Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Carving Out Its Legacy

Last night, my wife and I went to a free showing of the 1974 classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Brewvies. By now, you probably already know how the story of this movie goes, because you've seen it aped in hundreds of other horror films since it's been made. Bored, suitably affluent, oversexed teenagers decide to pile into a van and go on a trip to spend the night outside of their hometown in a kooky, spooky mansion. Lo and behold, a family of cannibalistic rednecks terrorizes and murders them one by one with chainsaws and the kids find out very quickly that "they ain't from around here."

By now, this plot is all-too-familiar territory for anyone who's seen a horror flick in the past thirty years and, while breaking a lot of new ground in 1974, this formula had been used before (Psycho is perhaps an earlier example.) What endures with Tobe Hooper's film is the heat, the grime, the noise, and the escalating nightmare that suspends the film goer in that sense of being horrified but unable to look away that is the signature of any horror masterpiece. The way that the camera jogs from one tiny semi-lit room to another only to be transfixed on some gruesome and unsettling thing, like a piece of cannibalistic artwork, and how it locks its gaze momentarily on that thing so that it just treads over the limit of your comfort zone. The way that the heat boils and simmers in a room until you're convinced that there can never be any escape for these people, that they have only these few hours of madness left in their lives before their brutal death. All of these elements are so carefully forged that it can only result in a celluloid sledgehammer of a horror film like Texas Chainsaw.

I have to admit that I haven't seen the 2003 remake of this film, but I can tell you that I'm not particularly interested in seeing something as perfect as Texas Chainsaw warmed over and made palatable for a jaded, modern audience. The film can't be duplicated because what makes it scary, unnerving, and brilliant is inextricably tied to a particular time and place. The original Texas Chainsaw is scary because it was made in 1974 in richly saturated, violently red 16mm by crazy Texans who were working with a shoestring budget and had completely involved themselves in the nightmare of making their movie.

Texas Chainsaw was filmed over a period of four weeks in record breaking heat in rural Texas. The actors had to spend long hours in unventilated rooms being filmed by cameras that required extra hot lamps to receive adequate lighting. During the immortal dinner scene, Marilyn Burns, the actress playing the girl who gets kidnapped by the cannibal family, gets her finger cut with a knife by the chainsaw wielding Leatherface and her blood gets gruesomely sucked up by the corpse-like grandfather of the family. During the filming of this scene, Icelandic-American poet and writer Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface) got so fed up with the malfunctioning blade that was supposed to squirt fake blood onto Marilyn Burns's finger, that he replaced it with a real blade and actually cut Burns's finger deep enough to produce enough blood for the actor that played the grandfather to slurp up. This is footage of people that are overheated, exhausted, and at the end of their rope, and the only outlet they have is to play this mania for the cameras. It's just one of the many things that brings out the authenticity of the horror in this story.

Seeing the film again, I was particularly struck with how well Gunnar Hansen brings Leatherface to life. You almost feel sorry for the big slobbering maniac. He lumbers over the scenery, waving his chainsaw like it's the only thing capable of cutting through all of the things that have made his life horrible, trapped as he is in a house full of rotting corpses and lorded over by his domineering brothers. There's a scene where he hangs one of the teenagers on a meathook and beheads another with his chainsaw, but then he pauses and sits down and starts hitting himself on the forehead with his palms. The camera closes in and we see his all-too-human eyes peering out of a mask of human flesh. We get the sense that he hates what he's doing, but can't find a way out. And he can't pull off the mask of Leatherface without risking something that's grown to be terribly important to him. It calls to mind the scene in Frankenstein when the monster accidentally drowns the girl when he attempts to play with her. Leatherface is ultimately too savage and too inarticulate, and he's been brought up in such brutality by his family, that the possibility of happiness for him has been completely foreclosed. At the end of the film, he's left entirely alone, piroetting madly with his chainsaw in the sun's merciless red glare.

It's been a few years since I've seen it, but I can say for sure that the film only improves with multiple viewings, and it got some good screams out of my wife to boot, which is the whole point of taking your best girl to horror flicks. This Halloween, make sure to include the immortal Texas Chainsaw Massacre in your candy-corn stuffed monster movie lineup.

1 comment:

Bradford said...

I was discussing TCM with somebody who hadn't seen it and I was having trouble pinpointing the reason it's so terrifying.

Sure, the content is fucked up, but in no way is it novel. And by today's desensitized standards, we've seen far worse.

Nor is it gory; contrary to what the name implies, most of the violence is only implied. I mean, I don't think we see any blood during the actual murders. Considering he uses meat hooks and chainsaws, they remain pretty tame.

I came to the conclusion that it's the actual way the movie's filmed. Yeah, it's gritty, but that's not even it. It's like they somehow managed to turn subliminal messages into something tangible. It's a little hard to explain, but it looks like the movie is made up of rehearsal footage, where none of the actors had an idea what was going on, which gives it a hyperreal quality. It almost feels like it's always on the verge of collapsing on itself (perhaps a little like Apocalypse Now), but it's very upsetting to a casual viewer. Even horror viewers who are used to polished, ultra-violent movies of today become disturbed (it has that effect on me).