Monday, July 11, 2011

Come hungry, leave happy (My Favourite Films Volume 19)

Think for a second about iconic filmic imagery. What comes to mind? I don't mean to push you one way or another, but if you feel so inclined, tell me what the first images that come into your head are down below in the comment section. I'll go ahead and wait here a second. Back? Splendid. I ask because I was watching Turner Classic Movies and they had a sampling of tableaux from iconic films as an interlude between movies and of the six or seven they showed, most were horror or sci-fi films. In fact with the exception of Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, The Godfather, From Here to Eternity and in the case of the TCM Montage The Graduate, most of the instantly recognizable cinematic symbols come from horror films. The Birds, Psycho, King Kong, Night of the Living Dead, Dracula or The Horror of Dracula and Frankenstein come immediately to mind, but then there's Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera or any number of the films Lon Chaney earned his nickname making. Stack that against other genres and what do you get? So why did horror become the deformed kid living the cellar? Why is it that some kind with a camera and a couple hundred bucks to blow's first instinct is to make a zombie film? Or a slasher film? Or a house full of freaks film? Horror films didn't start to become the exclusive domain of the maligned and misunderstood until the middle sixties; before then they were all business. Experimental films took care of the inside-of-the-subconscious movies well into the sixties (imagine what a Maya Deren-directed horror film would have looked like? Or Man Ray? Or Stan Brakhage?) but when people figured out you could make something as good as Night of the Living Dead as cheaply as George A. Romero and Image Ten did it, then why not give it a shot? I bring this up because the best horror films, even ones that have a reputation for being cheap and squalid, are solidly made. I like Let Sleeping Corpses Lie and The Messiah of Evil, but I understand that the reason they're not regarded as classics is because they aren't quite as well-made as their influences. I may hate Carrie for being stupid and witless but I understand that it caught on because it's very old-fashioned/conventional in its editing and art-direction. Which brings us to today's film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If the backwoods and desert are where horror's reputation retreated to in the 70s, it's tough not to think of Texas Chainsaw as a big step in that direction. And yet, there's a reason it caught on. If it were as deranged as its name and reputation suggest it'd be unwatchable but Tobe Hooper was a lot more talented than people tend to give him credit for. If just being scary or gross were enough Guinea Pig and Toe-Tag would be household names. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre managed to become one of the most iconic horror films of all time. You don't wind up as recognizable as something by Hitchcock unless you're doing something right. And you don't wind up something little kids brag about to scare their friends unless you're doing something really right.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
by Tobe Hooper
As much as I appreciate the creepiness of John Larroquette's narration (I had the thing memorized by the sixth grade) I feel now it does too much to prepare you for the movie it precedes. The credit sequence is more than enough; it's one of the best ever conceived. Picking up where Night of the Living Dead's end credits left off, we're shown bits of corpses by the light of a camera flash as one of the most instantly recognizable scraping sounds slowly plays behind a radio announcer describing just what the hell's going on. Someone has broken into the Muerto County (Texas, obviously) cemetery, dug up some corpses and posed them like dolls. The next day every family with relatives buried there comes by to make sure it wasn't their aunt or uncle who wound up an undead marionette. That includes Franklin and Sally Hardesty who roped Sally's boyfriend Jerry and their two friends Kirk and Pam into coming with them to check on their grandfather's grave. After determining that the old man is still underground they set off in the direction of home. The sweltering heat and the smell of the slaughterhouse nearby where their granddad used to work make them pity the hitch-hiker they spot by the side of the road enough to pick him up. Big mistake. The man's creepy enough to look at, what with the big red birthmark on his face, but when he opens his mouth he instantly makes the whole van regret picking him up. Franklin, being the kind of attention-deprived fat kid you all went to high school with, asks him all manner of baiting questions until the crazed little man puts an end to the interview by first cutting his own hand with Franklin's knife (smiling all the while) and then pulling a straight-razor and cutting Franklin's arm. Kirk gets the knife away from him and throws him out of the van.

Having had more than enough excitement for one day, they decide to make a pit-stop at Sally and Franklin's granddad's place to swim and carry-on for a bit to defuse the tension. They stop for gas and directions but only find one of those things, half-unwillingly, from the guy who runs a barbecue stand. He warns the kids to just drive home but only succeeds in selling them some barbecue (Hooper maintains that this movie is really just about a bad day). They're at grandpa's house a few minutes later. It's at this point that the film starts fucking with your sense of pathos. I guess I should point out that on top of being girlfriendless, Franklin is also in a wheel chair and feels incredibly left out when the others start exploring the house. Hooper's sense of the character and Paul Partain's performance is so fucking spot-on, you hate and pity him in equal measure. But I digress. Pam and Kirk decide to go for a dip but the swimming hole's gone and dried up in the years since Sally and Franklin were kids. Walking further along the path, they hear the sound of what turns out to be a generator in front of a house teeming with old cars and shit tucked away under tarps and behind fences. When Kirk goes inside to find the master of the house hoping to buy some gas from him, he instead finds a tall, stocky man in an apron whose face is hidden behind a mask of human skin. In a heartbeat the man lifts a giant fucking hammer and beats Kirk to death with it. When Pam comes in after him, we get a good look at how this man lives. The room she stumbles into is full of furniture made of human bones and skin, feathers litter the floor and bones hang from strings like mobiles. The man in the mask gets her soon enough, too. Jerry goes looking for the pair of them and doesn't come back by nightfall, leaving Sally and Franklin to go looking for them. They don't get very far between Franklin's wheelchair preventing them from getting through the thick brush and the fact that it's now pitch-dark, but the man in the mask knows the area well enough that he stalks them in the dark and gets the jump on them, sticking Franklin full in the chest with a chainsaw and then chasing after Sally through the woods, through his house and back out to the barbecue stand. Strangely he seems to stop chasing her immediately after she gets there. He promises to get help but when he comes back, it's clear the night has only just started for poor Sally.
In the Fall of 2010, I interviewed David Gedge from the band The Wedding Present. I was really interested in talking to Gedge because he's a notorious cinephile and I wanted to know what his relation to film was. He liked keeping his distance from the mechanics of filmmaking because as someone whose spent his life in recording studios he can't listen to music without picking it apart in his head. He can watch movies and it's still magic to him; he doesn't want to know how they get made because they wouldn't be escapism anymore. I can sympathize with him to a degree because the more time I spend behind a camera, the less I can just watch movies. It's not impossible to watch movies and buy what's happening on screen as simply what it is, but if I'm not careful the movie's over and I've spent the whole running time paying attention to where the camera was put or mistakes in the sound edit. Sometimes this ruins films I love dearly, but just as often your assumptions about a director's intent are proved right and you feel a swell of pride in your heroes. When watching Tim Kincaid's Kansas City Trucking Company aroused my hunger for creepy goings-on in the South, I decided to revisit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time in what was easily three years. In the interim I'd seen everyone of director Tobe Hooper's films right up until the 1990s. And unlike Wes Craven or John Carpenter, Hooper's style remained pretty consistent. After The Hills Have Eyes, Craven very quickly figured out conventional filmmaking and by 1984 had left his peers in the dust. Carpenter's minimalism never went anywhere, but his personal stamp faded somewhere in the 90s and his movies stopped being scary. Hooper was someone who made an honest stamp at domestication but he was too wild to be tamed by an audience of all ages. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not only his wildest, but his best film. I'm not the most polished or accomplished director, but thanks to years of watching movies and at least two making them, I know assured direction when I see it. Eaten Alive, Salem's Lot, The Funhouse and Poltergeist all show a progression, a mastery of technique, a cohesive style and a set of round characters who remained believable within the confines of the studio system that ended with the grandiose Lifeforce and the delightful throwback Invaders from Mars. He kept taking risks and even if people weren't always interested, he never stopped evolving, so long as the budget allowed for him to take chances. Funnily enough, Craven and Hooper found themselves in the same financial predicament that caused them to make sequels to their best movies within a year of each other. Both are slightly easier to sit through than the death of a relative.

Texas Chainsaw was Hooper's second film but from the masterful tracking shots to the truly stunning production design, Hooper's hand is steady throughout, a professional through and through. Which is amazing considering how truly off the rails the film goes, especially in the last third when Sally is at the mercy of the cannibals. Paying attention to mechanics pays off in a big way when you watch the climactic dinner scene. The things Hooper does with editing and particularly sound is so assaultive and disorienting that you wind up feeling like something a lot worse than three maniacs laughing is happening. I guess it's fitting that Texas Chainsaw is as recognizable a name as Psycho because there are plays taken right from Hitchcock's book. There are shades of Marion Crane's shower in the way Jerry, Pam and Kirk are yanked from the narrative (their deaths are also far less gruesome than people remember). Both films lift liberally from the story of Ed Gein - though neither gets the details right - but only Hooper's film manages to recreate the nauseating environs that such a character would live in. The lengths the production designers went to to make every inch of the house look not only creepy as shit but also lived in are remarkable.
Then there are minor but important touches like the house that Sally's grandfather used to live in. It's rundown, that's nothing new, but Hooper captured an orgy of daddy long-legs in the top floor that Kirk stumbles upon. Hooper makes the entire property seem to actively eject normal people. Everything single thing they encounter screams "Leave!" but the kids are too good-natured to see it. In fact Texas Chainsaw is one among thousands of films that people say is about Vietnam that I can actually see working as a metaphor for Vietnam. Until Leatherface shows up, the movie works as a pretty marvelous time capsule, and Hooper's camera work and sound makes it look like he intended the movie to remain a period piece long after its premiere screening. The kids are dressed like...well, let's just say that with the van, they're a talking dog away from solving mysteries. I love their clothes and hair and their attitude is so perfectly 70s that it seems to both make perfect sense and really catch you off guard when these poor kids start getting killed. When squaring off against an indigenous crazy like Leatherface, all they could hope to do is escape with their lives, forever scarred by what they've seen. When they find out that the only reasonable adult for miles is pulling the strings, that's where I see the Vietnam comparison. You escape and the man puts you in a straight jacket and sends you right back into the shit.

Naturalistic to the point of vérité and still terrifying, Texas Chainsaw has outgrown its humble origins and become a cultural phenomenon. Two sequels, two remakes and a prequel later and Leatherface is now one of the most recognizable boogeyman in the annals of horror history, but no one (not even Hooper) has managed to make a better film using its most iconic creation. Leatherface is an action figure these days, so I could see some people assuming he can't be scary anymore (the fucking remakes and sequels sure did their best to neuter him) but when I watched this last, my dad (who's seen it at least as many times as I have) jumped when Leatherface comes running out of the darkness for the first time. So much of the success of the film rests on Gunnar Hansen's Leatherface. The costume design is killer, for sure, but Hansen plays him like a child, something the other films completely ignore. He appears to be running the show until the man from the barbecue joint shows up, then its abundantly clear that he's just a child afraid of his older brother(? The man could be his dad, but that's never quite straightened out). But his treatment of the dead bodies of his victims reminds me a lot of King Kong working the mouth of the dead Tyrannosaurus. And just look at him! What I've long loved about this movie is all you have to do is hear its name or see the man with the saw and you've crated a whole movie around them. Before I'd seen Texas Chainsaw I'd come up with what I thought Leatherface's voice would sound like in my head. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the film has more nuance than it ever gets credit for.
As I put the finishing touches on this I'm reminded how important skill like Hooper's is in the crafting of a horror film. Watching Carl Lindbergh's Bunnyman, an obvious disciple, and seeing how half-assed the editing is, how poorly the sound is mixed, how completely free of tension it remains nearly half way through its running time, how the characters lack even the most basic motivation makes me so fucking mad that horror films aren't given credit for being as well crafted as the best of them are. The sound design on Texas Chainsaw should by rights have earned as oscar, the performances are perfect which makes them invisible so don't ever get praised (the characters are three dimensional and prove it within minutes of simply existing on screen), and Hooper's direction was at least as good as Fellini's for Amarcord or Milos Forman's for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, considering he had a 16th of the budget and yet he lingers on in the basement, untouched by accolade except by nerds like me. I could only hope to ever make a film this good, horror or not.

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