WHEN ROCK STARS MAKE
...the results are nearly always under whelming. Case in point: HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, written and directed by Rob Zombie, in theaters as I write this (May ’03).
To put it bluntly, the movie blows. It’s poorly paced, incoherent and endlessly derivative...none of which should surprise anyone. A ROCK STAR made the film, after all, not a film director!
Nevertheless, I was really looking forward to HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, thinking Rob Zombie’s death metal sensibilities might make for a welcome change from the wimpishness of so many of today’s PG-13 rated horror movies. His on-the-money comments about the SCREAM films in Fangoria—“I hate that shit with a passion...it’s a bunch of teeny-bopper crap meant to sell more tacos at Taco Bell”—gave me further hope that he might be on the right track. Then there was his 2-year struggle to get the film into theaters.
It went like this: the film was completed in 2000 and originally supposed to be released by Universal. They promptly dropped it and New Line picked it up, only to dump it themselves, leaving Lion’s Gate to finally distribute the film. Such a mad distributor shuffle seemed promising to me, and ended up working in the movie’s favor; the film, it seemed, was too strong for the conservative Hollywood establishment, a fact that, needless to say, made me extremely anxious to see it.
In short, I let myself be caught up in all the hype that made HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES the most hotly anticipated horror movie in recent memory. After experiencing the brain-dead end result, it’s clear we all should have known better. Yes, HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, even in the watered-down R-rated version released to theaters, has most horror movies beat hands-down in the gore department, but in the end it doesn’t matter how many stabbings or eviscerations Zombie heaps in our faces when there’s virtually nothing else to hang onto. It’s not like there’s much in the way of a story (other than a procession of timeworn splatter movie clichés), and characterization? Forget about it.
No, compelling characterization is not integral to the success of a horror movie (I consider THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE one of the greatest horror movies of all time, and yet, outside the bad guys, I have difficulty recalling any of the film’s characters). Neither, frankly, is originality (Wes Craven’s debut films THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, 1972, and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, 1977, are rightly considered classics of the genre, yet both are extremely derivative of other films, the first of Ingmar Bergman’s classic VIRGIN SPRING and the second of the aforementioned TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE). But a film does need something to succeed, and what this one has just isn’t enough—certainly not Zombie’s annoying stylistic overkill (expressed in jarring shock cuts, multiple visual formats, a shot held for fucking ever while we wait for a gun to fire), which never come off as anything more than a behind-the-scenes rock star desperately trying to call attention to himself.
The phenomenon of rock stars making movies certainly isn’t a new one. Back in 1969, Jim Morrison, who repeatedly claimed his real ambition was to be a filmmaker, created a 50-minute chunk of cinemasturbation called HWY: AN MAERICAN PASTORAL. In contrast to HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, though, that film was self-financed and never released commercially.
Another example? Aussie rocker Nick Cave’s work on the script of the stunning 1988 prison drama GHOSTS...OF THE CIVIL DEAD. Cave didn’t write the screenplay himself but wisely collaborated on it with four other, presumably more experienced, writers, and turned the direction over to the talented John Hillcoat.
To be fair, Rob Zombie’s previous filmmaking experience, as director of a dozen or so of his own videos, puts him on an almost equal level with the debuting Hillcoat (a music video helmer prior to making GHOSTS...), as well as the directors of big budgeters like MYSTERY MEN and STIGMATA (incidentally both lousy movies!). Somehow, though, I don’t think it was Rob’s prior cinematic experience that convinced financiers to take a chance on his film, but his name recognition factor.
Take 1998’s STRANGELAND, written, co-produced by and starring former Twister Sister front man Dee Snider, who had even less prior film experience than Rob Zombie. DS sought to make himself into a horror icon a la Jason or Freddie, playing a freak obsessed with body piercing named Captain Howdy who, in Snider’s laughable, by-the-numbers screenplay, ensnares victims via an Internet chat room. The film was intended as the start of a projected franchise; part two has apparently already been written and is ready for filming. All that’s missing is financial backing, which doesn’t appear to be forthcoming; after the disaster of STRAGELAND 1, financiers are understandably not too eager to make the same mistake.
The real question, as I see it, is why was STRANGELAND financed in the first place? On the strength of its script? I doubt it. Dee Snider’s “celebrity” status? Far more likely. Never mind that Twisted Sister went out of fashion before the eighties were up; Snider’s “name value” was apparently enough for movie financiers, always on the lookout for that all-important name recognition factor.
As with HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody that STRANGELAND flat-out sucked...at least until it was released. Frankly, neither movie exactly lit the box office on fire.
The real tragedy here is that while these lousy movies are given large-scale theatrical releases, quite a few much better horror films have gone without. The weird and wonderful BUBBA HO-TEP, completed in ’02, has yet to find a distributor, despite the fact that fan reaction has thus far been solid, and early showings (in particular a recent screening at LA’s Cinematheque) have consistently sold out. Such things don’t matter to distributors, it seems, who need a “hook” like, for instance, the presence of a rock star behind the camera. This is why HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES’ distributor Lion’s Gate Films apparently chose to dump its brilliant ‘02 acquisition MAY—another extremely well-received, though untraditional horror movie—onto video, bypassing a theatrical release altogether.
In the meantime, it seems that Rob Zombie has more
movies in the works. Maybe he’ll get it right in the future or maybe he won’t.
HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES wasn’t the first horror movie to be made by a rock star
and, unfortunately for us, I’m sure it won’t be the last.