Rob Zombie’s 2003 directorial debut failed to gel with initial audiences, but is the beloved cult classic a misunderstood gem of the genre, or a relic of the ‘70s era of exploitation cinema?
A group of teenagers find themselves prey to a family of murderous psychopaths whilst travelling across the backroads of America… sounds familiar right? That’s because it’s been done before. A lot. Most famously in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which introduced the world to an icon of the genre, ‘Leatherface’. So, what does House of 1000 Corpses bring to the table that’s fresh? Why was the film critically panned upon release? And what does this say about modern film-goers?
First, the backstory…
House of 1000 Corpses marked Rob Zombie’s entrance into the world of film-making. And what an entrance it was. The film’s rocky road to production has been well documented, with it having been completed with the intention of a release at some point during 2000. However, it would be three years before horror fans would see the final product, with the film premiering on October 3rd, 2003.
This was largely due to initial distributors Universal Studios backing out of the project, fearing the film’s grizzly content would earn it an NC-17 rating. This controversy (combined with the ridiculously long three-year wait) left fans of the genre eagerly anticipating the film’s release. Needless to say, it didn’t live up to expectation. In spite of the film’s gruesome nature, it arguably failed to deliver the obscene amounts of gore that had been promised. Perhaps this was due to cuts made from the film, with Zombie having to remove footage from the infamous ‘fish boy’ scene as well as completely cutting other scenes to appease distributors.
“In spite of all its flaws I’m still drawn back into watching this film again and again”
On the other end of the spectrum, much of the initial viewership found the film to be mindlessly gratuitous in nature, lacking in story and character development, topped with bad acting and shoddy editing which made it a jarring experience to watch.
In spite of all its flaws I’m still drawn back into watching this film again and again. And again. Perhaps it’s Sid Haig’s screen presence as the sardonic clown, Captain Spaulding, who steals the show in spite of his limited time on-screen. Haig brings shades of John-Wayne Gacy to the role, giving an endearing and menacing performance that stands toe-to-toe with the best horror icons. It’s also clear to see Zombie’s influences in writing his characters, with Bill Moseley’s performance as Otis echoing shades of Charles Manson, from his long rambling monologues to his greasy, dishevelled appearance.
To his credit, in spite of the film’s drawbacks Zombie is still able to craft a palpable sense of tension and dread that elevates the material.
The fall of exploitation cinema?
Exploitation cinema refers to a genre of film pioneered in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a genre synonymous with seedy low-budget films containing gratuitous sex and violence. By its nature House of 1000 Corpses falls into this category, with Zombie even using grainy film stock to achieve the grubby feel expected of the genre. Recent entries into the genre include the 2007 double feature Grindhouse, in which Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released their newest exploitation flicks (Death Proof and Planet Terror respectively) into cinemas. In spite of both directors’ strong body of work, this was also met by critical panning as well as a lack of box office success.
“House of 1000 Corpses … gained a strong cult following in the years since its release”
This repeated critical (and commercial) bombing of exploitation films begs the question: is exploitation cinema a relic of the past? Or are critics simply not in touch with the wants and needs of audiences?
You’d be forgiven for assuming the latter, with House of 1000 Corpses having gained a strong cult following in the years since its release, something marked by the increased opening box office of its sequel The Devil’s Rejects as well as the production of a third film, Three From Hell, set for release in 2019.