Murder Most Foul: Philip Kerr Is Horrified by Two Butchered Attempts to Imitate Tobe Hooper

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I have always rather enjoyed Titus Andronicus, and those who doubt its Shakespearean provenance should bear in mind its similarities to King Lear. More black comedy than tragedy, Titus is rightly famous for the bloody horror of its hand-chopping, tongue-cutting and Les violeurs en croute; but the eye-gouging in Lear is just as horrifying. Horrible, too, is the end of Marlowe's Edward II, whose protagonist suffers the ultimate high colonic; and not forgetting the extended strangulation scene in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. All of these plays remind us of the public appetite that once existed for human suffering; not content with the gruesome scenes that were to be seen at Tyburn and Smithfield, English dramatists still felt obliged to show bloody murder and execution on the stage. They knew what we have perhaps forgotten: that death, in all its manifestations, is one of the central preoccupations of human existence.

Since Jacobean times, we have learnt how to sanitise death so that its dramatic portrayal is now something of a joke. Witness the unconvincing murders and joke corpses that are to be seen in any television detective drama. P D James et al manage to make murder look no more unpleasant than finding a man sleeping rough in your doorway. These "dramas" are mere pantomimes of death and are no more realistic than the Widow Twanky's falsies, or the wigs on the Ugly Sisters.

When cinema has addressed the subject with realism, people have found it much more upsetting. For years, murderers have been battering heads to pulp, chopping up their victims and eating their sexual organs; but it's only in the past 30 years that film-makers have tried to depict this with a Shakespearean attention to detail. Only a few months ago, watching French director Eon's movie Irreversible, I saw possibly the most convincing, horrible screen murder ever, in which a man has his face battered in with a fire extinguisher. The scene goes on and on, which I suppose is what happens when someone really is murdered; but I'd like to see Adam Dalgliesh try to identify that corpse.

One of the most notorious cinema depictions of Andronicus-like murder was Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). It was claimed that the movie (recently released on DVD) was "inspired" by a series of real-life grisly murders that had taken place near Austin, Texas, the previous year. Summoned to the house of a local slaughterman, police discovered not pie but instead the butchered remains of 33 people; later on they gunned down a chainsaw-wielding killer who wore a mask made from the face of one of his victims. …