With so many today's top-tier horror filmmakers raised on the exploitation flicks of '70s, I suppose it shouldn't surprise that their films so clearly draw inspiration from those earlier drive-in splatter epics. Indeed, such '70s classics as 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' 'Last House on the Left,' 'Night of the Living Dead' and 'Halloween' have become something of a template for a whole new breed of stomach-churning freakshows.
Perhaps in no recent horror film is this more evident than in Rob Zombie's 'House of 1000 Corpses.' Though the remake craze current infesting the horror genre didn't truly get its wings until after the huge box office success of the 2003 redux of 'Chainsaw,' 'Corpses' actually hit theaters a few months prior, and Zombie's ode to the '70s grindhouse is, in fact, more of a direct lift of 'Chainsaw' than the film's own official remake. 'Corpses' attempts almost precisely to regurgitate the look, feel, tone, attitude and gleeful reveling in perversion that so marked the Tobe Hooper original. But if all these recent glossy remakes feel more like the work of music video directors hoping to cash-in on a trend, Zombie at least has a passion for the crap of his youth that rings authentic. 'Corpses' may not be a particularly good movie, but at least you get the sense that Zombie is in it for more than a quick buck.
The setup of 'Corpses' will be familiar to any horror fan who has seen more than three slasher movies. A group of college kids are investigating a local urban legend known as Dr. Satan, a notorious serial killer who was apparently hung from a tree in a backwoods Texas town. Unfortunately for these dimwits, they make a breakthrough in their investigation when they stumble upon Captain Spaulding and his clan of demented, murderous butchers. Sort of like a much more fashionable version of the 'Texas Chainsaw' family, Spaulding and team delight in slowly torturing and killing the hapless travelers, who will have to do anything they can to stay alive and survive the "house of 1,000 corpses."
To be fair to Zombie, horror has never been the most original genre. And being a fan of slashers and '70s grindhouse flicks myself, I can say with authority that part of the fun of these movies is precisely their familiarity -- we go in knowing exactly what we're gonna get, and the most successful examples of the genre are the ones that offer the same thing yet again, only in a slightly different way. So the crushingly familiar set-up of 'Corpses' is not a huge detriment to the film.
Having said that, I've always found 'Corpses' to be a somewhat less satisfying experience than it might have been, largely due to an inherent disconnect between Zombie's exaggerated visual style and the brutal '70s sensibilities he's trying to ape. On one hand, the film is so overly stylized that it often seems surreal, yet on the other hand, Zombie stages the endless shrieking and torturing as if he's going for the jugular. The result just doesn't mesh -- like one of those funhouse rides at Universal Studios Fright Fest nights, 'Corpses' is never actually scary, just outlandish.
Still, even if his film is highly derivative and not particularly chilling, Zombie's reverential approach is sure to give diehard fans of the genre at least some modicum of pleasure. I couldn't help but smile at the loopy cameos -- 'Corpses' is practically a who's-who of B-movie icons (watch for memorable turns by Karen Black, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and the incomparable Michael J. Pollard, among others). I also chuckled at some of the numerous references to a zillion other horror movies -- it's quite fun to spot the allusions. Of course, outside of the most dedicated genre fans, few will likely care.
In the end, if 'House of 1000 Corpses' isn't entirely successful, it's still notable if only for the fact that it set the stage for better stuff to come from Rob Zombie. I personally think his 'Corpses' follow-up 'The Devil's Rejects' was a major step up, both in terms of technical skill as well as showing Zombie's ability as a screenwriter to inject some original elements in with all the homages. Granted, his just-released 'Halloween' update is atrocious, but I still have hope for him, because there is enough passion in 'Corpses' (and even more so in 'Rejects') to suggest that Zombie -- and the rest of his horror contemporaries -- could finally start delivering the goods if they'd just let go over their '70s grindhouse obsession and move on.
'House of 1000 Corpses' first hit standard-def DVD back in 2003, and it looked pretty good as it was, but it seems the film has been remastered in high-def, because I recently watched it on the Monsters HD cable network, as well as again on this Blu-ray, and it looks noticeably superior. Beyond the average upgrade you usually get with high-def, this one really receives a nice boost.
Lionsgate presents 'Corpses' here in 1080p/VC-1 video. The most immediately striking aspect of the film is its colors. They are violently intense, yet I was incredibly impressed with how clean they are. Even the most shocking primaries are rock solid, with no bleeding and very, very little noise (if any at all) is present. Though the highly-stylized nature of the movie does obscure the finest detail somewhat (and don't expect "natural" fleshtones), the presentation still has tremendous pop. Blacks are excellent and contrast bright, but not overdone. Shadow delineation also holds up nicely, and I was expecting much more of a black crush, but that's not the case. There is also no apparent edge enhancement or other compression artifacts. 'Corpses' looks far better in high-def than you'd expect.
(Note that there are some sections of 'Corpses' that are intentionally degraded and/or shot on low-quality video, but as clear directorial decisions, they don't detract from this first-rate transfer.)
I've got to hand it to Lionsgate -- more than any other studio of late, they've really been pushing the limits of high-resolution audio on Blu-ray. As they've done with other recent titles like 'Delta Farce,' once again here we get a nice DTS-HD High-Resolution 7.1 surround track (1.5mbps). I don't think a film like 'House of 1000 Corpses' really needs it, but far be it from me to complain about a studio pulling out all the stops.
Despite a fairly low budget, 'Corpses' actually does have a few nifty and inventive audio tricks up its sleeve. Right from the first scene, when a couple of misguided hoods attempt to rob Captain Spaulding, there's plenty of action to light up the entire 360-degree soundfield. Surrounds are most impressive, with the expanded channels in the rear boasting excellent imaging of discrete effects, and superior localization. When the horror finally kicks in, atmosphere is noticeably improved (the first attack on the kids is a highlight), and the sense of depth and realism to sounds is excellent.
Unfortunately, the expansion to 7.1 channels can't totally compensate for the rest of the track. The film is nicely recorded and mixed for a film of its type, but dialogue can still sound phony, and I hoped for a bit more kick to Rob Zombie's frequent use of music in the film (the infamous "Brickhouse" sequence being the most notable example). Low bass is strong but never truly delivers a wallop, while expansiveness to the rest of the spectrum is good but not fantastic. Still, keeping in mind that this is 'House of 1000 Corpses,' the audio on this one is way better than I ever expected.
At the time of its initial standard DVD release, 'House of 1000 Corpses' was notable for its newly-shot menus, which featured cast members Sid Haig, Bill Moseley and Sheri Moon (then not-yet Moon-Zombie), in character, hamming it up and introducing the bonus features. Unfortunately, Lionsgate hasn't retained that material here, nor the more original menu design, but we do get all of the original supplements themselves.
First up is about 20 minutes worth of making-of material, divided up into several parts. "The Making of 'House of a 1000 Corpses'" is exactly what it sounds like, but at only 5 minutes long, it's essentially just a long commercial (in fact, it's the exact same promo reel they played at one of those Fangoria conventions a few months before the movie came out). "Behind the Scenes" is only 3 minutes, and is just a montage of raw video camera footage from the shooting of a couple of scenes (one involving a chick in a rabbit costume getting chased and, oh, nevermind).
"Interviews" features chats with Haig, Moseley, Moon and Karen Black, talking for about 10 minutes about their crazy characters (Black seems to be living her role off-camera as well), and how much fun it is to make horror films and chase screaming girls around. "Tiny Fucked a Stump" (ahem) is a total throwaway, featuring 3 minutes of Haig, Moseley and Moon giggling through dirty jokes.
The highlight of the supplements package is Zombie's screen-specific audio commentary, but that's only by comparison. He's a bit too low-key (certainly not what his detractors might expect), and doesn't go for the jugular in nearly the way I hoped. Those hoping to learn more about why Universal dumped the movie at the last-minute due to its grotesque content (it was subsequently saved by Lionsgate after many release delays) will be sorely disappointed. Instead, what we do get is a fairly dry dissection of how each scene was shot, lit and constructed. Surprisingly, Zombie doesn't really discuss his characters at all (other than dismissing his lead girls as "annoying," and the kind that the "audience just wanted to see die"). I really expected to hear more from Zombie about his film's story and its many homages to monster classics past, but instead this is all tech talk.
Rounding out the extras are a batch of Theatrical Trailers for other Lionsgate flicks 'The Punisher,' 'The Condemned,' 'The Descent' and 'Saw III.' Too bad there's no actual trailer for 'House of 1000 Corpses' included.
(Note that all of the video-based supplements listed above are presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only.)
As Rob Zombie's first foray into feature-film directing, 'House of 1000 Corpses' is a not-bad but not-great, trashy little horror flick. Yes, it's highly derivative and it's not particularly scary, but there are enough homages here (not to mention B-movie icon cameos) that fans of the genre should get a kick out of it. As a Blu-ray release, this one's quite strong, boasting a top-notch transfer, a full DTS 7.1 surround track, and decent (if not over-stuffed) set of extras. If you're at all a devotee of Zombie or 'Corpses,' this one's a no-brainer.