Politics as Horror, Horror as Art: Part 3
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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a work of art.

No, really.

I mean it.

I'm being serious.

For real, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a work of art.

Tobe Hooper created a low-budget, ragtag flick out of his private fears and, in the tumultuous landscape of the seventies, turned them into public nightmares. Rather than create another Lifetime special, he exorcised the demons of his dysfunctional family with a chainsaw and a script for all to see. And in doing so, created a means for audiences to exorcise their own social fears through The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Almost thirty years later, the 2003 re-make was released as its complete opposite. The re-make is a bare-bones, apolitical, generic genre version of the original, directed by Marcus Nispel. Using the original script while sparing a Gus Van Sant megalomaniac frame-by-frame hero worship style like the 1998 Psycho revamp, it provides only a shell with none of the substance. Though it's frightening (in a generic jolt in your seat, squirmy kind of way) it’s a Hollywood-prettified, stereotypical slasher film.

How did we get here from there?

While Hooper did compose a masterpiece, he also gets some of the credit for delegitimizing it. His main character, Leatherface, would lose his terror appeal long before he donned nylons and lipstick in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4: The Next Generation (1994). His chainsaw would grind dull against B-grade carbon-copy steals, monotonous sequels, and the endless parade of slasher sagas it inspired—Carpenter's 1978 morality tale, Halloween, Sean Cunningham's 1980 morality tale, Friday the 13th and Craven's inventive Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Chainsaw-wielding hillbillies would become as much of a standard Halloween fixture as a hockey mask, a razor glove, or a black cape and plastic fangs; across America it would be a rowdy routine featured in every haunted house. For my friends and I it was an award-winning formula—literally. Two years in a row, we placed first in an annual park district haunted house competition—even though power tools are far less frightening when they keep unplugging from the wall socket. All of this, however, would create an overexposure that would spoil the last of Leatherface's significance.

TCM 2 popped up as Hooper's tongue-in-cheek self-reflection in 1986. As the slasher momentum had reached absurdity, he took first crack at a template Craven would later copy for his 1996 Scream. This sequel is equal parts comedy and horror, with Hooper essentially chiding the Frankenstein monster he created. Even the poster for the movie is a joke—with the butchering Brady Bunch posed in the tableau of John Hughes’ Breakfast Club.

By the third installment of the franchise, it’s clear that no one is even trying anymore—it’s a splatter-fest of a bloodbath with the humor less introspective than it is cheesy. Built with the hype that it would climax in the unmasking of a hideously disfigured Leatherface (though who really cared at this point?), the film even failed to deliver on this point (though it was later used in the 2003 re-make).

Chainsaw 4 (mentioned only for the sake of thoroughness) was made before its cast, Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, were stars. Rumor has it the film was bumped from wider distribution by aggressive PR flacks who were afraid it might hurt their reputations, but it wouldn't have been much of a loss if the flacks had been even more successful (a technique they should have plied to The Wedding Planner.)

All of this brings us back to the re-make, trying to muscle-in on the mythos with glitzy Hollywood teeny-boppers and re-create the cinematic brilliance for new audiences. While Nispel's flick experienced commercial success, it didn't even come close to capturing the texture, context, or content of the original. A 2006 prequel is already slated for release—promising only to erode the last of its potency.

Ironically, House of 1,000 Corpses, shock rocker and splatter fanboy Rob Zombie's horror homage, which was skewered in horror circles for being a blatant rip-off of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre actually captured the sophisticated genius of the original, updating the social relevance in a fashion the remake couldn't even touch.

It is this de-evolution from artistic creation to commercial cartoon that has done the most damage—discrediting the merit of not just the original but also the genre as a whole. When I pitched an analysis of 1,000 Corpses as a socially aware, politically savvy satire to the paper I'd interned for, the proposal was met with the strangest combination of dumbfounded hostility. My comments set off a 15-minute debate that erupted into a point-counterpoint argument between two staff writers on violence in the media spilling into the editorial section and leaving my observations out entirely.

If you’ve missed Josh’s other installments, be sure to read:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5

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