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‘Exercise in the pornography of terror’: How Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre shocked the world

By Steve Balshaw, Grimm Up North

Two of the most shocking films of the 70s, Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, are being screened at Grimm Up North this month.

To celebrate this grisly event, Grimm’s own Steve Balshaw takes us on an especially ‘Grimm’ tour of the origins of two of the grimiest films to come out of the last century…

 

It was strange to see it written on the side of a bus like that:

TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D.

I had to do a quick double take to make certain my eyes weren‘t deceiving me. Oh, I know that horror is big business nowadays, and horror movies are just more moneymaking product for the voracious Hollywood publicity machine to advertise aggressively across every available surface.

But… exas Chainsaw 3D? On the side of buses? Like a Jennifer Anniston Rom-com? It was pretty jarring.

I remember when things were very different…

One of the recurrent irritations for anyone involved in the world of horror is that of being obliged to justify what you do, and even, sometimes, being expected to apologise for it.

No matter how many times my esteemed horror writer friends point out that major authors from Charles Dickens to Martin Amis, from Henry James to Bret Easton Ellis have dabbled in horror, no matter how often I reel off the list of great filmmakers who have made horror films – Murnau, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Bergman, Fellini, Polanski, Lynch, Cronenberg, Scorcese, Von Trier, etc – still the notion remains: Horror is not “respectable”.

As genre maestro John Carpenter once ruefully observed, horror is still widely seen as only one step above pornography.

And then it is no coincident that Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was described by the late James Ferman, notorious head of the British Board of Film Certification for far too long, as ‘an exercise in the pornography of terror’.

While this prissy condemnation might seem absurd, the description, if one sets aside the tone of moral outrage is not altogether inaccurate. Hooper does draw on techniques derived from pornography – the prying, prurient camerawork and constant crash-zooms – but uses them to generate fear, thus creating a growing sense of claustrophobia and hysteria.

The result is a film which seems far more graphic than it actually is, simply because its depiction of terror is so up-close and visceral. Hooper, a sometime documentary cameraman and college professor, who came from an experimental film background, knew precisely what he was doing. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film of very carefully orchestrated effects.

The jarring, punishing sound design alone reputedly took over a year. Here, as in Halloween, we have a director using all of the techniques of cinema to terrify an audience. The difference is that some of those techniques, and the cinema they derive from, are less than respectable.

But one film has its roots even more entwined with pornography than most.  Of course I mean Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham’s infamous collaboration, The Last House On The Left.

A grim and grimy grindhouse reworking of Ingmar Bergman’s unrelentingly nihilistic study of violence and retribution, The Virgin Spring, this much-maligned, oft-banned, truly infamous horror classic has been referenced over the years by everyone from Eli Roth, to Cinema of Transgression maven Richard Kern, to the repulsive misogynous pornographer Rob Black, and remains to this day strong meat.

So strong, in fact that the BBFC refused to pass it uncut in the UK until 2008;  36 years after the film was made. Apparently, the BBFC objected to the “overall tone”. And it is easy to see why this might be. Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a conscious experiment, appropriating techniques from pornography to generate terror. And it may even have been inspired to do so by The Last House On The Left.

But Craven’s film looks and feels the way it does for a far more basic reason: because it was originally conceived as a “roughie” porno; indeed, cast and crew were hired on that basis. But sometime during the shoot, the decision was made to omit the hardcore elements, to tone it down. Kind of.

Even so, the film retains an ugly, squalid, mean-spirited atmosphere, a leering sense of cruelty that still strongly suggests its unwholesome origins. Though there is actually surprisingly little explicit gore by modern standards, the effect is deeply uncomfortable, as if the viewer has somehow stumbled upon a heavily-edited snuff movie, and vague rumours persist to this day about missing, “harder” scenes.

The late David Hess, memorably hateful as the convicts’ leader, Krug, also provides the film’s jarringly jaunty country folk-rock score, the inappropriateness of which only adds to the mood of unease. Bleak, brutal, and utterly remorseless, The Last House On The Left remains a genuinely nasty, truly disturbing piece of cinema, the queasy ambience of which is now impossible to replicate.

Craven and Cunningham would go on to become two of the most significant figures in the evolution of the American horror film. Cunningham was creator of the Friday The Thirteenth films, and Craven would go on to direct the seminal The Hills Have Eyes and its sequel, before creating the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise and then later helming the various Scream movies.

The trajectory of Craven’s career in particular might be used as an illustration of horror cinema’s gradual move towards mainstream acceptability. Indeed, for a while, it seemed as though Craven might be actively seeking such acceptability.

Between Scream 2 and Scream 3 he made Music of The Heart, a heart-warming tale of a music teacher teaching violin to inner city Harlem kids, starring Meryl Streep. When The Last House On The Left was remade in 2009, with Craven as producer, he was able to look back, and observe wryly: “I’m far enough removed from these films that the remakes are a little like having grandchildren…”

Well, maybe, but Craven’s adoption of the role of avuncular grandpa is surely done in a spirit of mischief. Because while those “grandkids” of his are a bunch of vicious, unruly brats, they were spawned by a particularly mean and misanthropic old timer; rougher, rawer, and redder in tooth in claw than any of them.

Grimm Up North will be offering a punishing reminder of the way things used to be with a classic grind house horror double bill:

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.

Wednesday January 23, Dancehouse, Manchester. (7.30pm start. £8.00 entry)

Oft-emulated, much-rebooted, but never bettered, we present the unrelenting originals in all their gory glory. Two carnage-strewn confrontations between gullible city teens and the American badlands. Who will survive, and what will be left of them?

And remember: to avoid fainting, keep repeating, it’s only a movie double bill, it‘s only a movie double bill, it‘s only a movie double bill…

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