In honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the release of the sleeper horror-movie hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, writer John Bloom offers readers a behind-the-scenes look into how the movie was (almost not) made. Here he talks about alter egos, the effect of the first slasher movie on popular culture, and how the horror-movie genre has changed since Chainsaw.
texasmonthly.com: You discuss the horror-movie genre in depth and how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the first movie of its kind—youth-oriented, made by a bunch of hippie college kids. You mention other small-name projects and movies that the public has most likely never heard of, much less seen. Are you a movie buff yourself? Can you talk more about your experience participating in the B-movie subculture and your interest in horror movies?
John Bloom: I’ve pretty much seen every horror movie released for the past twenty years, and of course, I’ve gone back and watched most of the older ones on video and DVD. I didn’t see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre until the eighties, at a midnight show in Houston, when it still had the power to scare the bejesus out of people. There were quite a few walkouts that night, and perhaps half the audience was watching it for the umpteenth time. I started reviewing B movies in the early eighties, long before “pop culture” reviews were common. I did a syndicated column called “Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In,” and there were really only two or three other guys doing the same thing. These movies were mostly ignored by mainstream critics.
texasmonthly.com: You go by two names—John Bloom and Joe Bob Briggs. Why? Who are these people, and how are they different from each other?
JB: If I could explain that, I wouldn’t need the alter ego, would I? Joe Bob is more fun. I invented Joe Bob in the early eighties, and I knew there was no turning back when a magazine editor called me around 1990 and said he’d like me to do a piece for him. I asked, “John Bloom or Joe Bob?” And he said, “Who’s John Bloom?”
texasmonthly.com: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released thirty years ago. Why an almost 14,000-word story on this movie? What makes it so relevant now?
JB: Twenty-five years after its release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still being used in Congress as an example of what was wrong with this depraved culture of ours. Since most horror movies don’t even last a year, that’s a pretty amazing testament to its power. It was also one of the first movies attacked for what critics called “the pornography of violence,” which is surprising in that the movie is done in a Grand Guignol style that is obviously tongue-in-cheek. It was one of the first, if not the first, youth horror movies, in which people over thirty were the enemy; it was also one of the first movies in which the countryside, as opposed to the city, was portrayed as a dark, dangerous place. In older horror movies, it’s the city that’s dangerous, and the countryside is relatively calm. It made an enormous impact on later horror directors, on the world of punk music, and on the movie-rating system. Then there’s the strange fact that it was a résumé killer for everyone who worked on it, whereas a similar film 25 years later, The Blair Witch Project, was thought of as a breakthrough movie. I wrote about it because it’s just a damn good story.
texasmonthly.com: How has the horror-movie genre changed since then? When was the genre’s peak in terms of making “quality” horror films? Have audiences changed since then as well?
JB: You could make an argument that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the first real slasher film. Slasher films peaked around 1983 and had all but disappeared by 1987, only to come back in the early nineties in self-conscious parody form, à la the Scream series. The important slasher titles were Chainsaw, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, probably in that order. Everything else was a derivative of those. I don’t think audiences have changed. There’s always an audience for a good horror film, but each generation needs new things to be scared about. The horror audience is very young—ages 14 to 25—and so viewers tend to not be frightened by the scares of the previous generation.
texasmonthly.com: You delve into the frustration and anger that lies underneath the Chainsaw project. Most of the people who were directly involved didn’t gain much financially or professionally from this movie. Did you get a sense, after talking with them, that most of the actors and investors were bitter? Or did many of them share the same sentiments of Kim Henkel, who was just happy the film received international recognition?
JB: No, I don’t think many of them were bitter. Most of them were still amazed, after all these years, that the film still has life. Quite a few of them have gotten work as a direct result of the film, though not the kind of work they would probably want. Actors in the film are in great demand at horror conventions and movie-fan events.
texasmonthly.com: Forget the movie. There were a lot of characters involved in the making of the film, and there’s so much history here—the build-up, the personalities involved, the aftershock. Once you had all the information, how did you approach writing this piece? Was it different from what you originally had planned for the article?
JB: I already knew enough about the film to know that it was a big mess and that there were dozens of characters involved. That’s what attracted me to it. I wanted to write the definitive history of the movie.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think none of the attempts to recreate the Chainsaw phenomenon have worked, even when backed by star power and original creators? Is the failure industry-related or audience-related—or is it something else all together?
JB: The 2003 remake of Chainsaw did work, if you look at box office numbers. It’s the only Chainsaw project—after the original—that could be called a success. Even as I say this, though, I’m told that premium cable channels don’t want to air it. There’s something about the title itself that makes people think, “I don’t really want to be associated with this.”
texasmonthly.com: You’ve hosted television shows, written syndicated columns, and authored books. What, if any, projects do you currently have underway?
JB: Last year I published a book called Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History, and I’m currently working on a companion volume called Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies That Changed History. I just starred in a little festival film based on the Stephen King short story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away.” And I’m working as an acquisitions and programming adviser for a new cable network called the Scream Channel, scheduled to launch in 2005. I’ve also done twelve DVD commentaries, many of them horror titles, including the notorious I Spit on Your Grave. I did that DVD commentary because I was the only critic who ever wrote a favorable review of the film. Besides film, I also write for magazines on gambling, crime, and other topics.