Murder most foul

Film - Philip Kerr is horrified by two butchered attempts to imitate Tobe Hooper

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, hor-rible 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 Aus- tin, 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. I bet Shakespeare would have appreciated that.

Hype aside, Hooper's film suggests a lot more than it ever shows; it is a very cleverly edited, highly atmospheric piece of work. It hardly makes comfortable viewing and certainly those who have called it a classic are much mistaken; but what cannot be denied is that it was a hugely influential movie, spawning two sequels and a host of imitators. Even today.

Rod Zombie's House of 1,000 Corpses is just such a movie. Indeed, so imitative is it of Hooper's much superior film that it is hard to believe that 30 years separate these two movies. The plots are near-identical: two young couples take a misguided tour on to the back roads of rural America (always a mistake) in search of a local legend known as Doctor Satan. Lost and stranded, they are set upon by a bizarre, Manson-like family of hick psychotics who chop off the hands, scalps and limbs of their unfortunate victims with an alacrity that even Titus might have thought excessive.

Murder, cannibalism and satanic rituals are just a few of the horrors that await you in this dreadful film, which you are advised to avoid as you would a malignant melanoma. It is easier to understand how Rod Zombie's kind of trash gets made than to understand how a film-maker of the calibre of Michael Bay (The Rock, Pearl Harbor) should want to turn producer and spend $13m remaking The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, based on Hooper's original script. Money, I suppose.

Hooper's original film cost just $140,000 to make, and grossed (that is certainly the right word) an astonishing $30m. Bay probably hopes to find the same cult audience and a similarly huge return. The thrust of his approach, which uses the location from the real murder, is that back in 1973 the cops knowingly shot the wrong man. I haven't seen the film. And I don't want to see it. House of 1,000 Corpses was quite enough for me. But it seems to me that if a man is found running around Texas with a chainsaw wearing a mask made from the face of a dead man, he's asking for trouble.

House of 1,000 Corpses (18) is on general release

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (18) is released on 17 October

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Who the hell are you?