FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE...beware yon spoilers!

Oct 14, 2006

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

For all its repugnance (and it is a repugnant film, really, when you come right down to it)- or rather, maybe because of it- there's no denying that the raw power of Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre makes it one of the best horror movies ever produced, if not the best.

Five teens cruising around Texas byways on one fateful summer afternoon fall victim to a family of maniacs.

Yeah, that's about it.

Watching TCM tonight, I was surprised to see how much it had in common thematically with another film I watched earlier, Don't Look Now. While the two movies couldn't be more opposite in execution, both deal heavily with fate and the randomness of the universe- everyone's got their role to play in this game, and life is ultimately arbitrary and virtually meaningless in the face of the grand scheme of things. Madmen roam the earth, and there's not a damn thing you can do to avoid them if they've got your number.

Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his crazy grave-robbing, hitchhiking brother (Edwin Neal) come from a long line of slaughterhouse workers. For whatever reason, human life has become no more valuable to the clan than cattle: everyone is just meat. It's a terrifying concept, being de-humanized in the eyes of anyone, never mind in the eyes of a chainsaw-wielding maniac. Hooper emphasizes this by dispatching Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn), and Jerry (Allen Danziger) not only in rapid-fire succession, but also each in the same fashion. Each character wanders into the farmhouse and is quickly and brutally slaughtered by Leatherface. He doesn't toy with them, he doesn't taunt them...he clubs them and prepares them for a meal. It's simply business, and there's no room for bargaining.

I say the kids are "brutally" slaughtered, and it's absolutely true- and yet Hooper shows us far, far less than we think he does. Watch carefully- there's virtually zero explicit violence or gore in this film. The fact that it's wheedled itself into everyone's brains as one of the most explicit horror flicks simply draws attention to Tobe Hooper's deft filmmaking.

This is exactly where the Texas remake goes wrong- well, one of the places, anyway. How the newer film manages to be more explicit and more sanitary simultaneously baffles me. There seems to be a need to make everything bigger in the remake- more gore, more outrageous characters...what's lacking, though, is an understanding that it's precisely the smallness of the first film that makes it so terrifying. The clan doesn't live in fucking Stately Leatherface Manor, they live in a simple, small, ordinary white farmhouse. The fact that such an innocuous little house can hold such horrors within chills me to the core, because isn't that always the way it is? The serial killer lives next door in a house that looks just like yours. Here, Leatherface and Co. don't reside far removed from society- they're right there where Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul Partain) hung out as kids, right on the other side of the swimming hole. Leatherface is a monster, but he's also terrifyingly real.

There are so many quiet, still, and absolutely horrifying shots and sequences in TCM that it's impossible to list them all. The speed with which Leatherface kills his victims, the room full of feathers and bones, the hitchhiker carving up his own palm, the slamming metal door of Leatherface's butcher room, the extreme close-ups of boiling sunspots and Sally's bloodshot, panicked eyes, Pam's vulnerable, exposed back headed for the meathook, and perhaps the most terrifying, Leatherface emerging from the shadows into the beam of a flashlight as his chainsaw roars.

I distinctly remember the first time I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. My friend Elena and I managed to rent a copy from the video store, despite the fact that we were underage. The film had a reputation of being notorious, and watching it, it absolutely lived up to its reputation- far surpassed it, even. Something about the movie just feels wrong...maybe it's Marilyn Burns's relentless screaming, or Leatherface squealing like a pig. Maybe it's something less noticeable, something simpler beneath all the action, like the film grain or the discordant soundtrack, I don't know. Whatever it is, TCM has a snuff film-vibe to it. It all feels a little too real and far too illicit. I still feel naughty watching it, like I shouldn't be allowed- there's really no other movie that's done that for me. Tobe Hooper's incredible achievement simply doesn't lose any of its power over time.

Speaking of time...my god, it's 4 in the morning. You're all asleep, aren't you? My whole house is asleep, and here I am trying to type coherent thoughts about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That's...cool, right?

12 comments:

m13b said...

Favorite horror film of all time. Marilyn Burns can scream like no other, which completely freaks me out every time I watch it.

Sometimes, I have to watch it with the commentary, just to get that much more removed from what's going on onscreen. Yet another reason that I have my eyes on that new release, as it has a second commentary I can cower behind.

Excellent review. I've never written about it myself, as I figure I could never get the words right enough to do it justice.

Now go to sleep.

Amanda By Night said...

Best. Movie. Ever.

I LOVE this movie. We saw it about two years ago in the theater and it was simply AMAZING. No film has ever reached the depths of terror the way TCM does. Excellent review.

BTW, would I be an ass to state that I think this film was a fluke. Based on Tobe's other films (some good, most crap), I just kind of feel like the elements were there and by a one in one million chance it just worked. Well, the D.P. certainly helped the odds out, with lots of 'How'd they do that?' camera shots. The remake blew and was not a fluke, unfortunately, it was just a big budget film that had no idea what it was doing (again).

I have a thing about fate and randomness myself, Stacie. Do you remember that scene in Halloween where the teacher is talking about a story the class had to read and she calls on Jamie who is watching the station wagon outside. She says something to effect that the people couldn't avoid their fate. It just was. That is the scene in the film for me. It just cements the randomness of death. That might be what is behind the fascination with slasher films. I never thought of it until now, but maybe it is that we could be chosen at any time to leave this place and we have nothing to say about it. Whew. Creepy.

Amanda By Night

Stacie Ponder said...

You're probably right about Hooper, in all honesty.

All the horror "masters"- Romero, Carpenter, Craven, Argento, Cronenberg, etc...have a decent batting average. Their earlier works are definitely more edgy and sometime they each seem to be resting on their laurels. However, each has demonstrated over time that early successes weren't simply flukes. The only other Hooper film I can think of I really enjoyed is Poltergeist, and come on- is that a Hooper film or a Spielberg film?

It's quite possible the planets simply aligned for TCM.

Whatever the cause, it's a harrowing, fantastic movie!

Stacie Ponder said...

Oh, and you're spot on about Marilyn Burns, m13b. She's amazing in this, and I feel for her more than I've felt for any other "final girl"...she seems completely terrorized and it's hard to watch. And she's totally batshit insane at the end.

From what I've read about of the filming of TCM, she was fairly terrorized. Poor thing.

Chris Hopper said...

One of my favorite films as well. The pain that the actors felt during filming reflects well. If they really wanted to do a remake they should have went out of the way to make all the actors as uncomfortable as possible. 24 hour shoots, no air conditioning... misery. By the way, amanda, I am so jealous.

Steve said...

TCM will always have a special place in my heart. I saw it while in high school with a buddy along the lines of how Stacie saw it. It was one of the first horror movies, if not THE first, that I saw and became a fan of the genre ever since. Along with Halloween, I think it is why I prefer movies that suggest gore without showing it. The "being just far enough away to not see the details but close enough to know what happened" is better than full on XXX closeups, just my opinion. Hmmmmm, someone, or Stacie, should do a study to see if people's type of horror movies has some sort of correlation to the type of Pron they like, haha.

theron said...

I think a large part of it is the way the flim makers made the negatives work for them. The low budget totally makes the film seem more real. The grain, the colors, the editing, the "real" looking actors, etc. It looks as if someone made it as a Super 8 home movie. That's scary.

Smurfwreck said...

This film always held a certian mystique for me because I was barred from watching it as a kid. My mother saw it in the theatre and was so outraged by it that when I finally broke down her will and got her to let me start watching horror flicks as a kid it came with one condition: Anything except TCM.

For years out of respect I avoided the flick and for years I kept wantint to watch it more and more. Finally a few years ago while I was schooling my friend in horror (he'd never seen a horror film) I finally sat down and watched it and it was everything I ever hoped and more.

I don't typically get scared at horror flicks and this one was probably the closest I ever got.

As far as Hooper being a one hit wonder, I think there is more to him that most see. TCM2 for instance. I hated it when I first saw it because it was everything that the first film wasn't, gorey, silly, and pretty. But over the last couple of years it's really grown on me. It's almost as if Hooper made the anti-TCM, completely flipping it on it's head, making the family the victims and lampooning everything that made the first one effective. I think it takes talent to do that to your own film.

Anyway...

Bryan's workshop blog said...

I agree about the unusual nature of TCM. I'm always surprised by the pacing of the first attacks, all understated speed... which makes the final attempt to kill the last teenager even more painfully drawn out. There's also a composition element, with the violence often taking up a small piece of screen real estate.

A Case of You said...

Yes! She is totally batshit nuts!! This is the best part to me. It's so.... real. I mean, would you be sensible at all at that point? Wouldn't you just scream and run and tear your hair? Yes, you would. You know why? Because you have gone batshit crazy.

On another note: I did not completely HATE the remake. I just thought it was very subpar. I do COMPLETELY HATE "the beginning." People really need to stop explaining the crazy murderers. This is what made the Black Christmas remake so horribly awful.... that and the fact that he was yellow. I'm sorry, but what the fuck? Yellow?

And on that note: good night. I must watch Convent now.

knobgobbler said...

Somehow I lucked out and the first time I saw TCM was in a special showing at a theater.
I'd known about it for quite a while but nothing specific... and it really blew me away. It just seemed, still seems, so utterly transgressive. Just dirty, in a way it's EC Comics roots never did.

I've still got faith in Hooper... but I'd put Salem's Lot, even Eaten Alive, way over Poltergeist... never liked it and blame it on Spielberg.

BGreen said...

By far my favorite Horror movie of all time.