Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #28: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I'm a gay dude who loves movies -- a queer cinephile. I studied film in college and once reviewed movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'm watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years. Go ahead, say it: "I can't believe you've never seen..."

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (released October 1974)

Gunnar Hansen as "Leatherface" in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Here's the trailer for the 40th anniversary re-release in summer 2014...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: It all begins with one of those portentous opening scrolls, read aloud by the most serious-sounding dude they could find...
The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Okay, three things... (1) The actual title of this movie is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, not The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's right there in the opening scroll. Since I never see chainsaw spelled as two words, I looked it up. The Oxford, Cambridge and Urban dictionaries all assured me it's just one word. Merriam-Webster says it's two words, with no explanation for their contrariness. (2) This is not based on a true story. Nope. It's just inspired by Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer and grave robber who fashioned trophies and keepsakes from bones and human skin. Writer/director Tobe Hooper added a chainsaw to the mix after spotting one while standing in line at a hardware store; Gein never used one. (3) That "idyllic summer afternoon drive" mentioned in the scroll? No. The reason these five twentysomethings are driving around rural Texas in triple-digit heat is because of news reports about vandalized graves -- Sally assembles everyone and makes her boyfriend drive his van to a cemetery in the middle of nowhere to see if her great-grandfather is still resting in peace. What's idyllic about that? That's a terrible way to spend a summer afternoon. In fact, this is like a horrific lost episode of Scooby Doo.

So, who do we have in the van? There's Sally and her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin. Sally's boyfriend, Jerry, and their friends, Pam and Kirk. Hearing a lot of bad news on the radio, amateur astrologer Pam explains it to the gang: "Saturn is a bad influence. It's just a particularly bad influence now because it's in retrograde." And then they spot a hitchhiker, have five seconds of conversation about how he probably works for the local cattle slaughterhouse and decide to give him a ride, primarily to spare him from the heat. Pam's the only one with an objection to this. "Oh, he's weird-looking. No!" There's a streak of blood on his face, he's got an animal-fur man purse hanging around his neck, and he over-shares about the best way to kill a cow. Hint: You hit them on the head with a mallet. Repeatedly. Until they die. And then the hitchhiker starts waving a knife around, cutting himself and Franklin before they can throw him out of the van.

This is the hitchhiker. I mean, seriously. 
The gang stops for gas, but the twitchy attendant tells them the pumps are empty, so they head off to find the farmhouse Sally's family abandoned years ago. They find it -- dilapidated, filled with spiders, but within walking distance of another house. Kirk and Pam think maybe the owners might give them some gasoline if they ask politely enough. That turns out to be one of the worst ideas in the history of cinema, of course, because the occupants are a cannibal family with an intellectually disabled, chainsaw-wielding adult son who probably can't read or write but excels at the kind of skills one might pick up working in a cattle slaughterhouse.

Here's the truth: I've been avoiding this movie for a long time. I'd even relegated The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to what I like to call the That-Shit-Can-Really-Happen subgenre of horror movies. Other famous entries in this category include Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. See, I can certainly be scared by movies about haunted houses, ghosts, demonic possession or monsters, but I don't believe in any of those things. Haven't for years. Silent, savage killers like Jason or Michael Myers from the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises, respectively, have been given supernatural strengths (and immortality) by the filmmakers, so I just don't find them authentic or compelling. What really freaks me out are profoundly unbalanced people with knives or chainsaws and a sickening inclination for torture and killing and doing incomprehensible things with human body parts. Because... That. Shit. Can. Happen.

Often described as a watershed moment in American horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre essentially ratchets Psycho up to 11 and perennially lands on every list of the best/scariest horror movies of all time -- usually in the top 5. Made for around $85,000 with an inexperienced cast , it endures right alongside The Exorcist (1973), an $8 million studio blockbuster with stars and state-of-the-art technical wizardry. And while both provoked media controversy, it was Chain Saw that was rejected by theaters and banned in countries all over the world. Both films break new ground in horror, so why the difference in treatment? I have a personal theory. The Exorcist and Chain Saw were released less than a year apart. Because of their R ratings, I was too young to see either without a parent or adult guardian. My sister, eleven years older than me, said, "Do you want to see The Exorcist?" I did. My mother agreed to this because it was a major studio release based on a best-selling book and she recognized some of the actors involved. What could go wrong? (Well, for one thing, I didn't sleep for three nights after I saw it.) On the other hand,  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre sounds like a lurid, low-budget exploitation flick explicitly made for people with bad taste and twisted minds. Civic-minded theater owners, movie critics and mothers tend to unite in their disapproval over a thing like that.

But there's a reason Chain Saw is recognized as a classic today: it's good. Sure, I could quibble about that deceptive and wholly unnecessary opening scroll, but it's the only real misstep. Writer and director Tobe Hooper relies more on atmosphere and tension than gore -- from the sounds of a shovel breaking dirt, crackling bones and disembodied radio voices to the sights of skeletal remains, meat hooks and a man in a homemade mask of human skin. It may take a solid 30 minutes for the first death to happen, but that time is never wasted -- the characters are sketched out enough for you to care about their fates and the dread becomes palpable. Hooper draws unexpectedly strong performances from his cast of unknowns, too, particularly Marilyn Burns as Sally. Once that chainsaw starts buzzing away, Burns goes from desperate woman to abject terror personified. She may actually be the Meryl Streep of scream queens.

I also want to talk about Tobe Hooper's script because it's so much smarter than it ever had to be with a title like that. He's written his doomed characters as ordinary and unlucky, not horny and stupid. The chainsaw-wielding "Leatherface" is one of the most iconic killers in history, but Hooper gives him no supernatural or superhuman characteristics -- he's obviously an intellectually disabled young adult who's been taught to butcher people by a deeply depraved and impoverished family. His human skin mask looks like the bizarre craft project of an untalented child. Amidst all the gruesome mayhem, Hooper pulls back just long enough to give the audience a quiet moment alone with Leatherface. It's hard not to think, "This poor creature has probably never had any sense of right or wrong." You're still terrified, but it's almost as if Hooper is saying, "Come on, I dare you not to feel some pity for this guy."

When I reviewed Pink Flamingos (1972) for this series, I acknowledged that while it's an assertively disgusting film, I really admired writer/director John Waters for his unapologetic attitude and the perseverance it must have taken to get his vision on screen. I feel similarly about first-time writer/director Tobe Hooper here. Waters and Hooper excelled at defiantly transgressive, anarchic filmmaking. The difference, for me, is that Hooper is a better storyteller and a better filmmaker. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is deceptively simple, absolutely harrowing and most giddily sick, but I'd be willing to defend it as a near-masterpiece that absolutely earned its place in New York's Museum of Modern Art permanent film collection. Can you name another movie that starts out as straight-up horror and fluidly pivots into an astonishingly dark comedy?

Stray Gay Observations:

Somewhere in the United States, a cannibal family is shopping at Walmart right now. I'm convinced of it.

Naturally, I noticed the costumes. Lots of bell bottom pants, a fashion trend that bridged the 1960s and '70s, then reappeared in the 1990s and 2000s. In other words, Cher has been around long enough to both popularize the style and refuse to have anything to do with its rebirth.

Think about this: how often do you hear male characters scream in a movie? Very rarely, and usually for comic effect. In Chain Saw, one on the guys is abruptly confronted by the man in the human skin mask. He has the single most natural male scream I've ever heard in a film. And it's not funny.

Now, I'm going to show you a picture of William Vail, the actor who plays Kirk. I'm just showing you this because he's hot. His death was particularly unsettling for me because he's hot. And no, I don't think you needed a spoiler alert about that; massacre is right there in the title. Vail made four movies and then became a set decorator.

William Vail (far right) as Kirk. Far too cute to be a chainsaw massacre victim.

You probably won't believe this, but Marilyn Burns was found dead in her Houston home the same day I watched this movie. She was 65. When I read the news online, I immediately thought, "Wow, that's eerie." And then I found out she was born in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Burns earned a Bachelor's degree in Drama from the University of Texas at Austin in 1971. She made about a dozen films, but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, shot in the summer of 1973, was her first film role. In a 2013 interview, Burns said, "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that almost 40 years later I would be talking about it."

Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty -- a manic, bloody mess by the end of the movie.

Originally, the house used in the film was located in Round Rock, Texas. In 1998, it was cut up into little pieces... um, sections... and transported to Kingsland, Texas. It was put back together and renovated into a restaurant. Because, you know, that's the kind of thing we do in America.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Restaurant
(Actually, as of this writing it's called Grand Central Cafe.)

Should You See It? To my surprise, I liked The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a lot. I've probably seen a couple of hundred horror movies in my life, but this one has a visceral edge and a striking aural intensity that really works your nerves. You'll recognize so many familiar tropes here -- the creepy hitchhiker, the crazy old man with an opaque warning about evil in the world, the masked slayer and the lone survivor, otherwise known as the Final Girl. This is pretty much the movie that invented them all 40 years ago, and it's been ripped off in every way since then. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has spawned sequels, remakes and reboots -- six to be exact -- and I'm not interested in seeing a single one of them because I imagine the only things they have to offer are increasingly sophisticated special effects and bigger body counts. This is not a movie that needed a do-over. They got it right the first time.

Next: Forrest Gump (1994)

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