Horror, which over the years of history has turned from a legitimate source of entertainment into a cheap thrill in the public eye, is a genre I love. In terms of film, I love it for two distinct reasons separating any experience I get from a horror movie – If it’s not a good movie, I get honestly a great sense of cynicism tearing it apart from how it does not work, looking inside and figuring out how it represents the horror culture in the end to what always looks like its final grave. But then, when you find a real diamond in the rough, a real gem, something legitimately scary. Then you’re going to get somewhere with finding out how it makes your hair stand, your skin crawl, then you’re going to watch reactions after finding out and discover to your joy… the trick still works.
For the next 31 days, I will be giving a day by day review of horror films selected at random, from slasher to “Gates of Hell”, from Poe to Barker, from Whale to West, from 1919 to 2014…
This is the 31 Nights of Halloween. Tonight, we’re looking at the 40th anniversary of one of the most harrowing nightmares of the Americana road trip and one of the first progenitors of the “true story” horror film.
I remember 2003 being the year of revival for many a slasher flick. Since Freddy vs. Jason had become an event movie that year, a lot of my classmates just started shooting back to the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th genres to anticipate their fight. But one of my younger neighbors, disturbed as he clearly was at maybe five years younger than me, got really excited for a different movie and insisted that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of his favorite movies. He kind of showed a very corrupted memory of the film immediately at his age: perceiving sexual organs cut or Freudian moments with a chainsaw that even 11-year-old me could catch out of him without knowing that the term to use for it yet is “Freud”. But regardless of how much the child perceived it falsely, it was my first introduction to the concept of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to later be accented by the hype of the remake which was released later that year. I also had a huge affinity for the avant-garde guitarist Buckethead (still one of my favorite musical artists today), whose aesthetic is largely inspired by this movie, naming songs after quotes or lines and having soundbytes appear on some tracks.
I was 11 and put off of horror movies for a long while since images of the Cryptkeeper, The Cigarette Smoking Man and Freddy Krueger gave me heart attacks alone. So I didn’t see either film. Which I half-regret, for it at least didn’t make me half as questionable as my neighbor, and half-am glad for it being well after I had to endure Two-Lane Blacktop, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and so many other Americana road films made in the 60s to 70s age of freedom. I mean, can really moments like the Hitchhiker chasing the van with arms wide open smiling in the sun not be perceived as a gip against the Summer of Love after that group of pictures? Probably, but I’m easily overwhelmed by juxtaposition and suggestion. I first saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at age 17 in a dark room by myself and that impact made it one of my favorite movies I’ve seen now.
Following a very melodramatic but surprisingly effective text intro narrated coldly by a just debuting John Larroquette that adds more to the true crime feel, we get introduced into a world of harrowing imagery with a sit-your-ass-down-and-live-through-this montage of flashing washed-out imagery of carnage and Texas sun-dried remains of what are very obviously human beings accompanied by the old sound of a camera flash’s lights dying out like the untuned strings of a violin sliding down a razor as the imagery immediately fades out. It’s a sadistic little bit of visual entrance music giving you a glimpse of what was left behind by the violence that ideally shocked the same country that had The Exorcist and A Clockwork Orange released earlier that decade… a sick tease of “See that? Wanna know how it got that way?” before drenching itself in all red saturation with the matter-of-factly title The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (even though the body count being four seems to reflecting how sensationalized the term “massacre” is as in, say, the Revolution-inciting five-body Boston Massacre).
That deliberate saturation showcases something great to come in the 16mm shot film and that’s on the part of its also-debuting cinematographer Daniel Pearl. To my knowledge, Pearl hasn’t done much since other than an army of music videos, some huge, and some not-that-great horror movies (he had interestingly enough worked as cinematographer for the 2003 remake of this film 29 years later, but I might just explore his work there later this month). What we have here out of Pearl is a really grainy, dirty ugly little piece of filmmaking that makes some pretty great low-fi touches of ugly filmmaking that makes the movie feel as real as a snuff film – something we’re not supposed to be watching and should turn away from. This is such a fragile sensibility to the mise en scene providing the mood of the film that every second I haven’t seen the recent 40K resolution of the film bugs me out (the DVD I currently own is the 2003 Pioneer release and let me tell you, it’s bad… I’m finally making the switch to Blu-Ray and the 40K release will be one of my first buys). It is shit like that that gives the movie its true character before anything else, this rotten look.
But moving on into the whole meat of the tale, we’ve got ourselves one of the most generic slasher provisions ever. We got five teens, none of them with any real characteristics except for two of them being siblings – Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain), the latter being invalid and agitated so much and the former being particularly screamy. They are all for the most part non-entities that, to the movie’s flaw, mean nothing as people. They will come to approach a house that is heralded by a large and vicious killer who we don’t know anything about beyond having an affinity for butchery and showcasing this by donning a chainsaw, an apron and a mask made of human skin. These teens will die. That is the plot in a nutshell, but the main point of how it upsets the viewer comes not from what’s happening to the characters, but how much it feels involving. It’s not exactly documentary-esque – especially since the shot construction and angles feel more deliberated than amateur – but the way these moments are captured with Pearl’s little filthy lens feel like a tasteless little re-enactment from one of those true crime series. And director Tobe Hooper, who was just green behind the ears while making this movie, keeps up the realism and grounding to great effect with his sense of timing and patience.
This approach is what leads to really really weird and crazy moments becoming unnerving notes of impending terror… The film intercuts the opening moments of the five friends making sure the lead siblings’ late grandparents’ resting place is not ransacked or vandalised with shots of a man writhing on the ground as Sally consults the Sheriff, a long description of the practices of a slaughterhouse, to a very standoffish gas station owner whose station has no gas, and a particularly infamous long moment where they pick up a clearly insane Hitchhiker (played most unnervingly by Edwin Neal, whose looks remind me of James Franco and acts a whole lot more believably than James Franco too). This particular hitchhiker is the loudest omen as he gleefully continues the description of the work of slaughterhouses, having pictures to show and causes a ruckus by lighting a fire in their van and cutting Franklin’s arm before being kicked out. These scenes are covered by an abrupt editing style that slams images as hard as the mallet against the head of the animals.
And then there’s no better illustration to this point of Hooper’s sensibilities than our very first meeting with Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), the towering nemesis of this film, himself. It begins with one of the more nameless characters entering the Sawyer house to ask for gas after continuously calling out for anyone home. He’s met with an empty hallway nearly sterile in color, but right at the end next to the staircase, a grisly bright red wall adorned with animal skulls (the movie has made no secret that it bases itself on the horrific practices of infamous serial killer Ed Gein and, unlike the many other films that have based themselves on Gein like Psycho, seems to make a celebration of this fact in a sense) that should already be a sign to shout out “Dude, get the fuck out!” But said man doesn’t really regard this warning of set design and rushes into THAT very hallway, tripping on his own ass as Leatherface happens to waltz up into the door frame MOTHERFUCKER YOU SHOULD HAVE WAITED BECAUSE HE WAS ON HIS WAY TO MEET YOU HE WAS COMING TO GET YOUR ASS. Before we even get a chance to breathe or this guy gets to adjust himself, the man is slammed in the fucking brain with a hammer and his body spasms on the ground to the godawful soundtrack of pig squeals that we can’t tell where they come from. Leatherface drags his new kill into the red zone and slams it shut with a cold steel sliding door that expresses finality. The shock of that moment, even after seeing that clip and knowing it was coming, the brief silence that came after the slaughter, it was just asphyxiating of terror… like the moment Nemesis slams through the walls to chase you in Resident Evil 3.
But the worst is yet to come as the victim’s girlfriend, waiting outside the house herself, approaches taking a different path before tripping also and falling into a room that is built on the unfortunate remains of the dead. Furniture created from human bones, not a spot on the floor that doesn’t have tiny little rat or chicken or whatever skulls that break easily under the hysteria of finding all of this carnage, a little nightmare room for anyone brilliantly dressed and designed by Robert Burns, before this woman runs away, Leatherface on her trail…
I’m not going to go over much else to ruin the surprise, but these two consecutive scenes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre really paint and develop under the worst conditions how the true technical brilliance of the film is constructed to hammer on a point of brutality. Because that brutality is exactly what the film is all about: what can a movie show and how can it show that for the world to go “Oh my lord, that is ghastly”? Especially in the world that is going through such incomprehensible cultural turmoil, like the Vietnam War (Neal is himself a veteran) or Watergate? Or the movie watching public that dealt with A Clockwork Orange and The Exorcist? Just look at the surroundings of its production. I already mentioned it’s inspired – though not based – on Gein, a serial killer that is just scary to think about having existed and takes some inspiration from the Manson family and Elmer Wayne Henley. The actual production just as hellseeking, with the sufferable heat taking its toll on the cast and crew, 16 hour days and actual animal remains used at points and Burns actually suffering some actual injuries (this clip on YouTube shows Hansen ghoulishly laughing as he recounts actually cutting Burns’ finger).
The result of all of this reflected savagery is how Hooper and company answered that question for the world: You give them something so realistic and so in the face that the people aren’t ready for it. Something to say “Yeah, never mind. The world can be so much worse too.” And it pays off in spades, the movie is like being a dinner guest with Ted Bundy.
But it especially gets some props for doing without showing really much blood. It is easily one of the blood-less horror films I have ever seen and easily the blood-less slasher. After the first kill, it’s really quick and sudden getting rid of the other three victims that the movie just about has 30 other minutes to have of an exhaustive ride of torture and as Sally has to avoid Leatherface and scream her way out of being murdered. And these moments are just too intimate for me, I can’t really feel right sitting down in this house of blood.
And the climax. Oof, I haven’t spoken a word about the climax because if you don’t know what it is (and I’d argue it is the most famous scene in the movie, so it’s possible you do), you’re gonna have to deal with it solid up. And it is just as nasty and unsophisticated and real as everything else in this film. So bottoms up as you drink it in, telling yourself “this is only a movie”.
Because of this movie, I find it very easy to argue that film doesn’t have to be the sharpest imagery possible. It doesn’t have to award itself for its existence the highest quality. Sometimes, you just need to dig deep down into the ugliness and get some really black, really amoral to showcase as honestly as possible. Sometimes, you don’t need the brightest light, but the emptiest abyss all to the sound of a chainsaw, a sound that will never ever have me calm around it again and part of that is because of this movie.