One month ago, Rob Zombie began filming the highly anticipated follow up to The Devil’s Rejects, 3 From Hell. It’s news that feels even more timely considering 2018 marks the 15th anniversary of Zombie’s feature debut and first introduction to the Firefly family, House of 1000 Corpses. A nihilistic, gonzo horror film full of homages and numerous genres while still retaining a distinct style that’s pure Zombie, House of 1000 Corpses offended critics and lodged its way into the hearts of horror fans on April 11, 2003.
Though the film saw theatrical release in 2003, production ended in 2000. The film sat on the shelf for three years once Universal Pictures refused to release the film out of fear it would receive an NC-17 rating. Zombie eventually purchased the rights to the film himself, made a deal with MGM, and then finally Lionsgate acquired it once MGM got cold feet as well. Trimmed down to an R-rating, Lionsgate released the film, quickly made back their investment and then approached Zombie for sequel plans. Despite the uncertainty around the film’s release, that three-year delay actually worked in its favor. When production ended in 2000, violence in media was under scrutiny by Congress after the Columbine High School shooting that took place on April 20, 1999. Many major studios were pulled in to testify in front of Congress about marketing violent movies to children, which included Universal Pictures’ chairman at the time, Stacey Snider. The political climate around media during that period might have meant a very buried release for Zombie’s debut had Snider pushed forward with release, with the likely outcome that we never would’ve gotten The Devil’s Rejects.
The initial partnership between Zombie and Universal Pictures stemmed from Universal wanting a haunted house designed by Zombie for Halloween Horror Nights. While designing the haunt, the concept evolved into the basis for the film. It was a huge success for the theme park event, triggering Universal’s desire to keep their relationship going. They quickly greenlit the project, and Zombie warned them time and time again how extreme he intended to take it. Their abandonment of the project was ultimately their loss.
Following a similar trajectory to the gritty horror of the ‘70s that influenced House of 1000 Corpses, the theatrical release was instantly reviled. A gory, brutal sort of slasher in the vein of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 with Manson family leanings, the narrative centered around a sadistic backwoods Texas family torturing an unwitting group of travelers that cross their paths on Halloween night. That family, the Firefly family, were as colorful in personality as the beautiful neon glow that washed over many of the scenes. That many were named after characters in the Marx Brothers comedy films is indicative of the campy roots behind Zombie’s serial killing clan. Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) from Animal Crackers, Rufus T. Firefly (Robert Allen Mukes) from Duck Soup, Otis (Bill Moseley) from A Night at the Opera, and “Baby” Vera-Ellen (Sheri Moon Zombie) possibly named after the actress who played Maggie in Love Happy.
Zombie’s reverence for film wasn’t just limited to the comedic origins of the characters’ names or in the ‘70s horror that played influence narratively. Even Zombie’s love of Westerns would find its way into House of 1000 Corpses, particularly in Spaulding’s consistent references to John Wayne. There’s a clip of 1932’s The Old Dark House featured in the film, and Baby Firefly also exhibits cinephile tendencies with her odd vaudeville performance and sharing her favorite actress is Bette Davis.
Zombie’s mishmash of cinematic inspirations and the film’s dark house conception were matched in style. The gritty handheld footage of Firefly clan inflicted torture against the pristine neon haze of Spaulding’s dark ride and Dr. Satan’s underground layer is just as manic as the Firefly family themselves. Tonally dark and gory as it is dementedly funny, a late supernatural twist by way of Dr. Satan keeps the entire story off kilter. That Zombie in actually shot dual versions of the film, one far gorier than the other, only furthered the eclectic aesthetic.
House of 1000 Corpses was a bold debut with a distinct style comprised of so many cinematic influences. It wasn’t a flawless film, but it was one steeped in passion and love of cinema. The uneven bits were smoothed over and tethered together by the tremendous performances of its cast. Sig Haig made Spaulding instantly iconic. Bill Moseley made Otis memorably terrifying. Matthew McGrory injected an enormous amount of sympathy toward the Firefly family as quiet yet imposing Tiny. Dennis Fimple gave an energetic, rousing performance as Grandpa Hugo, even when he was very ill and dying of heart disease.
In 2005, the Firefly family would tone down their theatrics for a much grittier grindhouse journey that further embedded themselves into horror fandom, earning a much stronger reception than its predecessor. Even still, House of 1000 Corpses is a bold declaration in horror even 15 years later. As unrelenting and dark as it is twisted and humorous, there’s nothing else like it.