Apr 26, 2011

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Judging from personal experience, the best way to view Tobe Hooper's 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is on a local television station as a morose eight year old boy next to a sleeping grandmother and with no idea what you are about to watch is a horror film. The "based on a true story" preamble was all it took to set me off guard, and over sixteen years later I'm still reeling from the stale sweat nightmare that befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. Much has been written about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre- how despite its title and grisly reputation, there is very little on-screen violence and almost no gore. The brilliance of the jarringly dissonant soundtrack and the incredible set design of the Sawyer family residence- akin to a house decorated by Hermann Nitsch and then left to mummify over the course of a searing Texan summer. Leatherface, Ed Gein influence, the diminishing returns of the sequels and remake and prequel to the remake. Influence on punk culture, what with the hippie killing, The Ramones' "Chainsaw", Spanish post-punkers Paralisis Permanente's immortal "Un Dia En Texas", and Leatherface buttflaps blowing in the wind of many a shopping mall parking lot.

To this, I have admittedly little to add, aside from some personal reminiscence perhaps. For years, I have longed to relive the experience of going into a movie completely blind to what it is about (if anything, considering the opening narration and the lurid title, I was expecting a 'true crime' story a la Helter Skelter or In Cold Blood and not a horror film, despite Halloween being a week away) (never one for deductive reasoning at that age, or now for that matter) and being so completely bowled over. For my money, there is no scene more gutwrenching in the annals of cinema than the scene where the hippie youth, en route to a concert, decide to accrue some good karma and pick up a hitchhiker. In the cramped confines of their van, the hitchhiker, played to sun-damaged perfection by Edwin Neal, succeeds in sufficiently unnerving the kids first with his overpowering slaughterhouse stench and then with his incredibly stunted and awkward attempts at conversation, nervously giggling and stammering through descriptions of slaughterhouse techniques and headcheese recipes from behind some very authentically filthy locks. The hippies' disgust is palpable, and the scene verges on the unbearable as you develop a sort of sympathy for the brain damaged Manson family castoff with the smudge of facial birthmark and pitiful, twitching leer trying to connect with the "normies" while simultaneously empathizing with the infinitely more relatable plight of the hippies whose initial regret about picking the guy up quickly descends into all-too-real horror.

By the time this scene came to its close, with the hitchhiker ejected from the van and smearing blood on it's door while hollering and blowing raspberries at the shrieking longhairs, I was as good as meathooked, my heart in my throat, my breath shallow, and not even a slew of commercials able to rouse me from my wide-eyed reverie. As Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl took the film from the subtle menace of the roadside mirages, dead armadillos and desecrated gravesides of the opening scenes to the full blown bad trip surrealism of the dinner scene that closes the film my life was forever changed. Freddy and Jason were out and I learned to see terror not in superhuman boogeymen and dark stormy nights but in all-too-human aberration and the overbearing presence of the unforgiving summer sun. To this day I fear nothing more than a wavering horizon line, dry grass, and desolate stretches of desert, entirely a result of stumbling upon The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that night in October, 1994. And furthermore, to this day, there hasn't been a single film as harrowing, both for the unique circumstances aforementioned and because it is a singularly terrifying film- the best display of pure nightmare logic I've seen outside of maybe that scene behind the diner in Lynch's Mulholland Drive (another uniquely scarring viewing experience as I'd dozed off during watching the beginning of that particular film at two in the morning following an intense bout of studying for finals and woke up just at the beginning of the scene in question--FUCK). It never for a second lets up in terms of intensity and doesn't bother explaining itself too much but lets us experience the nightmare firsthand along with the flared pantsed human cattle (I think about the only time it lets up aside from some brief 'comic relief' concerning Grandpa's executioner skills towards the end is when Franklin bites the dust...that irritating invalid is the sole smudge on this flawless flick, and when he meets the chainsaw it's impossible not to sigh a breath of relief).

Hooper stated in interviews that the spark of inspiration for the film was childhood imaginings of vague passed along stories of necrophile/amateur taxidermist Ed Gein, and this really carries through into the final product, as it feels at times less a traditional horror film than childhood fever dreams brought to revving, gasoline-soaked life. It certainly permeated my childhood nightmares, and looking up Gein after researching the film as a kid was quite the disappointment- the banality of evil versus the sheer mindfuck Vietnam-brought-home dementia of Hooper's sole great film (the rest of his oeuvre ranging from the competent to the beguiling and terrible to the directed by Steven Spielberg)- and oh yeah, cannibalism. People eating people and stuff. That's what this one is about, I guess. Reading over what I wrote so far I realize I kinda left that out. Then again, I'm preaching to the choir, right? Surely you've seen this movie. And if you haven't, what the fuck?! It's your duty as an American, way more vital to being an American that voting, selective service, or even citizenship. This movie IS America, or something. Fuck the pledge of allegiance, pledge to show this movie to the children in your life. I pity the kid who stumbles upon one of the remakes or sequels in lieu of the real thing and thinks they have seen the stitched-together, fly-ridden face of horror. They have no idea. If you have younger siblings or impressionable youth around the house- do them a favor and give them a taste of the real thing. Tell them that it IS based on a true story and force them to sit through at least the scene in the van, at which point they should be riveted and you can retreat from the room. Then enjoy the next couple months of being woken by their cold sweat screams every time a dirtbike cruises down the block and the look of supreme unease during that family trip to the Grand Canyon.



Athena Kargeui said...

I-m in love with everything Jon Christian Yates writes. I want to work with him. Excellent review.

p.s.: I am in love with Soiled Sinema.

Ivan said...

Great review, thanks!

I didn't catch TCM until college, but I was nine when the flick came out, and remember seeing the trailer (before a revival matinee showing of Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3-D), and boy-oh-boy, it was *intense*--at least to me, and especially my mom: there was *no way* she was letting me see that, uh-uh.
Recently, I was able to treat my wife and some of her friends to a "slumber party" where TCM was the evening's flick. Lots of shrieking--and crazed nervous laughter--ensued. Good times.

And finally, back in the earlier-1980s, Film Comment magazine published John Milius' Guilty Pleasures: among biker flicks, a Gary Cooper in Polynesia movie and some others, Milius included TCM. I seem to remember he loved the flick's ferocity, and he called the final scene something like "a mad brute's sun dance to an Aztec Blood God!"
Thanks for letting me go on/keep up the great work!

willy jerk-off said...

I want to bugger Marilyn Burns (in 1968 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

Anonymous said...

incredible write up on a classic.

most influential film ever