The Horror of the Camera that Sees the Truth: Tobe Hooper and Alan Goldsher's 'Midnight Movie'
The Texas Chainsaw maestro pens a fun, self-referential novel about a haunted horror movie... or does he?
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.