Finally arriving after three years on the shelf, two changes in distribution and more trips to the MPAA than you can shake a dismembered limb at, hard-rocker Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” is a cobwebbed, mummified horror entry that makes obvious, cartoonishly grotesque demands for attention. Pic’s much-ballyhooed gore content isn’t really that gory — “Corpses” is about as frightening as trick-or-treating on a warm spring evening — but nevertheless may attract some curiosity-seekers during pic’s opening frame, before a quick segue to video.
There’s some promise in the very early moments of “House of 1000 Corpses,” as aptly named helmer Zombie presents Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig), the not-quite-larger-than-life impresario behind Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Mayhem, a roadside attraction offering gas, food and tributes to famed serial killers. When a carload of twentysomethings pulls up a few days before Halloween — two of them claim to be writing a book about unique tourist attractions — Spaulding puts on his best clown face, regales the young lads and ladies with eerie campfire tales of local horror legends, and proudly sends them through his “murder ride” (actually a bargain-basement funhouse tour with a push-cart chassis).
And when the two aspiring authors seem particularly intrigued by Spaulding’s story about the sinister Dr. Satan, who disappeared after performing brain experiments on hapless mental patients, Spaulding gladly draws them a map, pointing to where they can find out more, and sends them on their way.
The casting of 1970s cult actor Haig as this face-painted, pit-stop P.T. Barnum is inspired. Haig, energized by rediscovery (a la Robert Forster in “Jackie Brown”), plays the part to the hilt, shilling death and fried chicken with equal amounts of garrulous, vaudevillian gusto. Although there could be an enjoyable comic-horror pic built around Spaulding and his tattered psycho-carnival, after his rollicking introduction, the character effectively vanishes until pic’s final scene.
That leaves us with a carload of expendables traveling in the deep-worn tire tracks of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Jeepers Creepers” and other pics that have shown how menacing dusty dirt roads and bare, moonlit expanses can be.
Of course these kids are going to get a flat tire. Of course they’re going to be rescued by a shapely Playboy blonde who “lives nearby.” And of course, the blonde’s family — which includes another ’70s cult figure, Karen Black, as the feather-boa-festooned matriarch Mother Firefly — is a particularly sadistic, merciless bunch. Meanwhile, auds will find out just how merciless 88 minutes can seem.
Pic is a mostly humorless affair, never maximizing the high camp value of Black’s dime store drag or Dennis Fimple’s slobbering, senile grandpa. Tech package doesn’t significantly transcend pic’s low budget, but is decidedly smooth given the crediting of two d.p.s and three film editors. In addition to scripting and helming duties, Zombie also takes co-credit for pic’s shrieking, telegraphic score.