Over the weekend news broke, once again, of an iconic director and influential member of the 70s horror boom passing away. Tobe Hooper, much like his contemporaries, was a genre icon, holding respect and a cult following for his insightful, masterful work and his working class ethic. Hooper was a favourite amongst horror enthusiasts, for his witty insight and his gravel-like voice.
Hooper, probably best known for directing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and it’s first sequel, had other successes including Poltergeist and Salem’s Lot, all of which have seen lesser remakes. But his big splash was with his first introduction to Leatherface.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an oddity of a film, made for virtually no money by a bunch of amateurs in Texas, the poster assured us that this film was based on actual events. Of course, Hooper – known for his dry wit – would later concede that he based the mad cannibal family on the concept of Ed Gein the infamous Wisconsin Ghoul who had human body parts over his house, was a necrophile and also inspired Norman Bates from Psycho. It should be noted of course that the correlation is nothing more than a vague inspiration of a macabre chapter in US history, and the fact that Gein had fashioned a mask out of human flesh. In fact, Gein was a grave robber, and did happen to murder two women, but not with a chainsaw, not in Texas, and acted alone.
By all accounts the shoot was a nightmare, the Texas heat was unbearable, causing Leatherface actor Gunnar Hanson discomfort as he became easily disorientated and woozy from the amount of clothes he wore and the exercise his large frame was put through. Hooper, a quiet type who decided on a chainsaw as the weapon of choice after having a minor mental crisis in a mall and daydreamed about escaping the mall via chainsaw murder spree was driven to having a short fuse, clashing with cast and crew alike in the increasing heat.
Shooting a documentary style, Hooper’s vision of a nihilistic horror film coupled with the low budget of the movie meant that most props were the real deal. Hansen swung a real chainsaw about the place, real hammers and knives were used, natural light was all they had, and any scene involving meat was real meat. Needless to say with no budget for ADR, air-con was turned off for filming, the heat intense, coupled together, the real meat began to fester and stink.
Even by the of production the tension of the tight, tense filming was felt. Hooper said it took years for the cast and crew to talk to him again, and that there were two wrap parties, one for the cast and crew, and the other with him sat at home drinking whiskey.
But what gives the film it’s power? After all, compare this 70s hillbilly hit with more recent horror films, including the torture porn boom of the mid-2000s, and it’s very tame. There’s a scene in which Grandpa – played with some relish by John Dugan – has his finger cut, which was done for real as the fake blood didn’t work, but that’s the limit of the gore. It’s a very discreet film. Despite it promising a chainsaw fuelled blood bath what Hooper and his crew actually do is mount a series of images that stay in your memory long after the film has finished.
With no blood, no gore, no long drawn out backstory, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre instead has no choice but to take a chainsaw to your psyche. Leatherface has no rationale, like a bear in the wild, his safe space in encroached on and he attacks. The mad cannibal family, of which Leatherface belongs, are not explained, they simply exist and there is no hope for our “heroes”.
The film, therefore, is about nihilism. From the dinner scene in which the cannibal family laugh hysterically for apparently no reason other than being certified chutney bonkers, to the hammer to the head death of William Vail’s Kirk. The film’s images have become part of our memory because the film offers us no resolution, no explanation, no hope. Marilyn Burns, Allen Danzinger, Paul A. Partain, Teri McMinn and William Vail all have the unfortunate luck to run into a black hole, a place where things go to die.
But, in the end, the ideas and the images stick long after the franchise runs it’s course, and it’s the final images of strung out Marilyn Burns as Sally, sat in the back of a truck, wailing like a newborn baby in fear as Leatherface swings his chainsaw above his head, defeated, like a flesh eating Jimmy Hendrix.
Yes, Hooper went on to make commercial hit Poltergeist which featured seminal scary clowns, weird TVs and it’s own spate of horror follow ups. and his version of Salem’s Lot is a great work and adaptation of the King novel, but Hooper’s masterpiece remains his horror classic.
It’s sad, therefore, that Hooper’s return around a decade later to the franchise he created was a dud. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 failed to live up to the promise of the film, perhaps because it doesn’t properly capture the tone. Hooper’s insistence on adding macabre black comedy into the film doesn’t sit well, considering the intensity of the first film.
Although Hooper has claimed that black comedy runs through the first film absolutely, the grim reality and tone do nothing to make this clear. Famously, at the time of the film’s release James Furman, the then chief censor for the Obscene Publications Act had trouble with the film. He viewed it, and attempted to cut, but said that no matter what he took out, what he changed, what he did, he was powerless to stop the unrelenting intensity of the film.
The film became an inspiration for filmmakers, of course torture porn maestros James Wan and Eli Roth have sung the praises of the film (and Wan paying tribute to Poltergeist in his Conjuring/Insidious films), but even Hooper’s contemporaries. Ridley Scott had a screening of the film before production on Alien, and attempts to emulate the isolation, reality and fear. While John Carpenter famously said that having seen the film in the cinema, he thought it walked the knife edge of taste, that it threatened to lose audience but never did and that when he went home he slept like a baby because the film pacified his soul.
Like the work of the late George A. Romero, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has something to say about the human condition, and about the human struggle. Unfortunately, and as horror so often does, Hooper is telling us something grim. There’s a sad irony to the fact that the cinema-verite style horror film with it’s apocalyptic tone went on to be watered down into just another franchise. Revisited again and again, with the tourists hacked up by whatever beefcake pro-wrestler they could muster, even an all too grim remake failed to capture the originals genius.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a landmark American horror film, and a masterpiece of cinema, a triumph of going out and doing it yourself and film school 101 for any kid who wants to make movies.
For that, and for his other work, we salute you Tobe Hooper. We raise a chainsaw in your honour.