The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). Across the Atlantic, the countryside-revenge film explored tensions between city and country in an increasingly lurid fashion (Straw Dogs, Deliverance). In just one week in 1974, the slasher was born with the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas, each representing one of the traditions that were beginning to blend.
Why all that history to introduce a film released in 2003? Well, Rob Zombie has always been more interested in the countryside-revenge tradition than the giallo, to the point of turning John Carpenter's quasi-European Halloween series into a very different beast. His unfairly maligned Halloween II (2009) focuses on fields, woods and cabins to an extent previously unseen in the franchise, all the while deploying the freer structure of the countryside-revenge film over the narrative straitjacket of the giallo-style slasher.
If, then, Rob Zombie is all about recovering the countryside-revenge film and the broader church of seventies exploitation in the slasher's DNA, House of 1000 Corpses serves as a statement of intent: it's a blend of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), filtered through grindhouse nostalgia. The film starts with a black-and-white introduction by evil clown Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig): 'Howdy, folks! You like blood, violence, and freaks of nature? Well then, come on down to Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen!'
And down we go. After a vicious opening scene and a typical Zombie montage of sideshow attractions, grindhouse clips and seventies pornography we meet our meat, four twentysomethings driving across the country in search of roadside attractions: Mary (Jennifer Jostyn), Denise (Erin Daniels), Jerry (Chris Hardwick) and Bill (Rainn Wilson). Spaulding points them in the direction of the tree on which local legend 'Dr. Satan' was hanged, but they lose their way before picking up a weird local hitchhiker, Baby (Sheri Moon). When the car breaks down, Baby invites the group back to her family home.
You can guess where this is leading. The Firefly family, including Mother (Karen Black), sadistic mastermind Otis (Bill Moseley), scarred, stunted manchild Tiny (Matthew McGrory), and Grampa (Dennis Fimple), spend several hours creeping our heroes out over a meal and after-dinner 'entertainment' before turning on them, capturing and gradually murdering the young people as well as the posse searching for them (Harrison Young, Tom Towles, and Walton freaking Goggins). Who will survive... and what will be left of them?
As a conventional narrative House of 1000 Corpses is
barely functional. It is instead a pandemonium of the American
subconscious as filtered through exploitation cinema. In Zombie's hands, the film's vague southern setting becomes a nightmarish landscape stuffed with gore-soaked meaning, a microcosm of the modern American horror film filled with squalor, inbred freaks and vicious maniacs. When mutants and monsters suddenly push the film into speculative fiction in the third act, it's unexpected but ultimately not surprising.
It's a film awash in references, from the classic (a late scene focuses on an eye in a direct quotation of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) to the more recent (Otis wears Norwegian-style corpse paint - in anyone else's hands this would be a savage indictment of black metal, but metal veteran Zombie probably intends it as a compliment). It may be recycling born of love, but the film's total dependence on its forebears is ultimately its greatest limitation: it just can't stand on its own. Zombie displays keen visual instincts in his debut, but he doesn't craft a satisfying narrative.
Even so House of 1000 Corpses is an important film: released in the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it helped usher in a new era for the horror film. Although Nispel's film is less interesting than House, the two pictures share a commitment to a grimy, repulsive anti-aesthetic and to earnest pastiche rather than the winking parody of the Scream films. They're also together responsible for the rise of torture porn, a genre I have no intention of ever exploring. Be that as it may, in 2003 the horror film became dangerous again. And whatever else you think of Rob Zombie, that's a good thing.