Heeeere’s Auteurism! Chris Hury plays a desperate filmmaker and Martha Harms is his would-be starlet
In Allison Moore’s stage thriller, Slasher, when we first meet a low-budget moviemaker named Marc Hunter, he’s in a Hooters-style joint in Round Rock. He’s trading film-school insights about horror films with Jody, a worshipful movie geek who wants to be his assistant (Drew Wall).
What is truly scary, Hunter tells Jody, about director Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is not Leatherface, the masked, mass-murdering maniac who inspired a hundred Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees knockoffs. No, it’s the family — the carnival of freaks who inhabit the old farmhouse with Leatherface. Chainsaw is a takedown of the locked-together, backwoods, American nuclear family and its inherent horrors.
Many theatergoers may think Hunter is blowing cineaste hot air here, trying to inflate a classic bit of gory, grade-Z movie fun with a lot of trendy academic pretension. But Hunter is actually offering a long-established analysis of Chainsaw — and one that neatly sets up the family conflicts that will come soon enough in Slasher. Playwright Allison Moore clearly knows her stuff, particularly the details and mythology surrounding Hooper and Chainsaw. Round Rock, for instance, is just a smidgen north of where Hooper shot his film — in an empty farmhouse off I-35 in Pflugerville (set-decorated by the late Robert Burns, whom I knew in Austin).
But here’s the problem: Marc Hunter actually is being mocked in Slasher. As ably played by Chris Hury in the Kitchen Dog Theater production, he’s another Hollywood creep, a smarmy, lecherous moviemaker, desperate to save his dying career by helming his own splatterific entry, Bloodbath. Indeed, some of the better comic moments onstage in Slasher come when Hunter’s sorry, self-loving self gets zinged.
Hunter’s remarks on Chainsaw — and how we’re meant to view them — begs the larger question: What does Moore herself think of Chainsaw — and of the horror genre in general? You can’t tell from Slasher. The play is clever, and a smart take on the topic (“The Horror Film Nexus: Excitement or Exploitation?”) would be more than welcome. But for all of its attempts to delight in the happy carnage of the horror film — while also spoofing it and critiquing it seriously — Slasher is a muddle, a bloodbath of unresolved contradictions.
One way to understand the play is as a battle between second- and third-wave feminism, a tug-of-war over women’s roles and self-determination in pop culture. At the Hooter-ish joint, Marc hits on a young waitress, Sheena (Martha Harms), and convinces her that she’d be perfect for his film as the “last girl,” the one who conventionally survives the maniac’s onslaught. For her part, Sheena sees Bloodbath as her ticket out of her deadend job and out of her constricting family situation. She’s supporting both a younger sister (Rebekah Kennedy) and their wheelchair-bound, painkiller-addicted mom. (Where the cannibal family in Chainsaw is all-male, the one in Slasher is all-female.)
For her part, though, Mom hates everything about Bloodbath. And she will do anything, including murder, to stop it.
Correct! That Hand Is Holding a Beer. Now Guess What’s in My Other Hand. Harms, Wall, Kennedy, Hury and Leah Spillman, l to r, with Hassler avec machete
That’s because Mom views the contemporary horror film with horror. Sheena sees slasher films as cheap thrills and sees herself as a bright, resourceful, free agent, choosing to scream and show some skin in order to get ahead (Harms is perfectly believable in this). But for her mother, Saw and Hostel and their gore-porn ilk are pure, patriarchal rape-by-entertainment; they’re debasing exercises in sadism and sexism. Mom — played with unrelenting ferocity by Lisa Hassler — merges two types: the terrifying, repressive mother-figure from horror movies (see Carrie, Friday the 13th and even Psycho) and the cliched, old-school feminist, the humorless, sexless hag from, oh, a thousand cartoons, TV sitcoms and conservative talk-show portrayals.
All right, so Mom is an over-the-top caricature. Slasher is an over-the-top play – staged with riproaring enthusiasm by Kitchen Dog director Tina Parker and her designers (Clare Floyd DeVries, Suzanna Lavender and Christina Vela). But unlike the caricature of Hunter, the director-lecher, the caricature of Mom is not particularly amusing. To add to her unpleasantness, Mom sees herself as a repeated victim (hence, the wheelchair). Wonderful. She’s a raging whiner.
Nevertheless — like Hunter — some of what Mom says about Hollywood is quite true: the way the CSI and Law & Order franchises, for example, always seem to have a sexy prostitute-topless dancer-supermodel for a murder victim.
So how are we to take her analysis of the horror film? Shrill Puritanism or rigorous attack on masculine rage and profiteering? Interestingly, at one point, Mom turns to her traditional political enemy — anti-abortion Christian radicals — for help in shutting down the Bloodbath movie set. In other words, when playwright Moore needs to, she can ingeniously mix together unexpected ideological slants. But beyond ramping up the narrative tension with a violent, on-camera showdown of her trio — mother, daughter and director — Moore never really settles anything in their argument. She opts instead for the kind of wink-wink, contrived plot twists on which horror films often rely for their cliffhangers and denouements.
In all of this, of course, I sound very much like Hunter in that first scene, intellectualizing an experience that should be bypassing my brain and jolting me with laughs and frights. Yet this underscores what may be Slasher‘s greatest weakness: It’s not that funny. Or rather, it’s not funny enough, not clever enough for me to set aside how these conflicting takes on the genre don’t resolve. It’s telling that some of the better laughs come when Jody must step in to play Bloodbath‘s own Leatherface, wearing a ghoulish mask, flashing a knife, threatening the torn and trapped Sheena — all the while exclaiming, “Oh, I, ah, gee, I’m — sorry.”
It’s telling because Jody is deflationary. His little, nebbishy yelps are a surprise. He seems to have stumbled on this movie set from some other, funnier play.