One of the more exciting inclusions of the Sydney Film Festival this year is a screening of a restored version of the iconic Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) on – of course – Friday 13 June. Banned in Australia until 1984, the film met with global controversy on its release while simultaneously attaining a list of impressive accolades: it was included in the Directors’ Fortnight programme of the 1975 Cannes Film Festival; it is in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the British Film Institute’s magazine Sight & Sound has ranked it in their list of the greatest 250 films of all time. It has been praised by eminent film critics such as Bill Nichols and Robin Wood, and championed by celebrated feminist film theorist Carol J Clover.
Despite claims the announcement of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s inclusion in the SFF program was greeted with laughter, the film’s presence in the festival supports the groundbreaking work of critic Joan Hawkins and her book Cutting Edge: Art-horror and the Horrific Avant-garde (2000). Hawkins calls for a significant re-evaluation of what are often assumed to be the cut-and-dried binaries of art/trash and high/low film cultures, and focuses explicitly on the substantial overlap between splatter film and trash aesthetics and the type of highbrow art cinema traditions typically ascribed to the more culturally revered film festival circuit (particularly experimental and avant-garde filmmaking practices).
Historically, there are a slew of instances where the space between exploitation and more supposedly ‘legitimate’ filmmaking practices are revealed as hazy. Swedish director Bo Arne Vibenius is known primarily for his notorious and decidedly nasty rape-revenge film Thriller: A Cruel Picture (also known as They Call Her One Eye), but also worked as an assistant director on some of Ingmar Bergman’s most revered films such as Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1968). More famous is the impressive list of key New Hollywood figures associated with legendary B-grade producer and director Roger Corman and his so-called ‘Corman Film School’: these include Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper and Robert De Niro.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is being screened at the Sydney Film Festival as part of its ‘Classics Restored’ sideline, alongside Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964). There is an implied canonisation at work here, a symbolic red carpet rolled out for a once-banned movie: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is now considered ‘important’ enough to be screened alongside a Hollywood studio classic and esteemed arthouse favourites from France and India.
Well, not quite alongside. In an attempt to recreate the ambience of the original film-going experience, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will screen at the Blacktown Drive-In, while the others are housed at the sumptuous Dendy Opera Quays cinema complex. Indeed, advertising material promoting the Hooper drive-in screening emphasise that for those too scared to drive home from Blacktown after the screening, a hotel in the suburb will cater to your needs (lest the trip to civilisation be too long or traumatic.) Incorporating a drive-in theatre into the Film Festival screening venues is a novel idea but the placement of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the ozoner still has the whiff of banishment: although there is also another screening of the film in the city, the more gimmicky (and promotable) drive-in screening effectively emphasises its segregation from the ‘proper’ classics.
Local film history offers some curious insight when considering The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s relationship to the Dendy. Prior to the construction of the Opera Quay complex, Dendy’s most celebrated venue was its Martin Place single screen theatre, an arthouse that introduced Sydney to some of the best-remembered independent cinema from the 1980s until its closure in 2003. But before a change of management in 1981, the venue was not as well regarded. It is worth remembering that the Dendy Martin Place opened in May of 1975 with Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm’s softcore sci-fi porn satire Flesh Gordon.
The original Dendy theatre, for many years the city’s premier arthouse, was in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton. Robert Ward, who ran the Dendy Brighton, expanded his chain and brought arthouses to both middle-class Malvern and distinctly working-class Dandenong. Ward had an interest in the Filmways distribution company, a group that handled a lot of international film product including both critically credentialed arthouse fare and violent and sexy exploitation material. While the Brighton venue remained strictly arthouse, only a few kilometres down the road in the genteel beachside suburb of Sandringham, Ward’s legendary Sandy Drive-In became the home of some of Melbourne’s most infamous drive-in double features.
In 1972, Dendy expanded into the Melbourne CBD with the Dendy Collins Street. The first film it screened was Joseph Losey’s The Assassination of Trotsky, yet the arthouse focus soon switched to adult entertainment. Within months, Martin Bronstein’s Canadian sex romp Loving and Laughing began a run that would last for over a year, establishing the venue’s reputation as a smut house. The Dendy Collins Street’s programming policy relied on Filmways product, and this granted a space for films like Torgny Wickman’s Swedish sex-ed film The Language of Love (1969) to appear alongside oddities like Lucio Fulci’s bizarre Italian psychodrama Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971). So successful was the Dendy-Filmways partnership that the business expanded into Sydney and Brisbane, as it dabbled with local content like BMX Bandits (1983). Brian Trenchard-Smith’s bike-riding cult classic is renowned today for launching the career of Nicole Kidman, but it played in the Dendy Collins Street until the venue decided to replace it with … yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
During this time, Dendy and Filmways made very little distinction between Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Veronika Voss (1982) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, between Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) or the alien gore shocker Xtro (Harry Bromley, 1983). It was cinema for outsiders, made (and distributed) by those outside the mainstream. Softcore sex features, highbrow arthouse, nasty horrors, bizarre kids’ flicks, rock concert features, Kung-fu chop-sockies and spaghetti westerns: they may strange bedfellows for the festival audience of today, yet programming at the original Dendy theatres catered to those who wanted to experience something beyond of the mainstream. Significantly, this is not wholly dissimilar to how the nation’s major film festivals now frame their demographic in promotional materials today.
The supposed laughter that greeted the Texas Chainsaw Massacre announcement at the SFF program launch comes as little surprise in some ways but the film’s exhibition history in Australia raises important questions regarding broader debates about film censorship. A small article in the Canberra Times on the 28 January 1976 noted that The Film Censorship Board blocked the release of two other films when it made its initial decision to deny The Texas Chainsaw Massacre classification: The Mislayed Genii (for indecency) and Aldo Lado’s Night Train Murders (for indecency and excessive violence). Only two month later, Eric Jeffrey Haims’ run-of-the-mill sex comedy The Mislayed Genii was passed for release after 27 minutes of sex scenes were cut. It played at adult cinemas and drive-ins well into the early 1980s before drifting into obscurity. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was presented to the board several times in versions of varying lengths, only to be refused on each occasion. It was not until January 1984 that it finally passed, and enjoyed several weeks in cinemas before a successful drive-in run. It turned up on video in December that year amid much controversy, as it garnered the attention of campaigners concerned about the effect of violent content upon impressionable minds (mirroring the British ‘video-nasty’ controversy, where The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was attacked by the tabloid media as a film easily obtained by children to detrimental social effect). Night Train Murders – a breathtakingly brutal rape-revenge film that despite its graphic sexual violence still offers a powerful critique of the hypocrisy of the European class system (see ‘Last Trope on the Left: Rape, Film and the Melodramatic Imagination’ at Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies) – remains unavailable in this country. It is doubtful that a major national film festival will screen it (even at a drive-in); if it did, it is unlikely Night Train Murders would be received with quite the same levity as Texas Chainsaw.
These examples suggest there are bigger issues at stake than a simple oversensitivity to perceived highbrow/lowbrow distinctions. As indicated by the major censorship controversies in this country over the last decade and a half, the films that trigger debate are almost always linked in some way to the privileged domain of film festival culture, especially in relation to the auteur brand.
The current discussion most immediately recalls the brouhaha surrounding the release of Catherine Brellait’s Romance (1999). Brellait, a regular on the international film festival circuit and a Professor of Auteur Cinema at the European Graduate School, makes films marked by frank and often-confronting treatment of sexuality. Romance was initially denied classification in Australia because of its inclusion of explicit, non-simulated sexual material but the decision was reversed on appeal, something that is now considered to be a turning point in Australian film classification history. Romance opened the door to the classification of other films that included non-simulated sexual activity including Lars Von Trier’s confronting films The Idiots (1998), Antichrist (2009) and Nymphomaniac (2013).
Another French film whose classification status became the source of public interest was Baise-Moi (1999), co-directed by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi. Baise-Moi is an important, remarkable film: punk feminist verite at its most honest and raw. But its inclusion of non-simulated sex combined with its unflinching depiction of sexual violence caused great discomfort for the Office of Film and Literature Classification who retracted their initial R-rating and denied it classification (a cut version of Baise-Moi was screened on World Movies in 2013 to comply with Australian classification standards.) This culminated in a very public defence of the film by Margaret Pomeranz, who also rallied against the decision to deny classification of Ken Park (2002) by celebrated American filmmaker and photographer Larry Clark.
The carnivalesque films of LaBruce’s straddle the lines between art cinema traditions and explicit sex, the latter in his case ensconced firmly in the domain of hardcore gay pornography. When the Melbourne International Film Festival was forced to cancel screenings of his joyful LA Zombie (2010) under advisement of the OFLC in 2010, outrage ensued. Social media was flooded with speculation that homophobia – rather than concerns about sexually violent imagery – was at the root of the LaBruce debacle. That the sexual violence was so self-consciously ludicrous (zombie-themed gut fucking, for example) surely meant it could not reasonably be considered grounds for so draconian a decision.
Time and time again, these cases are underscored by an implied sense of national shame: these films are available elsewhere! Are we so behind, so parochial that we cannot deal with some fancy French shagging and a bit of sexy biffo? The films are privileged in debates around film censorship not necessarily because of their content but rather because of the externally defined context of that material. There is an unspoken sense of embarrassment that we might be seen as hillbilly bumpkins with no knowledge of the importance of these great artistes—many of whom, in some cases, are even French!
But where do such debates take us if we step away from revered auteurs or privileged national film contexts? In a scathing interview with the British Daily Mail, Wolf Creek 2 star John Jarrett lambasted Pomeranz and her colleague David Stratton for their dismissal of his film (despite it topping the Australian box office). Jarrett identifies a fundamental hypocrisy in this decision:
Margaret and David have done some great things for Australian cinema, so I’m just surprised with their attitude …They championed the French film Baise-moi which had very graphic sex and violence and was R-rated in this country. They found it pretty horrific, but they said no matter what it is or if something doesn’t allign (sic) with your views you should be allowed to see it. To then turn around and say this about Wolf Creek 2 … maybe if we subtitled it in French they would like it?
Jarrett’s observations lie at the heart of where discussion about Australian film censorship needs to begin. The questions we need to ask are not about films like Baise-Moi, Romance, or even LA Zombie – they are about the films and directors we don’t necessarily know. The films Margaret and David won’t champion. The films we might not want to watch.
Take, for instance, The Gore Gore Girls (1972). Herschell Gordon Lewis is certainly well known to gore fans, and his film Blood Feast (1963) sometimes ranks a mention as the first splatter film. Despite being granted the moniker ‘The Godfather of Gore’, beyond the realms of that particular taste community, his name is of little note. For those unfamiliar with his work, it can be best described as the horror equivalent of Russ Meyer’s sexploitation efforts like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965).
Ten years ago, Siren Visual Entertainment released Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965) on DVD. It had planned to complete their Lewis series with The Gore Gore Girls. In April 2005, however, the film was denied classification by the Classification Review Board. The decision was made by a committee of three members, with two in favour of denying classification and one against. The official decision can be found online, and is a curious document that grants much insight into the mindset of the nation’s central censorship body: such lavish and earnest descriptions of filmic violence are usually the domain of gore-drunk pre-teen horror fandom or actual bona fide serial killers. Time and time again, the 2-against-1 split is revealed: simply put, one gets the joke; the other two do not. In reference to one particularly gruesome vignette, the document states, ‘It was the majority view that the scene is very high in impact. The view of the minority was that the scene was no more than high in impact because it was unrealistic looking and silly.’
Like Night Train Murders, The Gore Gore Girls is still not available officially in Australia. Call us pessimists, but we are not holding our breaths for it to be screened at SFF or MIFF anytime too soon. But the questions such films raise are crucial. In the case of The Gore Gore Girls (as in the debates around LA Zombie), how does humour fit into an ethically sound position on explicit violent (and specifically sexually violent) material? Can it be written into policy?
More broadly, questions should be asked of those of us who indulge in conversation about the politics of film censorship as a leisure pursuit: sure, we are happy to fight for the Catherine Brellaits and Larry Clarks, but are we ready to do so for the Herschell Gordon Lewises or Aldo Lados? What about other films more overtly confronting and serious than the kitsch splatter of The Gore Gore Girls: the vicious rape-revenge spectacle of Night Train Murders or the Nazi paedophile torture film In A Glass Cage (Agustí Villaronga, 1987), which was denied classification in 2004? Do our anti-censorship arguments allow us to stake an ideological claim for all film, or just some? Is the inclusion of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the Sydney Film Festival funny because a movie that was denied classification for so long here is now rendered little more than a cute retro throwback? Or do we simply want a better class of trash?