Monday, December 19, 2011

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

As I mentioned in my review of ‘Mardi Gras Massacre’ a couple of weeks ago, those bastions of public morality and censorial hyberbole the BBFC and the DPP drew up their “video nasties” hit list based on little more than dodgy-sounding titles and lurid VHS cover artwork; therefore anything from the terminally dull and chronically inept (the aforementioned ‘Mardi Gras Massacre’) to challenging arthouse oddities (‘Possession’) found themselves rubbing shoulders as the slavering UK press decried them as depraved filth that needed banning.

Tobe Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ – a harrowing and brilliantly visceral cinematic experience that exploits its grainy film stock, gauche performances and low-budget aesthetic to unforgettable (and, indeed, uncomfortable) effect – has the words “chain saw” and “massacre” in its title.

You don’t really need me to spell this one out, do you?

The biting irony is that ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ contains exactly two onscreen deaths, neither of which are courtesy of said power tool. Which is hardly a massacre in anybody’s book. One less and it’d be ‘The Texas Didn’t-Actually-Use-a-Chain-Saw incident’. A couple more and you might get away with ‘The Texas Non-Use-of-a-Chain-Saw Spree’. But two? What the fuck kind of title does that give you? ‘The Texas Double Homicide, No Evidence of a Chain Saw’?

You see, BBFC and DPP people, the title is a hook. It’s designed to get people to hand over their spondoolies at the box office and park their posteriors on a movie theatre seat.

So, putting aside the hype and allowing that “chain saw” and “massacre” are more a tag line than an actual précis, how come Hooper’s most (in)famous film remains one of the 1970s’ most gruelling and unnerving works? Quite simple: it throws an ominous, doom-laden shadow over its protagonists from the outset and sends them deeper and deeper, with each passing scene, into a primal landscape (both geographical and emotional) where intellectual and civilized retardation reach a point of brutal mockery where the concepts of family and home are exploded and reimagined as something out of Hieronymous Bosch.

The film starts with brother and sister Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A Partain) journeying with a couple of friends to the isolated cemetery where their grandparents are buried. Reason for the trip: concern that the graves have been vandalized (i.e. the first hint that we’re entering cinematic territory where moral concerns and civilized behaviour are not to be relied upon). They pick up a hitchhiker who works at a nearby slaughterhouse (cue an unflinching montage of almost documentary precision which demonstrates exactly how cows are turned into hamburgers), who proceeds to whip out a knife and go beserk.

This is merely the prelude. Our already freaked-out group soon encounter Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), and Hooper shifts things up a notch, the second half of the film playing out as (by turns) poetic, surreal, disturbing, exploitative and ludicrously amusing. Nominally based on the life and crimes of Ed Gein, ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ pays homage to its twisted muse in an especially eerie sequence where Sally, prowling nervously through the Leatherface household, comes upon a room filled with strange bone sculptures and clumps of feathers. The effect is more chilling than any amount of blood and gore. Elsewhere, the emphasis is on the comedy of the absurd, as in a character managing to escape when Leatherface’s geriatric father – given the job of dispatching them – proves unable to grip his weapon of choice (a hammer), and the implement keeps slipping from his fingers.

It’s a damn shame that ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ owes much of its reputation to the “video nasties” witch-hunt. It’s a much better, much more genuinely scary movie than its title suggests. It lingers in the mind, it reminds you how anodyne many modern horror films are (even as they cut loose with the blood and guts like there’s no tomorrow), and it makes you wonder why the hell Tobe Hooper never went on to make anything even remotely as good.


Michael Grover said...

I can picture the BBFC justifying their decision to ban the film based on the title alone by taking the stance that no decent person would be interested in seeing a film with such a title, regardless of what was actually shown onscreen. The Driller Killer is another example of a well-crafted film that features a lurid title but little overt violence, and it met with the same fate.

Chris D said...

You don't consider Sally's brother's death at the hands of Leatherface an on-screen death-by-chainsaw? I always considered it the most harrowing part of the film.

Otherwise a fantastic write-up!

a famous historian said...

Great write-up of a great film, thanks. While it's not particularly gory, it does have an extraordinary nastiness of spirit; and if you believed in banning films (I don't) you might take that as a pretext. But yeah, they must've looked at the title and poster and gone, 'Kill it with fire'.