Saturday, April 16, 2016

Best Movie Ever: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Leatherface family sez: "Join us for dinner!"

Tobe Hooper's low-budget rural horror masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is my single favorite movie of all time. It appears on every iteration of my personal "Top Films" list and is my go-to answer to the question "What is your favorite movie?" 

I love low-budget films and I love horror films. My love for low-budget film aesthetics dates back to my 1990s independent film fandom, spurred by stuff like Slacker (1991), El Mariachi (1992), Clerks, Go Fish (both 1994), and Gummo (1997) but also via the influence of John Waters, whose films I started watching voraciously in the late '90s and 2000s.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the pivotal film that won me over to the horror genre. I had seen Halloween and a few other slashers (including Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and the incredibly weird Sleepaway Camp) before I first watched Tobe Hooper's masterpiece in 2002. I enjoyed those films, especially Halloween, but Texas Chain Saw really showed me what a powerful horror film can do.*

There is something special, something charged and electric and more about TCM. I don't like the phrase "this movie transcends its genre" because that is both technically impossible (if it is a genre film, it is a genre film and it ain't transcending anything) as well as insulting to whichever genre you happen to be talking about. Genre-film lovers should never use that phrase.

I will say instead that TCM is a superlative example of the rural slasher genre. Along with Peeping Tom, Psycho (both 1960), Black Christmas (1974), and Deep Red (1975), TCM helps set the template for the "classic" slasher which fully emerges by the time of Black Christmas or surely Halloween (1978).

As far as the specifically rural slasher goes, TCM is the best of the best -- its only close rivals are Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II (1987), and the intense, well-shot The Descent (2005). Other more distant (but still worthy) runners-up include Motel Hell (1980), Pumpkinhead (1988), Wrong Turn (2003), Wolf Creek (2005), the even better Wolf Creek 2 (2013), and Rob Zombie's underrated Halloween II (2009).**

Despite (or probably because of) its low budget, Texas Chain Saw's camera work is effective and inventive, its mise-en-scene artfully insane. Its performances are all-out. It is tautly edited and incredibly suspenseful. It is, in every aesthetic category, a triumph of scrappy, compelling, no-frills filmmaking.

One of Texas Chain Saw's great strengths is that it trusts its imagery to convey its ideas. The shot compositions and blocking tell the story without the need for dialogue. That said, the dialogue, particularly about the Leatherface family's history in the slaughtering industry ("My family's always been in meat" brags Hitchhiker), is believable as spoken by the characters and simultaneously freighted with deeper thematic implications.

Chain Saw uses many images as "free motifs," that is, as abstract imagery that suggests, rather than outright denotes, meaning. For example, there are several recurring images of circular objects: the sun, the moon, a windmill. To me these suggest cyclical time, prehistoric time, the centripetal energy of the Leatherface family devouring itself. The windmill in particular hints that the Leatherface family is "spinning its wheels" -- see also the generator that endlessly runs, powering nothing. All these circular images rhyme with each other, with certain circular camera movements as when the van pulls into the gas station, and with Leatherface's twirling dance that ends the film. When Sally flees Leatherface, her journey is also circular, from the house to the gas station then back to the house. Circularity abounds.***

Chain Saw's experimental soundtrack contributes much to the film's overall tone of terror. The minimalist score consists of weird pitch-bent tones resembling metal scraping against metal, plus occasional staccato percussion including cymbals and gongs. The diegetic music, especially the plinky little ditty "Fool for a Blonde" by Roger Bartlett is eerie and effective during Hitchhiker's bizarre ride in Jerry's van.

Along this same line, pay close attention to the sound design throughout Texas Chain Saw's opening vignette and opening credits -- it's creepy! -- and note how the radio announcer, whose lengthy report about local grave robbings is important, sound bridges us into the film's first scene in the van.

Hitchhiker sez: "I have this knife -- it's a good knife."

In addition to all its artistic and cinematic virtuosity, I love The Texas Chain Saw Massacre because it is an important cultural document, an ecstatically truthful reflection of early seventies American culture. Written and shot by college-aged youths in summer 1973, the original TCM captures U.S. malaise during the period of our national post-Watergate "nervous breakdown." According to historian Andreas Killen:
In 1973 America was jolted by three shocks, following on one another in rapid succession. First, the war in Vietnam ended in the first-ever military defeat for the United States. Second, the Watergate cover-up unraveled, and the presidency of Richard Nixon became engulfed in scandal and, by year's end, calls for impeachment. Last but not least, Americans were hit hard by a collapsing economy: 1973 was also the year of the Arab oil embargo and the beginning of the long slide into stagflation that lasted until the 1980s. Any one of these events alone would have challenged America's image of itself; together they shook the national psyche to its very core.†
In short, Chain Saw is a succinct, powerful snapshot of that shakedown of the national psyche. Screenwriter Kim Henkel and director Hooper confirm this interpretation on their DVD commentary, explicitly calling the movie a response to the Vietnam war and the Watergate crisis. While all films carry ideological meanings and can be analyzed as reflections of and responses to the cultural concerns of their time, the 1974 Texas Chain Saw is a particularly rich and multi-layered cultural looking-glass. Embracing the tropes of the just-burgeoning slasher genre, Hooper, Henkel and company commit to their project with abandon, infusing their despair and anger over the loss of life in Vietnam and the lies of Nixon into their depiction of the Leatherface family's impotent yet deadly rage against the privileged teenagers who invade their homeland.

Which is probably why I keep returning to the film in my writing. I advise my film studies students not to write about or critically analyze films they are too close to as fans, and I usually follow that advice myself. But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an exception: I have published one article about the film and plan to include more Texas Chain Saw analysis in a chapter of my (slowly) forthcoming book.

In that article of mine, "Sympathy for the Devil: The Cannibalistic Hillbilly in 1970s Rural Slasher Films," I point out that low-budget rural slashers like Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre
present their cannibalistic hillbilly "villains" in extremely sympathetic terms and, due to the emerging conventions of the slasher horror film genre to which they belong, may even present the rural killers as the ultimate "heroes" of their scenarios in a way that a critically acclaimed Hollywood studio film like Deliverance does not attempt.†† 
Indeed, in TCM, the teens who intrude upon the Leatherface family property, especially the males, are presented as insensitive, oblivious jerks who think nothing of entering the Leatherface house uninvited. Even wheelchair-bound Franklin, who has a strange affinity for Hitchhiker and an appropriate sense of foreboding about the threat the rural family represents, is so whiny that he drives his sister Sally -- TCM's protagonist and Final Girl -- to distraction. Franklin is easy for the viewer to pity but hard for most viewers to like. Of all TCM's teens only Sally and maybe Pam are relatable.

Meanwhile, despite his violent, psychotic tendencies, Leatherface in particular is shown to be emotionally vulnerable at certain key moments of the film. His two brothers bully and mistreat him when they're all at home together, and the viewer sees Leatherface's fear and worry after the third teen, Jerry, walks into his house unannounced. This provocative, finely nuanced ambiguity about who we're supposed to feel for and root for places The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the highest echelon of successful horror movies, alongside other masterpieces like Peeping Tom, Psycho, and King Kong.

Leatherface sez: "I'm frightened and upset and deserving of your sympathy."

Beyond singling out The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as my personal favorite film, I am also quite serious (if hyperbolic) when I call it the "Best Movie Ever" -- that is, I would definitely place it on any more "objective" Top 100 Films list I had a hand in creating. Like so many canon-generating lists, Entertainment Weekly's is, in my view, disappointingly light on horror movies, including only seven: Psycho (#5), King Kong (#11), Jaws (#18), Rosemary's Baby (#36), Frankenstein (#55), The Shining (#66), and Night of the Living Dead (#79) -- all of which I'd keep.

But where is Nosferatu (1922)? Vampyr (1932)? Halloween (1978)? Videodrome (1983)? Peeping Tom (1960)? Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face (1960)? John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)? Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977)?

John Carpenter sez: "Not a single movie in your Top 100, EW? You're fucking kidding me!"

What about Alien (1979)? Gojira (1954)? Wait a minute, EW, you're really putting The Fucking Dark Knight and Return of the Stupid King on your Top 100 Films list and not Gojira? That's completely fucked up.

Furthermore, any "Top 100 Films" list that excludes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre -- one of the most terrifying, visceral, brilliantly crafted, culturally significant, and influential American horror films ever made -- needs serious revision.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Gunnar Hansen, the original and best Leatherface actor.

Bonus Afterthought: Why the 2003 remake is a worthless abomination. I hate to waste any space at all discussing the 2003 Marcus Nispel Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, a formulaic, boring, worthless piece of shit that completely misses the point of what made the original scary or compelling. Instead of creating truly horrific situations arising from the motivations of the characters, the 2003 version goes for cheap jump scares -- yes, a cat even jumps out at one point -- lots of gore, and improbable, ill-motivated plot twists.

Besides its bland aesthetics, abuse of cattle prod cinema techniques, and crappy plotting, the remake's worst offenses are its decision to give the Leatherface family a surname -- Hewitt, which I guess is supposed to be "funny" -- and to fully explain the hillbilly clan's (hackneyed, pedestrian) behavioral motivations.

You see, in the 2003 version, the Leatherface -- er, Hewitt -- clan kidnaps babies because they want to expand their brood and be parents. Sadly, this is a stupid and disastrous miscalculation on the filmmakers' part, for it makes the Hewitts comprehensible to us in a way that deflates their power to horrify. It completely negates the powerful structural social critique of the original. The 1974 Leatherface clan kills because, as professional meat slaughterers, it is all they have ever known. They have been displaced from their jobs by the advent of the air gun stunner. Their family pride in their profession has been stripped from them, so they just keep on butchering -- now humans instead of cattle.

Their insanity and cannibalism is therefore a logical extension of the core principles of capitalism -- they are simply small business-people doing what they need to to survive.††† The inappropriateness of their choice of raw materials serves as a savage critique of the capitalist system, showing the desperate, horrific lengths to which the economically disenfranchised must resort to survive.

The 2003 version offers no such critique or thematic nuance. It is simply about a family who wants more babies and who isn't horrifying or scary at all. Yawn!

* Perhaps due to the early influence of Halloween and Texas Chain Saw, to this day I generally prefer slasher and serial killer-based horror films and thrillers. Along this line, let me recommend the raw and terrifying Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and the criminally under-seen Peeping Tom (1960). And, on the horror-comedy side, Man Bites Dog (1992). And of course Hitchcock's classic Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
** The elephant in the room here is Deliverance, which at least indirectly inspired the rural horror slasher cycle and the figure of the monstrous hillbilly. But that film itself is not precisely a horror film. It's more of a dark male melodrama with higher artistic pretensions than most slashers. Psycho also (again) sets an important precedent for TCM via the rural locale of the Bates Motel. Rural locales, from Dracula's castle to Night of the Living Dead's farmhouse to Them!'s California desert, pervade the horror film.
*** I noticed this circle motif due to reading Christopher Sharrett's "The Idea of Apocalypse in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Sharrett says some really smart and insightful stuff in that indispensable article, found in Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett, Scarecrow Press 2004).
† Andreas Killen, 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America (Bloomsbury, 2006) p. 2.
†† Carter Soles, "Sympathy for the Devil" in Ecocinema Theory and Practice (ed. Stephen Rust, Salma Monani, and Sean Cubitt, Routledge 2013) p. 237.
††† This idea comes from Robin Wood, in his "An Introduction to the American Horror Film." also found in Planks of Reason (Scarecrow Press 2004). 

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