Saturday 31 December 2011

Carving up America

It's a truth commonly acknowledged that the modern American horror film begins with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Fourteen years after Hitchcock had thrown the rules out of the window with Psycho, Tobe Hooper completed the transition from the stately Gothic pictures of the past to the gruesome body count horror of the 1970s and 1980s.

It would be foolish to consider The Texas Chain Saw Massacre only in the context of the horror genre, however. Hooper was undeniably part of the New Hollywood wave of auteurs, and the film is ultimately an extreme expression of the deconstruction of the American way of life pioneered by Bonnie and Clyde and later exemplified by Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, etc. Leatherface is a hillbilly Travis Bickle, but without the delusions of heroism.

The film opens with a text crawl, narrated by John Larraquette, informing us that what we're about to watch is a true story. That, of course, is a lie. (But it's an entertaining lie, and in the end, isn't that the real truth?) Hooper claims that this intentional misinformation was a reaction to the American government's recent public lies about Watergate, the oil crisis, and the Vietnam War: and while that is an attractive idea, it's also possible that, like the makers of The Blair Witch Project a quarter-century later, Hooper simply realised that claiming your fiction was based on a true story would sell a lot of tickets.

Then there is darkness, unpleasant noises, and brief flashes of something horrible: and before long we realise that we're watching half-decomposed bodies displayed in garish poses. It seems, according to radio news we hear over the extraordinarily raw and hideous opening credits, that recently there has been a spate of grave robbings in Texas: but significantly that's only one of a number of disasters and violent crimes the dispassionate news anchor tells us about, signifying a society - indeed a world - dissolving into murder and chaos.

Now at last it's time to meet our van-driving cast. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her brother, wheelchair-bound Franklin (Paul A. Partain) are travelling to a Texas graveyard to make sure their grandfather's grave is not among those disturbed; they're accompanied by their friends, Jerry (Allen Danziger) and Kirk (William Vail), both of whom are men without qualities, as well as Kirk's girlfriend Pam (Teri McMinn), whose sole identifying characteristic is an obsession with astrology. Along the way they pick up a seriously disturbed hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who rambles about slaughterhouses ('My family's always been in meat') before cutting himself and attacking Franklin with a straight razor, and being thrown out of the van.

Stopping at a petrol station our heroes are told that fuel has run out, with new supplies not arriving until later that day. To pass the time they decide to explore the Hardesty family homestead, where Sally and Franklin lived as children. Kirk and Pam go off to a swimming hole, but are attracted to a nearby house that has a generator (and hence presumably petrol), where both are murdered by a big man wearing a mask made of human skin (Gunnar Hansen). Jerry goes to look for them and meets with the same fate; and eventually, after dark, Franklin and Sally set out to find their missing comrades.

From there, it's a straight line to Franklin ending up on the wrong end of Leatherface's chainsaw and Sally being invited to a family dinner with Grandpa. The sheer quantity of plot recap points to the least but still pleasant achievements of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: it's never boring. A bad body-count horror film is at heart a tedious and inert thing, treading water between gruesome murders; but that's never the case in TCM, and the screenplay by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper gets points for that - even if the paper-thin categorisation of most characters does not sit well with that sort of quality.

Upon release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre gained a reputation for gore and brutal violence it has to this day. Indeed the victims do not die cleanly and quickly, the way they might have in an earlier horror film, but all in all TCM is not particularly bloody. The only chainsaw death - one of four murders in the film - happens in darkness, while other killings are handled reasonably discreetly.

To end there, though, is to miss what was so shocking about TCM: its extraordinary nasty-mindedness. We often jokingly call the cast of slasher films 'meat', but here it's true. From the defiling of corpses to the theme of cannibalism, Hooper's magnum opus reduces the human body to flesh to be lacerated and devoured by the murderous Sawyer clan, and this is underscored by the slaughterhouse images and the animal noises made by Leatherface.

What really gives The Texas Chain Saw Massacre its punch, though, is Hooper's direction, which marks a revolution in the genre. I can't put it any better than to say that TCM finally abandons the pretence to objectivity that previous horror films had challenged but ultimately upheld. Hooper's very unsteady, jerky, obsessive camerawork (he doesn't use handheld, praise Jesus) gives the impression of psychosis: the camera is not a neutral observer but a deeply disturbed participant and sufferer. His frequent use of uncomfortable high and low angles, his habit of crowding the foreground, and his invasive, nervous zooms on human agony all violate what is classically thought of as good direction, but this is precisely what prevents the audience from ever settling into the film and being able to steer its terror into a predictable, familiar experience.

Despite the claim of factuality, the direction marks TCM as a nightmare. The scene in which Pam discovers the Sawyer clan's living room, covered in feathers and human bones, is edited as a surreal and disturbing montage by Larry Carroll and assistant director Sallye Richardson. (Incredibly, neither of them has ever edited a film again.) The sound design, too, is outstanding: beside the creepy prevalence of silence early in the film's run, the harsh, dissonant chords used in the family dinner scene mark TCM as a film that goes out to hurt its audience; lastly, cinematographer Daniel C. Pearl's deliberately harsh and hideous creation of a bleached landscape is crucial to the film's sense of isolation and despair.

It's often assumed that there must be something deeply wrong with those who enjoy bloody horror, but it's the attitude that makes the difference. A film like Wanted gawks at its hero slaughtering dozens of people in cool blood and gasps, 'Isn't that awesome?' The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, on the other hand, presents deeply unsettling killings and seems to say, 'Isn't this terrible?'. As a result, Wanted left me disgusted with the film and its makers, while TCM leaves me horrified but on Hooper's side. Besides, those same critics who extol The Wild Bunch - as they should - hardly get to recoil at TCM.

It's not the first slasher, but the importance of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to the development of the genre can hardly be overstated. Its vicious, relentless creation of a world in which man is man's wolf was shocking at the time and remains so today. As a literal, physical dissection of the evaporating optimism of the sixties it could hardly be bettered.

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