It is a heavy heart that greeted the news this morning that director Tobe Hooper died at the age of 74 – after all, what else would I feel about the man who gave me not only my favourite horror film of all time, but indeed my favourite film ever?
In the days ahead there will be thousands of words written about the man, his amazing career and the seminal film he created – and many of the words will be far more eloquent than mine. However my love (some would say obsession) with this film meant that I wanted to share just a few heartfelt words….
Picture the scene – it’s the early 1980’s in a small Yorkshire town in England. A young man who has more than a few dreams in his head, stars in his eyes, and a growing obsession with all things Science fiction and horror, hears something startling and wondrous on a national news bulletin. Namely, a that particular movie which had over the years gained a reputation of controversial and mythical proportions, arguably as no other has in the history of movies, was finally to be released on video. Amazingly after some 7 years after its initial production the seminal horror movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was finally going to see the light of day over here in the UK.
Believe me, this was big news. Since its release in the UK in early 1975 the availability in cinema’s had been withheld by the British Board of film classification who believed vehemently that the magnitude of violence, particularly in two noted scenes and the feeling of claustrophobic terror in the last 3rd of the film, was far too much for the sensibilities of a British audience. Therefore deeming that it was therefore unsuitable for a BBFC X certificate to be issued. Ah bless the BBFC for protecting us from making up our own minds.
So it finally seemed in those dark and distant days of 1981 that the British Board of film classification had finally seen sense it seems and permitted the movie’s release – though as it shortly turned out, the video was soon to be removed from the video stores after new video classification rules came in (‘Thank you’ Margaret Thatcher…). Indeed, no theatrical or video release was going to take place for another 18 years, thanks to the backward and miss-placed ‘protection’ of the public sensibilities.
However, before it was unceremoniously pulled from the shelves, a lucky few of us had managed to get our hands on the film and witness for ourselves the movie’s iconic horror bad-buy who had by now already achieved cult status of fabled proportions.
The plot is cunningly simple. It is 1974 and a group of teenage friends are travelling through the back roads of Texas on their way to their grandfather’s apparently vandalised grave. Among them are Sally Hardesty, and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin. At one point they pick up the hitchhiker from hell, who they quickly realise is a little unstable as he slashes both himself & Franklin with a knife. The others manage to eject the hitchhiker from the vehicle, but shortly after wards, they are forced to stop for petrol at an old property that they’ve stumbled upon. What none of them realise is that this house is the home of the knife wielding hitchhiker together with his evil and quite frankly not very nice family of cannibalistic psychopaths. This is not going to end well for the group of friends as they are picked off one by one.
Forget the basic storyline. Put aside opinions on the occasion drop acting quality (the cast taken mostly from Hooper’s teaching friends and students). While you’re at it, if you haven’t ever seen the film, ignore the rather miss-placed and over sensationalized claims that the film is nothing more than pure violence and nothing else. No, this is a movie purely for the emotional and sensory experience of the viewer. Indeed, there are times, particularly in the last act of the film when that the experience becomes more of a sensory and emotional overload – such is its intense and unsettling power. There are scenes and images within this film that burn themselves onto your consciousness for a variety of reasons. Yes there are scenes of unyielding violence which will shock, even on repeated viewing, particularly from one of the true iconic horror characters, Leatherface.
The cinematography is frankly stunning, originally shot on poor quality 16mm film, this seems if anything to add to the overall atmospheric ambiance, partly in the external country scenes but particularly in the internal terror scenes.
As I mentioned previously, it wasn’t until 1999 that the BBFC realised that years of complete miss-interpretation of the movie had taken place. Contrary to popular misconception, there is no over-reliance on explicit violence ( in fact there is a distinct lack of blood and gore throughout). Rather it is the often implied threat of violence and atmosphere that creates the power to shock and discomfort the viewer. And boy does the film shock!
I could also talk at length about Leatherface and his family’s treatment of the teenagers being an evocation and allegory of America in the 1970’s with such things as the Watergate scandal and Vietnam making it quite clear that the modern world was cruel and nothing like your childhood memories said it was. No one is safe, no-one can be trusted. The hippy peace-loving days of the 1960’s were long gone. But I’ll leave that sort of discussion for those far more qualified and able than I.
I really just wanted to say, “Thank you, Tobe Hooper for providing me with the greatest horror movie experience of my life”.