Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

by Jimmy "They Took My Baby Away from Me" Callaway

So, at first, I was gonna take critic Vera Dika's formula for slasher films and apply it to this movie, figuring so much has been said about Texas Chain Saw that I might as well just go ahead and say something someone has already said. But that didn't go so well, so I figure I can do that some other time for another flick actually within Dika's very limited time frame of 1978 to 1984.

So then what? Well, in my umpteenth rewatching of this flick last night, I felt disturbed and uncomfortable, as I often do when watching this movie, and it occurred to me that the only other movie that makes me feel this dirty and oily is 1972's Deliverance. Really pretty obvious on the face of it, and though I'm far from the first high-minded, penny-ante Roger Ebert to come up with the comparison, hey, it's all I've got. I'm a man who knows his limitations.

Deliverance is of course the epic saga of Burt Reynolds and just how downhill his career would go. Burt and Jon Voight and Ned Beatty and New Mexico's own Ronny Cox all decide to go whitewater rafting before the river gets dammed, and find out just how lonely those hillbillies can get. Texas Chain Saw, as the progenitor of the slasher film, took the basic premise of Deliverance and expanded it to include the youth of 1970s America: we dunno where you kids are headed, but it ain't fuckin' pretty.

Texas Chain Saw opens with those grisly shots of dug-up, dismembered corpses, and you're not likely to find a more effectively tone-setting opening. Our merry band drive their boogie-van down to Newt (or is it Newton? Mapquest assures me Newt exists, but no Newton, yet Newt is nowhere near Childress, TX, which is also mentioned in this film as being nearby. Can anyone clear this up, or should I just shut up now?) to ascertain that Sally and Franklin's grandpa's resting place has not been disturbed. Right away, we get almost nothing but the keening discrepancy between these youths of the hippie hey-day and the old-boy South. The secondary characters--sheriff's deputies, local citizens, big-headed mute gas station boys--all ooze a friendly disdain for these five kids and their paisley shirts and incredibly short shorts, but it is indirect and non-confrontational. Personally speaking, the time I've spent in Texas has never been anything short of lovely, the people as friendly as they're reputed. But at the same time one can't deny there is a certain near-condescending attitude towards outsiders. Like when the kids show up at the graveyard, and the one deputy guides Sally away, all like, "Hey, you boys don't mind if I borrow the little miss?" He means her no harm, of course, but he wants the rest to know that even if they did have a problem with it, that would just be their tough shit.

Once they've all been assured that Granddad was just as they'd left him, the kids bug out and read their horoscopes and just generally be youthful. Franklin, Sally's brother, never shuts the fuck up, a choice for which I take my hat off to director Tobe Hooper: it was like he made the handicapped character the most irritating, as if to challenge us to hate him without then feeling guilty for wishing harm on a guy stuck in a wheelchair. Well played, sir.

It's weird to think that there was a time when picking up hitchhikers was a viable option, though I'm certain the release of this film did a lot to un-viable that (actually, I used to live in a hilly rural area, and so would pick up hitchhikers every now and again, just 'cause I knew what it was like being without a car in a hilly rural area. Still no way to not have a creepy, or at the very least awkward, situation when you invite a stranger into your car). Our merry band picks up a hitchhiker out by the slaughterhouse, and he and Franklin immediately get into a heated discussion over current trends in meat-packing. Franklin is well impressed by the captive bolt pistol currently in use, humane and efficient as it is. The hitchhiker loudly shouts that down, hewing instead to the old days of a grated floor and a well-placed sledgehammer. As the first really significant scene, you'd have to be asleep to miss out on the thematic importance of this exchange.

The surface stuff is obvious, but I dig what Hooper does next: the hitchhiker takes out a camera, an old accordion-lens model. He points it around, in his generally creepy way (guys with birthmarks on their faces must really loathe this scene--"Hey, I'm a nice person! Just 'cause I have an overgrowth of melanocytes on my face doesn't make me a Texan cannibal!"), and then snaps a picture of Franklin. When Franklin refuses to buy the photograph, the hitchhiker takes some foil and some flash powder out of his roadkill bag and burns the picture in a display of hoo-doo that finally gets him kicked out of the van. So apparently, the hitchhiker can employ modern(-ish) technology if it's gonna make him money. But if/when it doesn't, he resorts to the old, back-country ways. It's almost as though it's this hypocrisy that makes him unsympathetic, rather than his later horrid, violent actions. I guess Hooper knew he'd have a lotta cynics in the audience, y'know, jerks like me who'd make excuses for sociopathy but not for having double standards.

Anyways, the kids then stop at the filling station and are warned off by the proprietor, whom we find out later is also the eldest of the Leatherface brood. Given that, it's difficult to figure later if he's genuinely warning them off from exploring their old family home, whether out of concern for their well-being or for them discovering his family's distinctly anti-social ways. Or he could have been inviting them to stay and have some BBQ with the intent of luring them into the oven that way. Hard to say in the context of this movie, though I gather his character is a little more fleshed-out (har) in the sequel. I choose to read the Old Man's character here as being at least a bit sympathetic: as we see later, he has little stomach for actual violence, though he does seem to delight in torturing poor little Sally. So it's like he's saying here, "Look, y'all, I know me and my kin all too well, so please don't put us in a position where we have to slaughter y'all up and have you for Sunday supper." Doesn't make him likable, but it does put an interesting spin on his character, and also will allow Hooper something of a back door for his final girl to escape.

And then Leatherface. Oh, Gunnar Hansen, you are truly one of the unsung actors of your generation. I think the fact that Hansen has no dialogue at all in this film really allows him to do the finest acting in the movie. As with most exploitation films, the acting is far from marquee-billing, but the way Leatherface gets to emote by screaming and cross-dressing actually makes his acting the most subtle and nuanced, if you can dig that. First up on the chopping block is Kirk, who never sees it coming, thereby setting the tradition for just about every slasher-victim to follow. When I first saw this flick as a teenager, that first kill was such a release: I'd been held tight in the grip of tension and mostly laughable characterization. Then out pops Leatherface, like he's on some twisted Laugh-In set, quick sledge to Kirk's skull, and then back out of camera range. Tobe Hooper will always remain one of my favorite directors just for the way he set up that shot alone, placing the audience at a distance, helpless. The visceral close-up certainly makes sense, but you'd think after that had been done over and over and over again, some half-assed director woulda gone, "Hey, why don't we try to steal directly from Texas Chain Saw for this scene?"

Poor little Pammy is next on the killing floor, and Hooper's early use of the Gaze here is interesting. Kirk, Jerry, and Franklin never really have a chance because, even though Jerry and Franklin actually get to see Leatherface before he dispatches them to the meat-locker, by then it's just too late. Pam is at least given a running start because she actually manages to lay eyes on her killer before he does away with her. It doesn't do her much good, but that shot of her actually making it to the porch of the Leatherface household before he drags her back in probably comes in second-place for my most chilling visuals in this flick.

Pam getting the meat-hook here was also probably the beginning of people considering the slasher genre to be largely misogynistic. And though I disagree, it's hard not to see Pam being literally treated as a piece of meat as anything less than non-feminist. But as often happens, the actions of the characters--particularly the antagonists--are being confused with those of the filmmakers. It seems as plain as day to me that Leatherface and his family have got some major fucking issues with the fairer sex, to say the very least, and this is not to be celebrated or empathized with by the audience, but is to add to the audience's revulsion for them.

And as long as we're on the subject, let's talk about Leatherface's wardrobe, shall we? Firstly, aesthetically speaking, I have no greater favorite look for a killer. A mask made of human flesh on a hulking man-child who speaks in grunts and shrieks is almost a prerequisite, even at this early stage of the genre. But when we first meet him, he's wearing a shirt and tie and (unless I'm very much mistaken) a butcher's apron. This is day-time Leatherface, hard-at-work Leatherface. A guy who lives in the middle of nowhere and cuts people up with a chainsaw still takes the time to tie a tie in the morning. That alone really sets my mind to reeling, and actually does make Leatherface at least that much more sympathetic, despite it all. That drive to still be normal, despite the fact that normalcy waved bye-bye to you a long time ago--I dunno, would it be completely weird if I said I could fully relate? (Yes.) And then from there, he drags it up, which is just kind of funny on its own, but also speaks volumes as to how far a woman's touch really matters. Even the shittiest grad student in the world could connect those dots for you, especially when Leatherface changes into his more formal dining gown. Man, I'm just prattling on at this point; lemme try and delineate:

Leatherface wears a mask made of human skin to simultaneously hide himself from the world and as a (failed) attempt to seem more human. He dresses like a butcher because that way he is one: a nice, normal, friendly neighborhood butcher, who still puts a thumb on the scale, but in a much sicker way. He becomes Suzy Homemaker when it's time to cook dinner and takes the Old Man's abuse because a woman's place is in the kitchen and on the end of the strap. He becomes a glamorous hostess during the cocktail hour, likely because they will be dining with (and on) guests that evening. The perverse logic in play here is only all the more appealing since it's never directly addressed. And this is why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is truly one of the finest examples of American cinema: for all the exploitative trappings herein, Tobe Hooper's eye for detail in this regard sets him and his work above the bland and the average.

Let's talk Grandpa. By this point in the movie, everybody's been killed except for Sally. Leatherface and his brothers are all het up over the king's ransom of fresh meat they've got now, and then hubris rears its classical head. The boys are so excited, so proud of this little blonde side of beef they've got, that they want Grandpa to have the distinct pleasure of slaughtering her himself. Of all the crazy shit these boys get up to, this is by far the craziest. It doesn't matter how out of their minds they are, you'd think one of them would say, "Hey, ol' Gramps is pretty much a corpse at this point. I mean, fun is fun, boys, but maybe we oughtta be a little more careful with our acquisition here is alls I'm sayin'." But like I was kind of getting at before, this characteristic wrinkle allows Hooper a nice out for his protagonist, so much so that one barely blinks when it's suddenly morning, and Leatherface is suddenly in his Sunday-go-to-meetin' suit, and suddenly their house is near enough a major highway that a trailer-truck not only arrives to flatten Brother Hitchhiker, but also a Samaritan pick-up truck can pass by to whisk Sally away.

Given the earlier double-standard about the new ways vs. the old ways that we saw with the Hitchhiker, it's a fitting end for him to get mowed down by an 18-wheeler, driven by a black guy, no less. You can try to hew to the old ways however half-assedly you want, but just as Sally and her friends were caught unawares by the back-country killin' culture of Leatherface and his family, so too are the boys so caught up in their mindset that little things like Grampa's inability to hold a hammer or the importance of looking both ways before crossing the street fatally slip their minds. Even Leatherface, clearly the most successful crazy guy in this crazy family, loses control of his own chainsaw, which is like another limb at this point, and slices his own leg open. You just can't have it both ways, fellas, as much as you might not want to hear that.

And another nice thing about this final scene is that it sets up another slasher tradition wherein the final girl escapes with her life but not any semblance of normality. This final sequence contains what is easily Marilyn Burns's finest acting in the film, if not ever in her career. She is at once hysterical with fear and with joy at her escape, and that particular blend would be difficult for anyone to convey. Before we cut back to Leatherface and his impotent chainsaw/dick-swinging, we can see in Sally's face that, though she's glad to be alive, she also wishes she were dead. There's the rub.

To get back to my abandoned Deliverance analogy: when we were in our early 20s, my buddy Craig and I finally rented that flick, and were all a-giggle for the famous rape scene we knew was forthcoming. But when it actually happened, we were nauseated and creeped thoroughly out. This is how I constantly come at The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: it always feels like I'll get a couple beers in me and say, "Hey, ain't watched that in a while, think I'll pop it in." And then I remember, "Oh yeah, this isn't a 'fun' movie. It's a horrible and horribly well-made chunk of cinema which is about as purely transgressive as one can get."

Which is obvious to just about everybody but me, it would seem.

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