[Screen It]

(2003) (Sid Haig, Billy Moseley) (R)

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Horror: Two couples encounter more than they bargained for when they go searching for a macabre landmark and end up terrorized by a houseful of sadistic killers.
It's October 30, 1977 and Jerry Goldsmith (CHRIS HARDWICK) and Bill Hudley (RAINN WILSON) are two young men traveling across the state with their girlfriends, Denise Willis (ERIN DANIELS) and Mary Knowles (JENNIFER JOSTYN). About ready to run out of gas, they pull off on an exit that leads them to Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters and Madmen. Bill is fascinated by the place and asks many questions of Spaulding (SID HAIG), a bizarre fellow who convinces the four to take his tour.

During that, they learn about a local legend, Dr. Satan, who performed primitive surgery on mentally handicapped patients in hopes of creating a super race of humans. He was caught and hung, but his body mysteriously disappeared. After Spaulding informs them that the spot of the hanging is nearby, Bill convinces the others they must see it.

Along the way, they pick up hitchhiker Baby (SHERI MOON) who claims she lives nearby and knows of that macabre spot for which they're searching. When a local man, Rufus (ROBERT MUKES), shoots out their tire, however, they end up heading back to Baby's place where they await for their car to be repaired.

There, they meet Baby's bizarre "family," including Mother Firefly (KAREN BLACK) and Grampa Hugo (DENNIS FIMPLE), the disfigured and thus masked Tiny (MATTHEW MCGRORY), as well as the aggressive and long-haired Otis (BILL MOSELEY). Little does the foursome realize that these people have recently kidnapped five high school cheerleaders and are currently torturing them in sadistic ways.

When Denise's father, Don Willis (HARRISON YOUNG), informs the local police that she and her friends never arrived, he joins officers George Wydell (TOM TOWLES) and Steve Naish (WALTON GOGGINS) in a search for them. As they do so, the foursome quickly realize they're in deep trouble as the family sets its sights on them. From that point on, they try to do whatever they can to survive the gruesome and sadistic behavior that awaits them.

OUR TAKE: 0 out of 10
Most everyone in the movie industry will argue about to what degree critics influence their readers, viewers and/or listeners about what to see or skip. Whatever the case, and unless they have a real stinker on their hands, studios want the press to see their picture, hoping that they'll get a positive reaction or at least a few usable quotes for their promotional materials.

When even that doesn't seem the case, they release the film with a "cold opening," meaning that critics don't get to see it before it opens with the hope that the initial weekend take will be big enough to temper what's likely going to be bad worth of mouth.

That's not as bad, however, as having a studio initially agree to release the film only to then decide not to do so. As bad as that might be, it's certainly not the slap in the face of opening cold, and having two studios drop you from their release schedules.

The word on the street is that first Universal and then MGM reportedly did so regarding Rob Zombie's "House of 1,000 Corpses" due to the violence (especially a few years back when Congress was after Hollywood for pushing such violent fare on kids).

Methinks, however, that they dropped the film because they realized it was an awful and pitiful excuse for real filmmaking. Having seen this horror flick, I can say they were correct in their assessment and made the right choice to distance themselves from this mess.

Lions Gate Films, however, was the studio brave and/or foolish enough to pick up this film that marks the writing and directorial debut of Zombie. A hard rocker with a loyal following, the performer does not have a starring role in the effort that's supposedly influenced by his love of horror films of old.

Truth be told, it appears that films such as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "Last House on the Left" and yes, even "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" had the greatest influence. They all have the same basic underlying plot (people stuck in a house with a bunch of homicidal loonies). Like "RHPS," this one features a larger set of bizarre characters - including a creepy, long-haired guy that kept reminding me of Riff Raff (but without the humor) -- and even a kitschy musical number presented as something of a stage production.

Unfortunately, there's no "Time Warp" to allow viewers to either skip ahead an hour and a half and escape this tedious and poorly made horror film, or conversely, go back and rethink their decision to lay down their hard-earned money for something that so clearly does not deserve it.

A lot of cinematic violence and blood and guts have come and gone since those earlier horror "classics" hit the big screen, and this one's efforts to emulate and/or induce the same sort of shock fall far short. That's not only due to viewers being acclimated and/or desensitized to such sadistic violence (that populated about a gazillion slasher films since then), but also because Zombie apparently couldn't direct himself out of a music video.

Although the setup and story are far from original (as they basically follow "TCM" here), there's always some degree of inherent potential - horror style - present. The cinematic neophyte, however, bungles even that. Little if any of the film is truly or even remotely scary or suspenseful (unless you're very young and/or have extremely low tolerance levels for such mayhem), and Zombie mistakes MTV style editing, grainy footage and all sorts of related and unrelated cutaways for real filmmaking. The result is a flat, tedious and overlong experience that will drive away all but the most hardened Zombie fans.

The poor to awful writing and performances don't help matters. I suppose one could argue that the victims have been created in homage of sorts or as a spoof of such characters in those horror and slasher films from the 1970s (when this story is set). Whatever the case, those embodied by Chris Hardwick ("Jane White is Sick & Twisted," "Art House"), Erin Daniels ("One Hour Photo," "Chill Factor"), Jennifer Jostyn ("Milo," "Deep Impact") and Rainn Wilson ("America's Sweethearts," "Almost Famous") are one-dimensional types that don't elicit any sort of empathy or sympathy from the viewer.

For a film like this - that's all about watching the victims trying to survive or escape the brutal attacks - that's as deadly a problem as a knife across the old jugular. Walton Goggins ("The Bourne Identity," "Shanghai Noon") and Tom Towles ("Gridlock'd," "Mad Dog and Glory") appear as some cops and Harrison Young ("The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," "Blast From the Past") plays a concerned father, but none are around long enough to make a difference.

Then there are those who play the oddball denizens of the little town. Sid Haig ("Jackie Brown," "Lambada, the Forbidden Dance") appears as the demented, made-up and profane owner of a macabre museum. He's a pussycat, however, compared to the likes of Bill Moseley ("Army of Darkness," "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid"), Karen Black ("The Great Gatsby," "Burnt Offerings") and Sheri Moon (making her debut) - among others - who play characters written and performed to the extreme, but surprisingly without being terribly shocking, interesting or memorable.

Forced to speak some downright awful dialogue and act as if they're performing in a purposefully bad community theater production, the performances are embarrassing, particularly to Black who once earned an Oscar nomination for her work in "Five Easy Pieces."

Some may argue that everything's purposefully overdone and/or played badly in a tongue in cheek sort of manner. I'd accept that if the results were original, entertaining (for a film like this), funny, scary or a combination thereof, but none of it is.

Appropriately titled for the final, deadly result it might have on a packed movie house -- as if that would occur for a film like this -- being subjected to such inanity and awful filmmaking, "House of 1,000 Corpses" rates as a 0 out of 10.

Reviewed April 11, 2003 / Posted April 11, 2003

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