Saturday 23 June 2018

We Don't Go Back #85: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

If Liquid Sky was an example of a film that I'd wanted to see for decades, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is possibly the best example of a film that I never wanted to see. It's not an issue of quality – in fact, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is, in terms of cinematography, performance, technical artistry and structure, an exceptional horror movie, and in terms of its content, an essential folk horror. For me, it's entirely about content.

Everyone has their points of disconnect: for example, while I've never been unduly disturbed by the films of David Cronenberg and their mutant queering of the human body, I have at least two friends who can't cope with it at all. For me, my deal breakers, among the things I cannot usually personally bear to watch are cruelty towards or violence directed against children, zombies (for a whole raft of reasons), and murder by dismemberment, the industrial conversion of human flesh into raw, bloody meat. And I suppose that if I were to analyse that I'd say that while in, say, Existenz or Videodrome the flesh warps and changes, life persists and the transformation is ambivalent. But in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, we enter a human abattoir. We enter the realm of dead meat.

And I'm a vegetarian.

Spoiler warnings are, as per usual, for wimps, but there are spoilers, if, like me last week, you're one of the five horror fans who haven't seen it.

We just picked up Dracula.
For all that I didn't want to watch this film, I realised that if I'm doing a strand of this project about the backwoods, about the Lovecraftian Hick and His Ways, I'm going to have to do this. I have to engage with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Tobe Hooper’s debut film has an inescapable gravity to it. It is the archetypal slasher film, before slasher films were a thing; it is the backwoods horror film par excellence.

A message at the start of the film explains that this is the story of a terrible thing that happened to five young people in 1973, especially Sally Hardesty and her “invalid brother” Franklin. So immediately, the film implies that this is true.

And not for the last time, this reminds me a little of The Wicker Man, with its opening title that frames a fictional event with a sort of mock authority.

So Sally (Marilyn Burns), wheelchair-bound Franklin (Paul A. Partain) and Sally’s friends Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) are in a part of Texas they haven't been in for a while. Someone has been robbing graves, and arranging the corpses in odd positions, and Sally and Franklin, hearing news reports, wonder if grandaddy's grave might have been violated. They check out the grave, and there Franklin hears an old drunk (Joe Bill Hogan), talking to no one in particular.
The drunk: Things happen hereabouts they don’t tell about. Ah ha ha ha… I see things. You see, they say… say it’s just an old man. Talking. You laugh at an old man, heh. There’s them that laughs an’ knows better. [He laughs]
And then Sally and company decide that they'll go visit the old family home.

On the way, the van passes the local slaughterhouse, and it's close by there that they pick up a hitcher (Edwin Neal), a skinny, strange figure who gets steadily stranger. He starts out friendly enough, happily talks about how he and his family used to work at the slaughterhouse.
I got pictures.
Franklin: Hey man, you ever go in that slaughter room or whatever they call it? The place where they shoot cattle in the head with that big air gun?
Hitcher: Oh, that gun's no good.
Franklin: I was in there once with my uncle.
Hitcher: The old way! With a sledge! You see, that way's better. They die better that way.
Franklin: Well, how come? I thought the gun was better.
Hitcher: Oh, no. With the new way, people were put out of jobs.
When they see the pictures the hitcher keeps of the dead animals he's killed in the skin pouch around his neck, they're less friendly.

The hitcher slashes Franklin's arm. And then he does something very odd, this hitchhiking witch boy. He takes a Polaroid and then he burns it in front of them. It's a curse, witchcraft: the blood and the image are a vehicle for sympathetic magic. It's a hoodoo thing, something raw and pagan.

That sense of the popular occult soaks the film. Pam begins the film by consulting an astrology book and explaining that Saturn is in retrograde, and that this is very bad. That there is badness in the stars, in destiny.
Franklin, I am not sure that's actually a sausage.
And then the kids – who, I need to stress again, are from the local area – buy some weird barbecue from a friendly man (Jim Siedow) at a petrol station that doesn't have any petrol. Franklin takes a bite from some of the meat, and then looks at it, as if to say, “Huh, what's this?” and shortly after that we see him eating a sausage right in front of you that looks like a penis, and I don't think that's an accident on the filmmaker's part.

They visit the Hardestys’ old house, now empty and having seen better days. Pam and Kirk go looking for the water hole, hoping for a swim. It's empty, but they can hear an engine in a nearby house, and think, let's ask for some gas. And of course in that house is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), one of the enduring, iconic figures of American horror cinema, grunting, incoherent, in his apron and his mask of human skin. And here the second act begins, in which Leatherface picks off the young people – who were from these here parts all along – one by one, until only Sally is left.

And it is the middle act of the film on which the formidable reputation of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre rests, and the first thing any critic tells you, indeed the only thing I really knew about this movie apart from the fact Leatherface is in the film and he has a chainsaw, is that it's not that gory.

In fact, Tobe Hooper’s main skill lies in implication: by showing what happens around a sudden, brutal act of violence he can imply the violence itself, and indeed this is the main reason why The Texas Chain Saw Massacre went a whole 25 years without a certificate in the UK: usually, with a horror film, the BBFC can ask for cuts to be made, a second here, a couple of seconds there, just to soften the impact of a scene. But there's nothing to cut in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The horror comes from the context. A pair of twitching legs, a pair of hands grasping the shaft of a meat hook, and Marilyn Burns’s contorted features, her screams, her cries, her pleading, the extreme close up on the broken capillaries of her eye.

Or as the BBFC’s case study puts it:
Ferman described the film as 'the pornography of terror', in that its intention seemed to be to invite the audience to revel in a vulnerable woman's distress, and concluded that the film could not be classified.
“The pornography of terror.”
And it's the genius of Hooper’s film that made it for me so very unpleasant to watch. Because for all the sun-drenched paganism of the context, the violence in the film is horribly realistic. Leatherface’s house, full of ornaments made from human bone and skin, was directly inspired by the very real serial killer and grave robber Ed Gein, an inspiration also for Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (filmed by Jonathan Demme in 1991), and talked about at some length in James Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip.

When Pam enters the house and sees its contents, she has to fight not to throw up; Sally is, quite reasonably, broken by her experiences, and never gets her act together other than to run like mad. And important to notice that Leatherface, unlike the later, perhaps better known greats of slasher cinema, your Freddie Kruger and your Jason Voorhees and your Michael Myers, is not implacable, invincible, or even all that competent. He's an unfit, stupid, ugly man with a chainsaw and a lump hammer. And like most actual acts of real world violence, Leatherface's acts are fatal, and final, but they only work as planned when Leatherface and, later, his clan have the drop on their victims. And this is why Leatherface can wipe out four of Sally's friends with ease, but Sally gets away. Because she sees him coming. She's caught by the friendly old barbecue cook from the gas station, and he subdues Sally (already having evaded Leatherface’s chainsaw), with a broomstick. And that's not because he's a competent kidnapper, it's because he catches her by surprise. Right at the end, a passing truck driver saves Sally from Leatherface by chucking a wrench at him, knocking him over and causing him to cut his own leg with his chainsaw, which to be honest, reminded me a little of the words of Dodgeball's Patches O'Houlihan: "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a chainsaw."

(By the way. This needs to be said. While I'm prepared to accept that four onscreen deaths might still reasonably, just about, at a stretch, be termed a “massacre”, how exactly does it count as a “Chain Saw Massacre” when only one of the victims winds up hors de chainsaw? I mean, I get that The Texas Lump Hammer Massacre doesn't quite have the same immediately shocking ring to it, but it's just as well that there isn't a horror movie trading standards board frankly, because I for one felt somewhat cheated.)

And Sally getting caught by the barbecue cook begins the third and strangest act of the film. It turns out that the cook, the hitchhiking witch boy, and Leatherface are all related. The meat was human meat. The house belongs to all of them. And upstairs is Granpa (John Dugan), frail and senile and silent, and thirsty for blood. They're going to eat Sally, and the witch boy is gleeful and Leatherface is keen, and the barbecue cook is still friendly and solicitous, even while looking forward to eating her.
“The pornography of terror” (redux)
Destiny played a part here. Because the violator of the graves, the culprit that brought Sally's party here in the first place, was the witch boy. And the cook gives him a right kicking for it, but not in the “You've performed a revolting crime” way, more the “How many times have I told you to cut that nonsense out?” sort of way, as if he was tagging walls or something of a level that is mildly antisocial and not a violation of the most basic moral norms, but the point is that the random hitcher was not random at all. His curse, the symbol formed by his smear of blood on Jerry's van, the gas station with its suspect meat products, and the neighbouring house full of ghastly knickknacks, all of these things are destined, occult. Sally, Franklin, Jeff, Kirk and Pam were always coming here. This is the only route they could have taken. And “It was you they wanted all along” is, as we have established many times before, a not uncommon theme in folk horror.

Saturn is, after all, in retrograde.
Pam [reading]: “The condition of retrogradation is contrary or inharmonious to the regular direction of actual movement in the Zodiac, and is, in that respect, evil. Hence, when malefic planets are in retrograde” – and Saturn’s malefic, OK – “their malefices are increased.”
Jerry: Have you been doing those Reader’s Digest word power columns again?
Pam: Jerry, it just means that Saturn’s a bad influence. It’s just a particularly bad influence now, because it’s in retrograde.
Jerry [to Kirk]: Hey man, do you believe all that stuff your old lady’s hawking me?
Kirk [laughing]: I don’t know.
This is a good character moment, because it tells you what sort of person Pam is (that is, she’s a hippy), but it’s also programmatic. I asked some folks with some expertise in astrology, and they tell me that Saturn in retrograde isn't actually Very, Very Bad, as Pam’s book claims. As one friend put it: “I feel like the writers were like, ‘OK, what’s a bad planet?’” And that’s the case, I think, because I don’t think Tobe Hooper was really trying to make a big deal of it, I think he just wanted some heavy-sounding pop-occult stuff to start the film with.

But in astrological theory, Saturn retrograde actually happens about 30% of the time, so it’s not as significant as Pam is saying but one of the things it means is karmic payback. It means a turnaround.

And here's the thing: this part of Texas hasn't always been like this. If it had, perhaps Sally and Franklin might have been a bit more careful. But...
Pam: Hey, listen to Franklin's horoscope! "Travel in the country, long-range plans, and upsetting persons around you, could make this a disturbing and unpredictable day. The events in the world are not doing much either to cheer one up."
Events in the world really were not doing much to cheer one up. In the early 70s, as we are now, we went through a period of economic uncertainty and fear. People were being thrust into real poverty, and suddenly, as they are now. And it’s not that the Leatherface Family were ever really OK, as such. The automation of the slaughterhouse isn’t framed as being a thing that wiped out the family trade, after all – the witch boy describes it first as a less fun way to kill the animals (which is of course the other subtext – if ever a film was intended to make a body turn vegetarian, this is it). But the economic depression that has hit this part of Texas has driven a family to starvation, and not being right to begin with (since the film assumes that working in a slaughterhouse will make a person Not Right) they have adapted their slaughtering skills to finding other sorts of meat. But this is a new thing.
Saturn is in retrograde: the Leatherface clan have been put into retrograde themselves. And Saturn retrograde means karma, and the result of an economic savaging of the countryside is the countryside biting back, as well as eating itself. If you’ll pardon the pun.

And it may not just be the Leatherface clan who haven’t always been like this.

Pam asks Kirk how Franklin could have known about the now dried-up waterhole, and they speculate that he might have been carried there when he was little (“Franklin was never little,” says Kirk). But there’s another, more likely, reason as to why Franklin, as a kid, might have been able to get down to an inaccessible water hole: maybe Franklin hasn’t always been in a wheelchair. He's not, in the opening crawl, described as disabled. He's described as an “invalid”, that is, someone who has been made this way. Franklin’s difficulties with navigating a wheelchair and his frustration with it don’t prove this idea, but they don’t disprove it either. Franklin is about old enough to have been, if he really was once able bodied, drafted for Vietnam (and in fact Paul Partain served), and about competent enough to have been shot up and quickly sent home. 

As I understand it, Tobe Hooper just wanted to make a pure horror film, without excessive subtext. But the thing is, subtext always comes in whether you want it to or not. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre comes from a place and a time. Consciously or unconsciously, it reflects how its makers thought, and what they assumed about the world.

And it’s a very well made film. Well acted, well written, and directed more than competently – and its banning in the UK is only testament to that, because it wasn’t possible to cut any moment to alter the horror: it worked so magnificently as a wholeness.
That dance.
I didn’t hate it. But oh, I hated watching it. The film’s grimness is relentless, constant. Even though it’s peppered with moments of black comedy and dark absurdity (the witch boy, Leatherface dressing up for dinner, the cook’s weird solicitousness, Franklin unaware that he has a cooked penis in his mouth), these things do not mitigate the horror one bit. But this is folk horror right here. There is poverty, a political context. We have the closeness of the evil, something that’s gone horribly sour a few hundred yards from your dad’s old house, a slaughterhouse that your grandaddy sold cattle to where people who turned retrograde also once worked. The uncanny and prosaic are juxtaposed here. The witchboy does everyday witchcraft; Pam does pop-astrology. And destiny is here. Inevitability. The sense that you were always going to end up here.

It was you they wanted all along, only in this case they didn't know they wanted you.

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