment, this time in the company of four young people: Denise (Erin Daniels), Mary (Jennifer Jostyn), Jerry (Chris Hardwick), and Bill (Rainn Wilson). The boys are interested in studying the weird roadside attractions found all over the pre-interstate highways of the western United States, and Captain Spaulding's rinky-dink museum of serial killers certainly fits the bill. So they strong-arm the girls into joining them on the laughably low-rent "ride" the good captain has set up behind his gas station, which involves Ravelli pushing a cart through a handful of chintzy tableaux as Captain Spaulding narrates the true-life murders being depicted.

This doesn't have much of anything to do with what follows: it offers some exposition about the local killer known as Dr. Satan, but Captain Spaulding himself effectively disappears from the film by the 20-minute mark, leading the four kids to tangle with the psycho family in a separate plotline. But it does, maybe, set us up for what Zombie has in mind. For the movie will turn out to be very much like that ratty-ass dark ride: a whole lot of stuff is thrown at us with a carnival barker's slightly menacing ebullience, with the relatively transparent goal being to shock us with its sheer trashiness if nothing else will do. It's bombastic, overwhelming, devoted to pure sensory overload, and this is pretty much the sole mode the film will choose to operate in. Almost immediately, Zombie loses interest in his four students, except as fodder for the Grand Guignol extremes of his setpieces; instead, the film switches over to bask in the unholy glow of the members of the Firefly family: Baby (Sheri Moon, soon to add "Zombie" to her name after marrying Rob), Rufus (Robert Mukes), Mother (Karen Black), Grampa Hugo (Dennis Fimple), Tiny (Matthew McGrory), and adopted brother Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley). They're an obnoxiously eccentric collection of caricatures, and I can't see that the film doesn't realise that they're obnoxious; for all that Zombie loved Moon, I refuse to believe he found her shrieking giggles charming. No, these people are meant to immediately read as uncanny and off-putting, growing ever-more repulsive and inhuman as the film progresses.

And how very repulsive it gets: the film starts off feeling grungy and gross, and only gets grosser. The last third includes some of the most impressively disgusting gore effects of any theatrically-released American film of the 2000s, and Zombie's hummingbird-like refusal to stay in one place only does a little bit to dilute the visceral power of those images. At the same time, the film has nothing like the vicious nihilism of the Saw movies, which were just around the corner when this was new. There's something almost... "joyful" feels like a purposefully wrong word to use, but I think there's a definite sense of joy in the filmmaking that spills over into the images. Zombie has since claimed that the film's loopy, almost slapsticky sense of humor was an accident that started to happen on set, and he didn't fight it, and I believe him, but it's the enthusiasm thing. Zombie is showing off, and he's also obviously making the exact kind of movie he loves to watch, leaving a perpetual sense of "didja see that?" throughout. It's basically playtime: bloody, depraved playtime, but still more about the giddy fun of tawdry horror than anything else.

It's a mood that gets set quickly, not just from the zippy visual flair, but from Haig's berserk performance. For as much as he's not really in the film, Haig is absolutely the first thing I think about whenever House of 1000 Corpses comes to mind: his portrayal of the big, sweaty clown is jolly and rancid all at once, manic and propulsive in a way that reads as silly but not at all funny (his barking laugh, timed to the rat-a-tat rhythm of a chattering plastic skull he wears on his bow-tie, is an especially perfect touch). And "silly but not at all funny" is precisely where the film lives for all of its unrelenting 88 minutes. It's a movie celebrating movies and celebrating horror and celebrating how much Zombie loves the things he loves, and while I am pleased that he got some of that celebration out of his system in time for this film's sequel, it's hard not to be impressed that there's so much distinctive personality on display in a film that's almost entirely made up of borrowed parts.

Reviews in this series
House of 1000 Corpses (Zombie, 2003)
The Devil's Rejects (Zombie, 2005)
3 from Hell (Zombie, 2019)