Dir: Rob Zombie, 2003
I don't know why it took me so long to watch this one. I had wanted to do so ever since it first came out. And, it turns out, it's very easy to watch. Not in the sense that the events therein are of a pleasant or relaxing nature. Quite the opposite, in fact: the events therein are of a most grizzly and sadistic nature. But the pacing, which wastes barely a second; and the direction, which is rather inventive; move it along at such a decent clip that its hour and 25 minutes pass by in a flash of kaleidoscope horror.
Part of the reason why the film flies along with buttery ease is because we've already seen it. Well, most of it, in other films. The four smarmy middle class kids are a staple of these films. The ones in this film (featuring some great casting: Rainn Wilson, from American Office; Chris Hardwick, of mid-90s Singled Out err... 'fame'. Still, he worked with Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Electra) are a satisfying combination of sarcastic enough that you want them to die, but still sufficiently innocent that there are pangs of guilt when they do get dealt with. Especially when you see quite how they get forced off the mortal coil.
Other genre hallmarks include the southern-states hick family (The Hills Have Eyes), who are both physically and psychologically monstrous; masked giants abound (The Texas chainsaw Massacre); there is a cute blonde in the family (...The Munsters?); the know-it-all victims are attracted to their ultimate doom by a local legend (The Blair Witch Project).
So it's derivative. But it is all put together with aplomb. I checked the wiki, and apparently the critics didn't like it. This is to be expected: it's not a film for the critics. It's not low-fi enough to be truly gritty, nor is it smart enough to be satire, according to a person at filmcritic.com. But that's not really a weakness, as far as I'm concerned. Genuinely low budget attempts in this post-Blair Witch world tend to be overburdened with high concepts in an attempt to distract from the lack of means.
Take Session 9, a film whose good idea was extinguished by a concept that didn't know whether it was a psycho-thriller or a supernatural spookfest. It just didn't make any sense, and that line is too fine for many films to tread. Similarly, I think/hope we're past the ironic/satirical stuff at this point. What the market really needed was a well-done traditional horror film. The first Saw film was great, but didn't see release until the year after this one finally emerged, blinking, into the light of day (lest we forget, House of 1000 Corpses was completed in 2000).
You can tell that Rob Zombie loves horror, and that he doesn't just have a funny name. By the time his rock band, White Zombie*, gave up the ghost, he had created an effective aesthetic for them. His art was really good, their brand of shlock-metal with a hint of industrial has aged surprisingly well, and they were just cool. They had the darkness of a Marilyn Manson, but without the self-importance, and the slacker post-grunge look, but without the self-loathing. Anyway, they were a 90s Misfits when it came to the fun horror rock (and then the Misfits themselves returned just as WZ were ebbing away. Synergy!).
What this means for the film is that everything is done well. Yes, it's the horror equivalent of a Tarantino film in the way it borrows aspects of classics to create its own (Frankenstein's) monster. I find it strange that when a director takes great ideas and makes something of them that is quality in its own right, they are considered plagiarists, while musical artists like DJ Shadow and The Avalanches have received plaudits from all corners for essentially doing the same thing. Well, House of 1000 Corpses is Since I Left You with the zany nonsense replaced by viscera and tons of style. Yet another reason why the pacing just feels so right is because the film proper is regularly juxtaposed with grainy, illustrative asides, that tend to last only a few seconds at a time. Some may consider them too on-the-nose, or an affront to naturalism, but really the film is a cinematic equivalent of Captain Spaulding's ghost train, and they drive it along perfectly.
The weak point of the film (as long as you're fine with gore for gore's sake and a quite intentional lack of originality, as I am), is the plot itself. It's fine to begin with, and the victims' descent into the Firefly family's demented depravity is handled perfectly well. But, in the third act, they get taken to see Doctor Satan (he of aforementioned local legend), and it all goes a bit screwy. We get introduced to a subterranean (un)civilisation, a collection of catacombs that might make sense in a video game (ludology over narratology, innit) and, for some reason, a workshop in which Doctor Satan - coincidentally estranged patriarch of the Firefly family - experiments on people. And there are monsters and stuff. All in the space of a few minutes. But it ends well, at least.
You get thrown by one or two effective twists: you start the film thinking the clown-faced Spaulding from the (UK) posters is the source of evil, and that his domain is the eponymous House. But it turns out that he runs a relatively innocent establishment (when he's not getting stuck up by some goons), and the really horrible homestead is a little way down the road. And then it turns out, in an ending more than a little reminiscent of Friday the 13th, when he picks up the hitching survivor in his nice car, Brother Otis pops up from the back seat! He's in cahoots with the baddies all along. D'oh! But the lesson is: everyone in the country is weird, and make sure you don't offend them while they're doing burlesque karaoke.
The bonus about having watched this film is that, now, I am ready to watch sequel The Devil's Rejects. I hear that's really dark. I shall save that one for Valentine's day; build up to it with [rec], Dead Man's Shoes, Inland Empire, and whatever else I can lay my hands on. Probably not Storytelling, though. Did you know that Solondz is this year releasing a sequel to Happiness? A proper one, with the same characters? It will most likely be harrowing.
* 'Coincidentally', Rob's wife Sheri Moon looks not unlike former WZ (then Famous Monsters) bass player Sean Yseult. Is it just me?