Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)


Director: Tobe Hooper
Screenplay: Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
Cast: Marilyn Burns (as Sally); Allen Danziger (as Jerry); Paul A. Partain (as Franklin); William Vail (as Kirk); Teri McMinn (as Pam); Edwin Neal (as the Hitchhiker); Jim Siedow (as the Cook); Gunnar Hansen (as Leatherface); John Dugan (as the Grandfather)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #83

How do I even cover The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when countless professional writers and documentary filmmakers have done so many times? Honestly the only way is realising, now seeing this film 4K resolution in the golden age of preservation, how this cleaned up sheen doesn't hide but reveal how grimy and disgusting the film is. Growing up at the time the whole fiasco of this film being unavailable in the UK had gone when James Ferman of the BBFC was, and able to buy this film for the first time on DVD in a Tescos supermarket (?!), I came to it less as the forbidden fruit of horror as older British horror fans did but as the controversial statesman of American seventies horror that shredded ones nerves, a film I actually dissected in college Film Studies classes but still found greasy and nasty even after combing over it for my amateurism first attempts of critical evaluation. It's a film that only when you're watching it again rather than going by face value, as five unwitting young adults break down in their van in Texas and encounter a family of cannibals, how from the start to the end it's a dirt ridden, festering film in tone. Yes the title and iconic poster suit the film inside but sitting through Chain Saw for the first time in years I also can put them to the actual movie and its own virtues. When many canonical horror films are put up to iconic status, actually watching them again brings forth a reality check when you realise how provocative and still dangerous in tone ones like Chain Saw still are, especially with the 2013 sequel in 3D being a neutered Hollywood creation and a second prequel existing but yet to be released.

Were it not for Marilyn Burn's white bell bottoms and some of the floral shirts, this film would exist in a timeless reality of desolate dirt roads and petrol stations barely open. It's routed in the political and social issues of the time it was made, but like most of these Southern set, southern made American exploitation films (at least the most evocative), they're one step away from the Southern Gothic, are submerged within it. For all the realism and harshness of the film's editing and atonal score by Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell, it's also filled with melancholic, almost half asleep country music and the Leatherface family can't help but evoke something Flannery O'Conner could create if she was more extreme, barely functioning but with strangely idyllic family values. Working class, hard working Americans, with respect for their grandparents and their wisdom, as the mummified Grandpa sits centre at the dining table, Leatherface the improvised matriarch and younger brother who keeps the home clean of random unwanted guests, a living room of bone furniture without a brain rotting TV and a pet chicken swinging in a cage, details which thankfully would keep being added and played with in the first few sequels so that, whether you liked the films or not, the Leatherface family would still be used to skewer idyllic family structures continually.

And the film's revolting in tone, a revulsion that for certain people, who are wired a certain way like myself and honour these horror movies, which is repulsive and strain our eyes and yet, from a distance, attract us with their rundown, decayed allured. The Franklin house the protagonists get to itself is full of giant balls of Daddy Long Legs and rotten animal print wallpaper, a grim sense of abandonment before you get to the Leatherface home full of art director Robert A. Burns' ritualistic and magnificent abominations of bone and flesh. Notoriously the set the film worked in was hellish - rotting props, actors like Gunner Hansen stuck with only one costume, makeup artist Dorothy J. Pearl accidentally stabbing herself with a needle of formaldehyde whilst preparing real dead animals for background objects - all of which you can feel and even smell from the screen. That it's aesthetics that of an abattoir, imagining Frederick Wiseman's documentary Meat (1976) in its visceral and down-to-earth nature as the film's tone without ever going into an actual slaughterhouse, just adds to the repulsion even if I'm someone comfortable still with eating meat.

A lot of also why the film still retains is power is also why Tobe Hooper is still an underappreciated director. It's impossible for me to view Chain Saw as a comedy as others can for how unrelenting it is, too intense and like having nails pulled off, but the tone of unpredictability and manic energy, between being twisted and then hilariously weird, is still there and the key thing that keeps it all together, weaving all the other virtues (the naturalist, scorched cinematography, Burns' and everyone elses' performance etc) around it. Sadly Hooper got dismissed for having made little of interest until his later films - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986), Lifeforce (1985), The Funhouse (1981) - got reappraisals, and even now it doesn't get talked about enough how all his films at least to the nineties have an incredible, frantic nature to them rare to his contemporaries, the equivalent of someone in a straight-jacket bouncing off the rubber walls in how chaotic the tone of the films feel, a rare virtue when even the most offensive, violent horror film like now feels "safe" because of its measured, flat atmosphere.

Thankfully with the 1986 sequel this same tone, injected with more brazen humour, was resurrected creating a personal favourite of mine alongside the original prequel, although the obvious concern with this franchise after the first film, like with Halloween (1978) onwards, is whether any of the same intentions are to be found in later sequels having confirmed the first Chain Saw is a stone cold, canonical masterpiece of the horror genre.


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