Halloween movies month: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

>> Thursday, October 30, 2008

Look what your brother did to the door!I have a terrible confession to make.

It won't seem like much of a confession to some of you--but I think, from some comments I've seen this month there may be a few of you who are appalled and stunned. I suspect one or two of you will think it's no big deal; but it is, it is a big deal.

Alright, enough beating around the bush. Deep breath. Here it goes. Until this month--this week--I had never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Yes! I'm a horror geek! Am too! And yet, somehow I'd gone thirty-six years without seeing one of the seminal slasher movies of all time. I'm enough of a horror geek, I could have probably faked my way through a conversation: Leatherface, Tobe Hooper, loosely based on the Ed Gein case, recently remade, spawned assorted sequels--including one sequel that was so awful it actually skipped going straight-to-video until somebody realized it just happened to feature a pair of actors who somehow turned out to be Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey about a year after it was made.

I'm ashamed. Sort of.

Puppy!But maybe it's just as well. The folks who did the DVD transfer--and the laserdisc restoration that was the basis for the DVD transfer--did one hell of a job making the low-budget, cheap gear, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants TCM look about as good as it could. There are things digital restoration can't do--scenes that are forever too dark and others that will eternally be blown out--but there aren't the lines and scars one might expect from a film with TCM's humble beginnings and scruffy early history of drive-ins and late-night picture shows. The negative couldn't have been in that good a shape, honestly, and if the digital team worked from a print, they probably deserve some kind of Nobel.

This is as good a place as any to mention one of the most stunning and unexpected things I discovered about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I'll ask you not to laugh: TCM is actually kind of a pretty film. I know. That seems ironic, doesn't it? But Daniel Pearl's work on TCM is really, really pretty (it seems Pearl was the DP on the unwatchable Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem the cineamtographer for the beautiful, stark videos for The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and U2's "With Or Without You"--consider the preceding strikethu to be an acknowledgment and repudiation--we're going to pretend Mr. Pearl had nothing to do with AVPR, not one thing, it's all lies). And the camera on TCM dances: it slides gracefully through the tall grass surrounding an abandoned house and trails a victim under a swing and across a yard and up the steps onto a porch like a snake shadowing a victim. They had a forty-foot track they dollied the camera on, and Pearl and director Tobe Hooper used it to create the kind of shots Orson Welles had wet dreams about.

This is quite simply one of the best-shot horror films I think I've ever seen, right up there with, say, Jacques Tourneur's best work. Tobe Hooper has had a spotty record since TCM: his best-known film post-Massacre is, of course, Poltergeist, and stories persist that the movie's producer, Steven Spielberg, took over the shoot during production (for the record, Spielberg has always insisted Poltergeist was directed entirely by Hooper and is entirely Hooper's vision). But you can see why, looking at TCM, Hooper's stock rose: it's not just that TCM is (or was, in 1974) "shocking," it's that TCM looks arty for all its low budget and rough shoot.

Scooby Dooby Doo, where are you?  What?
There's a little more irony in this aspect of the movie, because one of the things you often hear about Massacre is that it's effectiveness comes from it's low-budget, vérité style, the way it supposedly looks like a documentary. And I don't find that to be particularly true at all--I don't recall seeing too many documentaries with these epic tracking shots that sweep broad perimeters around the scene and action, unless you're talking about expensive nature documentaries, and I don't think the people who say TCM looks like a documentary mean that at all. The shooting does enhance the horror, for sure: the epic shots of empty Texas make you painfully aware of just how isolated these people are, how empty and desolate the world is. These people are alone, to the point they're cosmically or existentially cut off. That's not all: the vast empty shots also give you a notion of how a group of people could go so absolutely fucking nuts that killing the occasional stray driver-by and turning him into a sofa could seem pretty normal, a pretty nice way to take up some time with a nice, pleasant hobby, and how you could maybe do that for years and nobody would ever notice because this is a vast empty Texas somebody could drive into and nobody would miss him for years, he'd just be "in transit" and if anyone missed him people would say, "Well, he's probably still driving through Texas," and that would be alright, then.

(Did I mention how beautiful this movie is, how well-shot it is in spite of the cheap and sometimes murky lighting and the fact they shot it on 16mm and the fact they used the wrong film stock because they had no clue what they were doing and somebody gave them the bad advice to use the slowest film they could so they kind of overexposed everything that wasn't underexposed? But it is gorgeous, a gorgeous slasher film of all things.)

Fact: one out of every five teenagers will be brutally murdered by a psycho killerHere's another thing about Massacre, and an important one because of the way this movie has been so badly-imitated over the past thirty-four years and will continue to be badly-imitated. It ties into that existential emptiness I just mentioned. It's a standard trope of the slasher films that the hapless teenagers stupidly do stupid things until the killer, who has come from the hell of contrived plot necessities to do harm to the teenagers hunts all but one of them down. One suspects people got this from the fact that TCM features hapless teens and a relentless killer, but again with the irony: the teens in TCM don't do anything especially stupid except possibly being there, and the relentless killer is on his own turf, just kind of sitting there and hanging out when they come by. Going up to the creepy, remote house isn't a stupid thing to do unless you happen to be in a bumfuck hellish nowhere with nothing but highway and a cattle-processing plant within infinity miles-radius; honestly, most places you'd get lemonade or at least a chance to use the phone. And for his part, the relentless killer really just seems to be taking self-defense to a ridiculous extreme: a deranged psychotic retard's home is his castle, after all, and someone who knocks on the door might be a robber or Social Services or at least lunch-and-a-lampshade, so, you know, that's why the Good Lord invented mallets.

Are you there, God? It's me, Leatherface.Leatherface, the aforementioned deranged psychotic retard, is sort of TCM's hero, not because you're supposed to be rooting for him against the kids (a standard slasher-film trope also found in poor imitators of TCM) but because Gunnar Hansen plays him as a muddled '70s housewife who's simply trying to make it through her day before the boys come home and yell at her... or him... or whatever... for not having dinner already on the table. In one of TCM's finest moments, Leatherface (this is his name in the credits, but one really wants to call him "Edith") looks obviously upset that these kids keep coming up to the house and forcing him to kill them: he storms about, drops heavily to sit on the edge of a bed with his head in his hands, and then apparently forgets what's bothering him. These are obvious acting choices, mind you, not some kind of accidental bravura performance. It's funny and sad and brilliant, and I've got to admit it surprised the hell out of me that TCM's antagonist/antihero wasn't just another soulless Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees type stalking around with farm tools in a gloved hand.

What else can I say? Plenty, actually, but since I just deleted one paragraph for length, I'll wrap it up. A wonderful, funny, pretty, disgusting little movie that transcends nearly all of it's impoverished imitators, and I think I love it.

Note: So I was looking at the bonus materials on the DVD, and noticed that the Italian movie poster for TCM was Non Aprite Quella Porta; this seemed noticeably different from the posters that had assorted obvious variations on "Texas" and "massacre," so I went to Babel Fish and found that TCM's Italian title is:

You Do Not Open That Door

...which is awesome enough to pass along.


Nathan Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 8:59:00 AM EDT  

Well, I don't count myself among horror geeks, but even I've seen Massacre. Jeez.

Did you ever see "2000 Maniacs"?

Plot summary for
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) More at IMDb Pro »

The citizens of the southern town Pleasant Valley lure six Yankee tourists into town where they are to be the reluctant guests for the centennial celebration of the day a band of renegade Union troops decimated the town. The town then participates in events, a different event for each of the tourists, in which the tourist is dispatched. One couple begins to suspect something and seeks a way to escape.

One of the guys is "dispatched" by being rolled down a hill in a barrel that has had a bazillion nails pounded into it with the points toward the inside. Genius!

mattw Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 9:57:00 AM EDT  

The first time I saw TCM I was surprised (and glad) that the annoying wheelchair boy bought it. I figured 'hey, he's in a wheelchair so he's safe, isn't that the rule in a horror movie that the retarded/disabled character gets away'.

Eric Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 1:11:00 PM EDT  

From the commentary track, it seems the cast was kinda happy he bought it, too... apparently that guy got a little too into character.

Nathan: I'm going to make it a point to add Maniacs to my CafeDVD queue.

Carol Elaine Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 2:26:00 PM EDT  

I haven't seen TCM either, Eric, because my interest in horror films tend to fall along the Universal/Hammer/Roger Corman kinds of movies, with the odd zombie movie here and there (28 Days - yay!). However, since I started dating CuteFilmNerd - who has a love of low-budget/exploitation/42nd Street movies in general - I've seen horror films that I never would have considered watching previously. I still prefer the previously mentioned films, but I can appreciate a 2000 Maniacs or Carnival of Souls in a way I never had before.

(CFN was impressed that I had seen Dementia 13 before meeting him, but that had more to do with William Campbell than horror.)

neurondoc Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 9:15:00 PM EDT  

Even I have seen TCM, and horror movies give me lasting heebie-jeebies. My husband was mortified by my behavior when watching Bride of Chucky. We watched it at the house of the person who wrote it (with him no less), and I still hid behind a pillow.

Granted I don't remember much of TCM, as I had over-indulged a bit and went to the ladies room. Apparently I was gone for something like 40 minutes, and my friends had just decided to send someone to look for me when I reappeared. I don't really remember either the movie or the trip to the loo.

Eric Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 9:37:00 PM EDT  

I'll bet the author was tickled by your reaction. When you write something like that, it's flattering to get an ook! kind of reaction out of somebody, and you don't always get to see that up close in a screening.

In fact, you may discover you're now his favorite viewer. At least until you get desensitized.... :-)

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