I’ve always loved the mutation of childhood entertainment, the circus, the fairground, the fairytales and nursery rhymes, the dolls and wind-up figures, into fantastic horror. There is vast potential for a sinister re-working. The climate is right, the topography perfect. With one brushstroke an innocent and inviting landscape can be transformed into a hellish terrain.
House of a 1000 Corpses does just that. It’s a white hot ball of energy blasting its way through a disarticulated set of themes. While it sticks to the genre-rules of the slasher film (the kids stuck in a desolate area, the psychotic family, the push and pull of every possible escape that’s then snatched away, the possibility of one surviving victim…) it runs through a gamut of sub-genres to produce, not another epigonic nod to the classics, but something unique and fun. Rob Zombie takes the original horror story and turns it into a show, a cabaret, in which every instrument of fear will play a starring role – clowns, serial killers, porn gore, mutilation, satanic ritual, insanity, reanimation… And metamorphosis, something Zombie plays with quite a lot, not in a metaphysical sense but literally, through old-fashioned sawing off and sewing back together.
The plot is, then, an old favourite. It is the night before Halloween. Four twenty-something’s, travelling round Texas researching the strange world of sideshows, stop for gas at a petrol station only to find a most fortuitous place of wonder. Captain Spaulding’s curiosity shop (as seen on TV) is filled to the rafters with the things one might find in a Victorian hospital or medical museum. Spaulding himself, played triumphantly by Sid Haig, appears to be half clown half beast. He’s not, of course, but he takes the form of the childhood entertainer, the water-squirting, balloon-morphing clown, eats it and then shits it out right into the gutter. He’s a filthy, lascivious, gritty old man and by far the best character in the film. When he invites the four on his ‘murder ride’ – a fairground carriage run on tracks through a corridor flanked on either side with animated waxwork models of serial killers – they learn of Doctor Satan, a surgeon from the local psychiatric asylum who was found guilty of atrocious medical experiments on his patients, hanged, buried and subsequently missing.
Back on the road with their minds full of intrigue and their hands clasping Spaulding’s free take-out chicken, they go off in search of the place Doctor Satan was hanged. Only to come across a hitch-hiker in the pouring rain. Cue the angel of death, played beautifully and irritatingly by Zombie’s partner Sherry Moon. The bait is eagerly snapped up by the two men in the group who invite her into their car, moments before they get a flat. And, of course, no spare. Zombie has gone for all the clichés in this film but the clichés are, of course, what the horror fan wants. Even if it’s just so we can shout at the screen – don’t go down there alone you fool. Her uncle Rufus, of course, has a tow truck, so why don’t they go back to hers and wait.
Ladies and Gentleman, may I introduce the Firefly family. Here we have Momma Firefly, mutton dressed as vamp, eater of men, women and children (probably), Grandpa, a clown without the greasepaint, Otis Driftwood, son and philosopher/artist, Baby, the fox, Rufus, possibly bordering on sane, Tiny, the giant burn victim, and last, and least, the bairn in formaldehyde. (Most of the names are characters from Groucho Marx, as explained in the sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, for those who didn’t notice.) Invited to stay for dinner at this most significant time of year, the events of the last night of the house guests’ lives begin to unfurl. All in the name of art and a jolly good show.
The film is pretty much divided into two parts, above and below, sanity and insanity. A real live family creating bloody theatrics with anyone who gets in their way, right on top of the demonic other-world, the hell below. Dr Satan is the pulse. He is the myth/history and topography of the wilderness around the house and of the film itself. He is the foundation on which the Firefly’s and their victims are based. He is the more supernatural element. He is the mechanism beneath the stage and the point at which rationality ceases to exist.
Rob Zombie knows how to put on a show. A musician foremost, he knows when silence speaks volumes and when music is the lubrication for that perfect sequence of events. Every good horror film has that defining moment for its fans. That instant when the shock or the suspense or the sheer horror take you out of your seat and into the film, the moment your mind will play and replay over and over. If the director has got it right, any accompanying music to that scene will have a Pavlovian effect, so the song/score will never again have a passing effect on its listener.
For me, that old favourite ‘I Remember You’ by Slim Whitman, sends shivers down my spine now, whenever I hear it. It recalls slow-motion horrors and a writhing danse macabre. There is also Baby Firefly’s faultless mime of Helen Kane’s ‘I wanna be loved by you’ forcing the unwilling spectators to be part of the razzle dazzle while wondering what, exactly, waits for them in the wings.
Zombie has made a film that cuts out the moral nonsense and seduces you with evil, leaving you in no doubt as to which side you’re rooting for. He is a showman and this directorial debut is a near-perfect piece of slasher show business, a film that’s filled to its boot tops with viscera and belly-laughs.
House of 1000 Zombies, dir Rob Zombie, 2003
(written for the anthology Butcher Knives and Body Counts, Dark Scribe Press, 2011)