Welcome to Polygon's 13 Days of Halloween series! Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 31, Polygon will publish 13 opinion pieces about different films, shows and specials that exemplify what Halloween means to us. Whether that's the scariest movies you haven't seen yet or a look at a popular Treehouse of Horror episode, this is our tribute to the world of the strange, creepy and downright horrifying that exists within popular culture.
There's a big chunk of the '90s that feels like nothing but filler when it comes to horror.
It wasn't that the '90s produced only terrible horror movies — The Silence of the Lambs, The Blair With Project and Audition all came out within the decade — but for every great scary film, there seemed to be a dozen versions of I Know What You Did Last Summer. Unlike the 1970s era of disturbing exploitation cinema that had redefined the genre, the "WB period of horror," as I refer to it, had replaced the demented with good-looking actors and slashers galore. Unlike the '80s, which had become home to some of the best slasher movies in horror history, the '90s had turned to self-parody and lackluster thrillers.
Horror felt like it was missing something, and that's one of the reasons why Rob Zombie's 2003 directorial debut, House of 1000 Corpses, was an instrumental film in the "Splat Pack" moment that dominated the early aughts.
House of 1000 Corpses follows four teenagers on a road trip across America to see some of the oddest and off-the-beaten-path sideshows. When they stumble upon Captain Spaulding's Museum of Monsters & Madmen, they learn the tale of Dr. Satan, a sadistic murderer who was hanged at a nearby farmhouse. Fascinated, they head out to go see the spot, only to get stuck in a terrible storm, forced to take shelter with the creepy and unsettling Firefly family. Once inside, the night turns into a terrifying nightmare that they can't escape, as they come to realize that the family is not only strange, but also quite deadly.
The premise of the film wasn't that unique and it's not like other movies that were released in the '90s didn't have similar themes. The difference could be seen in Zombie's decision to not pull away at the moment of terror. Unlike films of the '90s that relied on build-up and brief action before pulling away, lending to the audience's imagination, Zombie zooms in on each scene, making it as grotesque and uncomfortable as possible.
This may not seem like a big deal, but think of the movies that influenced Zombie, which he wanted to re-create. House of 1000 Corpses feels like The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and like those movies, Zombie finds the pivotal moments in his movie in the display of violence and the obscene, not in the build up.
In movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer or Scream, which helped define horror in the '90s, the scares delivered are still heavily reliant on the jump that comes from the killer sneaking up on a victim and stabbing them. The murder isn't depicted in extreme detail, but there's just enough displayed on screen for the audience to know what's happening, with music and other visual cues left to help make the scene even scarier.
In many ways, the popular horror films of the '90s felt like they were holding back to attract as big of an audience as possible. Horror had returned as a genre that could make money at the box office, and in order to retain the teenage audience that the genre had always appealed to, they made the films more comical and self-parodying. The element of horror that made it so widely appealing, beloved and radical in the '70s and '80s had been replaced with weaker narratives and a desire to poke fun at the genre that filmmakers loved. It had, in essence, lost what made it special.
When Zombie brought House of 1000 Corpses to cinemas, most people hated it. Critics said it was sexually obscene, immoral with its violence and lacked any kind of coherent storytelling. But the film stayed with horror fans who were looking for something more than what they had been fed for the past 10 years. When House of 1000 Corpses came out, it revolutionized horror again.
When Zombie brought House of 1000 Corpses to cinemas, most people hated it
There's a group of horror directors from the early aughts referred to as the Splat Pack. The name is a take on the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra his cronies from the ring-a-ding 1960s) and the Brat Pack (teen actors from the 1980s Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and Rob Lowe). The Splat Pack was the new hip thing in horror.
James Wan (Saw), Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw 2, Saw 3, Saw 4), Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes), Pascal Laugier (Martyrs) delivered the kind of gory movies that resonated with the audience at the time. They brought back themes of the 1970s and 1980s exploitation films and an audience for them still remained. To date, the Saw franchise is still the highest grossing horror series of all time, beating out others like Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street, Hellraiser, Friday the 13th and even Paranormal Activity.
In a documentary about the rise of "torture porn" movies like Saw and Hostel, some of the aforementioned directors were asked about the new horror scene that had emerged and all credited Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses for kickstarting it.
House of 1000 Corpses received a sequel from the director, The Devil's Rejects, and although it's widely seen as the better movie of the two, it doesn't have the same carnal, shocking or downright demented experience that House of 1000 Corpses delivers. If The Devil's Rejects was Zombie learning how to tell a story and make a film, House of 1000 Corpses was the director as his most enthusiastic and raw, taking everything he loved about horror and seeing how far he could push the envelope.
House of 1000 Corpses isn't Zombie's best work and it didn't define what the torture porn era came to be known for, but it's hard to imagine that wave of genre cinema without its existence.