Published Nov 30, 2012The influence of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on future generations of slasher films is undeniable, but it's value as cinema is still a heavy point of contention.
Many of the average viewers drawn to this unsettling and annoying piece of cheap exploitation are likely drawn to it for reasons other than Hooper's political subtext. Its supporters celebrate the film's deliberate disinformation marketing strategy for its criticism of government dishonesty. I'm sure it had nothing to do with exploiting common gullibility for revenue.
Revisiting the film, the seeds of found footage horror are clearly visible, though knowing that this is nothing more than an amateurish recreation makes it imminently less terrifying a hoax than The Blair Witch Project would prove to be years later.
Contrary to general reputation, Leatherface and his demented rural family's terrorization of a bunch of nosey young hippies are low on gore and are rarely startling. Instead, the film's steadily mounting sense of dread is reliant on seedy grotesquery and the looming menace of the cross-dressing, saw-wielding butcher, once he starts picking off presumptuous trespassers.
With victims this idiotic and infantile, it would be hard not to root for the family of insane hillbilly cannibals were they not embarrassingly grotesque depictions of rural folk displaced by modern technology. That the structure of their family unit is a distorted macabre mockery of the typical American sitcom family is a pretty limited stab at satire.
Merits of its intended themes aside, Massacre doesn't hold up well as a simple feat of fright. Aside from the disquieting self-harm that a crazy hitchhiker inflicts early on, the cheap effects, inconsistent editing, atrocious lighting, nonsensical plot, horrible writing and bad acting don't provide much material to get under the skin of a modern horror fan. The shrieking insanity this shoddy mess eventually devolves into is far more annoying than it is scary.
We also have Tobe Hooper to thank for helping to propagate cinematic stereotypes of women and the disabled as helpless and barely competent. Yes, it's a historically relevant picture, but mostly for setting into motion much of what is despicable about the genre. It turns out that the only reason my first viewing was so unsettling was that I watched it in a room that smelled of dog placenta. Without that pungent olfactory intrusion, all that's left is an ineffectual artefact.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Birth of a Villain screening series at 10pm on Saturday, December 1st. (Astral Films)