x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The horror-movie legacy of Leatherface

Texas Chainsaw 3D, a prequel to the 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, is heading to UAE cinemas tomorrow. What makes the film so enduring almost 40 years on from its release?

Texas Chainsaw 3D is the latest in a long series. Courtesy Lionsgate Films
Texas Chainsaw 3D is the latest in a long series. Courtesy Lionsgate Films

In 1974, a low-budget horror film made by the director Tobe Hooper shocked the world and changed filmmaking forever. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre told the tale of a group of young friends on a road trip who are captured, tortured and eventually killed by a terrifying family of cannibals, led by the hideous Leatherface. Texas Chainsaw 3D, a prequel, is heading to cinemas in the UAE tomorrow, but what makes the film so enduring to modern day audiences almost 40 years on from its release?

Fact or fiction?

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the earlier examples of a film marketing itself as being "based on a true story" (a short narration implies as much at the beginning of the film). While this claim is almost entirely false, elements of the film were inspired by the American serial killer Ed Gein. Though the story itself is fiction, this marketing was enough to draw the crowds.

This implication, that the events of the film really happened, would sneak into viewers' psyches and alter their perception of the film. The low-budget production values, the largely unknown cast - everything seemed tailored to make the experience feel like it could have happened, and therefore more frightening. Nearly 40 years later, this type of marketing is still used. In 1999, there came a twist on the formula, with The Blair Witch Project kick-starting the "found footage" subgenre (horror films presented as footage of real events), which would influence the Paranormal Activity franchise and its various imitators (Apollo 18 and REC come to mind).

Faceless fear

A less obvious but perhaps seminal influence the film had on modern horror was the anonymity of Leatherface as the film's villain. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, is famously quoted as saying: "There is nothing more frightening than an unopened door" - meaning that the most terrifying thing in a scary movie is what you don't see. In that sense, Leatherface is the personification of terror and the first in a well-worn horror staple.

Although a man wearing a mask of human skin is terrifying enough, the fear is deepened because you never see behind the mask. This device became common in horror almost instantly, with the late 1970s and early 1980s bringing us Jason in the Friday the 13th series, who wears a hockey mask, Michael Myers (Halloween's killer, wearing a mask modelled on William Shatner's face) right through to the Scream saga's villain, Ghostface.

Controversy creates cash

The film's very violent and graphic nature created an outcry in many countries. Commentators have since remarked that it is for that reason the film is so influential on the horror genre. It was the first film of its type to truly push what is palatable for the audience to see, to stretch the limits of terror.

This pioneering spirit came at a price, however; it was banned at various points in more than 14 countries, including Australia and the UK; the latter only lifted the ban in 1999. This notoriety created a mystique around the film that meant it remained popular among film fans for decades. Modern films such as Child's Play, Saw and even Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs have all benefited from similar outrage, with curious cinemagoers seeking out the film to judge for themselves.

Hooper has said the film's imputation of "reality" was a satire on government cover-ups such as Watergate, which also created an element of scandal about the film.

Perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid to Hooper's work is the number of imitations that it has spawned. Texas Chainsaw 3D, a sequel set immediately after the events of the first film, is the seventh movie to bear the name, following three sequels made during the 1980s and 1990s and two remakes in the 2000s.

With filmmakers such as Ridley Scott, Eli Roth and Sam Raimi having cited the film as an influence on their own work and careers, it appears that this dark masterpiece laid the foundations for many of the chilling works we see in cinemas today.

Texas Chainsaw 3D opens across the UAE tomorrow