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House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
Rated R

Starring: Karen Black, Sid Haig, and Bill Moseley

Rating:
***
out of
*****

For over two years, Rob Zombie's directorial debut has languished on a shelf as various movie studios debated about whether or not they should release it. First, Universal Studios decided against releasing it after fearing its NC17 rating would harm business. MGM picked it up for a time before ultimately passing on it. Lion's Gate, who picked up and released an edited version of the film on April 11, 2003, were surprised when it did pretty decent business in it's opening weekend. So, what's all the fuss about?

House of 1000 Corpses tells the tale of two young couples, including Rainn Wilson from HBO's Six Feet Under, Chris Hardwick from the old MTV game show Singled Out, and Erin Daniels from One Hour Photo, who are traveling across the country looking for weird roadside attractions. When their car gets low on gas, they stop at Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen, where they learn the tale of local serial killer, Dr. Satan. Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) tells them that Dr. Satan hung himself from a tree that still stands nearby. Upon leaving the museum, the kids set out to find the hanging tree. In the middle of a terrible downpour, they encounter a lone female hitchhiker (Sheri Moon) and get a flat tire -- never a good combination. The hitchhiker turns out to be Baby, one of the members of a psychotic family living in the woods. Like bait on a hook, Baby reels in the victims for her family to play with.

It's obvious from the start of the opening credits that Rob Zombie is a fan of this genre. Even if one was unfamiliar with his music and video work, it's immediately evident that he knows what works in the creep-out department. This is old-school creep-out we're talking about here. This is not the type of horror film that gets made anymore. It's bizarre and unsettling; not so much because it's gory -- and it's not all that gory, anyway -- but because it's simply nothing like you'd expect it to be. It's cut from the same cloth as films like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left -- films that might seem tame by today's standards but still retain a high degree of unpleasantness that gets under your skin and makes you uncomfortable. House of 1000 Corpses is like those films in that regard. It's not shockingly scary but it will make you glad it's just a movie.

More shocking than what's in the movie is what isn't in the movie. I'm still scratching my head as to what would have led to the constant turnover in the distribution of the film. While it's certainly clear that some editing was done to make an R-rating, the final product doesn't even come close to pushing the limits of that constraint. The hype created by the problems in getting distribution for the film certainly worked in creating curiosity for its release. The lack of anything that would have made the censors vomit will probably now just fuel the demand for an unedited DVD version which can show the film "as the director intended" or some such nonsense.

That's not to say the film isn't worth seeing as it is. It's just not quite as hardcore as the stories might make you believe. What is here, though, is a kind of horror change-up pitch. It's certainly not made for the I Know What You Did Last Summer mindset, but rather a nod to the LSD-fueled horror of the 1970s, where common sense got in the way of a good time. Viewed with that in mind, House of 1000 Corpses is a lot of fun.

Trivia: Sheri Moon, who plays Baby, is Rob Zombie's wife. (Source: The Internet Movie Database)

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