Released in 1974 Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre about a group of teenagers and their run in with a murderous family of cannibals has came to be recognised as an important American horror film of the decade and as a classic amongst its genre. The film received a high budget remake in 2003, the responsibility of director Marcus Nispel as his first feature film and was produced by the established Hollywood director Michael Bay. In this chapter I will explore, as with my previous analyses of The Wicker Man (1973) and Psycho (1960), the various reasons that have led to the films reputation as cult and in particular how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) can be regarded as an underground ‘art’ film rooted in the horror genre as suggested by Kermode (2003, p.13). Also from contrasting Hooper’s 1974 film with Nispel’s 2003 remake I will attempt to establish how aesthetics and the content associated with the horror genre have developed over cinema history.
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One of the most recognised and in fact classic horror films in American history has been Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre released in 1974. It follows the story of a group of teenagers have to fight for their lives when they come across a family of murderers in a desolate part of Texas. Produced by Michael Bay and Marcus Nispel directed the 2003 remake of the film which had a considerably higher budget to work with. In this section the essay I hope to explore why the film has had such mixed reactions from critics and the general public and why it has been labelled as an ‘art’ film by Kermode (2003). I will compare and contrast both the original and the remake and see what contribution they have made to the horror genre as a whole.
Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) has become a notorious part of horror cinema for its apparently explicit violence and disturbing imagery. As a result the film has gained much attention from both film critics and fans that may have perhaps noted the film for the wrong reasons. Writing a shortly after the films original release Prawer (1980, p.15) explains one view that has come to be associated with the film:
The 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre contained distressing representations and high levels of perspicuous violence contributed to its infamous reputation. Due to this the film has since received a wide variation of reactions from its audience, more specifically Prawer (1989, p.15) expressed his stance on the film: “As I write this, early in 1978, I feel myself borne along by yet another wave of terror-films, a wave whose crest is formed by what is frequently called ‘meat’ or ‘road accident’ movies – films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which provide shock through the maximum exhibition of flesh in the process of being mangled and blood in the process of being spilt.”
On the whole The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) appears to have been pigeonholed as a certain type of horror film concerned with evoking reactions from featuring gratuitous amounts of gore. Greenspun (1977, p.14) confirms this opinion of the film by quoting various outraged journalists, including one that branded the film as being unsuccessful and “â€¦a vile little piece of sick crap.” They regard the film as only achieving its reputation from being controversial through its exploitation of violence. However Greenspun (1977, p.15) does not agree with this popular view surrounding the film and explains that actually:
It seems on the whole the 1974 make of the film has been regarded as attracting such a mixed bundle of emotion due to, some would say, its unnecessary levels of blood and carnage. Many journalists have argued that the film has only been as successful as it has because of its use of such a high amount of brutality and bloodshed. Greenspun (1977, pg. 15) on the other hand takes on a different view. He explains: “Upon its initial opening The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was not a failure. It was a modest success, primarily in the drive-ins and local theatres around the country, where it was originally released.”
Greenspun (1977, p.15) is also quick to defend the content of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), stating that the film is not actually as violent or gory as some critics have inaccurately portrayed. From viewing the original film it is apparent that much of the violence is merely implied, occurring off camera so perhaps the film has been wrongly shunned for being a shockingly explicit film. In an interview with Hooper, Savlov (1998) explains that the director was initially aiming for a PG rating from the MPAA because the majority of ghastly acts and bloodshed in the film are implied, not creating the films sense of horror through “â€¦gory cheap shots” (Savlov, 1998). Savlov (2003) compares The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to Psycho (1960) in that audiences’ recall scenes that in reality aren’t actually shown on screen, it is the technical direction and editing that create the tension in both films and create a sense of dramatic horror. The fact that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) has still been able to disturb and horrify audiences must be testament to its success as a landmark horror film and to Hooper’s direction of the film.
On the same page Greenspun goes on to support the film by arguing that critics of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) have blown their descriptions of it being grotesquely over-violent, way out of proportion. Similar to the Psycho (1960) film a lot of the real violence occurs off the screen and is left to the viewers’ imagination to adopt their own imageries of what went on. Therefore maybe the film has been unfairly criticised and labelled so much. However astonishingly enough, it has been revealed that the director had been initially hoping to receive a PG rating for the film due to the fact that so much of the real gore would have occurred off-screen so as to create a sense of the horror and not just scene after scene of violence as some may have believed (Savlov 2003). The apprehension and anxiety that is created in the viewer is what brings the actual sense of it being a horror film to the viewer. The 1974 can still agitate and arouse such mixed feelings in viewers is a tribute to its long lasting effect and has sealed the stamp for its place in the history of horror films in American history.
It is interesting that when compared to with Hooper’s 1974 film, Nispel’s remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) is far more explicit with gore and violence however has avoided the controversy reserved for the original film. The remake does not hold back from scenes of bloodshed and nothing is implied as in Hooper’s film. However the film fails to emulate the same atmosphere found from viewing the original film. As Kermode (2003, p.13) explains the remake is “â€¦more overtly gory than the original but far less unnerving and upsetting,” as the audience is not able to develop for themselves the horrific images and events of the film unlike Hooper had encouraged it. This also suggests how perhaps the horror genre has developed the requirements for in film content have adapted over cinema history and that the portrayal of graphic violence is now acceptable for, if not required to appease contemporary mainstream film audiences’.
What is surprising is that Nispel’s 2003 remake has not receieved nearly as much critical acclaim as Hooper’s 1974 original of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) regardless of the fact that the latter film does not leave the violent scenes to the viewers’ imagination but depicts them in their true glory on screen. The remake has not risen as many eyebrows as the original and in some argue it fails to radiate as much tension and anxiety as the 1974 original could do. Kermode (2003, p.13) clarifies the remake is “â€¦more overtly gory than the original but far less unnerving and upsetting,” whereas Hooper’s 1974 original could merely suggest to the viewers the story and create far more suspense and unease. This implies that perhaps since then, far more on screen violence is accepted and expected, and that the horror genre has developed so far so that it may in fact be difficult for movie-makers to create the same buzz and hype from horror films as they once could with far less budget.
Controversy surrounded The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) upon its initial release and that still follows the film to this day. Film critic Joe Bob Briggs explains on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) DVD feature “TCM REDUX”, a ‘making of’ documentary about the remake, “â€¦twenty-five years later members of congress were still using The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as an example of the depravity of America.” This could be seen as one of a number of contributing factors in gaining the original film such critical attention and as a result has established its reputation as a cult film. When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974) was released it was promoted as being ‘based on factual events’, as seen from the DVD cover and other promotional material accompanying the film, adding to its notoriety. Although the events of the films narrative are fictional, elements of Hooper’s film were influenced by actual events that occurred in America. Hooper also attempted to emphasise the realism of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) from the use of a documentary aesthetic that features throughout the film and with narrative devices such as the initial voice over introduction that suggests that the events of the film are factual.
Hoopers used a variety of tools to create the imagery and suspencse to his film. One feature of the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) film was that Hooper had advertised it as being based on factual events. This of course created a hype which many horror films did not have the advantage of. The film was loosely based on actual events that occurred in America. Another tool Hooper used was the use of narrative devices to give it a factual/documentary sense to his film which even from the beginning starts to familiarise the viewer with the strong implications Hooper is trying to portray which contributed its the ‘cult’ status.
Oddly for a remake, Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) was also promoted as being ‘inspired by a true story’ and was even made as a period piece, set in 1973, the year that the original film was made. However unlike the original film that obtained cult status partially from the controversy created from its context, the remake simply tries to build on and promote itself from the films existing notoriety and neglects to add substantial meaning for a contemporary audience. Kermode (2003, p.14) agrees with this and argues that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) remake has none of the cultural significance of the original and instead, as with The Wicker Man (2006) and Psycho (1998), can be viewed as being produced “â€¦primarily to exploit a new target audience who know Hooper’s movie only as a notorious brand name.” The audience demographic that the film has been aimed at would be unfamiliar with the original text that responsible for the remake and because of this Nispel and Bay have been “â€¦felt little need to deconstruct or re-examine their sourceâ€¦” and have simply “â€¦turbo-charged the original, glossing up the gore, needlessly expanding the backstory and cranking up the action set pieces,” (Kermode, 2003, p.15) in a way to attractively repackage a cult film name to a fresh audience.
Verevis (2006, p.146) also supports this and explains:
“â€¦the producers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) say that the idea of remaking the seminal slasher movie was in part motivated by research showing that 90 per cent of the film’s anticipated core audience (eighteen to twenty-four year old males) knew the title of Tobe Hooper’s original but had never seen it.”
Although Nispel’s remake was also publicised as being based on factual events, it did not attract the same intrigue and media hype as the original even thought it was set in 1974, at the time of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The remake adds little more for the viewers to contemplate and be entertained by, and tries to carry itself based on the fame and controversy surrounding the original film. The modern viewer only watches it due to the reputation of its predecessor, and fails to attain the proper ‘cult’ status as the 1974 original managed to attain. Kermode (2003, p.14) has the same opinion and argues that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) does not involve any artistic implications as the first, and was created “â€¦primarily to exploit a new target audience who know Hooper’s movie only as a notorious brand name.” the audience for the 2003 remake would have been unfamiliar with the context of the original so Nispel had “â€¦turbo-charged the original, glossing up the gore, needlessly expanding the back-story and cranking up the action set pieces,” (Kermode, 2003, p.15)
This suggests that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) remake and remaking in general within the film industry is a financially motivated process that aims to use an already established film name in order to attract a guaranteed audience. However a consequence of this is that culturally significant films are resold as “â€¦spectacularly meaningless entertainment” (Kermode, 2003, p.15).
This meant that the 2003 remake was simply used as a way of making quicking money without establishing itself properly in the film industry, hopgin to live off the controversy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). This portrayed the film’s meanings as hollow and lacking in intellectual and innovative ways to entertain the viewers, having opted for “â€¦spectacularly meaningless entertainment” (Kermode, 2003, p.15).
Although sometimes criticised as a simple genre defined gross-out or shock horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) can also be considered as a cult film that achieved its status through the particular aesthetic that Hooper brought to it. Kermode (2003, p.12) among others have hailed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), as an underground art film that challenges the typical mainstream horror aesthetic and through this has became cult viewing. This is through the iconographic “handheld vérité realism” (Kermode, 2003, p.13) and the desaturated palette the film features to create its unique atmosphere. Also the mis-en-scene that Hooper constructed is important to the films overall aesthetic and in establishing its artistic merit. Greenspun (1977, p.15) describes how Hooper tried to create a sense of “crazy beauty” that accompany the films horrific images and states that “since the film’s action, like its title, leaves little to the imagination, it is free to develop images.” The incredible visual details in the films settings, particularly the house where the majority of the action takes place helps develop upon a quite basic story and as a result “â€¦you find yourself moving into the film’s world with a sense of pioneering fascination.” This relates to Eco (1987, p.198) claim that a cult film “â€¦must provide a completely furnished world” in order to entice a fan into the private world of the film. It also suggests that a films aesthetic merit can be another contributing factor in its establishment as a cult text.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) attracted its own groups of devotees through its cult status. This was achieved by Hooper through his use of aesthetics. Kermode (2003, pg 12) believes this is due to the way it challenged maintstream horror as oppose to the conventional obvious observable depictions that would normally occur in horror films. Kermode argued that because Hooper’s methods were innovative and unsaturated, he was able to do this Kermode (2003, pg 13). The film’s artistic qualities provided it with bittersweet feelings, “since the film’s action, like its title, leaves little to the imagination, it is free to develop images.” Greenspun (1977, p.15). Hoope took great care in ensuring every detail on the house was precise enough to tell a story and imply to the viewer of what had gone on in that house previously, and what is yet to follow.
A notion that I want to explore in regards to the cult film text and horror films in particular is that it is the conventions associated with the genre means that they are regarded as ‘low’ forms of art and viewed under a degree of cultural superiority. Wu (2003, p.86) writes concerning director Peter Jackson’s early career horror films including Braindead that featured extreme gore to the point of being to the point of slapstick and how they have came to be considered as part of ‘art-house’ cinema. Wu (2003, p.86) attempts to establish how horror films, using examples of Jackson’s work come be perceived as part of high or low culture. Wu (2003, p.86) explains: “The genre that takes its name from the bodily affect has an especially intimate relationship to the substance of bad taste, for its generic imperatives are to produce exactly the kind of ‘visceral intolerance’ in which reviled distaste is firmly rooted.” The reactions that horror films deliberately aim to produce mean that to an extent they have came to be associated with ‘low’ culture. Wu (2003, p.86) confirms this by stating that “â€¦in the hierarchy of genre legitimacy, horror is at the bottomâ€¦” and that “…horrific forms thus are intractably stuck at the bottom, the ‘lowbrow’ end, of the hierarchy of genres.” It is through the very nature of the genre that horror films have perhaps resulted in being disregarded as culturally inferior products.
Another issue that I would like to rise is the notion that some have of horror films being perceived as a form of low culture art with other forms being seen as culturally superior. Wu (2003, p.86) explains: “The genre that takes its name from the bodily affect has an especially intimate relationship to the substance of bad taste, for its generic imperatives are to produce exactly the kind of ‘visceral intolerance’ in which reviled distaste is firmly rooted.” So the very response such films aim to produce on the viewer is what has made horror films be associated with low culture. On the same page Wu goes on to say that “â€¦in the hierarchy of genre legitimacy, horror is at the bottomâ€¦” and “…horrific forms thus are intractably stuck at the bottom, the ‘lowbrow’ end, of the hierarchy of genres.” This means that Wu would believe that it due to the very character and innate requirements of horror films which has awarded it with its lowly status.
However it must also be noted that this popular rejection of horror films for reasons of shock or bad taste, as in the case of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), can have a close relationship with the creation of a film as a cult text. This is because as Wu (2003, p.86) again suggests it is the opinion of the mainstream, attempting to withhold ‘good taste’ through “â€¦the act of rejecting that which produces corporeal sensations of disgust and precisely horror,” that is responsible for designating a film as being ‘low’. However a group such as the cult film fans “â€¦use ‘high’ cultural capital to read ‘ low’ texts with sophistication – is ultimately an act of resistance against received power hierarchies.” Through this a neglected film is attracted to and in turn adopted by a cult film audience because of its opposition to mainstream cinema. It is an interesting juxtaposition in which high and low art can be seen as establishing each other as “â€¦cultural legitimacy and illegitimacy can be mutually constitutive” (Wu, 2003, p.86). Kermode (2003, p.13) notes the links between the remake and the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), including that both used the same cinematographer, Daniel Pearl.
The fact that a horror film has been cast out due to its ability to shock audiences, may actually be one of the significant contributions to it being a cult film. On the other hand Wu goes on to put forward that the mainstream’s opinion which has tried to hold back the fine flavour of quality of horror films by “â€¦the act of rejecting that which produces corporeal sensations of disgust and precisely horror,” and this is the reason why some critics may have labelled such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) as being lowly. Nonetheless regardless of the mainstream’s critical acclaim for some cult films, the fact of its rejection is what has provided cult film fans with the reasons to support it. This extremely fascinating that both ends of the spectrum of cultural high and low, seem to in fact establish each other as Wu (2003, p.86) argues “â€¦cultural legitimacy and illegitimacy can be mutually constitutive.”
I am not doing the rest: haha in your face!
Kermode (2003, p.13) also suggests, as I have
previously from looking at Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version of Psycho, that a film
remake can be part tribute to their original source. He states that Daniel Pearl’s
involvement with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) remake suggests
Nispel’s “â€¦desire to respect and recapture the sublime terror of Hooper’s movie”
(Kermode, 2003, p.13). However Kermode (2003, p.13) also dismisses that Nispel
has actually managed to achieve this, instead he explains that Nispel has
incorporated certain generic horror elements into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(2003) remake in an attempt to capitalise on the notoriety of the original. Hooper
brought a certain aesthetic to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) however the
remake has strayed from this resulting in a horror film that follows a more modern
prototype, incorporating into it generic elements that a contemporary audience
could recognise. Kermode (2003, p.13) explains that this result is “â€¦a bizarre
conundrum,” wanting to remain loyal to the original film however tries too hard
“â€¦look like an authentic replica of a cheap, edgy slasher classic while
attracting the kind of young audience that wouldn’t watch a 20-year-old
re-release if their lives depended on it.”
Verevis (2006, p.146) states that the incorporation of generic elements into
the film remakes is a common process that does not just apply to The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre (2003) and also suggests that it is also an essential part of
remaking films. From my study of Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man (2006) remake
is it apparent that those responsible for film remakes seem it vital to make certain
changes from their original sources in order to create a recognisable genre film.
Verevis (2006, p.146) explains:
“Viewers who fail to recognise, or know little about, an original text may
understand a new version (a remake) through its reinscription of generic
elements, taking the genre as a whole (rather than a particular example of
it) as the film’s intertextual base.”
Although it may be true that certain remakes are created to conform to certain
genre expectations in order to attract and appeal to a new audience, a problem
arises with the often-negative reactions of the cult film fans. As these fans have
perhaps adopted a certain film as cult with special meaning to them, the changing
of their film into a genre piece could be seen as watering down their chosen film,
losing the elements that they have came to identify recognise with and as a result
will regard the remake as a culturally inferior product.
However as long as remakes continue to pull in an audience through the
cult reputations of the films they are sourced from it is an industrial process that
looks likely to continue as it guarantees them to be “â€¦instantly recognisable
properties” (Verevis, 2006, p.4). Verevis (2006, p.4) also adds that film remaking
“â€¦a trend that is encouraged by the commercial orientation of the
conglomerate ownership of Hollywood. In this approach Hollywood
studios seek to duplicate past success and minimise risk by emphasising
the familiar – ‘recreating with slight changes films that have proved
successful in the past’ – even if this leads to aesthetically inferior films.”
Largely the production of remakes can be seen as safe financial strategy by even if
they cannot meet the cult significance of the original films because they have not
been made in the same context. Verevis (2006, p.4) explains that remakes
“â€¦reflect the conservative nature of the industry; they are motivated by an
economic imperative to repeat proved success,” although they can be seen as
culturally inferior and as having a perhaps less lasting appeal or significance to
their target audience. However to ensure that they are economically successful for
the film studios remakes as with the example The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(2003) must, even if for apparently insignificant reasons “â€¦register variation and
difference (from the originals)” and “incorporate generic developments” (Verevis,
2006, p.4) to attract and appease a contemporary, mainstream film audience.
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