How The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced us to pure dread.
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HAS THERE EVER BEEN AN AMERICAN horror film as profoundly despairing as Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Released in the waning days of the Vietnam/Watergate era, the movie upended virtually every scary-movie trope and replaced it with pure, unrelenting dread. The protagonists aren’t the usual horror flick types, whose gruesome fates are often a direct consequence of their drug abuse or sexual experimentation; instead, they’re five young people who just happen to have really lousy luck, when their road trip detour lands them in the clutches of a homicidal maniac. And whereas most cinematic monsters have a weakness that can be triumphed over (think Dracula and sunlight), this movie gives us Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a literally faceless killer who slices and dices his hapless victims, regardless of how doggedly they resist.
Well, the despair is back, in more ways than one. Early next month, New Line will release The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, a prequel to Marcus Nispel’s 2003 Chainsaw remake (see “Gory Details”). The movie, which seeks to illuminate Leatherface’s family history, might very well turn out to be just another quick-to-video gorefest. But its arrival in theaters coincides with a number of other recent, surprisingly accomplished horror titles, all deeply indebted to Hooper: Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, about three carefree twentysomethings who are kidnapped by a serial killer; Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes, about a family of RV-ers who are preyed upon by nuclear-radiated mutants; and Eli Roth’s Hostel, about two American college students who find themselves trapped in an Eastern European slaughterhouse where rich businessmen pay to torture them. In all of these movies, just as in Chainsaw, the protagonists are innocent and the killers are indomitable. Oh, and the vibe is seriously, seriously depressing.
What’s going on here? Most obviously, we’re being reminded—as if works as wide-ranging as Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Blair Witch Project weren’t reminder enough—that Chainsaw remains one of the most influential movies ever made. But the fact that so many of these new works are invoking the deeply hopeless essence of Hooper’s original speaks to much larger and more intriguing social matters. By showing us five college-age kids who get lost in an unknown backwoods, only to descend deeper and deeper into chaos and madness, Chainsaw was arguably the definitive Vietnam War allegory of its time. Now the allegory is proving applicable all over again, to the Iraq war and beyond, and the influence of Chainsaw is turning out to be greater than anyone could have ever anticipated.
If this sounds like a little too much metaphorical responsibility to be placing on the shoulders of a movie that features, among other unsavory moments, a scene in which a shriveled old man sucks the blood from a woman’s finger until she passes out, well, you might be right. But remember that the horror genre, perhaps more than any other, often reflects the mood of the time (see The Stepford Wives, a cautionary nightmare of seventies-era suburban conformity run amok, or David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, about a scientist betrayed by his own crumbling body, released at the height of the AIDS crisis). And remember, too, that Hooper layered Chainsaw with all sorts of pregnant details. Leatherface’s house, for instance, is a stately mansion that might house a governor or a president but instead, with its widespread filth and blood-stained walls, here represents the idea of a political leadership gone rotten. And the film ends with Marilyn Burns narrowly escaping, even as Leatherface still stands strong. It’s less a victory than a forced retreat, and the parallels to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam seem impossible to ignore.
But even if you reject such highfalutin readings of Chainsaw, there’s no denying that a new group of young filmmakers have drawn potent, politically minded lessons from the movie. The characters in The Hills Have Eyes, for instance, spend time arguing about pacifism versus active engagement. And when I interviewed Roth earlier this year, he said that he viewed Hostel as a critique of American arrogance; the college boys represent an entire nation that thinks it can dominate a foreign territory without suffering any retribution. Even more interesting is that these works often make direct visual reference to Chainsaw: Note the chilling “head on a stick” scene in Wolf Creek, a virtual replay of Teri McMinn’s famous hanging on a meat hook. Indeed, what Aja, Roth, and McLean have done is create a kind of continuum of panic that connects their films to Hooper’s and that connects the contemporary era to the seventies. The mistakes we made then, these directors are saying, are being repeated again, and the rest of us can only stand back and watch as the disaster unfolds.
All of this isn’t to suggest that you can’t go on enjoying Hooper’s film in all its outré perversity or continue squirming in grossed-out delight as Leatherface’s family sits down to dinner, where the main course only looks like sausage. But as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning hits theaters, and as sequels to both Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes head into production, and as the political uncertainties in the Middle East continue to multiply, don’t forget to give credit where credit is due. Because it turns out that Hooper gave us much more than just a shocking, borderline deranged vision of hell on earth. He also gave a pliable, uniquely modern myth—a story that can be retold to each new generation of young people that looks toward a prosperous future and sees nothing but blackness.
GORY DETAILS: Dismembering Chainsaw.
And still more severed limbs and splattered viscera: On September 26 Dark Sky Films will release a two-disc “ultimate edition” of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are a few notable bells and whistles (including a pair of documentaries about the film), though honestly it’s not much of an improvement over the 2003 special-edition disc that’s widely available. Instead, Chainsaw buffs may want to take another look at Nispel’s 2003 remake, which was unfairly dismissed on initial release. (“There is no worthy or defensible purpose in sight here,” wrote Roger Ebert in his zero-star review.) The movie slyly revises Hooper’s original, by expanding the cast of characters (watch for Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey as the town sheriff) and even giving Leatherface a psychological motivation for his sociopathy (turns out he had a skin disease as a kid!). Some of the filmmaking, too, is just dazzling, especially when Leatherface chases one of his victims through a maze of bedsheets drying in the sun.