How do other countries see the homegrown horrors we create on celluloid? When “A Nightmare on Elm Street” debuted in Japan, did horror fans on the other side of the world get to see the art of painter Matthew Joseph Peak? Or when Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” finally made its way through the tangle of draconian censorship laws in the U.K., were audiences greeted with the original, jarring image of Leatherface going to work on one of his victims–or something stranger?
Throughout the month of October, we’ll be looking at the iconic cover art and posters for some of our favorite horror films–as they were seen around the world.
Leatherface was the last, great American myth. The hulking, masked, slavering killer may have been created by a group of college grads and film students outside of Austin one balmy summer, but it took the rest of the country to make ‘Face real. The muscle of the Sawyer clan is one part reinvention of the Sawney Bean legend, one part Odysseus meets the Cyclops, and a healthy dose of true crime with real-life killer Ed Gein worked in there by screenwriters Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper.
In his “Chain Saw Confidential: How We Made the World’s Most Notorious Horror Movie,” Gunnar Hansen attempts to address some of the myths about the film: no, the cannibalistic Sawyer family did not exist, yes, it was backed by mob money, no, the cast was not bombed out of their gourd on drugs the entire time (just once or twice, maybe). However, Hansen (and the rest of the cast) having to confront the first myth over the years has been the most fascinating aspect of the original “Chain Saw,” a movie who’s verite shooting style made it a source of admiration, debate, and critical exasperation upon its slow roll release from 1974 onward through its gradual infiltration of overseas markets.
The question of how much of “Chain Saw” was real or, you know, real plagued the film (or elevated it, depending on the audience) for decades, allowing Leatherface to take on dimensions that supernatural slashers Michael Meyers or Jason Voorhees could not. Note how the U.S. release played with the idea that those events out in a ramshackle house outside of Austin really happened. And if you were susceptible to this particular legend, you knew that not only was poor Sally the only survivor of the bloody slayings of her friends, but that the man with chainsaw was still out there as well.
The Italian poster for the film “gets” it, inasmuch as they’re selling the movie that most people have in their heads: a horror fantasy, blood-streaked and frenzied, an impressionistic nightmare of gore and boundless energy (nevermind the fact that “Chain Saw” is relatively light on blood and on-screen violence, implying far more than it shows in its brisk running time). Likewise, the Spanish-language poster is pretty direct: a girl, a man, and a saw with a splash of red (and titles that would be appropriate on a Herschel Gordon Lewis poster).
The two pieces of Japanese art are compelling in their own right, even as they move away from the manic energy of the Italian piece. Japan didn’t really experience its own gore boom on film until the ’90s and early ’00s, providing a little more context to these understated images. Ignoring the “is it real or isn’t it” side show of the domestic release, the pair of Japanese images deal head-on with the visuals from the film, with Leatherface looming prominently in both instances. The photo poster is the most effective given the way it lingers over the depredations that star Marilyn Burns would go through at the hands of the Sawyers.
The notoriously censorious Germany played on the black humor of the film, relegating the nerve-shredding violence (or threat of the same) to the background. Whether this was done to get back the German censors or simply because backwoods murder clans are a harder sell as a horror concept to Teutonic audiences, it’s not clear, but even as it bills the film as a masterwork of horror from director Tobe Hooper, its tongue seems planted squarely in cheek.
And on that note, we have the French poster, which not only plays on the iconic status of Leatherface but the strange position the film found itself in among critical circles. “Chain Saw” was considered, by some, a praiseworthy piece of art following its Cannes debut. Leatherfface goes from being a force of terror to a piece of pop art in this image.
In the U.S., Leatherface was a legend, real whether his creators wanted him to be or not. But as he traveled the world, he twisted and mutated into new and strange pop art forms that were exciting in their own rights.