With the sponsorship and assistance of the UK’s Total Film magazine the Frightfest organisers instituted a new filament to the festival programme last year, the Total Icon event that was awarded to John Landis who hitch-hiked over to London with a sparkling digital print of An American Werewolf in London in tow. This year the strand continued with the welcome appearance of Tobe Hooper, back in England for the first time in eighteen years, to crown a challenging double-bill of screenings including his elusive debut Eggshells followed of course with a prized big-screen outing of Hooper’s legendary The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – c’mon this is Frightfest after all – one of the key reference points of the horror genre with its repeated inclusion in the top tier of ‘best horror film ever’ lists that have been complied over the past thirty five years.
Eggshells is a delirium fuelled commentary on America’s narcotic comedown (it was originally released in 1969), a fever dream picture that concerns itself with the unconnected and frankly incoherent experiences of a group of counter-cultural types, two couples and a mute young gentlemen who reminded me of a tuned in, turned on Harpo Marx – suffice to say this is not a film for everyone but the films bizarre experimentation seemed to connect with the festivals open-minded crowd. In a mosaic of student art-film experimentation the film rejects any connective membrane and proceeds as a sequence of seemingly unbonded viginettes, the most arresting for me being the mute chap sword fighting with himself in a jump-cut combined montage, a memorable display that is superseded when he discovers a mysterious light lurking in the basement which prompts a kaleidoscopic assault of sound and bewildering pseudo-fractal imagery. Other sequences evoke the consumerist baiting conclusion to Zabriskie Point as one of the crew strips naked and torches his car and belongings, other tamperings with animation techniques remind one of the early short film efforts of David Lynch (interestingly enough from the same period), namely The Alphabet and The Grandmother. Quite what the film is trying to say will rest in the eye of the beholder but as the characters dissolve into an evaporating mist as the film concludes, an escape from their alt-home which serves as a portent of things to come with Chainsaw, the film heralds the themes of incarceration and control that have populated Hooper’s work for years to come.
Is there anything left to be said about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film whose simple savagery remains untarnished a mere thirty-five years after its explosive release? Chainsaw remains a noxiously efficient piece of work, its atmosphere built through its lo-fi vérité construction, all those fans (like yours truly) who first caught this atrocity on slightly soiled, sordid, seventh generation VHS or Betamax format have marvelled at its continuing impact and definition of the genre, The film is powerful on the big-screen, the digital print that screened has thankfully not had all its grainy texture digitally erased (memo to Mr. Friedkin – please don’t fuck up the mooted Exorcist transfer as you did with the French Connection Blu-Ray) and its droning soundtrack remains effectively low in the submerged mix. It’s dysfunctional family unit retain their disgusting, dreadful aura and the films harrowing treatment of men and women as disposable chattel. Speaking as someone who has an affection with the consequent rise of the post-modern horror film with all its self-referential ingredients, its knowing winks to the audience and emphasis on more and more elaborate kill sequences it was refreshing to see a film that was designed to terrify and disturb its audience on a rudimentary visceral level, given the nervous laughs and scattered applause of the crowd, the majority of which must have seen the film countless times, its brutal prowess and repugnant horror remains intact.
A brief but rewarding Q&A with Tobe Hooper followed the screenings as Total Film editor Jamie Graham lead a deft discussion of Hooper’s turbulent career, raising and putting to rest a few rumors and whispers that have coalesced around some of the more controversial elements in his library of work. Chainsaw was given an appropriate emphasis during the dialogue, Hooper explaining how he specifically timed the specific shocks and scares by careful synchronisation of frame rate and on-screen scares, given the nervous laughs and scattered applause of the crowd, the majority of which must have seen the film countless times, its brutal prowess and repugnant horror remains intact. Discussions turned to the continuing debate of 1982’s Poltergeist authorship, there has long been debate on exactly whom is behind that films genre pedigree. Hooper explained that the confusion stems from an on-set visit of a LA times journalist who observed Spielberg helming a second unit sequence, and it was from this misunderstanding that the consequent Chinese whispers have expanded to a detrimental effect on his career. The cultish Salem’s Lot and Lifeforce received some attention and it seems that there are no plans to release the long cherished four-hour cut of one of the better Stephen King adaptations, even the obscure Eaten Alivewas given a brisk commentary. Jamie concluded the event with a fine question, asking Hooper whom he thought was the most promising director of the current crop of phantasmagorical fantasists, his immediate election of Guillermo del Toro igniting an appreciative flood of applause. Conversations will inevitably turn to next years icon – and one hears that a Mr. Carpenter has a new film that is close to release….
– John McEntee