House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

Director: Rob Zombie

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Certification: 18

Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley, Karen Black, Rainn Wilson, Chris Hardwick

After directing music videos and working as an animator on Beavis and Butthead Do America, Rob Zombie came up with the idea for his feature-directorial debut while designing a haunted house attraction for Universal Studios. After completing production, the film was shelved due to fears of it receiving an NC-17 rating, until Zombie eventually purchased the film's rights. A deal with MGM fell through, leading to Lions Gate Entertainment signing on to release House of 1000 Corpses. What followed was a profitable success which spawned two sequels, and built the directorial career of the former White Zombie frontman.

Set across Halloween, 1977, the film opens on a nostalgic looking show styled as though it's playing on an old TV. Dr. Wolfenstein's Creature Feature Show then takes a break, where an advert plays for Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madness, with the titular clown (Sid Haig) promising such things as the alligator boy, a murder ride, and tasty fried chicken. As viewers see from his introductory scene, Haig terrifically breathes life into the foul-mouthed clown who can switch between jovial and sinister instantly, while relishing the murderous mayhem that's central to his business.

Arriving at the museum are Bill (Rainn Wilson), Mary (Jennifer Jostyn), Jerry (Chris Hardwick), and Denise (Erin Daniels), a group on a road-trip to research off-beat roadside attractions for their book. While taking the murder ride through a history of serial killers, the group learns about a local legend of Dr. Satan, which drives the irritating Jerry to go searching for the tree where Dr. Satan was supposedly hung from.

After picking up a hitchhiker named Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie), all goes wrong when the group need a tyre replaced. They wait at the home of the Firefly clan, Baby's family, who celebrate Halloween with ongoing festivities, although the guests notice signs that something is not right. Intercut into the story are scenes of the Fireflies' horrific actions, including torturing and murdering a group of cheerleaders, making audiences aware of the lurking danger the teenagers face. Bringing alive the expansive family are a combination of interesting performances and uninteresting tropes, including Karen Black relishing her matriarch role.

While utilizing great lighting and set decoration, Zombie captures a sense of the uncanny within this horrific corner of the world through jittery editing choices, shaky camera work, and an abundance of slow-motion. The most interesting decision is during an execution of police officers, as the scene holds on the stillness before the final kill. As the moment before the trigger is pulled lasts a lifetime, it feels as though viewers are witnessing the execution through the victim's eyes. Even if they don't all work, there are interesting stylistic choices made within this feature debut.

As the group find themselves thrown into an unfathomable ordeal by a family of murderous Texans, the influence of 1974's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is clear. The difference is that, while Tobe Hooper delivered an unsettling nightmare, Zombie's feature more resembles a funhouse ride. There's a scuzzy feel to the life the Firefly clan inhabit, as the depths of their sadism leaves the journey resembling an unending nightmare for the group, before a horrific third-act descent leaves no respite for the victims amidst constant torment. Equally showing promise for Zombie alongside the excesses his further films would indulge in, this is an effective start for the director.

House of 1000 Corpses is available in the US on 20th Anniversay Blu-Ray Premium Box Set, and on Best Buy Blu-Ray Exclusive Steelbook