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Demented glory or wretched excess?

Times Staff Writer

Rocker Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” is at once a work of demonic brilliance and of wretched excess that could serve as a timely, savagely comic metaphor for the darkest impulses of the American psyche. Since we seem to be always upping the ante in many aspects of our lives, it stands to reason that the gore quotient keeps on going up in our horror pictures as well.

It’s easy enough to see why Universal, which funded the film, backed off releasing it, and why MGM, which picked it up for a Halloween release, ultimately dropped it as well, leaving an edgier Lions Gate Films to step into the breach. What’s harder to understand is why the Motion Picture Assn. of America didn’t give it a NC-17 rating (no children under 17 admitted). If not this carnival of carnage, then what is the MPAA saving it for?

Let’s give the devil his due. Zombie, who displays a natural flair for the cinematic, has a real appreciation and knowledge of horror pictures and a Diane Arbus-like affinity for sleazy, bizarre Americana and schlock culture. Throughout his fast-moving movie he inserts vintage clips in a witty, telling manner, and as to be expected, Zombie, with Scott Humphries, has come through with a rip-roaring score for his picture.

The film’s opening is terrific. A creepy, grainy black-and-white credit sequence is followed by a wide shot of a seedy old combination roadside gas station and Capt. Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen. Capt. Spaulding, the name a nod to that of Groucho Marx in “Animal Crackers,” is played by big, beak-profiled Sid Haig, whose manic, gonzo presence enlivened many a cheap drive-in flick.

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Capt. Spaulding, who wears a clown costume and makeup, is a shrewd, earthy hick who operates the place with his pal Stucky, played by Michael J. Pollard. These two seemingly goofy but canny types are a zany delight, and that is the effect they have on Jerry (Chris Hardwick), who is writing a book on offbeat roadside attractions. Along for the ride is his girlfriend, Denise (Erin Daniels), and another couple (Jennifer Jostyn and Rainn Wilson). Capt. Spaulding’s Murder Ride turns out to be a Grand Guignol jolter, with tributes to “Psycho” inspiration Ed Gein and other notorious killers, including a local monster nicknamed Dr. Satan.

It seems the doctor, while working at the county hospital, operated on the brains of the mentally ill in an attempt to create a race of superheroes, but eventually ended up hung on a tree by an irate populace. Jerry persuades Capt. Spaulding to write down directions to that tree. At this point the two couples are waylaid by car trouble in the sticks a la “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” where they wind up at the door of a dilapidated house where they are greeted by Karen Black in a blond wig and a hooker get-up. She’s Mother Firefly and has a an equally crazed sexpot daughter, Baby (Sheri Moon), and a scar-tissue-covered, mask-wearing son, Tiny (Matthew McGrory). This setup may sound like a darkly funny scare show is in the works, and while what ensues may strike an ultra-hard-core audience as just that, the endless gore and violence make the experience torturous -- and not just for the victims in the movie.

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‘House of 1000 Corpses’

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MPAA rating: R, for strong sadistic violence/gore, sexuality and language

Times guidelines: Endless images of torture victims, gore-filled violence. Unsuitable for younger audiences.

Sid Haig...Capt. Spaulding

Bill Moseley...Otis

Sheri Moon...Baby

Karen Black...Mother Firefly

Michael J. Pollard...Stucky

A Lions Gate Films presentation. Writer-director Rob Zombie. Producer Andy Gould. Executive producers Andy Given, Guy Oseary. Cinematographers Tom Richmond, Alex Poppas. Editors Kathryn Himoff, Robert K. Lambert, Sean Lambert. Music Rob Zombie, Scott Humphrey. Special makeup effects Wayne Toth. Costumes Amanda Friedland. Production designer Gregg Gibbs. Art director Michael Krantz. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

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In general release.


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