Upon revisiting House of 1000 Corpses, over a decade after its release, it’s not hard to see it as a pioneering piece of genre cinema, one that saw a return to a more frank approach to violence, set against an immersive environment. Rob Zombie’s debut works as an extreme horror film without abandoning any arthouse sensibilities, and it left a mark on the genre.
The film makes a lasting impression, but not for its brutality. While its violence tends to stand out against the sanitized landscape of the horror genre at the time, Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven broke those barriers decades prior. What makes Corpses groundbreaking is its attitude toward the brutality. The film has a playful tone throughout and there are numerous examples. Sheri Moon Zombie’s childish laughter as she stabs the rabbit-costumed Mary. Slim Whitman’s jovial twang serving as soundtrack to an execution of police officers. Captain Spaulding, the clown proprietor of a gas station that doubles as a murder museum, gets the drop on two would-be robbers. The latter scene serves as the opening to the film. With its snappy, vulgar dialogue and escalating tension, it comes across like a Tarantino film shot in some forgotten, backwater corner of hell.
We can argue all day about how Zombie aped what Hooper and Craven did throughout the 1970s, but the sense of fun coupled with the film’s violence had simply never been seen before. Horror comedies that preceded Corpses delivered a more cartoonish tone to its violence. Earlier extreme horror films like Cannibal Holocaust wouldn’t dare suggest that what unfolded on screen was funny. Yet Rob Zombie does, and it works.
Something was in the air in 2003. Four years before, the Columbine Massacre made headlines. On top of making grades, dealing with bullies, and rampant hormones, teenagers everywhere now had to worry about getting shot while sleeping through Social Studies. In 2001, the September 11th terror attacks brought something once perceived as a distant threat crashing onto American soil. The bubble we lived in where we told ourselves we were untouchable by third world violence had burst and the War on Terror was launched. When going to school can cost you your life and when war fills every news station, it’s hard to be shocking by simply showing violence and gore. This didn’t deter some directors from trying. Eli Roth and Tom Six gladly rose to the occasion, only to be outdone by A Serbian Film in 2010.
Zombie’s film is different. He can’t stop the violence we’re exposed to in the media every day. We’re too desensitized, so rather than try to shock us with over-the-top gore, he presents a likeable homicidal family and we see the movie through their eyes. We see the victims as they see the victims: intruding, classist, deserving of punishment. The so-called villains are acting the only way they know how.
And so are the victims. They don’t see themselves the way the Firefly family sees them. In their minds, why shouldn’t they have the right to drive across country and write a book about Deep South culture for their amusement? Never does it occur to them that doing so might be exploitative or disrespectful. Much like it never occurs to the Firefly clan that killing, torture, and necrophilia are unethical.
The spliced-in snippets of the family members explaining their worldview may seem distracting or a leftover product of Zombie’s music video roots, but upon closer examination, they serve as interviews with these characters, interviews that invite us to enter their world, to see things their way. These characters may have existed in the real world prior to 2003, but we couldn’t accept them as real until we, as a society, experienced enough transformative trauma.
This is the essence of House of 1000 Corpses’ horror. The viewer identifies with the killers more than the victims. They take part in the violence and enjoy it, because let’s be honest: who doesn’t love watching Rainn Wilson gag on his own severed hand while Sheri Moon Zombie dances to Lionel Ritchie? It’s not until the film is over that we reflect and the fun ends and we feel as though we’ve taken part in something forbidden. We want to pretend we didn’t enjoy it, but we know better. We’ve seen the monster inside of us and what it’s capable of, and we loved every blood-soaked moment. The goal of horror is to evoke dread, to unsettle. I can’t think of anything more unsettling than seeing through the eyes of monsters and finding I identify with them.
Lucas Mangum is an author living in Austin, TX. He enjoys wrestling, cats, wrestling with cats, and drinking craft beer while crafting weird tales. His debut novel, FLESH AND FIRE, is out now as part of Journalstone’s Double Down series with a new novel by New York Times Bestseller Jonathan Maberry and Rachael Lavin. Visit him at lucasmangum.com or follow him on Twitter @LMangumFiction and talk to him about books, pro-wrestling and horror movies.