I Spit On Your Taste

Back to the grindhouse: Joe Bob Briggs
Courtesy of Joe Bob Briggs

Clinton-era cable subscribers might recognize the smirking, square-jawed mug of John Bloom, better known to channel-surfers and cult-movie aficionados by his sometimes-pseudonym, Joe Bob Briggs. As host of TNT's "Monstervision" (predated by the similarly styled "Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater"), he delivered sardonic observations and sidelong commentary on variously maligned B movies, bookending lowbrow horror flicks with highfalutin' references like some hayseed Dennis Miller.

"Monstervision" was canceled in 2000, but Bloom remains a brazen yet scholarly authority on pulp cinema. He's also a seasoned UPI columnist with deeply conversant views on everything from war and religion to affirmative action and the First Amendment. This past spring saw the release of his fifth book, Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Films that Changed History; on Halloween night, he'll appear locally to host the likewise obsessive "Profoundly Disturbing Film Festival" at St. Anthony Main, introducing such splatter-happy tours de force as 1963's Blood Feast and the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Perhaps bracing himself for this schlocktastic five-screen all-nighter, Bloom/Briggs spoke to City Pages from his home in New York City.


CITY PAGES: What's your take on the Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake?

JOE BOB BRIGGS: I was going to boycott it, but everyone has been demanding that I go see it. I haven't yet, but I've received hundreds of e-mails. I don't know where they come from, but numerous people are writing to confirm where the original crime happened, wanting documented details about the actual crime. The truth, of course, is that it has a kind of distant relationship to two separate cases, and it's basically structured around "Hansel and Gretel." I guess the publicity campaign was effective in terms of making people believe that this stuff actually happened in 1973. The original plan of [cowriter] Kim Henkel and [cowriter/director] Tobe Hooper in the early '70s was to do a dark version of "Hansel and Gretel"; then they added the chainsaws. Hooper had family who lived very near Plainfield, Wisconsin, so he heard Ed Gein stories when he was growing up. There was also an Elmer Wayne Henley element. [Henley] was very proud of his crimes, so [Hooper] put this pride element into the movie; the family was proud of its heritage of killing. Kim went out to Hollywood with Hooper, but he got tired of it. Now he teaches film at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi. He's still a hippie after all these years. Texas Chain Saw Massacre was made with kind of a hippie aesthetic. It was the first movie to regard the countryside as menacing. Movies before that regarded the city as menacing.


CP: You appeared in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. How does that one stand up next to the original?

BRIGGS: Hooper didn't want to do a sequel. He didn't want to be tied to Chain Saw his whole career. He was trying to branch out. He did Poltergeist, Salem's Lot. Cannon Films basically offered him a huge amount of money and said if he would make a sequel, they would help him do two films that he wanted to do. Chainsaw 2 was written by Kit Carson, who wrote Paris, Texas, of all things. It was generally not loved by fans of the original, but people who came along later really do like it. It has a following. Chainsaw III is universally despised. It was made in California; it doesn't even look like Texas. They were too concerned with getting an R rating, so they had to tone it way down. Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre was not bad, but rumor has it that Matthew McConaughey's agent sabotaged its chances of ever getting a proper release.


CP: Do you even bother with opinions about non-cult, non-horror films?

BRIGGS: The last one I can remember feeling strongly enough to write about was A.I. , because I thought it was a truly original film that goes wacky in the last 20 minutes. And then Unfaithful, which I thought was getting a bad rap. There was kind of a feminist attack on it, and so I defended that film. But in general I leave that stuff to Ebert and Roeper and the New York Times.


CP: On your DVD commentary track for I Spit On Your Grave, you discuss how Siskel and Ebert totally missed the film's feminist streak and unfairly condemned the film.

BRIGGS: Male critics and males in general have a problem with graphic rape scenes, more so than women do. It's considered worse than graphic murder in terms of how your mind turns away from it, how you want to walk out of the theater.


CP: There were similar arguments over Straw Dogs before that.

BRIGGS: Yeah, but that movie was destined to be reviewed by the New Yorker magazine. I Spit On Your Grave wasn't. It was the typical double standard.  


CP: Some argue that B movies are actually more emotionally honest, dealing so directly and vividly with sex and death.

BRIGGS: B movies are always ahead of the curve. People assume that they're copies of A movies, but the opposite is true. Concepts generally start at B movie level and bubble up to an A movie. What begins as "sex and violence" gets recast as "romance and adventure." The Great Texas Dynamite Chase became Thelma & Louise, which won an Oscar. I Spit On Your Grave became The Accused, which won an Oscar. The very fact that Texas Chain Saw Massacre is being remade and released in all theaters is an indication of how concepts become accepted that way. For years, the original couldn't be shown on cable, not even premium cable, not HBO or Showtime, not even pay per view. It was too grisly for cable. That was true until very recently, maybe five years ago. It was still banned in England until five years ago. It's pretty remarkable that now anyone can go see it.


CP: How do you regard the view that movies are valuable as a respite from the cold, harsh truth of the real world?

BRIGGS: I don't necessarily think that's true, because most popular movies are kind of violent experiences. It's not so much an escape from a sordid world; it's [an entry into] a more sordid world, an exaggeratedly sordid world. The number one and two movies last week were Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Kill Bill Vol. 1, two extremely violent films.


CP: Since Kill Bill came out, the term grindhouse has been all over the place.

BRIGGS: [Tarantino] is a sleaze postmodernist in that everything he makes refers back to the '60s and '70s. He's almost like a guy who was born out of time. He wanted to live in the '60s and '70s, so he idolizes those grindhouse films. But grindhouse films don't exist anymore because you can see those kinds of films anywhere. They were kind of destroyed by home video. Once you could bring it into your house, you wouldn't have to go into the bad part of town and sit next to some sleazy guy in a theater.


CP: So are audiences getting short shrift from modern horror cinema?

BRIGGS: Audiences are a lot smarter today, especially young audiences. They have access to everything, the whole history of film. When the Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake came out, you couldn't get a copy of the original anywhere: All the DVDs and videos were checked out. Everyone has a sort of historical point of view toward movies today, and that's a relatively recent thing. For most of the history of movies, they were considered a disposable commodity, like paperback books: You would read them and throw them away--there wasn't all this revisiting. So I don't think [audiences] get short shrift. I think they have too much information. It's almost impossible to make a movie that surprises anyone because the mechanics of it are explained everywhere.


CP: What distinguishes the films you cover in Profoundly Disturbing?

BRIGGS: They're films that I thought had been misunderstood in one way or another. Blood Feast is a terrible film, but it's an influential film. Its influence was almost entirely through the underground, the subculture, through punk bands and metal bands and fanzines. It developed a life of its own that bubbled up through the culture from the bottom. That was interesting to me. And there are films that sort of influence only filmmakers--like The Wild Bunch. Very few people say, "Oh, I love The Wild Bunch, it's my favorite film." But a lot of filmmakers say that--so that was also interesting to me. And then films like Creature From the Black Lagoon that just entered the culture through constant repetition on television. Especially with young boys, their whole sexuality was sort of defined by that film.


CP: Did you personally discover Blood Feast as a member of that core underground, or as a critic and genre connoisseur?

BRIGGS: I discovered it years ago before it was even available. You could only get it on pirate videos. The original audience for it was not a pop culture audience. It was a sleazy second feature on a bill, probably with a sex film at drive-ins and grindhouses. Starting in the late '70s, I guess, various people like John Waters and me and eventually Fangoria started writing about it. Herschell Gordon Lewis, the director, compared it to a Walt Whitman poem: "it was no good, but it was the first of its type."  


CP: Do you think it's harder now for these underground figures to remain insulated from the mainstream?

BRIGGS: There always has to be a new underground being developed. That's why it's a waste of time remaking all those classic horror films. You can't recreate the climate and the conditions under which they were made. It's not gonna work. What you need is a new scare, a new dark side of America to come up with. The bad thing about a lot of young filmmakers constantly referring to film heritage is that they don't develop new ideas. They look at Tarantino and see how successful he is and say, "I just have to watch a bunch of old movies."


CP: Are censorship and free speech issues going to have any meaningful place in the new election cycle?

BRIGGS: They haven't appeared to be so far. I haven't heard anyone talking about that. Usually there's someone making an outcry against Hollywood and its values, but I haven't heard anyone do that yet.


CP: Does that say more about politicians' priorities or voters'?

BRIGGS: I've always thought it's a small minority that fastens on music or movies and says, "This is what's wrong with the country." One interesting thing is that John Ashcroft is starting a legal war on pornography. It started with the prosecution in Pittsburgh of four porn films. He hopes it will set a precedent that will make it impossible to ship films out of southern California. But does it have wide support with the general public? I don't think the general public cares that much.


CP: You've expressed some affection for Hillary Clinton.

BRIGGS: I don't see anything wrong with Hillary. She's honest. You pretty much know what you're getting, and she's a details person. I don't understand the rampant Hillary hatred. She doesn't seem as venal as many of our recent politicians have been. I think she would be a good [presidential] candidate.

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