Friday, April 19, 2013

Worth Mentioning - A Big Chase + A Big Chest

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody talks Rob Zombie's feature debut, a Wynorski classic, and a lost member of the Bond family.

HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003)

The build-up to this weekend's release of Rob Zombie's latest film brought to my attention the astounding fact that this month also marks the tenth anniversary of the release of his feature directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses. (Referred to as HO1KC by those who are into the whole brevity thing.)

There was a lot of hype for the movie in April '03 - three years worth of it, in fact. The announcement that Zombie would be directing the film for Universal hit trades in April of 2000 and shooting commenced soon after, with the initial plan being to have the movie in theatres in early 2001. Instead, what came out in early '01 was news that Universal had decided not to release the film, feeling that it was too graphic and intense to receive an R rating and thus not fit to be put out by the studio. Rather than let it languish on shelf, though, they did hand the distribution rights over to Zombie so he could shop it around. In mid-2002, MGM showed interest in putting the movie out in time for Halloween... and less than two months after that news, MGM also decided to drop it. Eventually, Zombie found a good home for his film at Lionsgate, which I already knew at that time as a bastion for movies with controversial content that made them a hard sell for other studios; they had saved Kevin Smith's Dogma when Miramax dropped it in reaction to protests by the Catholic League, and had also released Bryan Johnson's Smith-produced clown rape and revenge movie Vulgar.

Lionsgate set the release date for April 11, 2003, and I was excited to check it out. I wasn't a huge fan of Zombie's music, but the man clearly had a passion for horror that made it intriguing to see what he would do in the genre himself. Plus he had assembled a great cast that included familiar faces and names like Tom Towles, Karen Black, Sid Haig, Irwin Keyes, Michael J. Pollard, Chris Hardwick, and Bill Moseley, who had played the character Chop Top amazingly in my beloved Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Zombie's story had a very Texas Chainsaw sort of set-up and the trailers made it look like the Chainsaw franchise filtered through the fever dreams of a cracked-out funhouse operator. I was all for it.

When HO1KC did reach theatres, it wasn't at any of the ones in my general vicinity. The closest screen showing it was 90 miles away, but that didn't stop me from seeing it opening weekend. I hit the road. Along the way, I listened to the soundtrack (my favorite tracks were Buck Owens' "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass?" and The Ramones' "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue") and the car got a flat tire, so the day had to be saved by AAA. Eventually, I did make it to the movie.

After three years of waiting and the troubled trip to the theatre, I was very disappointed with House of 1000 Corpses when I first saw it.

It had a solid story at its foundation - a group of friends in the 1970s on a road trip to visit various roadside attractions around the country, gathering information for a book they're compiling, learn the legend of a madman called Doctor Satan, a mental hospital intern who performed experimental brain surgery on the patients in attempt to create his very own race of superhumans. Doctor Satan was hanged from a tree by a vigilante mob, but his body disappeared. The road trippers' search for the hanging tree soon goes bad and they end up trapped in in the home of a family of bloodthirsty maniacs (most of whom are named after characters from Marx Brothers movies, although that's not addressed in the film) just in time for Halloween. The problem was, I did not like the execution.

Zombie had directed the music videos for his own band before entering the feature world, but he was still in music video mode when he was assembling this movie. The editing was quick and scattered, scenes were chopped up like crazy, there were cutaways to oddball interludes and randomness, the stock would change, some shots were negative images. I thought most of this was a misguided attempt to replicate the style of Natural Born Killers, and only NBK should try to be NBK.

To be honest, I had read the script before I saw the movie, and that added to my problems with the finished version. It had all come off better on the page, things made more sense. It was clear that the interludes with people going on about a skunk ape or ranting that "This is Hell!" was footage that the road trippers had shot at roadside attractions. There were no Manson Family-esque video clips or moments of cheerleader torture to give away the family's villainy before they attacked the group. Things flowed in a more straightforward manner. What reached theatres, I felt was a mess.

Over the years, with further viewings enabling me to get accustomed to the film's erratic style, I have warmed up to HO1KC. I'm still not a big fan of the movie, but I'm not as put off from it as I was ten years ago. I've learned to take it for what it is rather than what I would've liked it to have been... which I should've done in the first place.

Like I said about Tarantino in my Mentioning of Django Unchained, Zombie was clearly filtering his appreciation and enthusiasm for some of his horror favorites into the making of this movie, and he was drawing from some greats. HO1KC does owe a lot to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it's also equally indebted to Jack Hill's 1968 cult classic Spider Baby (which featured a young Sid Haig) and a 1932 James Whale film called The Old Dark House, footage of which is featured in the movie. The Old Dark House was a Universal release, and Zombie took advantage of the fact that he was making his film at a studio that was once a horror powerhouse, filling it with clips from and references to movies in their back catalog like The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Interestingly, in my experience the movie has turned out to be especially popular with female viewers. In its discussion thread on a Friday the 13th message board I was frequenting at the time of its 2003 release, its biggest fan was a woman. Within the last few years, I've been to the homes of two others who proudly displayed House of 1000 Corpses in their DVD collections, singling it out as one of their favorite horror movies and one that they revisit every October.

In the ten years since House came out, Zombie has made four more movies, including the HO1KC sequel The Devil's Rejects that won over a lot of his first film's critics - including myself, I loved The Devil's Rejects - and two Halloween movies that were met with an onslaught of ridiculously relentless negativity from some of that series' fans. His latest is The Lords of Salem, which hit theatres today. Unfortunately, much like House of 1000 Corpses, seeing it would require a 90 mile drive for me to get to the closest theatre showing it. I'm very interested in checking it out, but at this point I'm more willing to wait a while to see if a movie will reach a screen closer to me.


Cult film icon/director Jim "Popatopolis" Wynorski has said that the keys to making a successful film are "a big chase and a big chest", a formula that he definitely employed to entertaining effect on this popular slasher flick.

Produced by Roger Corman's wife Julie Corman under a pseudonym, the movie started life as an original idea called The Seance. It wasn't until the finished product was screened for Roger that he decided it could be marketed as an in-title-only sequel to Sorority House Massacre, a slasher he had executive produced (uncredited) in 1986 that was an obvious carbon copy of John Carpenter's Halloween.

Even though it has nothing to do with the previous Massacre, the Sorority House moniker does fit the film, because it focuses on five sorority girls who are moving into the rundown house that was recently purchased at a cheap price for them to turn into their new sorority house. The place needs a lot of work to fix it up, but that's not the only reason why they got it so cheap: one girl soon reveals to the others that it's also a murder house - five years earlier, a man named Clive Hockstatter killed his wife and daughters there and then went after some of the neighbors before being killed himself. As you might imagine, the girls are unnerved by that information.

With the movers scheduled to arrive with their stuff at 6 in the morning, the same time the phone and electric workers will get there, the girls arrive the evening before to spend their first night in their new home. Night falls, a storm blows in, and the girls find that they have a very creepy person living across the street, a guy who likes to lurk around and keep an eye on them - Orville Ketchum, described as "300 pounds of bad news". As the night goes on, the girls investigate the basement, finding a Ouija board. They think it'd be a great idea to hold a seance to contact the spirit of Clive Hockstatter... and that's when their night really goes bad.

It is said that Hockstatter was in league with the devil, but the detective who worked the case suspected that he was actually in league with Orville Ketchum. It just couldn't be proven. The detective's suspicion deepens when a disturbance call is received from the old Hockstatter place. A call that he can't respond to because the storm has knocked a bridge out... None of the girls make this call, the phone doesn't work in the house anyway, and nothing has happened yet for them to call the police even if they could have when the detective enters the picture talking about it, but nevermind all that.

Soon after the seance, the girls start getting knocked off one-by-one by a mysterious slasher. Hockstatter? Ketchum? Someone else entirely?

Wynorski uses the set-up of having a group of girls spending the night in an old dark house to get his actresses to show a whole lot of flesh. They take showers early on and then change into skimpy night clothes that they wear throughout the horrific events that follow. (Thus why it's listed with the subtitle Nighty Nightmare some places.) When the detective goes to talk to a female survivor of the Hockstatter massacre about the possibility of Ketchum being an accomplice, of course the girl is now working as a stripper, and we are privy to her dance routine. Among the cast members are porn stars Barbii and Savannah.

While the interiors were sets on a stage, the exteriors of the house were shot on South Harvard Boulevard in Los Angeles. This same house was a location in Teenage Exorcist and some of the Witchcraft sequels, it's right next door to the Evil Toons house, and Orville Ketchum lives in another Witchcraft house that was also the setting for Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs.

I first saw Sorority House Massacre II on The Movie Channel in the early '90s, and at that time I was very confused by the fact that the flashbacks to the Hockstatter murders were actually clips from Slumber Party Massacre, a movie that I had already seen, so I knew that the killer in the footage was Russ Thorn, not Clive Hockstatter, and he wasn't related to his victims at all. I didn't know at that time that the same producer (Roger Corman) was behind both films, or about the money saving concept of using stock footage. My first viewing of SHM2 may well have been hosted by the great Joe Bob Briggs, who gave a popular quote about the movie: "There may have been better horror films made, but not with this many women in their underwear." If you read Joe Bob's essential rules for how to make a horror film, he's basically describing this one.

Sorority House Massacre II is an enjoyable slasher cheapie. If you're in the mood for some mindless exploitation fun, it's just what the doctor (Satan) ordered.

On April 12th, screenwriter Michael France passed away. France was the man who scripted James Bond's triumphant return to the big screen in 1995's GoldenEye after the series had been hindered by six years of legal issues. I recommend having a viewing of the movie in his memory.

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