Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

USA, 83 minutes
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Photography: Daniel Pearl
Music: Wayne Bell, Tobe Hooper
Editors: J. Larry Carroll, Sallye Richardson
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen, John Dugan, Jim Siedow, John Larroquette

(Spoilers ahead if you can call them spoilers.) I had seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre only once until recently. That was enough to convince me it was one of the scariest movies ever made. The decision to look at it again was thus soon hampered by gnawing unease and procrastination at the prospect. I realized the last movie that had given me this kind of problem was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and the link is clear. Neither particularly involves the supernatural, unworldly monsters, and/or abstract forces of evil. It's just human depravity, and that's enough.

To be sure, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is fiendishly conceived and full of exaggerations for effect large and small. Based loosely on the legends of Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, it seems to take a special glee in the quotidian intricacies of the butchering industry as well as solemnly nodding over tales of how Native Americans put to use every part of the whales and buffaloes they slew. So along the way we find a lot of human bones, hair, skin and such (and feathers, in a room where a live rooster squats in a cage hung from the ceiling) draped all over everything, including the faces of the killers. But the movie is also remarkably free of blood and gore, though in turn that may be offset by larger-than-usual doses of screaming, which at one point toward the end seems to go on for 25 minutes or more.

Free of blood and gore but it never shrinks from making sure we understand exactly what's going on. After all, you really don't have to see a lot of blood or brain matter to understand that a sledgehammer to the skull (with the sickening sound) is brutal. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is obviously a low-budget production but director and co-writer Tobe Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl worked with what they had, putting the supersaturated color of the cheap film stock to work in methodical if lurid dimensions. Red and yellow really pop and red and yellow things are particularly unsettling. The images often have a clinical feel to them, as if studied through a lens. And they're not afraid to let the screen go black when it suits them, worrying you to death at that point with the noises. The Saw franchise actually owes it quite a bit in terms of look and feel.

The range in tones is amazing and goes beyond the visuals, keeping viewers continually off-balance. It lumbers with deadly pace. There's a lot of setup in the beginning about grave robbers, corpses, slaughterhouse procedures, and an extremely unpleasant hitchhiker. But all of it is essential to what makes this such an extraordinarily powerful experience. There are five teens and it seems to take forever to kill the first one. But we have been so lulled by that time that it's as shocking then as it is efficient. The next three go down fast, leaving only Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), perhaps the original "final girl." In the last third the movie goes places I'm not sure have been matched anywhere yet, notably a dinner table scene where the demented family makes fun of the blubbering terrified Sally (and later when Grandpa can't keep hold of a hammer). It is abjectly horrifying yet also hilarious but it is laughter inside of a void. The scene may be funny, but unlike the later ironic self-referential approaches of Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, and others, we're not really in on the joke. They could be making fun of us next and there wouldn't be a thing we could do about it, and it wouldn't be so funny then.

Well, actually, there is one thing we could do about it, which is the thing Sally does: scream your head off and run if you can and don't ever stop screaming. Marilyn Burns, who died recently at 65, never did much in movies besides this and it's not hard to see why. There's not a lot of range there. But it is an iconic role and she owns it completely, working effectively off the low-budget trappings, letting the story itself winnow away the others—an altogether distracting crew, including the raw vulnerability of Sally's disabled brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who travels in a wheelchair, and his haunting face. Finally it is just Sally and the fundamentals of life and death. And no one can argue she isn't one hell of a screamer.

I have some sense that people who do not watch horror movies on principle want an explanation from those of us who do—"enjoy" them is not exactly the right word, at least for me, though obviously there can be elements of camp that provide a good old-fashioned entertainment to many (e.g., The Bride of Frankenstein). The Texas Chain Saw Massacre inevitably became a franchise and a camp supervillain emerged, one "Leatherface," the artist butcher of this film (Gunnar Hansen), who then became just another action figure with Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. The reasons for watching are complex, a mixture of many different motivations, some so familiar now as to be hackneyed: Catharsis, for example, the exhilaration of surviving, which is also the kick with amusement park rides. Or testing limits—seeing how far "out there" you can go and still get back to a safe place (the implicit question: is it possible to go too far?). Then there's flinty realism—looking at the horror with a cold eye because it is real. This can be something of a passive-aggressive position, favoring things that are ugly by design simply because they are ugly (justified because "real," which I think, enlarging some, applies to believers in regard to the movies that are more overtly supernatural, wherein the "real" becomes Satan and evil). But I suspect all this is more like the proverbial 10% of the iceberg that's visible—a lot of business lurks out of sight in the unconscious, even among those who don't like horror movies. My curiosity about how or why these movies have such a powerful effect might be it. Aside from the violence, which looks like it hurts for sure (not to mention maims and kills, and I'm opposed to that), why does this mayhem frighten me, charge me with adrenaline, make it hard to breathe easy, worry me about the dark corners at night? It's only a movie, right? One thing's sure. Something keeps drawing me back.


  1. I was just thinking about Henry, and now I'll have to think again. I really don't like that movie, and I've always liked Texas Chainsaw ... now I have to figure out why that is the case.

  2. They're both repellent, but TCSM has humor and a distancing sense of being a movie. Henry has no humor and feels like a documentary. Interesting thought experiment for sure.