Here are four facts about the 1974 horror classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:
1) The titular chainsaw was always “live”, according to director Tobe Hooper, Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen and cinematographer Daniel Pearl (on the commentary track of the “special edition” DVD). The teeth were sharp and the cutting chain was active, which led to several startling near-misses.
2) At the time, people described (and still recall) the film as being notoriously bloody and overflowing with gory special effects. However, there are only about “two ounces” of blood in the entire film, according to Hooper. Oddly enough, this was because he was aiming for a PG rating.
3) Along with the film’s most famous motivation, real-life killer Ed Gein (who also inspired Psycho and other films), the inspirations for the Massacre include the post-’60s political climate and an odd song. The Independent Film Channel’s 2000 documentary, The American Nightmare describes how the violence of Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, Kent State, the gas crisis and seemingly global chaos informed the film’s latent fear and horror.
“[The gas crisis] was integral to its times, in a way that you don’t think of now when you see the movie,” Hooper says. “It washes over you. It’s scary and frightening, but a lot of stuff is working subliminally.” Then he waxes mystical:
“I intended for [the movie] to wheedle its way into the unconscious mind, where the nightmares are. If you get all the little weird things excited…in particular, the stuff we don’t open the door on, and when those doors start cracking open a little bit–because you’re forcing them open with images, images that blow right into the nightmare zone, with the elements that were the things that frightened me as a child, and at the right place too, because it leaves that harmonic buzzing in your head that’s mixed with another little nasty. It sits there and quivers with the other one. If you can get enough of these things going, and then you slam the door, it takes on a whole different tone.”
On the DVD commentary, Hooper expands the range of influences: “This film kind of came out of Watergate, and was inspired by it in a lot of ways,” he says. “That, and there’s a song called ‘Dead Dog in the Middle of the Road.’ It said nothing, but then again I guess it said everything.” [Note: Hooper might have meant “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” by Loudon Wainwright III.]
4) They filmed the infamous “family dinner” scene over a single, 27-hour shooting day in sweltering heat, necessitated when the teenage actor who played the grandfather surprised everyone by saying he would never sit for the long makeup session again.
“This is the one scene where there’s really no acting going on, where we’re all crazy,” Hansen says on the DVD commentary. “In this scene I lost any sense that I was play-acting… and I really thought I was trying to kill her.”
The qualities revealed by this chunk of Texas Chainsaw trivia include: ever-present physical and psychological stress (1, 4); a “subliminal” and mystical-sounding filmmaker (3) with a devil-may-care approach to danger; popular culture blended with chaos (3); and an eccentric savviness regarding the marketing and business side of filmmaking (2).
This jibes well with John Kenneth Muir assessment of Hooper’s oeuvre, Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper: “There is something inherently dangerous and liberating about the works of this artist and even the weakest of his films breaks barriers, heightens the viewer’s blood pressure, and seems to plug into a no-holds-barred sense of escalating insanity.”
When the mastermind behind this work of weird art (not to mention Poltergeist and his various other credits) turns his attention towards writing a novel, the expectations are enough to make a horror fan giggle (in a sinister way) with anticipation.
Co-authored with Alan Goldsher — more on the Poltergeist-like “controversy” surrounding that in a moment — Midnight Movie is a fun, fast, self-aware horror story laden with pop culture and film-nerd references. The book doesn’t quite reach the same levels of strangeness, surrealism or macabre fascination as Hooper’s breakthrough film, but it certainly doesn’t disappoint, either.
The story centres around “Destiny Express”, a fictional “lost” movie that Hooper (one of the main characters in the novel) made in his teens. This parallels Eggshells, the real-life 1969 film that represents Hooper’s first feature. Described by Muir as “a 90-minute fantasy and social commentary concerning a group of hippies sharing a commune house where something strange… and perhaps malevolent” lives in the basement, Eggshells wasn’t a success, despite winning a film festival award. Five years later, Hooper unleashed Chainsaw.
Early in Midnight Movie the mysterious Dude McGee invites Hooper to Austin for a special screening/celebration of his “lost” film. Weird things happen at the event, and weirder things happen afterwards. Dubbed “the Game Changer” and quickly shortened to “the Game”, a “psycho metaphysical virus” quickly spreads around the world. Among other gruesome effects, it increases the sexual appetite of its victims and turns them into…wait for it…zombies! Hooper teams up with the “weekend film critic for the Austin Chronicle, lead singer and guitarist for Massacre This,” to try to solve the mystery and save the world.
A horror movie that infects its viewers: this aspect of the novel resonates with an observation made by Carol J. Clover, in her seminal study of horror, Men, Women and Chain Saws:
“Horror privileges eyes because, more crucially than any other kind of cinema, it is about eyes. More particularly, it is about eyes watching horror. Certainly the act of watching horror films or horror television also looms large in horror films… Looking at screens is particularly perilous and perilous in particular ways.”
She cites Lamberto Bava’s 1986 film Demons as an example of this type of cursed-viewing, and incidentally, that film’s plot bears an intriguing parallel with Hooper’s novel. In Bava’s work, “A number of people are lured to a new movie theater to see a free ‘mystery’ movie… As suspense mounts, members of the audience become sexually aroused,” Clover writes. The audience members become zombified by demons who seem to escape from the film-within-the-film.
The Horror of the Spectator
“Bava’s point… seems to be that the foul impulses of horror lie not in the movie but in the spectator. But in either case, his scenario admits the power and the aim of the movie to excite such foul impulses, and in this sense, his movie-within-the-movie is indeed invasive and does indeed ‘hurt’,” Clover writes.
A similar self-awareness seems to be at play in Hooper’s novel. This also solves a common question surrounding horror movies (or any genre movies, for that matter): Have none of these people seen movies in this genre? Midnight Movie is full of horror fans, and even though the specific rules of this story are never fully explained, the traditional ones don’t seem to apply, and characters make reference to that. It’s not an issue that dwelt upon too deeply, but it’s cool to see it addressed (as well as its parallels with the Scream franchise).
In the same vein, the novel gives much emphasis to the world of low budget film-making and the trials Hooper faces when dealing with industry people and horror-nerds. When the novel calls for Hooper and his old collaborators to recall and reenact their infected film, the tone feels akin to the commentary track of the “special edition” Texas Chainsaw DVD, where Hooper, Hansen and Pearl share stories of mishaps, personality quirks and clashes, and the various workarounds they devised to overcome their shoestring budget.
The book is rife with in-jokes, and Hooper frequently name-checks other directors, including Stephen King (“Uncle Stevie”), Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, Quentin Tarrantino, John Waters (“We have issues.”). At times it feels as if Hooper is offering a loving spin on George A. Romero’s zombies mashed-together with David Cronenberg’s body-horror (notably the sexual dementia of Shivers). One character in the novel even mentions a “mash-up” literature panel as part of SXSW, but Hooper (the character) says he has no idea what mash-up means and doesn’t want to know.
Additionally, there are Austin-specific details, such as bars, streets and neighborhoods, and pop culture references aplenty. For instance, one major character is described in terms of his resemblance to Harry Knowles. For horror-nerds, the novel’s most fascinating digressions might be Hooper’s descriptions of his own movies, notably Chainsaw and Poltergeist.
“Ah, Poltergeist,” Hooper (the character) says. “Lots of rumors about my involvement with that one, and you’ll hear only rumors because nobody’ll talk about it, myself included.”
This is a reference to “the seemingly undying Poltergeist controversy,” as Muir describes it in Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre:
“In 1981-82, as the popular supernatural film was being shot in Los Angeles, rumors flew fast and loose through Hollywood that Poltergeist‘s über-producer Steven Speilberg–not the credited director, Tobe Hooper–was actually responsible for the direction of the film,” Muir writes. “The industry press enthusiastically ran with this story in reviews of the movie and innumerable behind-the-scenes reports, and to a very significant extent Hooper’s reputation has never been able to live down the gossip.”
This also has an intriguing (and unfortunate) parallel with Hooper’s novel. Despite being co-written by Hooper and Alan Goldsher, only Hooper’s name graces the cover. Coincidentally, the cover bears a strong resemblance to Guillermo del Toor’s recent novels, which were co-written with Chuck Hogan (however, the covers of those novels include both names).
In an interview with Wrecked Radio, which refers to the project as being “controversial,” apparently in reference to the question of authorship, Goldsher described the process by saying that Hopper was the ideas man for the novel, while Goldsher was the nuts and bolts guy, doing much of the actual writing. Indeed, Goldsher lists the novel among his “ghostwritten” projects on his web site.
Combine this Poltergeist-like question of authorship with the other similarities and echoes with Hooper’s other work, and rather than diminish the effectiveness of the novel, they seem to elevate it. It’s like discovering a B-movie that’s way better than it should or needs to be.
This also applies to the structure of the novel, an “oral history” style of presentation, used to great success in Max Brooks’ epic World War Z, as well as in Goldsher’s popular novel, Paul is Undead. In addition to transcribed interviews, tweets, emails, articles from newspapers and magazines, blogs, hand-written diaries, police and hospital reports all contribute to telling the story. It’s far more effective than expected, although at times it feels as if it’s been used to pad the page-count a little (for example, one full page for a short email, followed by another page for an equally short reply email).
On the plus side, this makes for a fun, quick read (took me about three hours, with breaks). Overall, the book follows two main narratives: the zombie outbreak, and Hooper’s memories/reconstruction of his lost film. This fragmentary style of storytelling resonates again with Texas Chainsaw, especially the opening sequence where flashbulbs light gruesome images. “This sequence was meant to give you a piece of the puzzle that you’re about to assemble… and to give you some disturbing, foreboding clues,” Hooper explains on the DVD commentary.
As Muir describes: “In the course of Hooper’s best films, rationality, realism, situational logic and other cornerstones of traditional film storytelling go right out the window…[He] is purely and simply championing the surreal in film, the excesses (and strange beauties) of unpredictability.”
“If [Wes] Craven will be remembered as horror’s Pirandello, bound and determined to construct and deconstruct postmodern, reflexive realities, and [John] Carpenter its Howard Hawkes, a good old-fashioned entertainer with a consistent bag of tricks, then Tobe Hooper is no less than terror’s Lewis Carrol, Muir writes.”
Muir connects Carrol’s iconic Mad Hatter’s tea party with the aforementioned dinner scene in Chainsaw, and that creates another literary connection between the film and Hooper/Goldsher’s novel, as well as the mystery surrounding its authorship. After a while, it’s enough to make one wonder that perhaps it’s all part of a plan to perpetuate an aura around the work, a piece of trivia for horror-nerds to fuss over. It’s a blend of the unexplained and the documentary that hearkens back once again to Chainsaw.
In his survey of Hooper’s films, Muir identifies recurring themes and motifs in Hooper’s work, several of which also appear in the novel. For instance, Muir describes the notion of the “world underneath” (akin to that of David Lynch’s films), where the surface appears “seemingly normal, healthy,” but hides “something horrible” underneath. This motif can be seen in the world of the cult film aficionados, and also in the “lost” film itself.
Another theme Muir identifies is Hooper’s “love of magic and the occult” and how “everything from black magic to astrology is brought up as possible explanations for terror in his films.” Notably, Muir discusses how astrology appears early in Chainsaw as a possible motivating force behind the strange narrative. The novel also hints at occult explanations for the madness that the “lost” film unleashes
Additionally, the novel makes references to the “mysticism” of Hooper and the world of movies. One character says, “Well, Tobe Hooper was just mystical enough to have created this whole mess,” and Hooper (the character) says of a movie theatre: “There wasn’t anything mystical or magical. It was just a big, dark room where people congregated to share the experience of watching a film together. I suppose that’s mystical and magical in a way…”
In the documentary The American Nightmare, Tom Gunning points out that, “The horror film, even though it may respond to social traumas, ultimately hits someplace else. It’s almost like the social trauma opens the door, but then you plummet into some of the most primal elements of child-mother relationships… really psychological themes.”
It’s tempting to look for those psychological themes in the novel, particularly in Hooper’s portrayal of himself as a character. The version we meet is gruff and solitary, a world-weary badass, prone to drinking and fighting. He’s also fairly lazy (in some ways Lebowski-esque), cynical and eccentric, but savvy enough to know when and how to use his talents to manipulate and/or charm people.
Hooper/Goldsher may have anticipated this question, as well. In the “lost” film, teenage Hooper addresses the camera, introduces himself, and points out that the audience can choose to believe or ignore him, but he recommends they listen.
“Because I have the camera,” he says. “And I know the truth.”