When “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie came out in 1974, directed by the unknown Tobe Hooper, it sparked something of a moral panic with its heady cocktail of bloodletting and flying body parts. The film became one of the most influential horror movies of all time. Now its creator has died aged 74, following hot on the heels of another renowned master of the genre, Wes Craven. It was only his second feature film, after an arthouse outing, “Eggshells” in 1970.
“One of the few perfect horror films”- Kim Newman
The film had such shock value because, unlike most horror movies of the time, fantasy was hardly present at all, while realism was pushed to the max. This was a shocking tale that could happen anywhere, at anytime, a remote rural location with hidden horrors and secrets known to locals, but outsiders beware. The fact that this was backwoods America, and not some misty romantic Transcarpathian location, but equally evil and foreign, was a novelty, even if Hitchcock among others had already intimated of the terror lurking in America’s soul should one venture too far off the highway, in “Psycho”, and in 1968 George A. Romero, (who died in July), in “Night of the Living Dead” also took realism as the starting point for its zombie mayhem.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was banned in several countries for its violence, which is graphic, comes from nowhere, and makes no sense. Essentially it is a story of a road trip for a minibus full of young people that goes wrong, horribly wrong, when they encounter a family of cannibals whose lead killer, Leatherface, is loosely based on a real-life serial killer, Ed Gein. Horror victims up to this point had mostly been damsels in distress, naive ingenues, innocents or rotters who deserved all they got. Hooper gave his victims no such comfort, portraying several of them as deserving of some sort of punishment if not grisly death, and putting one of them in a wheelchair. Our sympathy for the underdog is subverted as the character is prickly and obnoxious, yet he is the one person on the microbus uneasy at how the journey is going. It doesn’t save him.
With a spend of only 300,000 dollars, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” became one of the biggest-earning independent US movies of the 1970s. The success led to Hooper re-recruiting the team to make “Eaten Alive” in 1976,
and then a TV mini-series “Salem’s Lot” in 1979, seen by many as a peak in TV horror. It was the first time Hooper had worked with Stephen King material.
In 1982 King was again the source for “Poltergeist”, a smash hit and one of that year’s top 10 movies. Written and produced by Stephen Spielberg, it is Hooper’s best-known work after TTCM.
1985’s “Lifeforce” featured the first appearance of actress Mathilda May, and Hooper continued to work steadily throughout the 80s and 90s without ever finding the same success, and even critical acclaim could not prevent some of his movies going straight to video, and not being shown in theatres.
In the 21st century Hooper continued to work, especially for TV, and in 2014 a remastered copy of TTCM was shown at the Cannes Film Festival with Hooper invited to present it, completing high art’s consecration of a once- derided genre. Hooper could hardly have imagined back in 1974 he would be honoured alongside the greats like Bergman, Godard, or Tarkovsky, but he is as celebrated today as any of them. Many of today’s directors owe him a great debt.