Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Chapter Five: Texas-Sized Terror (or...“ in a mess a trouble.”)

As Jaws raked it in at the box office, a separate movement was afoot in the genre. A character known as Leatherface had been introduced months earlier in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This behemoth was not some scientifically created construct or experiment gone awry. Instead, he was merely the mentally stunted offspring of a group of Texas inbreds with a very nasty hobby.

The definition of a monster, according to The American Heritage dictionary (2001, p. 549) is “1. A creature having a strange or frightening appearance... 4. One who inspires horror or disgust.” Technically, Leatherface can be categorized as such.  However, in the horror genre, I must interject a personal set of additional qualifiers:  it must be otherworldly or inhuman.  Having never been accused of political correctness, I found something very unsavory about the portrayal of Leatherface.

A human being can certainly act monstrous.  He or she can also act like a dog, a penguin, or an idiot.  Mankind’s ability to commit atrocities can never be called into question.  Still, in horror, a monster is not the person behind you in line for a latte.  Certainly it is not a mentally handicapped individual, nor is it somebody born with disfiguring birth defects.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre must be acknowledged as one of the catalysts that began the transformation of the genre known as “horror” to that of “slasher”.  Whereas in horror, the evils of mankind were represented by terrible monsters and denizens of the grave, the slasher reduced the equation to its simplest form: man is the new monster.

It is not difficult to see Leatherface as a monstrosity.  Hanging a young woman from a meat-hook as she kicked, screamed, and pleaded is certainly disquieting.  However, “he” is not a monster.  Leatherface is a mentally disturbed man conditioned by a family of sociopaths.  Despite his actions, at his core he is indisputably human.  If you reside in the camp that considers the horror genre to be about monsters, then The Texas Chainsaw Massacre cannot truly be considered horror. 

If I were to apply the term “monster” to Leatherface, then that would not bode well for James Espy.  James was a junior high school classmate of mine with the misfortune of being mentally handicapped.  In addition, he was somewhat freakish in stature with a head that seemed twice as large as it should be even on his gigantic frame.  Based on appearance alone, James could be considered a “monster.”  It was well documented that James lacked the capacity to discern between “right” and “wrong”.  Horror is supposed to scare.  The viewer should fear the monster.  I was not afraid of James Espy.  Likewise, I was not afraid of Leatherface, and, I dare say, neither were audiences.  There is a difference between fear and disgust or revulsion.

Still, the genie could not be put back in the bottle and what constituted horror was about to undergo a shift.  While a few stalwart creatures lurked in the cinematic shadows, proper monsters were being brushed aside.  Horror was now becoming all about the body count...and nothing has proved more adept at killing than mankind.

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