The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
|Many folks presume that a film in which people are torn to shreds with a chainsaw would be void of artistic splendor. Not true. But I don't blame the presumption; the masses have been brainwashed by filmmakers who are scared to deliver a punch. Popular opinion is the horror genre has returned with a vengeance, not so. Films such as Scream and The Blair Witch Project only demonstrate how reluctant we are to approach horror on its own ground. Ultimately, modern filmmakers are so scared of pushing the envelope, they rely on ridiculous tactics like handheld cameras, or a cast of polished television actors, in order to sell cheap thrills. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is testimony that horror films are more about the human condition, and our most subversive fears, than ridiculous one liners, dead camp counselors or in your face scare tactics. Basically, if movies were authors, Scream is to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Danielle Steele is to Edgar Allan Poe.
Like all great horror films, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre concentrates more on atmosphere and emotion than on story. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's genius lies in its atmosphere, which manages to sustain a perfect balance of realism and psychosis. Due to the documentary-like cinematography, casting of good, unknown actors and a subtle, almost non-existent soundtrack, Hooper was able to paint a sparse and unpredictable milieu - an amazing semblance of everyday life. I felt like I was watching a family portrait - a canister of film I might have discovered in my own basement, the tone of the film, uncomfortably familiar, exactly the reason you feel so horrified when Leatherface enters the picture. The Blair Witch Project aspired to this sense of realism, but never came close to touching it.
Aesthetically speaking, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is rich in subliminal and ominous textures. The opening sequence is a good example of the claustrophobic level The Texas Chainsaw Massacre works on. The credits roll in a hollow darkness. All we can hear is a drawn out creak like a dying engine. Suddenly we see a bulb explode and light splatter on a form - the reflection of a jawbone, maybe some teeth. Another flash! A skull glows in the dying light, rotting flesh palpable on the hairline. We can't see the photographer but we know he's methodical and passionate. The dug up corpse acts as his model. Fade in as we pull back and witness it as a whole, the product is frightening: Two corpses intertwined, crouched on a headstone. The Texas sun pours out of their hollow eyes thereby accentuating the worm-eaten arms. The local news resounds in the background, top story: Someone is digging up corpses and placing them in bizarre positions. The scene is so amazingly stark, and the corpses so carefully structured, it's as if our greatest fears were personified on film. All and all, a very poetic and foreboding opening; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre never strays from this subconscious discomfort.
A simple story, loosely based on the gruesome murders committed by Ed Gein in 1957 (Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was inspired by the same events), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plunges headlong into the current of madness that is in essence the story. One blistering summer day, Sally (Marliyn Burns) and her handicapped brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), are travelling through the dismal roads of Texas, visiting distant relatives who live in an old farmhouse. Accompanied by friends Jerry (Allen Danziger), Pam (Terri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail), they quietly bump along in a VW van, encountering strange folks and deadly omens along the way. At one point they pick up a freakish hitchhiker with a large facial birthmark, an unpredictable tick and an antique camera (remember the pictures?). He talks to them about his family, describing how they slaughter the cows and make headcheese with their skulls. Apprehensive of his behavior, they try to kick him out. Before he exits, he slices Franklins hand with a pocketknife. Freaked out and exhausted, the group of friends is relieved to finally arrive at the farmhouse.
When they do arrive, the psychosis comes into effect. There are no traces of Sally and Franklin's family as they search the gutted house. Outside a lovely day blooms, with long stalks of grass swaying under a calm breeze. Inside, Franklin finds chicken bones hanging from the doorways in a freakish pattern. Pam and Kirk are tempted by the solicitous beauty of the lakes and fields and decide to go for a swim. On their way to the lake, they come across a massive house with a power generator running outside and a graveyard of cars scattered in the yard. Kirk approaches the front door as Pam lies on a porch swing in the yard. He calls out to see if someone's there; all he can see through the screen is an empty foyer and hallway. Suddenly, he hears faint sounds resembling a pig's squeal. He enters cautiously and follows the sound to a large silver door. Out of nowhere, the door opens, revealing a massive man wearing a distorted mask, lifting a hammer in mid air. He hammers Kirk in the head, blood pours, he continues bludgeoning Kirk as he maniacally writhes on the ground. He pulls Kirk into his slaughter den and slams the door. Pam goes into the house after hearing the door slam. She tiptoes through the hallway and enters a side room. Tripping on the floor, she encounters a world that's been turned upside down: A couch constructed of human bones, a live chicken trapped in a birdcage, decay apparent everywhere, but with a conscious human touch. She tries to run, but ends up squirming on a meathook, forced to watch Leatherface saw her boyfriend in half. The scene is a putrid vision of America - its morals forced so harshly onto the family system - it regurgitates as blood and death.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre unfolds maniacally, but is told majestically. We come to learn that Leatherface, does not work alone; he is nothing but a clink - a tool for the machine. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is filled with great social commentary - especially about America's values and how the family system is destroyed by those values. Hooper reflects this through the ideal that there's always something rotting under the surface. But he really forces us to question our so-called American morals when he shows the Chainsaw family in all their glory. Each member of the family serves a purpose and even though their interaction is insipid and borders on the ridiculous, they are still products of an environment and work together as a unit. But the greatest symbol of the idealized Americana is the grandfather - the seed of hate, the origin of madness. In a gut-wrenching and powerful scene, the family ties Sally to the family table and wheels out the Grandfather. He appears like a classic painting: The white mane, bow tie, and slumped shoulders. Actually we don't know he's alive until they force Sally's blood soaked finger into his mouth. Suddenly, he starts munching like it's chicken fried steak at a Sunday barbecue. Symbolically, Grandpa is exactly what he seems to be; the origin of hate, the tainted seed planted in American soil.
I'm sure there are those of you who think that I'm overanalyzing a piece of campy, horror trash. There's no way I can really defend myself against such assertions, except to tell you a story. I lived with a very interesting person in San Francisco. An artist by trade, she designed Gothic statues for clubs and bars. All day she'd either sculpt sinister looking art, or read a novel. Now, this young lady didn't believe in the power of film. She thought the medium was below her intellectual and emotional plane. "Only novels have the power to touch you." Needless to say, I needed to prove her wrong and extinguish that elitist attitude for good. One day I looked in the paper, and guess what film was playing in the Red Vic movie house? That's correct, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, baby. Now, I could have rented Citizen Kane, or The Godfather, or Lawrence of Arabia - but I just don't think they have the power to kick elitist ass. Now, fast forward - my roommate and I are sitting through the middle of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Basically, she's nearing the brink of sanity, clutching a pack of cigarettes in her right hand (I had to remind her five times that she can't smoke in there), and digging her fingernails into my arm. She was worse at home - pacing the apartment all night, drinking, telling her friends to be careful going out tonight. Of course, the next day she denied any of it, and went back to her pretentious self. But I saw the fear in her eyes. Jurassic Park dinosaurs and plastic ghosts hacking up the cast of Friends just don't elicit that kind of response. What I saw in her eyes was plain and simple: the fear of death (and a dose of fucking insanity). And every other person walking out of that theater possessed the same deathly glare. Now go rent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, turn off your lights, unhook your phone, and turn up the volume. Then come back and tell me, without flinching, that that film didn't affect you whatsoever. And don't watch it in the safe arms of your loved one, or beer buddies, or average crowd you enjoy those scary little Buffy shows with - watch it alone, then talk to me about art and the power of film.
Chad Byrnes works in the film and television industry in Hollywood.
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