Monday, April 7, 2014

TCM At 40 Retrospective: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Gunnar Hansen, Marilyn Burns, Paul A Partain, Jim Siedow, Edwin Neal
Rated: R

The film which you are about to see is the account of a tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin.  It is all the more tragic in that they were young.  But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see the mad and macabre as they were to see that day.  For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare.  The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of America history, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
                                                         ~John Larroquette

Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not only one of my favorite horror films of all time, its one of the greatest.  It also was a pioneer in the horror genre of making an effective film on a super low, independent shoe-string budget.  There are still big budgeted films that to this day want to recapture the grimy grisly-ness of this film and don't even come close.  Sure, some fashion and hair styles maybe out of date, but one should never EVER fault a film for when it was made, it can't help that.  You should always view knowing the limitations of the time, understand the era when it was made and take it under those terms and not start faulting it for lame reasons.  Each new generation seems to get worse and worse at this.  That's just a general statement, not one latched onto just this first Chainsaw film.
This first film in the franchise is rather simply plotted, but incredibly sinister in its message.  I could see people nit picking at it because its just people that go into a house and get picked off one by one.  But, really, while you know you're watching a horror movie, the characters don't know that.  Even if, the brutality and surprise with which each murder that comes works out so well despite the repetition.  And with each person who enters you get to see a little more of that creepy house, and get to follow Leatherface around as he takes somewhat the role of a character instead of just a "boogity boogity BOO!" type monster.  And admit it, if this is the first time you're watching it, you're likely applauding when Franklin gets it.
On my first viewing of the film, glorious VHS way back in the day, I had really no idea what to expect.  With a title like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (sometimes chainsaw is two words chain saw, but I prefer it as one word), it tells you everything and pretty much nothing at the same time.  When I got done watching it, I was pretty freakin' disturbed.  I had never seen anything like this.  Sure, I'd seen a bunch or slashers and supernatural horror, but there was really nothing like this.  The dinner scene at the end was one of the most insane and psychotic sequences I'd ever seen.  It was so out of control and hopeless for Sally that it was a hard and insecure watch.  Plus you have all this screaming and yelling going on that's just hitting all your sensory nerves.  Also, say what you want, "Grandpa" was just disgusting and creepy.  I didn't feel comfortable watching it, I couldn't help but thinking everything was hopeless and this was just absolute torture.  And those feelings and putting myself through watching that is the kind of "rush" and "experience" that makes me enjoy not just a good horror film, but a good film in general.  No, I'm not a sick bastard, but when a film gets to you, no matter the emotion, it means its working really well.
As the years have passed (40 of them for this film) and with the advent of DVD and Blu-ray my appreciation for the film has grown even fonder.  Here's a big reason, this movie is gorgeously photographed.  Daniel Pearl is almost the star of this film as he shoots the grisly murders that happened on this ill fated trip.  He's got some amazing shots in the film, but I think his aesthetic is what further helps make the terror work.  This film just looks dirty.  The day just looks hot, sweaty and sticky.  You almost feel like you need to take a shower after you get done washing it.  In addition, the effects hold up quite well, even if in our more knowledgeable times you can figure out how some tricks, such as putting the girl on the meathook were done.  But back then, these were so good it was almost as if you were watching this stuff really happen to the people.  I think maybe what works the best with it all, is how the effects were filmed and that they work in a way that they feel painful instead of how graphic they are.
In this film we don't exactly have the deepest batch of characters going about.  Sally and Franklin are given enough depth that they can work on that level.  On your first viewing, I warn that Franklin is going to annoy the shit out of you and you almost laugh at every little bad things that happen to him because he's pretty annoying.  On subsequent viewings, he still annoys but he's a bit more tolerable and chalked up to "stupid kid".  And with the rest of them, they're all just young, oblivious, innocent teens.  They really give us no reason to need to know any more than that.  I think the fact that they are good enough that as an audience member you really don't think that they deserve to get it is well is a job well done.  And besides, this film is about the horror that befell them that day and more on the psychotic "family" of killers that did it to them, so I'm not to bothered by any sort of "lack" of deep rooted characters in the cast of youths that meet their end at the hands of Leatherface.
And how about Leatherface?  I think one of the biggest mistakes in the horror genre is that he gets thrown in with and is expected to be a slasher villain when he's really not.  And he's only a piece of a bigger puzzle.  In this film he's not even really the muscle with which to do the killings, he just sort of happens to be there.  And his role in the family is almost the "stay at home mother" kind of role.  Here's something that I think is great and speaks volumes that cinema-going audiences just can't tolerate nowadays.  He's weird, wears a mask and that's enough.  Nobody was demanding to know what's under the mask, how he got to wearing the mask or all that unnecessary bullshit.  He just was and was allowed to be so.  All those "unanswered questions" were never questions to begin with and are really irrelevant to the story at hand.  But, as we'll see and today's audience demand a full explanation for everything and its grown tiresome.  I miss the days of ambiguity, not being spoonfed every detail and allowing my mind to be creative and piece together things.  Or just allowing there to be fear in the unknown and unexplained (sort of like Michael Myers in the first Halloween).
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a 40 year old film that in my opinion still holds up well to those who are film lovers and appreciative of film history.  There is nothing that matches the end moments at the dinner table and I'm not sure there ever will or need to be.  Its one of the most beautifully shot horror films and still disturbs.  Leatherface became the iconic face of it as a franchise, but there's 2 other characters here that are just as creepy and maybe even more rotten than he is.  I love this low budget, grindhouse-esque horror film that is one of the best in its genre of all time.  Here's hoping future generations can still find a love for it and be just as disturbed.

Next Time:  Dennis Hopper juggles chainsaws.

No comments:

Post a Comment