Dayna Christensen used her contribution to the Carry On Campaign to ask me to review "a bad horror movie from the last ten years". I wish I'd been able to come up with something a bit more imaginative for her, but the harder I tried to come up with anything else, to more I was certain that the very worst horror film of the 2000s could only ever be...
House of the Dead! Four little words, but they are enough to make a brave, hardened B-movie fanatic quake. In delight? In abject fear?
In a little bit of both, maybe. House of the Dead, as you likely know, was the breakthrough film by director Uwe Boll, who in one fell swoop made himself something of a household name, established himself as the go-to guy for cinematic video game adaptations, and staked an unassailable claim for himself as the worst goddamn filmmaker of a generation. Which is enough to make some of us respect him almost as much as we fear and hate him. Without getting in a whole thing about Boll's career, which is as prolific as it is disreputable (he has completed nineteen films since 2000, two-thirds of that since 2005), I merely posit this: hardly any filmmakers, be they as powerful as Spielberg, as detail-obsessed as Tarantino, as methodical as Malick, as psychotically German as Herzog, have produced so many films in such a span of time which, each and every one, bears the clear marks of being exactly the movie that the director intended to put forth. You may loathe House of the Dead - you may abominate House of the Dead as a crime against humanity - you may be willing to throw out the whole of world cinema for more than a century in an attempt to wipe House of the Dead from history - but you can never deny that House of the Dead is, to its last frame, everything that Uwe Boll desired that it should be.
I am not come to sing a song of praise to Uwe Boll, however - though there would never be a better place to do it than here, with the movie that made the director all the things he has ever since been. No, I am here to talk about the most jaw-droppingly ill-conceived horror movie of the last ten, no, let's call it twenty, years. A film so etiologically dysfunctional, that it in one instant proved Boll the modern equivalent to the great Crap Auteurs of history men like Ed Wood and Coleman Francis and Al Adamson. Not just because he is untalented! The Wood-Boll comparison is made readily enough on the grounds that both men were the most inept filmmakers of their day, but it goes deeper than that: their ineptitude walks hand-in-hand with a whole-hearted, totally fearless commitment to concepts that no reasonable person could ever defend as "good" (or, arguably, "sane"), leading to films so fascinating in their anti-cinematic brokenness that they become far more entertaining than a merely terrible film could ever be.
For House of the Dead, that dumbfounding conceptual idiocy lies not in the fact that it is a video game adaptation (a subgenre 10 years old by that point), or that it has virtually nothing to do with the video game it is nominally adapted from; nor that it was self-evidently a knock-off of the previous year's Resident Evil, another "video game about zombies" movie that, under the graceless hand of Paul W.S. Anderson, is merely terrible. The problem is not that executive producer, co-writer, and co-scenarist Mark Altman seemed to think that his hastily-cobbled pastiche of elements from George A. Romero and Lucio Fulci zombie pictures, tied together by out-of-place Star Trek jokes and a woefully inarticulate sense of youth culture. At least, that isn't the overriding problem.
No- the single great gaping hole in the center of House of the Dead's empty skull is Boll's decision to stage it as much like a video game as he possibly could: with action choreography that mimics the way you might think video game action works if you've not really played one, with "death animation" for the major characters, and most famously and infamously, footage from the game worked right into the movie. I love it so much that I am going to repeat it for emphasis: footage from the game worked into the movie. This is done simply, at first: just a quick shot of the first-person character shooting a zombie done to transition us from one scene to another (and it's not even done artlessly, considering what an artless idea it is in the first place). But by the end of the film, game footage has literally replaced live-action footage: shoot-outs are a psychotic mixture of movie characters pulling triggers and game zombies getting shot. And the more we see of the game footage, the more time we're given to notice things like the score, the "Player 2 Press Start" alert, and other things that Boll probably intended all along despite the fact that their presence has an actively deleterious effect on a movie already trying to cope with the fact that it is a slurry of two entirely different visual media.
The movie takes place on an island off the western coast of Canada, called by the locals "Isla de Muerte", the name given it in the old conquistador days.
OH MY GOD I LOVE that in the first sentence of my plot synopsis, I already get to the first heaping pile of the movie's asininity. Everything we hear about the background of the island - it was the home of an evil Spanish mad scientist hoping to discover the secret of immortality about 400 years ago, and it has a Spanish name - makes it increasingly impossible to avoid the conclusion that it's meant to be in the Caribbean. And it's just as impossible not to be aware, in every single detail of geology and fauna, that we're within an hour of Vancouver. This was done, of course, because of the impenetrable chain of tax issues which have caused the German-born Boll to shoot virtually all of his films in Canada, or at least with the aid of Canadian money (the question is often raised: "Why does this man get to keep making films?", and the answer is unexpectedly straightforward: they're cheap enough that the production company - which Boll owns - has already made back the production cost just in tax credits).
Isla de Muerte is the home of the year's biggest rave, we are told by the rasping voiceover of Rudy (Jonathan Cherry), one of several young-ish people who is making a pilgrimage to that event (I say "young-ish"; it's impossible to determine if the protagonists are meant to be in their mid-to-late 20s and thus much to old to be journeying to distant island-based raves, or if their are teenagers played by wildly unconvincing adult actors. Alternately - since what we see of the rave reveals both that it completely sucks and that the filmmakers didn't have the first clue what a "rave" is, perhaps they're just over-privileged twits with Peter Pan complexes). Unfortunately, Rudy's friends, who are numerous enough and interchangeable enough that I couldn't keep them apart well enough to tell you who they are, are running behind, which is why they have to hop on a boat, owned by arms smuggler Captain Kirk (Jürgen Prochnow, who was once a trustworthy and important German actor, but whose decline does not, as it is sometimes claimed, begin with this film, which wasn't even his first performance for Uwe Boll. At a bare minimum, Wing Commander was four years earlier).* Kirk's first mate is Salish (Clint Howard), a colossally slimy and unpleasant man, played by Howard in just the right measure of screeching awfulness to make it clear that the actor knew how bad the script was, and decided to have some fun with it. This is true of nobody else in the movie: certainly not the host of young people, nor Prochnow, who makes the intensely bad choice of giving a sincere and thoughtful Jürgen Prochnow performance in an Uwe Boll movie about conquistador zombies off the coast of Vancouver, and thus humiliate himself about as much as any legitimate actor has ever done in any project.
The kids - Simon (Tyron Leitso), Greg (Boll mainstay Will Sanderson), Cynthia (Sonja Salomaa), Karma (Enuka Okuma), and Rudy's ex, Alicia (Ona Grauer) - the other four are paired off, but I don't remember in quite what order; Greg and Cynthia, I think, and then Simon and Karma - and the mercenaries make it to the island, pursued by Kirk's nemesis, indomitable federal agent Jordan Casper (Ellie Cornell), and they find that the rave has been shut down. We've already seen why: zombies. They quickly find the zombies, and run about a bit, and eventually find a house in the middle of the woods (a house... of the dead?), where Rudy is hiding with two others, Liberty (Kira Clavell) and Hugh (Michael Eklund), because it wasn't tricky enough keeping track of everybody. They try to get back to the boat, but then they go back to the house and zombies happen over and over again and eventually the tiny number of survivors who have made it through all the levels - I'm sorry, each suspiciously partitioned wave of zombie attacks - meet the evil conquistador wizard Castillo (David Palffy), who came to the island to discover the secret to immortality.
In a screenplay filled with more bad dialogue than even the most ambitious chronicler of crimes against the language could keep track of, my all-time favorite is probably this:
RUDY: "You did all this to become immortal? Why?"
CASTILLO: "To live forever!"
As scripted, it's just a cheap Romero pastiche, with the inordinate bad taste to name-check Romero in the most ham-fisted way imaginable. That wouldn't be enough to make it immortal; but Boll, as cynical and mercenary as he might be, had a Vision. And that Vision included not just video game footage; it included so much unexplained colored light pouring in over ever surface (a characteristic visual trope of Boll's early work); and it included a Cuisinart-cut 10-minute fight scene in which every single character is given the same LOOKATMEE!!! moment when they're put in the middle of a turntable and the camera buzzes around them at about 70 mph, while they fail entirely to look badass; and a legendarily awful "bullet time shot" in which Casper and a shotgun face off against a zombie with an axe. It included multiple character deaths accompanied by a red-washed series of shots flashing back to events which may or may not involve that character, as the camera does that whooshing 360º thing.
It's just straight-up hypnotic: not one single choice the director made works, and the whole effect is literally incredible. Anyone who has seen more than one or two movies knows enough about the artform to understand that House of the Dead is hardly a movie at all. It's performance art, or something close to it, so willfully opposed to everything that decades of refinement have established as cinematic grammar that I am unable to decide if Boll is a genius or just evil. Whatever the case, House of the Dead is an experience not soon forgotten, and though I cannot begin to claim that I'm a better person for having seen it, it's certainly more entertaining, in the most perverse possible way, than just about anything else released in that decade. This isn't just so-bad-it's-good filmmaking; it transcendentally redefines what the lower depths to which "badness" can aspire.
*Autobiographical note: it was the first time I saw House of the Dead that I invented a game that I play to this day. Upon seeing his name in the credits, unexpectedly, I wrinkled my nose and uttered aloud with dismay - in an empty apartment - "Jürgen fucking Prochnow is in this?" And now, whenever his name comes up in the opening credits, I shout as loud as propriety allows, "JÜRGEN FUCKING PROCHNOW!", a habit which has ruined more than one repertory screening of Das Boot.† I'll bet you're hugely excited that I've shared this with you.
†I have not, in fact, ever screamed, "JÜRGEN FUCKING PROCHNOW!" at a screening of Das Boot, although now I really want to.