Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hitchhiker’s guide to the slaughterhouse

My family’s always been in meat
- Creepy hitchhiker, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

I’ve blogged before about the many benefits of DVDs, but in some cases the special features can make nonsense of the very particular associations one has with a movie. I’m thinking now of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that, notwithstanding my generally high opinion of it, I wouldn’t actually recommend to anyone unless they were doing a thesis on the Modern Horror Movie. Last week I re-watched it and then turned to the 72-minute-long "Making Of" featurette on the DVD, packed with interviews of cast and crew members. It felt distinctly wrong: here is a stark, gory, very low-budget movie made almost as an experiment by a bunch of student filmmakers in the early 1970s. A one-of-a-kind film that seemed to exist outside of all movie conventions, a film that might well have been made anonymously and then deposited into the mailbox of one of the studios, with a note asking them to distribute it. And now, 30 years later, here are all the protagonists - respectably middle-aged, laughing and joking with each other, relating anecdotes about the filming process.

Tobe Hooper, the film’s director, tells us he decided on "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" as the title when his girlfriend at the time exclaimed, "Yuck, I’d never watch anything called that!" (Decided?! And here I was thinking that everything about that film just came together - fell into place entirely independently of such mundanities as human decisions and choices.) One of the scriptwriters (this film needed to be scripted?) relates the story behind the dead armadillo we see as road-kill in the first shot of the movie. And here’s Marilyn Burns, who I’d have preferred to freeze into my memory-bank for all time as the screaming, blood-covered Sally trapped in a house of horrors; now she’s gazing into the camera with grandmotherly indulgence, the light of wistful recollection in her eyes. Even Gunnar Hansen, who played the monstrous Leatherface, participates in audio commentary on the film. Yup, DVDs can be weird alright. Far too much information.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a grisly piece of work (though not as grisly as its reputation suggests, and certainly less shocking to a modern audience than it would have been to its first viewers back in 1974) based very roughly on the real-life case of the Wisconsin mass murderer/grave robber Ed Gein, a case that had shocked the American heartland in the late 1950s. (Incidentally Gein’s story was also the source material for Robert Bloch’s book Psycho and, in turn, Alfred Hitchcock’s great film.) Briefly, TCM is the story of five teenagers who stumble upon a madhouse run by a family of cannibals, and are then picked off one by one, mainly by the chainsaw-wielding "Leatherface" (the conventional monster in the film and the most visible face of the horror confronting the teens and us, the viewer; but, as we eventually learn, also the most submissive member of the murderous family). Leatherface treats the kids like cattle in a slaughterhouse (which is, of course, what they are to him) – knocking them over the heads with a handy club, carving them up, hanging them on meat-hooks, and then, in a memorable scene, fretting pathetically at the sheer number of people coming to the house ("what to do with so much meat" you can hear this retarded monster think to himself as he holds his head in his hands).

In case you’re still reading this, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of a series of landmark low-budget horror films of its time (others include George Romero’s first zombie feature Night of the Living Dead and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left) that derived their effectiveness largely from being shot on a shoestring budget. Crucially, however, the people behind these movies (including Tobe Hooper, who directed this one) weren’t hacks; they were serious students and lovers of cinema, with a strong sense of what worked and what didn’t, and always keen to learn from their mistakes (which they couldn’t afford too many of, given the cost of film stock).

Watching this film, that raw talent is obvious. Take the scene where one of the girls stumbles into a room, trips and falls, then looks around (the camera mimicking her initially glazed vision, with things slowly coming into focus) to register a sea of bones covering the floor, some hanging by strings from the ceiling; a pan shot that reveals an elaborate relic constructed of human skeletons; a caged hen clucking ominously. Treading though it does the margins of Exploitation (some would say it crossed over), there is an unmistakable cinematic adeptness in this sequence and in others like it, which compare favourably with most of the finest moments in the genre. Despite the numerous parodies and rip-offs that it’s engendered (including a pointless remake just a year or so ago), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a visceral appeal that few other horror films (at least among those that are, relatively speaking, in the Mainstream) have ever matched.

P.S. On my re-watching TCM, I was struck by the completely clinical, matter-of-fact way in which Leatherface goes about gathering and disposing of his victims; there’s nothing wilfully sadistic about his actions, he’s just doing what needs to be done - which, of course, adds to the horror. Couldn’t help relating it to some of the slaughterhouse descriptions in Eric Schlosser’s Cogs in the Machine, which I recently read in Penguin’s pocketbook series. Some of the finest horror films are those that hold a mirror up to our own natures.

P.P.S. Horror movies were among my earliest obsessions as a film-lover, and preparing anything like an exhaustive list of favourites from the genre would take up more time than I have right now. But here are a few favourites from the 1970s:

- The Wicker Man (cult British classic about a policeman visiting an isolated island community to investigate a schoolgirl’s disappearance, and being drawn into pagan rituals)

- Halloween (John Carpenter’s classic about a madman returning to the small town where he committed a murder as a child retains its power despite a clutch of bad sequels and contemporary comic associations with the name "Mike Myers". My favourite scene is the one of the young Jamie Lee Curtis walking through a desolate park near a row of houses; cars parked everywhere but no human beings in sight)

- Divorce His, Divorce Hers (Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton starrer, not intended as horror film but very scary)

- Carrie (Brian DePalma’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel superbly captures the cruelty Carrie faces from her classmates and her own mother; the monsters here all wear a human face)

- Shivers (David Cronenberg’s obsession with the internal workings of the human body found full expression in this cringe-inducing little gorefest about parasites attacking the residents of an apartment complex)

(And hopefully, more blogging on this topic soon.)

The film which you are about to see is an account of the 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 as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day.
- Solemn narrator, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre


  1. I hope there's an upcoming post(s) about Evil Dead..
    "Hail to the king baby!"
    "Good, bad, I'm the one with the gun".
    "Who's laughing NOW???"

  2. I absolutely loved the original TCM... but another horror movie which is worth a mention everytime is Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

  3. Anangbhai: coming up, as we speak. you want fries with that? :)

    Abhishek: I like The Shining too, but in a different sort of way - certainly not as a viscerally effective horror film. It was much more languid and stately in the best Kubrick style (and possibly over-intelligent for the genre).

    Also, have to write sometime about how horror films often suffer when they feature well-known actors. Jack Nicholson's presence in The Shining made the whole thing comfortably familiar (even though he was playing a psychopath) - and that prevented the film from being effective as a bare-bones horror movie.

  4. I read recently that a slew of low-budget Japanese horror films were making quite a splash and their dubbed english versions were raking in the moolah in the US. Jai, any idea where one can find them?

  5. I'm unsure about dubbed versions of Japanese films, but I've seen the originals of the three remakes -- Ringu (Ring), Ju-on (Grudge) and the campy "The Eye" (no English remake available). Had subtitles. if you're into horror films, good movies to add to your viewed collection.

  6. With horror flicks, i either end up laughing or bored. But TCM was one of the exceptions.....I kept covering my eyes (alright, I admit it, i did it).

    Another 70's horror movie that remains embedded in memory is "The Omen". Even though the plot was inane, that movie did give me the creeps.

  7. I saw TCM 2 - very long-winded, but it did make me wanna watch TCM 1, which I haven't been able to do yet.

    Clinical evil for me has recently become Michael Palin in Brazil, especially because I've seen most of his other movies.

    I've also seen Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, and another one I don't remember anything about. The talent was there, but it was obvious he had squandered it away.

    I like DVDs. I am a born nitpicker and I like watching everything come together - for me, it adds to the magic. And some of my idols, such as Terry Gilliam, Stephen Poliakoff and Monty Python, make wonderful DVDs.

  8. I kind of watched that movie about a fortnight ago(I was reading). Very stange, but it did seem the characters were trapped in a living hell, especially Sally(having your finger sucked by an old man...). None of you mentioned Alien, that scared me a lot, especially the chestburster.