The Aesthetics of Madness – Chainsaw Style
You need not look further than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 for a full-bore taste of Tobe Hooper’s subversive aesthetics-infused spirit. The fact that some viewed the film as a kitchen-sink mess and others saw it as a cheeky, gory commentary on ‘80’s excess underlined the persistent divisiveness of his vision.
If anything, “Dance of the Dead” confirmed this notion. One of the keystones of Masters of Horror was putting each filmmaker on equal footing in terms of budget, shooting schedule, and casting considerations. With the exception of the censorship issues with Argento and Miike, the episodes would sink or swim based on the individual directorial approach.
“Dance” showed Hooper at his most defiantly stylish and rebellious. Richard Matheson’s short story – anarchic in a controlled sort of way (yes, I realize the paradox) – was a burst of apocalyptic brilliance, following a handful of post-nuke punks while intercutting the action with details on the escapist drug they gorge themselves on. In many ways, it was the ideal foundation for a Tobe Hooper film.
Looking at Eaten Alive, Chainsaw 1 and 2, and the remake of Mortuary, it’s apparent that Hooper had immense sympathy for the Outsider. While he never went so far as to condone the actions of the killers at the heart of those tales, he at least sought to understand their motives. “Madness” was not some pop-psychology catch-all to Hooper, but a fully-formed state of mind that permeated all aspects of his aesthetic, from sound design (the clanging pots and pans of Chainsaw) to visuals (the red-saturated exteriors of Eaten Alive). Dialog possessed an improvised feel, and the sound sync – particularly in Eaten Alive – bordered on the surreal, especially when Neville Brand chased his victims around with a scythe. Consider, also, the infamous “dinner scene” from Chainsaw, where the victim’s screams and the howling laughter of her tormentors commingled into a jarringly ethereal birdcall.
Corgan’s death-metal soundtrack to “Dance of the Dead” may be on the nose, but it’s consistent with the plot and visuals, and a complement to the nihilistic, dead-end characters that populate the story. It feels like an evolution of the experimental soundscape of Chainsaw, regressing into garbled noise in tandem with the dissonant characters – a group of delinquent drug addicts siphoning blood (referred to as “the red”) for the sleazy MC (Robert Englund) of a nightclub in the mysterious city of Muskeet.
Muskeet is a place of secrets and revelations for our lead character, Peggy (Jessica Lowndes), who, on her seventh birthday, witnessed her friends die due to a biological agent (dubbed “Blitz”) raining down from the sky. The images of skin dissolving from adult and child bodies alike is both shocking and impishly deceiving – Peggy’s mother, Kate (Marilyn Norry) corrals her and her older sister, Anna (Genevieve Buechner) into the family home, while friends and relatives perish outside. Years later, what remains of the United States is divided among those who managed to evade Blitz, and those who wander the ruined landscape, scavenging for drugs and other essentials.
Time to Dine
The dreary restaurant Kate runs isn’t altogether different from the roadside barbeque joint in Chainsaw, or the hotel in Eaten Alive; while located along what used to be a main drag, it bears the hallmarks of a neglected, long-forgotten place, clinging to the ways of a bygone era. Peggy, now 17, has lived under her mother’s watchful eye since Anna’s disappearance. When the drugged-up punks, led by Jak (Jonathan Tucker – The Ruins) stop in for coffee one day, Peggy is cautiously intrigued – she appraises them like some new life form spawned from a petri dish. Sensing danger, Kate quickly forces the punks out, but not before Peggy makes eyes with the blank yet seemingly benign Jak. That night, Peggy defies her mother and travels with Jak and company to Muskeet for a date with destiny.
As always, Tobe Hooper’s base intention was to beat the viewer silly with his blunt-force aesthetics; but for those able to abide that pummeling, the subtext is where the real meat of the story lies. The clashing of social and economic classes was always a huge part of his commentary (with The Mangler in particular underlining the thankless plight of factory workers in a dead-end town), and part of the perverse joy of a Hooper film was seeing the well-adjusted middle class (think Poltergeist) caught off guard when brought face-to-face with The Other.
To be continued…
(Gif of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre via giphy.)
Crash Analysis Support Team
(Aka Jonathan Weidler), he only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.