Film discussion

The Road to 3 From Hell – House of 1000 Corpses

Back at the turn of the millennium, Rob Zombie made the jump from creating high-octane heavy metal music and turned his eye to directing horror films. Anyone that had seen any of the Universal Monster inspired music videos that the man had previously directed could see a future in batshit-crazy horror movies for the eccentric artist. Nearly 20 years later and Zombie is getting ready to unleash the much anticipated 3 From Hell on the world. Seems like a fine time to revisit the films that got us to this point.

The road to 3 From Hell starts at the front door of the House of 1000 Corpses. But to get there was a stroke of luck, a twist of fate and a real uphill battle.

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While working for Universal, designing and building a haunted house attraction – after previously designing one of the studio’s annual haunted mazes – Zombie was pulled into a meeting and asked if he had any ideas for movies. Caught out and on his back foot, the hopeful director pitched the studio House of 1000 Corpses which he was using as the title for his haunted house. A film about a gaggle of teenagers documenting their road trip to discover all the back woods haunts they can find, that goes horribly wrong for them. The studio snapped Zombie’s hand off at their next meeting when he brought them a dozen pages worth of initial treatment. Rob Zombie didn’t screw around once he got the ok to make the film. A couple of months after his meetings, the film was in production. 

“Howdy Folks! You like blood? Violence? Freaks of nature? Well then, come on down to Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Mad-Men.”

The first time feature director dragged horror legend Sid Haig out of retirement to play Captain Spaulding, a clown who owns a rest stop/horror museum. Spaulding tells the travelling documentary makers – the little known at the time foursome consisting of Rainn Wilson (The Office), Chris Hardwick (@midnight), Erin Daniels (The L Word), and Jennifer Justin (Deep Impact) – of local legend Doctor Satan. The story pricks up the ears of the group and they insist on more information to begin their search for the ultimate urban folktale. Little did we know as the film began that Spaulding and his cronies would be the accidental protagonists in this gory grind house flick. 

Joining Haig’s, frankly hilarious, clown was the Firefly family. Baby (Rob Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon-Zombie): the hot hitchhiker stuck in the rubbish weather that the fearless four pick up on their travels. Who would have thought this turned out to be their undoing? Tiny: Baby’s scarred and deformed giant of a brother played by the world record holding Matthew McGrory. Otis B Driftwood: played with Oscar worthy brilliance by the legendary Bill Moseley; the adopted brother of the family and the one who wears his psychotic tendencies right on his chest for everyone to see. This who’s who of cult horror icons was brought together by Karen Black (Burnt Offerings) who rounded the psychos up together as Mother Firefly, the head of this crazy clan.

While the intention, as it always is with horror films, was to make the teenagers not long for this world to be the focus of the film and the ones the audience were supposed to root for, Zombie made the Firefly family just too damn fun. In a move that would be fully embraced in the film’s first sequel, the crazy clan were written and filmed in such a way that they were hilariously goofy, brilliantly violent and, frankly, the best reason audiences have had to root and cheer for the bad guys since Pitch Black‘s Riddick. Otis, Baby and Spaulding quickly found their place in the hallowed halls of horror bad guy history and Rob Zombie flung a crisp white but blood splattered calling card onto the table that read simply “Rob Zombie: Filmmaker and Worshipper of Bad Guys”.

Filmed mostly on the Universal Studios lot, and using the house from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas – which was open to the public as part of the studio tour – Zombie put HO1KC together in just 25 days. A number which could have probably been dropped by around a quarter if he wasn’t filming different, blood and gore free, versions of scenes to try and pre-emptively appease the studio he was working with. As a first-time film director, Rob Zombie was open and honest with Universal as to what he wanted to make.

“God damn motherfucker got blood all over my best clown suit!”

In an interview with AV Club, Zombie says: “I was really blatant when I talked to them. I didn’t want to get into a situation where they thought I was making something mainstream. And I told them that I wanted to make a drive-in movie, something very gritty and nasty and weird.” Apparently, even when being really up front about your intentions, executives just hear what they want to hear. Or don’t understand the man and his vision. Because soon after the film was finished and it was given its box-office killing NC-17 rating – a battle the director has fought with multiple times in his career – Universal decided not to release it. At all. In a world before video-on-demand and Netflix, it meant certain death for the film and Zombie’s career as a director.

Not to be dissuaded, Zombie actually bought the rights to House of 1000 Corpses from Universal and shopped it to MGM a couple of years later in 2002. Unfortunately for him, Rob Zombie apparently made a joke about the company having no morals – a response to Universal citing the film having no moral value – and the company dropped the release like a hot steamer had just been plopped in their hands.

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A year later, now 2003 and three years since the film was finished, Lions Gate approached Rob Zombie for his film. Wanting to branch out into horror films and see where it took them – to films like Saw just a few years later, it turns out – they offered to release the by this point notorious film. Zombie agreed to edit the film slightly so it could receive a much more box office friendly R rating and the film finally saw the light of day in April 2003 – 35 months after initial shooting began. 

The film that looks and feels like one of Zombie’s music videos wears its grindhouse influences on its sleeve. It’s a grimy, gory 88 minutes that is guaranteed to make those watching wince and squirm. It’s everything the first time film director wanted from it. House of 1000 Corpses divides audiences right down the middle. Some love it while other loathe it, there is no real middle ground here. If ultraviolent hillbilly horror is your cup of tea, HO1KC and its near perfect Rob Zombie-written soundtrack is calling for you. If you don’t really like blood, violence, freaks of nature, then the film that introduces us to the Firefly clan – who are soon to return for the long awaited second sequel 3 from Hell – probably isn’t for you.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it.

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