Among horror sub-genres, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) may well be the template from which three contemporary streams emanated: the grungy, docu-drama shocker; the torture porn genre; and the nightmare thriller, where a group of innocents is reduced to one badly scarred, emotionally wrecked survivor.
It’s not that these sub-genres never existed before, but Hooper’s film remains attractive to filmmakers due to its simple structure that goes beyond the traditional body-count film, and Hooper’s emphasis on the brutal horror as experienced by victims as they’re plunged into a nightmare world, and have no choice but endure whatever trauma the killer will dole out.
For Staunton Hill, David Rountree’s script inverts and flips a few aspects from Hooper’s – this time the victims are the hitchhikers, and their driver is allied to a crazy local hick family known as the Stauntons – but it’s faithful to the Texas template wherein the victims are killed like animals in order that specific components can be harvested. The killers are cold, unmerciful, and eccentric (grandma moves around in a motorized wheelchair, and keeps a mallet handy for snippy victims), and at some point each family member is personally responsible for a youth’s suffering. The killings take place on a farm (mostly in a makeshift operating room), and the lone survivor is psychologically scarred from the trauma of seeing many of her friends die horribly.
The problem with Staunton Hill is that while the film moves through familiar slasher sequences, the scenes have neither edginess, originality, or style. The character intros in the first act are fine, and the premise of youths heading for a civil rights demonstration in Washington during the late sixties allows Romero to introduce the characters and their idealism ands camaraderie. His measured directorial style also allows one to absorb their relationships, and the period and rural setting ensures none of the characters have access to the technology that could save their lives.
But that reserved style remains constant, and it creates a firm distance between the audience and the film which never manages to immerse the audience into the horror the way Hooper managed so well in Texas.
To Rountree’s credit, efforts were made to add a practical backstory to the family’s killing spree, but the inevitable explanation – a lucrative black market for body parts – makes no sense because the operating room (a filthy corner in a barn) would make whatever samples unusable. In Texas, the body parts were kept in freezers for future use by cannibals, but in Staunton Hill, feet and hands are tossed into a bucket, skin is pulled off and probably thrown in a sack, and the cadavers – each beholding valuable organs – are just fed to the yard swine.
More confusing is Romero’s repeated returns to what might be a flashback, a flash forward or dream sequence involving a healthy-looking young girl in an operating room who either needs organs (skin for a graft, and new feet for a damaged pair) or who may be an unwanted donor, or perhaps is tied to the reason the Staunton’s elder son was kicked out of medical school.
Initial details of the Staunton family’s scheme are also introduced through some very clumsily staged scenes. In the first revelation that tells the audience the elder son isn’t just a friendly ride to Washington, the scene runs as though a reverse angle wasn’t used because the footage never got shot, making it appear as though he’s talking to himself or some farm implement.
The twist finale is equally confusing: either the heroine is doomed to becoming a cadaver because she’s being taken elsewhere by two people involved in the Stauntons’ scheme, or she will in fact get medical help, and maybe the chief villain might get caught. (The incoherence of the finale is on par with the ending for Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, which used a similar twist involving a hospital, and a ride in a pickup truck.)
Most of the time the production’s budget is exceeded by a good use of locations (the fall colours are very attractive, and provide a startling contrast to the emerging bloodbath), but some shots in the first act have continuity issues: light leakage seems to have irreparably turned some shots tungsten brown, and the wild audio in the early scenes has weak fidelity, affecting location dialogue and sound effects.
Staunton Hill isn’t dreadful; it’s just banal and unfocused at times, and presumes audience familiarity with genre conventions will lessen the seams from the script’s wonky plotting and continuity hurdles.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan