July 13, 2014

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Last night I attended a special screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), celebrating its 40th anniversary and featuring a live in-person appearance by actor Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface. It was a particular treat to hear Mr. Hanson speak--so eloquently--about his experiences making that film during some long, hot summer days in Texas in 1973. He's a good-natured, honest, funny man and the crowd was obviously enamored of him. He also wrote a book chronicling the making of this seminal horror film,  Chainsaw Confidential, which I'm planning to read.

Seeing horror movies with an audience is so different from watching them at home, and even though I had seen Texas Chain Saw on the big screen before, it wasn't until last night that the movie really struck me as something truly masterful. For one thing, the print we watched last night was beautiful, and according to Hansen, superior even to the original print, which was marred by some naifs who accidentally mucked up the color of the film and made everything look several shades off. Scenes that were once too dark to distinguish shapes were now much clearer. The whole movie sparkled in a kind of stark panache. And yet, this new print did not diminish the film's raw, terrifying power. In fact, Chain Saw is one of the few horror movies that hasn't dated at all. No one in the audience was laughing--unless it was a part that was intended to be funny. Very few horror films sustain such levels of control over the audience forty years out.
As for the critics' initial reactions, it probably didn't matter that the print was botched upon release, because the movie is such a harrowing film to endure. Critics were quick to dismiss it, or deride it, much like they did with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. (And many who denounced those films later recanted.) Stephen Koch wrote in Harper's that it was a "vile piece of sick crap...It is a film with literally nothing to recommend it." Roger Ebert reacted more fairly, admitting that it was "well-made, well-acted, and all too effective," despite the fact that he couldn't "imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this." I can understand how Ebert felt, because when I first saw this movie, I absolutely hated it. I was utterly disappointed, bored, disturbed, and confused that some critics I'd read (remember, it's reputation improved greatly over time) had referred to it in such glowing terms as a sharp dark comedy and a great exercise in shock. Indeed, it was shocking, but at the time, its value was lost on me.

I was a kid and I rented a copy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and watched it in my parents' living room in broad daylight. (My folks, while lenient about the movies I watched, were adamant that I not watch The Simpsons. I guess excruciating nightmares were better than the possibility of picking up Bart Simpson's smart-ass vernacular.) Perhaps my initial dislike of Chain Saw was because of the hype, which I'd read about and heard about. (This movie was after all ingrained in the popular culture, so that many a movie and TV show has alluded to it in some way. Gunnar Hansen recalled discovering Chain Saw's impact years later when he heard the name "Leatherface" referenced in an episode of Cheers.)

Essentially, the film is what you'd get if the gang from Scooby Doo ran into the Manson Family: five hippies (Sally, her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin, Kurt, Pam, and Jerry) traveling through rural Texas in their green van are stranded at an old dark house. They split up, and soon wander off and into the clutches of a backwoods family of psychopaths, including the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, a mentally impaired man who wears a self-made mask of human skin. The film opens with a hokey yet brilliant narration (by John Larroquette) followed by chilling images of the Sawyer's grave-robbing handiwork. The director, Tobe Hooper, borrowed a little of the movie's content from the real-life killer Ed Gein, a Wisconsin creeper who robbed graves and dismembered the corpses, among other things. (It's rather sordid.) And, just to set the record straight, the movie is mostly fiction. Some movie-goers were fooled by the 2003 remake, which claimed to show "real police footage" of the "real" Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But in fact, it's all pretty much made up, concocted by screenwriters Kim Henkel and Hooper.

Pretty soon, Sally (played with sympathetic pluckiness by Marilyn Burns, who deserves a retroactive Academy Award for Best Suffering in a Motion Picture) is chased by Leatherface and captured, and then forced to spend a hellish night with the mad Sawyer family. It truly is a descent into a kind of 20th-century American Hell. The film captures the frightening possibilities of a free society, which by definition, allows people like the Sawyers to go about their business unhindered so long as they keep their proclivities under the radar. Indeed, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre cemented our fear of rural people, so secluded, so unchecked, that they could be doing anything in their creaky old farmhouses. The film plays on that inherent snobbish suspicion, and, like John Waters in his early underground films, makes fun of the snobs themselves by confirming their worst fears.

Last night, I was amazed and pleased to see how well this movie still works. And I was honestly relieved that I genuinely liked the movie. I can't say it's a movie people will enjoy, because it is rough going at times, but seeing the way the film works--as a movie, and as a horror movie--particularly on such a shoestring budget, one comes away giddy about the possibilities of film. It's a remarkably literate horror movie. Hooper and his team, which includes cinematographer Daniel Pearl, production designer Ron Bozman, editors Sallye Richardson and Larry Carroll, saturate the film will all kinds of creepy imagery. The modern Gothic look of Central Texas (it was filmed near Austin) is also a contributing factor, itself a kind of character in the film that shapes the nature of the horror: The clapboard houses, the tall grass swooning under the punishing sun, the faded tombstones in the country graveyard, the town drunk muttering to himself that he "sees things," (he sucks in a deep gulp of breath and the camera cuts away before he exhales), the goofy, naturalistic dialogue between the innocents, the murder house, full of bones arranged prominently in every room. It's probably a hard sell for some, but there's something darkly poetic and shattering about a movie that looks evil in the face, that lets evil parade itself around for a little while. (And actually, it's not anywhere near as gory as people imagine. Most of it is suggestion.)

With Jim Siedow, Edwin Neal, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger, William Vail, Teri McMinn, and John Dugan.

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