Leatherface is back (again): TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (David Blue Garcia, 2022)

Netflix released the latest Texas Chainsaw instalment (the ninth!) on February 28th. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Easter (as in: how many ways can you tart up hot cross buns?) but there are some nice features to this one. For a start, well, it’s on Netflix, so a bit less likely to disappear into the Texan mud without trace, like some of the earlier versions. There have been eight sequels and prequels and unrelated but similar-named movies in this franchise, as well as comics (sorry, graphic novels) and a video game of the original.

The original film, in which “chain” and “saw” were two words, is still widely acknowledged as the best, despite its paltry budget and apparently impossible working conditions for the crew. It was released in 1974 by Tobe Hooper, who made a somewhat light-hearted sequel in 1986. It was a pioneer in “slasher” films and drew cannibalism out of the gothic into the sunlight, showing an alienated workforce in “flyover” states turning their (now unwanted) skills in killing steers toward killing tourists instead. It finished with Sally, the “last girl” escaping from a frustrated Leatherface, who was wearing his mask of human skin (fully biodegradable but not much use against viruses) and wielding his chainsaw in a way that buzzed of potential sequels.

This sequel takes place 48 years after the original (yep, now) and blithely ignores any plot points from the intervening movies, comics, etc. Leatherface is back, older but no wiser and still intent on killing teenagers, and so is Sally, the survivor, who is now a Texas Ranger and set on revenge.

And the cute teens, well, they’re everything that the locals hate – inter-racial, trendy, Gen Z “Influencers”, what the creepy gas-station owner (and there’s always one to set the scene) calls “gentrifuckers”.

They want to gentrify the town and set up a trendy area of gourmet cafes and authentic looking but modernised shops and galleries. Leatherface is in retirement in an abandoned orphanage, and Sally, well, she’s been looking for him for a long time apparently, although when last seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (not an episode of Star Trek), she was catatonic and strapped to a gurney. But now she’s hardass. When we first see her, she’s gutting a pig, just as Leatherface is slaughtering humans. The special effects are pretty similar for both, as are the body shapes, and, frankly, the characterisations. The original actors who portrayed Leatherface and Sally are both dead; the only original cast member is John Larroquette who does the voiceover, which half-heartedly tries to sound like a true-crime documentary, as he did in the original. The new Sally is Olwen Fouéré, the Irish actor, although this Sally seems to be more based on Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in the 2018 reboot of Halloween.

The class struggle of the original Chain Saw has been lost here. The Texas of the original was filled with pockets of people abandoned by modern capitalism and so falling into degeneracy and violence. The new movie seems to valorise the “ordinary” folks who brook no bullshit from the “me generation” and defy the dehumanising effects of capitalism. It’s hard to feel sympathy for the influencers with their real estate auctions and cutesy town planning, or to feel terror at the thought that people might chop you up, but only if you insist on being a dick.

The terror of Leatherface himself revolved not around his nasty dental problems, badly fitting masks and noisy chainsaw, but around his family, the Sawyers, a group of odd but not obviously psychotic individuals who nonetheless were more than happy to chop up and eat innocents from the outside world, which had forsaken them. It felt like this could be any of us, screaming and dying and becoming the family’s dinner, should we venture into the wrong part of the Badlands. This new version is all Leatherface. Somehow, he now has a “mother” who looks after him in an abandoned orphanage, and she dies of a heart attack when the trendies tell her she has to move out, leading to his much delayed rampage. But Leatherface was always the weapon, not the villain, sometimes killing, and sometimes donning an apron and cooking for his dominant family. He doesn’t really work as a lone psycho, particularly when we sort of sympathise with him – he’s just lost his mum, weeps as he wears her face as a mask and then applies her makeup like Norman Bates in Psycho. Who can stay mad at that?

Tobe Hooper’s classic broke new ground in cannibal films and in horror generally. It encapsulated the early 1970s as the endless war in Vietnam and the demise of the hopes of the flower power generation ran into the chainsaw that was Nixon’s silent majority. The new one seems to reflect our time, where the young and idealistic are capitalistic exploiters and Leatherface and the Texan gun-toters are just being pushed too hard into the chainsaw of QAnon. Politics and war are no longer about truth and justice but just fake news in pursuit of tribalism. The film sums this up sardonically in the climactic scene where the busload of influencers are confronted by Leatherface and his chainsaw and respond by pulling out their phones and live streaming the whole massacre.

As Marx said, great historical entities (like Leatherface) appear in history twice – the first time as tragedy, the second time (or perhaps the ninth) as farce.

But here’s my problem with this film. After 83 minutes (which seemed much longer) I looked up from the screen and screamed (internally) “where’s the cannibalism?” Yes, there was a lot of flesh on display, and broken bones, and the occasional internal organ. But none of it got eaten, which, if I had more time, would have disqualified it from this blog. The thing is, cannibalism is not just one more nasty thing that mean people might do to you and me. It is the ultimate act of dehumanisation. Sally’s friends and family in the original were turned into slaughter-animals, chopped up, eaten, and presumably ended up in the family’s outhouse. That’s what we do to those we objectify: pigs and sheep and cows, and we do it to distinguish ourselves from other animals as somehow non-animal, part-god. The slasher might kill us, but the cannibal converts us into shit. Otherwise, we are all potential wielders of the chainsaw.

Without the cannibalism, this is just another slasher with too much emphasis on special effects rather than characterisation.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022 has a 33% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with one audience critic summing up:

“it isn’t very scary — and it definitely doesn’t help that the story hardly makes any sense.”

“…would break people’s souls”: AMERICAN HORROR STORIES Episode 3 “Drive In”

American Horror Stories is part of the American Story franchise. It is a 2021 spin-off of the hugely popular American Horror Story, an anthology series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who were responsible for other terrifying shows like Nip/Tuck and Glee. American Horror Story is currently in its tenth season, and has been renewed for seasons 11-13. Each season is a self-contained mini-series, whereas in this new series, American Horror Stories, each episode is a self-contained narrative.

While there were cannibals in American Horror Story, (the Raspers in season 2 and the Polk family in season 6), the new series seems to be a lot more into them – the first season has two cannibal stories out of the seven episodes, an impressive 28.6% (if anyone is counting).

Episode 3 is called “Drive In” because that’s where most of the gore happens. Kelley (Madison Bailey) and Chad (Rhenzy Feliz) have been arguing about her reluctance to have sex with him, even though he is playing Bob Ross The Joy of Painting on his laptop (he’s been told it’s a sure fire aphrodisiac due to its reputation for causing a relaxed, tingling sensation known as ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). Anyway, that trick doesn’t work on Kelley.

Bob Ross is an interesting choice for a horror story opening, as he seems to live on through Twitch and the internet, despite having died in 1995. So much horror is about the undead stalking promiscuous teenagers!

Chad’s friends assure him that ASMR won’t work – what he needs is horror! That’s why horror films are so popular, they are aphrodisiacs, OK? The link between fear and sex – the subject of a whole new dissertation.

Chad’s friends have one ticket left for the drive-in screening of a film called Rabbit Rabbit. The film was banned by Tipper Gore (Amy Grabow) after the audience at the only showing in 1986 started to massacre each other, and she ordered all prints of the movie destroyed. Except they missed one: the director’s cut. Chad dismisses this whole massacre business as an urban legend, but takes the ticket.

As they drive in, a lone woman is protesting, demanding the screening be stopped. She tells Chad she was at the showing in 1986, where her boyfriend plucked out her eye and ate it before being killed himself. He listens politely, but then Kelley turns up with the biggest bucket of popcorn ever created, and he has to, you know, go. Presumably now full of popcorn, Kelley tells Chad that she is finally ready to have sex with him, and various cannibal metaphors fill the cars before the movie starts – Chad and Kelley pashing in his car, fellatio in his friend’s car next door.

Chad and Kelly’s steamy petting fogs up the car windows, so they cannot see the film, nor do they see the mayhem erupting outside, where people are attacking and devouring each another. They try to drive away when a cannibal smashes through their window but they crash, and have to retreat to the projection room, where we see Chad, who just yesterday was trying to seduce his girlfriend by playing The Joy of Painting, use the last copy of Rabbit Rabbit to cave in the skull of the projectionist, who has just eaten her assistant.

Of course, it’s not the last print. There is a rumour of another print being shown next night. Their mission, should they choose to accept, is to find the director and destroy the NEXT last copy.

So, we finally get to the cannibalism, and it’s plentiful and gory, as we would expect. Those affected by the film get bloodshot eyes, their veins swell, and they are only interested in one thing – human flesh. Chad’s best friend approaches as they leave, eyes bloodshot, veins swollen, and Chad appeals to him to THINK! Remember when we were two little boys, innocently watching porn in the afternoons? Now, according to Aristotle’s theory of the human being as the rational animal, Chad’s appeal to reason, love, friendship, shared porn, should have broken through the spell. Ha!

So what’s with this movie, with the most innocuous title imaginable: Rabbit Rabbit? The rabbit is a gentle, timid, vegan animal who is massacred pretty much everywhere he is found, due to his propensity to breed – a lot! Sounds kind of human?

Chad has done some research before going to the movie; he watched, on YouTube, Tipper Gore’s committee condemning the movie and having it banned after the audience massacre in 1986. Banning things is popular in America due to deep religious convictions, but also not popular due to, you know, the First Amendment. Tipper Gore, married to Vice President Al Gore, was responsible for making music companies add warning labels to songs with explicit content around that time, after finding her 11 year old daughter listening to Darling Nikki by Prince, so this is not just idle chatter – she was seriously into banning stuff.

But why is the government banning Rabbit Rabbit and destroying all copies (or so they imagine)? Well, the director, who glories in the name Larry Bitterman (John Carroll Lynch from Fargo and The Drew Carey Show) is asked by Tipper about his claim in Fangoria Magazine that his movie:

“…would break people’s souls, and anyone who saw it would be damaged forever.”

Publicity hype, laughs Bitterman, but Tipper is worried about the effects of violent content on society, which must be an in-joke for Murphy and Falchuk, after presenting us with ten seasons of violent content, and now this gorefest. Critics have been warning about that sort of thing forever. Civil society has been threatened by the Internet, porn mags, the horror genre, and before that television, movies, radio… hell, conservative Cro-Magnons were probably warning about the evils of cave paintings 40,000 years ago.

Is there any sense to it? Can porn turn us into sex offenders, horror stories into cannibals? The internet certainly turns some people into trolls. Bitterman wants to make cinematic history – he tells the teens that this “was his finest hour” – a cinematic happening, a horror movie where the horror isn’t on screen, it’s in the audience. He refers to Friedkin’s (actual) use of subliminals in The Exorcist – two frames of a demon’s face in reel six had people throwing up in the aisles and women going into labour. Rabbit Rabbit took this to the next level,

“The universal combination of image and sound that would trigger the fear centre of every human brain. I studied intrusive memory formation, the CIA hijinks with MK-Ultra…”

Bitterman had jumped the hearing bench and attacked Tipper Gore when she boasted about destroying the prints of his movie, which resulted in him being locked up for fifteen years for assault. His conclusion: “a society that locks up its artists doesn’t deserve to survive.”

There’s another in-joke – the series was made by FX for Hulu. What if a film like Rabbit Rabbit was to appear on, I dunno, a rival streaming platform – imagine the damage it could do!

But there’s another question for us among all the hacked flesh and explosions. Have you ever felt like you are in a horror movie? Maybe while in the throes of a personal tragedy, or watching a pandemic unfold, or contemplating changing climate. Perhaps you’ve wondered if “they” are playing with your brain. Or perhaps they really are breaking your soul. Or maybe eating you alive. Cannibalism is a brutal metaphor for pretty much every atrocity we visit on our fellow earthlings. A movie, a cataclysm, political upheaval – what would it take to start us eating each other?

“…to keep your family alive”, CADAVER (Herdal, 2020)

New cannibal movies keep arriving, thick and fast. This one is from a young Norwegian director, Jarand Herdal, and was released on Netflix in October 2020. It is a traditional dystopian story, a genre in which people are driven to cannibalism by desperate circumstances – think Soylent Green, Delicatessen, or 28 Days Later. Dystopian films sometimes don’t bother telling you what happened to destroy our civilisation, for example We Are The Flesh or The Road. Others spell it out, and nuclear war is always a popular explanation, as is the case in Cadaver.

The film starts with children running into a vast room, playing among huge piles of clothes and bags. They try things on, and one girl discards a shirt, when she finds a stain on it. A bloodstain of course. We see a family making its way through a street where bodies lie in the road and survivors fight for food.

Discarded newspapers tell of a nuclear disaster. A family, Leonora and Jacob (Gitte Witt and Thomas Gullestad) and their daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) are desperate and terrified, down to their last tin of food, when they are offered tickets to dinner and a show at a grand hotel. Who hasn’t fallen for that line?

The showman is the suave, beautifully dressed Mathias (Thorbjørn Harr) who seats the crowd at dinner tables where waiters bring steaming plates of meat. Mathias welcomes them to the show, and tells them that

“everything that takes place tonight is staged. Everything is a show. Everything.”

The show is the theatre itself. The “audience” are told to wander the corridors, explore the rooms, but they have to wear bronze masks in order to distinguish themselves from the “actors”, who look like normal (maskless) people, and act out dramatic scenes of conflict and sex and suicide.

Alice disappears and, as Leonora and Jacob search, they ditch their masks, making them indistinguishable – they become actors instead of audience. Just as well, as the audience keep disappearing. And given the plates of meat served up in the middle of mass starvation, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out where they are disappearing to. Our protagonists, however, are clueless.

They witness Mathias addressing his actors, like a pope or king, as they kneel before him.

“You know where you came from. You know what we have here. If we don’t stick together like family, it will devour us.”

The rest of the movie is Leonora wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric corridors, trying to work out what is going on, and where the hell Alice has got to. There’s a plot reveal: Mathias is running a factory farm, with the only mammal still available in large numbers. The actors’ job is to put on a show so audience members will split up and follow them into rooms where they will fall through trapdoors, to an unknown fate. At the bottom of the trapdoor are the brawny butchers. It’s Sweeney Todd, in Norwegian.

When the actors and audience follow Leonora into the kitchens, they are shocked and horrified. I mean come on, where did they think all this meat was coming from?

We also find out why the audience must wear masks – because the actors might know some of them, and:

“as long as they are masked, you won’t be able to tell.
It makes it easier.”

The identical masks give them an air of indifference and facelessness – they look like victims. It’s the same reason farmers will tell you they never give names to the animals they plan to kill. Anonymity is essential for objectification. You don’t want to meet your meat.

When Leonora confronts Mathias, he offers her the opportunity to join the cast, asking her

“What would you do to keep your family alive?”

The title “CADAVER” (“Kadaver” in Norwegian) is an interesting choice. According to Dictionary.com, it means “a dead body, especially a human body to be dissected”. It is therefore a scientific term, implying research or study. Mathias and his merry men are chopping up the guests for dinner, but there is a way out for a talented person like Leonora – like Theseus and the Minotaur, she can navigate the maze of corridors and trapdoors and confront the beast, or even choose to join him. Survival depends on her choices and decisions. Almost certain starvation outside or murder and cannibalism inside. You can watch on Netflix to see which way she goes.

The Digital Spy review (which, I warn you, is full of spoilers) has a poll at the end, which asks:

“Would you have joined Mathias’ cannibal cast?”

The possible answers are:

1. Look… it’s the apocalypse, OK?
2. No way, I’m a vegetarian.

When last checked, the vote was about 50/50.

The cannibal apocalypse: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, 1968)

The author John Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1941 that:

“It isn’t that the evil thing wins—it never will—but that it doesn’t die… two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”

Horror depends on our inability to accept the inevitability of our own deaths, and cannibalism adds to the recipe the terror of that death involving our total disappearance, not just our spirit but our bodies, incorporated into the stomach, then the cells and finally the shit of another. We cheer the death of the ‘bad guy’ because we feel at a primal level that his death is required for the continuance of our life. But what if, as Steinbeck says, the evil never dies, and keeps coming back for us?

This I think is the attraction of the zombie, who has become a critical character in our culture since the release of this movie in 1968. An earlier movie, The White Zombie (1932) saw Bela Lugosi turned Madge Bellamy into a mindless love object – returned to life, but as a slave with no will of her own. Those zombies did what they were told, but they did not go out of their way to eat people. That type of compliant, submissive zombie is pretty much what Jeffrey Dahmer was hoping to achieve when he drilled holes in his lovers’ skulls and poured in what he hoped were non-lethal doses of acid.

George Romero’s genius was to combine the undead with the cannibal to create what in this story is called a “ghoul”. The zombie was still, in 1968, the undead servant of Haitian mythology. In this film, the ghoul, a figure that traditionally hangs out in graveyards and sometimes digs up corpses, becomes those corpses, and so gives birth to what we will ever after call zombies. These zombies are cheaper by the dozen – they have no will, no intelligence, just the force of numbers, and overwhelm the living with their ragged, shuffling weight of numbers.

What raises these dead? We are told by a TV newsreader that a strange phenomenon, perhaps radiation from a space probe that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, is causing the dead to rise from their graves. They are voraciously hungry, but very fussy eaters – their preferred cuisine is living human flesh, although cooked (when a truck explodes) will do. But the horror in this movie is from the “banality of evil” – the things that really haunt our nightmares are not ogres and aliens, but cemeteries at dusk,

Ordinary (ish) looking people trying to get into our car, when we can’t find the keys

Technology that won’t work at times of crisis

And of course the dead. Particularly when they look angry. And hungry!

Romero did not just bring to life the zombie hordes, but also very many cannibal movies owe a debt to him, as do “splatter” movies generally. The simple opening scene of a couple of siblings driving across the desert to visit their father’s grave was later replicated to some extent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. And of course many, many zombie movies and TV shows have followed in the shuffling footsteps of this one. Without Night of the Living Dead, there is no Walking Dead.

The story revolves around a group of people sheltering in a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, which is under assault by a growing crowd of cannibalistic, undead corpses. The phone doesn’t work, which is annoying, but the radio and even the TV are fine, which is useful as a dramatic device to fill us in on what’s going on.

The radio reports that they are:

“things that look like people but act like animals.”

The horror of this film seems so much greater by their ordinariness (although the low budget may have had something to do with it). Cannibals are often described as acting “like animals”, but of course, we are all animals, great apes, and cannibals are just as likely to be accused of treating their prey “like animals.”  Ordinary people, animals, fall down when shot, but the horror of these undead is their invincibility. It’s hard to kill someone who is dead, and has just risen from the grave. Shoot them in the chest and they fall over and then get up again and keep coming. They can however be shot in the brain or walloped on the head or burnt, so we are not left without hope.

But there are other dynamic binaries – heroism and cowardice, fire and fuel, shelter and intrusion, eater and eaten, and a scene where an infected girl within the boarded up house eats her own parents, and an undead brother returns to eat his sister. In two short scenes, Romero takes Freud’s insistence that cannibalism and incest are the two original prohibitions of mankind, and merges them into incestuous cannibalism. The film comprehensively problematises the narrative of humans vs monsters. We are all hiding in our houses, terrified of the latest headline, and we are also all members of the monster horde.

The protagonist is Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American hero, which in itself was rare in the sixties. Romero says Jones was chosen just because he gave the best audition, but the dynamic he brings, particularly in the inter-relationship battles inside the house, where he insists on being boss, and of course in the climax, took the film into the heart of darkness that was 1968 America. As the ghouls lurched toward the house, the Vietnam war was raging, students and police were battling on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic Party convention, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down, and in Paris revolution was in the air.

But it’s not “all right”. The racism issues raised by the film further complicate the dichotomy between human and ghoul; human and, well, inhuman. Because when the authorities arrive, they are basically a vigilante mob killing ghouls with a random collection of guns, and building bonfires to dispose of the corpses. When they see a black man – will they recognise him as a real, live human? Well, no, Ben has made it through the night, surviving the attack of hundreds of the ghouls, only to be shot through the head by a police sharp-shooter as he emerges. The film ends with grainy images of him being pulled from the house with meat-hooks and burnt with the corpses of the again-dead, and the pictures are unmistakably reminiscent of photos taken at lynchings.

The review from the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, sums up the response to the movie at the time. This was written after he had watched the movie in a cinema filled with kids, who had been dropped at the cinema, unaccompanied, for an afternoon of fun scary time.

The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire…

The movie has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Chicago Reader summing up:

Over its short, furious course, the picture violates so many strong taboos — cannibalism, incest, necrophilia — that it leaves audiences giddy and hysterical.

Interestingly, the movie was removed from Netflix in Germany, following a written demand from the German Commission for Youth Protection.

“Banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi organiser of the death camps in which millions died. What shocked Arendt was that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann, one of the most pivotal figures in the Holocaust, was a monster, in fact she found him “terribly and terrifyingly normal”.

This is the crucial difference between the early cannibals of Herodotus or Columbus and the ones inside our cities after 1888 (the year of Jack the Ripper). They don’t look that different from us. They are men and women, young and old, dressed and naked. We can no longer tell them for sure from our next-door neighbours.

The ghouls of Night of the Living Dead are human but dehumanised. They are dead, but still walking and eating, and the dead and the undead all burn in the same fire. In fact, the ghouls are us, filled with rage at the fact of our mortality, but they don’t look that dissimilar from people you might be standing next to at a political rally.