Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

My first review on this blog was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and well, I blew it. That's a movie I want to like more than I actually do, and looking back on the review, I think I soft-pedaled my criticism and wasn't being completely honest with myself. I tried to separate my feelings from the analysis I gave, but I've since found that's impossible for any review; I can't provide a complete analysis and figure out what the movie's about and how it's about it if I don't acknowledge my response to the picture.

Thankfully, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is not a movie I have to convince myself to like. Like its sequel, it was directed by Tobe Hooper, but it gets better with each viewing. An intense, claustrophobic, surreal, and at times darkly funny film, it holds up where its sequels and remakes fail.

Reports of grave-robbing prompt Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her paraplegic brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) to check on their grandfather's grave, and they bring along three friends - Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMin), and Jerry (Alan Danziger) - for the trip. After getting rid of a weird hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), they go for gas, but the owner, who also sells barbecue (Jim Siedow), tells them he's out, so the group visits an abandoned family house. From there, by chance and accident, they begin to wander into one-on-one encounters with Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a deformed but monstrous killer.

It's really hard to add anything new to discussion about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, written by Hooper and Kim Henkel, but I'll try. I've referred to John Kenneth Muir's writings on the genre before, but his piece on Chain Saw in Horror Films of the 1970s is one of his best. In it, he discusses the socio-economic and political background going on at the time the movie was made (Watergate, the Energy Crisis, post-Vietnam, etc.), and he discusses the subtext and techniques that can be read into the movie: how insignificant humans are in the grand scheme of things (like cattle for the slaughter), the dynamics of both "families" as they clash and how there's an element of class warfare between these middle-class, free-spirited hippies and the unemployed slaughterhouse workers, and how the movie denies the audience the act of learning. The last item is where he compares the film with Psycho, and how even in that masterpiece by Hitchcock, the mystery is unveiled even as characters we've been following are killed; there are other characters who pick up the trail and put the pieces together. It's a great essay, and I highly recommend it (as well Muir's other books and writings).

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre abandons the conventional narrative structure of film. There is a beginning and an end for sure, but the traditional three-act structure, in which characters are introduced and conflicts established and then built from there to a climax, is all but abandoned, replaced by a documentary, slice-of-life style. Consider Halloween: Michael Myers murders his sister in the opening scene, the story jumps ahead to his escape from the sanitarium, and then it moves along as he returns to Haddonfield to resume his killing; all the while, there are scenes of Dr. Loomis pursuing him and explaining to others (and the audience) just what they're up against.

Hooper and Henkel deny a similar progression to their movie. Leatherface just turns up about halfway through the movie, smashes someone in the head with a hammer, and is gone just as quickly; that's his introduction, and there was no hint he would be turning up. The teens just wander into him, and he reacts by killing them, intruders upon his home and property. So many other movies, especially horror movies, are praised for being realistic, but even in those other films, as great as they are, there is a dramatic element. In Jaws, Chief Brody is a hero we can identify with, a family man trying to do his job and protect his community, but he undergoes an arc and overcomes his fears; he grows as a character. Sally Hardesty, even though she makes it through the movie, learns nothing from ordeal. She and her friends stumble into Leatherface's clan by blind luck, and it's only by dumb luck she gets out of it.

The best way to describe The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is by its slice-of-life approach. It's like watching a documentary with no narrator. Nothing is explained, at least not verbally. There's no psychiatrist there to divulge what makes Leatherface tick or reveal his motivations. He's just there, and he just is. In a recent interview, Hooper noted that the word "cannibal" is never uttered in the film, but by putting together visual pieces, it's quite clear that's Leatherface and his company are. By extreme poverty, they have been driven to kill and eat anyone who comes through their territory. They can't afford new furniture, so they fashion lamps and tables out of skeletons. It's never clear how long they've been living like this, but by the number of abandoned cars and trucks they've got, it's been a while. The movie doesn't present these details; we just follow a bunch of people as they find themselves trapped in them.

From a filmmaking standpoint, the film resembles a documentary. The picture quality is rough and gritty, but in a natural way, and the lighting is harsh. The heat of the sun is palpable, and when a scene is set inside a van or building, it's suffocating. Hooper knows when to cut from a long-tracking shot of his characters to a sudden close-up of Leatherface for maximum shock value. The production design doesn't resemble production design; it looks like a real house with the real trappings a serial killer would furnish it with.

Something that would not continue in subsequent entries in the series, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre refrains from showing blood and gore. There's some blood, dried on the walls and a barely-visible amount sprays Leatherface's apron during one attack, but it's not a gore-fest. The brutality of people clubbed in the skull with a hammer, hung on meat hooks, and run through with a chainsaw is mostly suggested.

The film also has a streak of dark humor, mostly in its contrasts between the hippies and the family. Leatherface and his brothers murder and eat people, but they have their values. They sit at the dinner table, where their corpse-like, wheelchair-bound grandfather sits in the chair of honor. During a chase, Leatherface cuts through a door to get to Sally, and later, he's berated for ruining the door and not having pride in his home. Even inbred cannibals have their standards. Meanwhile, notice how Sally and company treat the invalid Franklin, who also uses a wheelchair: like a nuisance and a burden, ignoring him when possible; when they explore the old house, they go upstairs and laugh while he's left unattended downstairs. As for their trip, checking on grandpa's grave is an excuse for a summer drive.

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