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   PCR # 115 (Vol. 3, No. 23) This edition is for the week of June 3--9, 2002.

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The Enlightenment by Terence Nuzum

To Avoid Fainting Keep Repeating Its Only A Movie...Only A Movie...Only A Movie....
A Rough Guide To '70s Horror Films

"Keep repeating it's only a movie...". That was the tagline to Wes Craven's 1972 debut feature, "Last House on the Left". Not only a milestone in what was to become a lucrative career for Craven, but also inadvertantly the birth of splatter, gore, nudity and a new realism in horror films. The horror films of the 1970s had arrived. Horror films of the 70s were a new breed than what had come before, namely stuffy (but well-done) gothic pieces from Hammer and Universal. The '60s opened some new doors as low-budget production companies were coming into being, and found an easy venue to play their films: Drive-Ins.

The 1960s also planted the seed in gore effects that would later bloom in the 70s. Directors like Herschel Gordon Lewis and Andy Milligan virtually invented exploitation horror films (though the husband/wife team of Dwain and Hildegarde Esper in the 1930s were early pioneers). Lewis's films though, more so than Milligan's, were the spark that lit the fuse. Lewis's "Blood Feast" and "10,000 Maniacs" paved the way for films like "Cannibal Holocaust" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". So while "Last House on the Left" was not a completely pioneering move, it did take the genre one step further. With this series I will offer to the readers a rough guide to the era's best and important horror films. They will be categorized in the four important sub-genres of 70s horror: Cannibalism, Slasher/Splatter, Witchcraft/Satanism and of course, Zombies. So proceed with caution, this is not for those with a weak stomach or faint of heart. Read on and "After the screaming stops you'll start talking about it..............."

Part 1
The Cannibal Films of the 1970s
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre The cannibal craze of the early 1970s kicked off with a bang when in 1974 Tobe Hooper unleashed his masterpiece "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre". Shot in the baking Texas sun this moderately-budgeted horror film has many imitators but no equals. Director Tobe Hooper & screenwriter Kim Henkel based their film on the true-life exploits of Wisconsin psychopath Ed Gein, who dug up bodies, wore their skin, and eventually turned to murder. Henkel and Hooper's classic move of adding a whole family of killers was what separated their film from the other slasher films of the day. Its plot structure also strays from typical slasher standards. The principal victims get knocked off one by one early on leaving just the main character to survive the psychological onslaught that ensues. The story concerns "5 youths" who travel to Texas to visit two of the teen's grandfather's house which is now abandoned. What follows is that they run across a house of degenerate redneck cannibals. The family consists of the older brother who runs a gas station, the hitchiking middle brother, the chainsaw-toting little brother Leatherface, and the decrepit Grandpa. The gore is almost non-existent in this film and its bloody reputation lies more on the title and particulars of the story than what's actually seen on screen. Even though it's low on blood it is definitely an intense movie that pulls no punches during the psychological torture of the main character. Rarely, and perhaps never since, has such a film been made. A cornerstone of 70s horror and the one that all others must live up to. From its exploitation title to its visceral realism, this film is the embodiment of 70s horror. It even has its share of behind-the-scenes horrors. The cast and crew while filming in the Texas heat had to sleep in a house with no air-conditioning, leading to much of the film's insanity to be real. One scene in particular where Leatherface cuts Sally's finger with a knife was not staged at all. It was a real knife and real blood. It was these accidents and not planned prescision that made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre such a masterpiece.

DerangedThe same year that Tobe Hooper was shooting his pseudo-biopic of Ed Gein, Alan Ormsby decided to go all the way and tell the true story of the Wisconsin Madman, in "Deranged" (1974). Ormsby was already a veteran of horror movies having starred in Bob Clark's (Porky's, Black Christas) excellent "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things" but Ormsby wanted to make a film of his own. He chose the grisly story of Ed Gein. Ormsby's film centers around Gein and the reasons leading up to the hermit farmer's mental decline. Of course, tired of digging up dead bodies for amusement, Gein turns toward the living. There are some pretty frightening moments within the movie and even a scene where a girl is forced to sit at a dinner table like in Chainsaw Massacre. Who aped who is up for debate and it's possible that it's just a coincidence. None other than Tom Savini himself made the grisly props of skulls, brains, and guts. This like Chainsaw Massacre held back on the gore but unlike Chainsaw it was far more grisly. Ormsby didn't break any ground but it is a good film and an early entry in the career of makeup god Tom Savini.

FrightmarePete Walker's "Frightmare" (1974) was Britain's answer to our Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was in every way an equivalent, but it didn't copy. It lifted the idea of family dysfunction but handled it with a British approach. Edmund and Dorothy Yates were sent away to a mental hospital for 18 years for a series of cannabalistic murders. Now they have been released on the basis that they are rehabilitated. Edmund's daughter Jackie checks up on her father and stepmother regulary but it turns out that Dorothy is reverting to her old ways and is somehow getting human meat to satisfy her insatiable hunger. In the end, family is pitted against family. Walker's film by American standards was low on gore but in the U.K. it was considered violent. Walker was the first British director to use extensive gore in his films. The movie itself is actually a little more intelligent and involving than Hooper's but Walker's pedestrian camera work holds the film down from being as successful. Walker's fetish for power drill deaths did not go over well in the U.K. and he didn't end up starting a trend. In fact, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was banned in England until just recently.

The Hills Have EyesWes Craven decided to do his own take on family dysfunction and cannabilism in 1977 with "The Hills Have Eyes", loosely based on the 18th century murderous cannibal clan of England The Sawney-Beans. Craven's film follows a typical American family traveling through the Nevada desert. Their car stalls and during the night they are attacked by the degenerate inbred Hill family. In turn the remaining family members must become as violent as their attackers to survive as they set gruesome deathtraps for the Hill family. Craven puts forth the question if a whitebread family were put in a life or death situation would they become as violent as the maniacs. The answer, in Craven's film, is yes.

The cannibal films of the 70s perhaps because of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all focused on dysfunctional family structures. Cannibalism being the worst level a human can devolve to. It was the 70s after all, and the fake idealism of the McCarthy 50s had all but faded completely away. These films delved into family corruption and dysfunction and helped break away the nuclear family stereotype.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

NEXT: Slasher films!!!!

"The Enlightenment" is ©2002 by Terence Nuzum.  Webpage design and all graphics herein (except where otherwise noted) are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2002 by Nolan B. Canova.