Wednesday, June 02, 2004

House of 1000 Corpses

Jesus lived his life in a cheap motel
On the edge of Route 66, yeah
He lived a dark and a twisted life
And he came right back just to do it again

Those are the opening lyrics of "Super-Charger Heaven," easily the best track recorded by White Zombie, Rob Zombie's former band. The song rides its churning guitar riffs like an out-of-control semi, while the bass rumbles and the drummer flails away at top speed. The song hits its high mark in the chorus, when Zombie bellows "DEVILMAN! DEVILMAN!" in his best death-metal growl and various moans and screams are heard beneath the music. It's so much fun, actually, that's it easy to forget that the lyrics don't seem to mean anything -- Zombie just kinda piles up a bunch of random couplets about sex, death, and Jesus, throws a few f-bombs in there for good measure, and screams away.

As a songwriter, that's pretty much Zombie's range. Astro-Creep: 2000 -- the album that features "Super-Charger Heaven" and the band's biggest hit, "More Human Than Human" -- features some recurring themes and phrases (Zombie keeps mentioning "Astro creep" and "Electric head," names that refer alternately to himself and another Satan-like figure), but none that ever converge to say anything. It's a concept album without a concept, a soundtrack to a horror film without point or plot. Fortunately, Zombie recognizes this, and seems to, in fact, revel in his music's pointlessness. The album art (drawn by Zombie himself) features various dark images and topless nurses wearing upside-down crosses on their hats next to the lyrics to songs with titles like "Greasepaint and Monkey Brains" or (what has to be my favorite song title ever) "El Phantasmo and the Chicken Run Blast-O-Rama." Unlike his contemporaries, such as the far-less-entertaining Marilyn Manson, Zombie doesn't take himself too seriously -- doesn't take himself seriously at all, really. This is only reinforced by his behavior after disbanding White Zombie: he's taken on the appearance of an actual zombie, with dead, sunken eyes, and now drives around in the car used by the Munsters. He's so death-metal and satanic that he comes all the way around again and becomes totally harmless. He's become as cartoonish as his artwork, and so has his music -- he's embraced a lot more techno in his songs nowadays, but he still hasn't come close to making a point.

The most interesting aspect of Zombie's music is his approach to sound effects. While I'd heard samples and sound bites in the music of other artists before buying Astro-Creep, I'd never experienced a rock band who used so much of them. Each song is filled with clips from various sources -- horror flicks, usually, since it fits the music so well (or maybe it's the other way around). Often the quotes fill in the spaces where another band would put guitar solos, which says something of Zombie's priorities, I think: the atmosphere is more important than the musicianship. He pulls off the atmosphere so well, in fact, that one can find a song of his on the soundtrack to just about every horror/thriller/supernatural-whatever film of the last six years. Every one of his tracks is like a horror film in minature, complete with dialogue.

With a catalogue of music so cinematic in nature, one might consider it redundant for Rob Zombie to actually make a horror film. Or maybe it makes him the perfect choice to make one. Either way, someone decided it was a good idea, and allowed Zombie to write his own script and sit in the director's chair. The result is House of 1000 Corpses, an ungodly mess that displays all the darkness and meaninglessness of Zombie's music with none of the fun.

The plot (and I use that term very loosely) centers on four hapless teenagers from the suburbs who get stuck in the boonies the night before Halloween. They stop at a gas station/fried chicken stand that just happens to have a museum of oddities and a "murder ride" -- a Pirates of the Caribbean-style tour of various serial killers, including the local nutjob "Dr. Satan." A search for more information on Dr. Satan leads them directly into the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and a series of increasingly gruesome deaths.

I guess that would be a spoiler, but trust me -- you won't care. The four teenagers are so annoying and clueless that chances are you'll be rooting for them to die (especially the two girls, stuck with personalities and appearances so alike I'd be shocked if you could tell them apart). The house they get stuck in for the night (a dark, rainy night, naturally) is home to a suitably bizarre and demented family, each member more strange than the last. There's Mother Firefly (Karen Black), the porn-star-looking den mother who can't seem to decide whether she'd prefer to fuck or kill the kids who've wandered into her midst. Her daughter, Baby (Sherri Moon), has no such dilemma -- she's fond of wielding her knife, and cuts into more than one victim before the film's over. Grandpa is the typical Crazy Old Man, and Otis (Bill Moseley) is the Charles Manson of the family, ranting about breaking through his consciousness and things like that while carving his victims into creative sculptures. And there's Tiny, the token deformed guy. None of them are interesting, none of them are funny, and (worst of all) none of them are scary.

Oh, and I forgot about Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), the clown who runs the murder tour at the beginning. His role in the film is far too large, his grating annoyance matched only by his irrelevance.

I'm sure there's an audience for his stuff (judging by the "enormous positive reaction" that the actors talk about on the DVD special features), but I can't figure out the appeal. If I wanted to watch endless scenes of death and torture surrounded by bad acting, worse writing, and nauseating editing and camera tricks, I'd...well, I'd watch The Passion of the Christ. And that wasn't a good movie, either.

As Zombie likes to spice up his music with out-of-nowhere soundbites, so he does with his film, littering the movie with short bursts of blurry, distorted images that seem to have nothing to do with anything. Sometimes, the clips are solarized in an eye-gouging negative color scheme for double fun. Instead of adding to the atmosphere, they simply make one yearn for Tylenol. Especially odious are the "interview" segments, featuring characters talking (or, more often, screaming) into the camera about death, or sex, or whatever. None of them last more than ten seconds or so, but they completely disrupt the flow of the story -- which is on a thin enough thread as it is. The last thing this film needed was something else to hate.

The biggest disappointment here is that this movie shouldn't be that bad. Zombie is clearly a man with an expansive imagination, bursting with about a billion ideas, but trying to cram all of them into this script spells disaster. Each scene, though, is crammed with detail, little bits and pieces just filling every inch of the frame. The set dressing can't hold the audience's attention, though, when the camera is centered on such lame and uninteresting characters. It's clear that Zombie cares about and loves this movie, but it feels a lot like a huge inside joke that only he finds funny. At its worst, House is comparable to watching someone masturbate.

Maybe a paragraph like that is hypocritical coming from someone who enjoyed Kill Bill as much as I did, and perhaps the difference between the two films is simply one of personal taste. But Tarantino managed to sweep me up with his infections love for a genre I generally don't care for (kung fu movies); Zombie can't do the same for gory splatter pictures, and House is a sickening dirge that never seems to end. (The DVD case indicates the running time is only 88 minutes, but I have my doubts.)

And perhaps I wouldn't feel as venomous toward House of 1000 Corpses were it not coming from someone I respect as much as Rob Zombie. But the almost goofy darkness of his music doesn't translate at all to the screen. The subject matter may be the same, but the end result couldn't be more different.

I've heard rumors of a sequel, but I'm hoping they will stay rumors, and Zombie will stick to putting horror films in his songs rather than making them himself. And let's hope Trent Reznor isn't working on a screenplay as we speak.

Rating: DUD

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