I just caught up with House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie's loving tribute to 1970s splatter flicks. There's lots of scenes of graphic violence: mutilations, scalpings, head-bashings, and limb-severings, not to mention some amateur surgery and twisted-Texas Chainsaw Massacre-type taxidermy. But the movie is never really all that scary. It has a lot of weird and creepy moments, but its non-stop tongue-in-cheek tone and borderline campiness undermine any sense of genuine dread. There's no suspense, no terror, no chills and thrills. Just a few shocks and lots and lots of gore.
Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy the movie. I liked the gore and I liked the movie's excessive use of it. Zombie has, I guess, a gift for lurid, disturbing, over-the-top images, and, in this very narrow sense, he's very inventive. He's a master of low-rent Redneck grand guignol. But I couldn't help feeling that the movie doesn't live up to either the 1970s horror flicks that inspired it or other excess-is-best horror movies.
In fact, I'm not sure that Zombie really "gets" a lot of what made the 1970s horror movies so terrifying. For example, there's actually very little gore in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre: most of the horror in the movie comes from a building sense of dread and hopelessness. When the violence does happen though, it packs a real punch. There's a scene in the Massacre that contains probably the most cringe-worthy moment I've ever seen in a horror movie (i.e, the part with the meat hook), but its impact is heightened precisely because it is one of the few overtly gory and violent images in the film.
But it's also possible to pack your film full of gore and still use it effectively. Peter Jackson's zombie flick Dead Aive is gorier than House of 1000 Corpses, but Jackson doesn't just shove it all in your face willy-nilly: he paces his gross-outs. Some scenes, like the eyeballs in the soup, are drawn out and our revulsion builds to where it becomes hard to even look at the screen. Other scenes, like the one with the lawnmower, are more in-your-face. Jackson uses his gore the way a silent-film comedian like Buster Keaton used his gags: with pacing, variation, and even a certain kind of restraint when necessary. Zombie, on the other hand, has only one method: the quick cut to a shocking, grisly tableaux.
Another weakness of House of 1000 Corpses: in the Massacre, Leatherface and his family are truly freaky--the actors play these parts straight, as if they were in a "serious" thriller like Deliverance or Psycho. But Zombie has directed all the actors in House to camp it up pretty broadly. The bad guys--a family of creepy rednecks who live in the eponymous house--don't come across as real outsiders--real escapees from a freakshow--but as actors doing over-the-top parody: they would have fit right in with Adam Sandler and Kathy Bates's Cajuns in The Waterboy; Karen Black--who plays the mother--could have stepped out of one of Christopher Guest's mockumentaries.
Now, this is all obviously intentional. Zombie wants his movie to be campy and tongue-in-cheek. The problem is, though, that this ends up putting quotation marks around all the horror. It's hard to get scared at a Mad Magazine-style parody of a horror movie, even if all the gore is left in. But if we're not really meant to be scared by it, what then?
Well, maybe we're meant to sit back and just appreciate the gore and applaud Zombie for not toning it down to suit the multiplex crowd. And maybe we're meant to act like intellectuals and "read" the movie as a satire about class, pitting bourgeois culture against redneck culture, or something else along those lines. In any case, I keep coming back to the same problem: House of 1000 Corpses just isn't really all that satisfying as a horror movie.
I couldn't help thinking that Zombie had tried to make an American version of one of Takashi Miike's subversive-transgressive movies. He failed, I think, because he really only has one way of subverting and trangressing, whereas Miike has a whole bag of tricks to work with. Miike can do the in-your-face disturbing imagery stuff and the campy over-the-top stuff, but he can also play it straight. He knows when a little bit of restraint now will make things seem so much worse later. When it suits him, Miike can at least pretend he's making a normal movie. And that's an effective technique for a horror director to master.