Why TCM is still (horror) film royalty…
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of my favorite films. It’s funny– as a film geek I’m often met with surprise when I tell people that know of my somewhat pretentious fanaticism that TCM is high up on the list along with Persona and Jeanne Dielman (little do they know I once rewatched Paris, Texas, and then immediately started watching the delightfully terrible Clown). I’ve done little to justify the apparent discrepancy, but the truth is I don’t think TCM falls under the category of my trash-horror guilty pleasures. A few months ago I subjected my s/o to the original Leatherface, expecting its greatness to be self-evident. It wasn’t, at least not entirely:
Released in 1974 to predictably scathing reviews, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has managed to cement its place in the annals of horror cinema– and some might say cinema, in general– despite its underdog qualities: A sparse budget, amateur actors, an inexperienced crew. Critics dismissed the film for its gratuitous brutality, which was assumed to alienate any sane viewer. Yet today, TCM belongs to countless “best of” lists within the horror genre, naturally, but also beyond. I’m thinking specifically of the film’s memorialization by the Museum of Modern Art, when a print of the original poster was purchased to be included in its permanent collection. How did, decades later, such an apparently useless and crass film become such a classic, respected in not only horror, but art-house circles, and commemorated in various international film festivals and art institutions alike?
TCM’s influences on the genre as we know it are several, and yet these are self-explanatory with a basic timeline of American popular horror film. Originally premiered in a tiny movie house in Austin, Texas– the hype surrounding the alleged “true story” pushed the film into major theaters, only to be banned weeks later. This marketing ploy proved effective, at once tugging at the sadistic veins of popular curiosity, and laying the foundations for similar attention-grabbing campaigns in the 80’s [i.e. the advent of the slasher flick as we know it]. The Blair Witch Project, for instance, might owe its success to a similar strategy. Likewise, TCM’s raw, documentary style nature popularized the trend in horror towards unabashed realism, culminating in the found footage sub-genre. The infamous Leatherface is also debatably the first of his kind, a horror villain, masked murderer (etc.) with enough traction for franchise purposes. The TCM world has 6 or 7 films to its name, but John Carpenter’s Michael Myers (1978), Jason Miller’s Jason Vorhees (1980) and Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger (1984) sequel-laden success can be indebted to the proven effectiveness of solidifying a single, distinctive murderer in the cultural imaginary of the average consumer. TCM’s Sally is one the earliest instances of the now practically cliche horror trope of the “final girl” [TCM and Jess of Black Christmas (also 1974) are often cited as the two “final girl” pioneers]– Alien, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream follow this influential track.
These genre concerns aside, what I find most interesting about this film is how over time it has managed to burst from the trappings of its genre and its groundings in the lack of “quality” [undeveloped characters, sparse narrative– of which TCM is undeniably guilty of] known to low-budget, cult classics.
In 2014, Nicolas Winding Refn was the opening speaker of TCM’s remastered re-release, debuting at the Director’s Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival. Refn spoke about his love and admiration for Tobe Hooper and the film, comparing its greatness to the likes of Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane (which is admittedly a bit laughable, but very on character of Winding Refn). But beyond Refn’s childlike enthusiasm, was a careful understanding of the film:
When I was 14 I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre… I saw that film was an art form, meaning that I saw subliminal images. That’s when I realized the power of art: it’s not what you see, it’s what you think you see… That’s when it penetrates an audience. That’s when it goes deep. On the surface you watch like a brain, [and] you understand. But with subliminal images, or the thought of subliminal images, [that’s] when it has penetrated and the art has taken over your body.
Indeed, while TCM is known for its overwhelming violence– where in fact, is all the blood and guts and gore? I think first of the meat-hook scene. We see Leatherface approaching a menacing meathook with Pam thrown over his shoulder. Then she’s on it, writhing in pain as she realizes her boyfriend’s corpse is flopped over on the table in front of her. Leatherface revs up his chainsaw and begins the dismembering. In the remastered version’s videocommentary, Hooper claims he’s argued with countless people over the content of the film. The violence is mostly obscured and bloodless– Hooper had originally [and to no avail] tried to get a PG rating for the film, even going so far as to ask the MPAA how he could obtain such a rating while keeping his meathook scene. Consequently, in this scene [as in others save Leatherface’s auto-injury at the end of the film] we never see his weapon actually touch a victim, nor do we see the hook penetrate Pam’s back. This is one instance of what Refn refers to when he talks about “subliminal images,” a way of penetrating the audience on a deeper level by in a way “prepping” the experience, laying the trap– the full horror of which can only be achieved by a triggered imagination. In place of excessive gore, the surroundings also contribute to a palpable sensory experience. The stifling Texas heat, the sunburnt cinematography, the dirt and grime that appear bonded to every individual and surface produce a rough and uneasy texture. Likewise, there is the stench of the local slaughterhouse, the sweaty claustrophobia of the van, and ultimately, the use of what Julia Kristeva would call the abject. We see a mound of spiders scuffling in the corner; bones, hair, fur, teeth, feathers, and skulls doubling as household decorations– things known to us as remnants of death, broken down and disturbingly reassembled to occupy a space of domesticity.
Subliminal image, a great sensory experience or not– one might be compelled to ask “what is the point?” Indeed, horror films [especially horror films in this day and age, with their excessive gore that seem to have no end-goal other than to push you over the edge (Saw, Hostel)] often have trouble answering this question. Roger Ebert considered this, stating of TCM in 1974 that it is “without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose.” And yet, Ebert concedes that the film is well-made:
“In its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective… All of this material, as you can imagine, is scary and unpalatable. But the movie is good technically and with its special effects, and we have to give it grudging admiration on that level, despite all the waving of the chain saw.”
This sort of evaluation brings to mind the critics of such filmmakers as Lars von Trier [notably in Idioterne (1998)], Harmony Korine, and Gaspar Noe. The “what is the point” question seems to always be one concerned with the distinction between “high” and “low” art, films that seem to emotionally educate or that offer something substantial in terms of thematics or history or what have you, and “trash” films that refuse to be respectable, messy films that exist to transgress and disturb the foundations of what is known to be real or true.
In any case, Ebert’s evaluation of TCM seems dated in this respect, as the actual content of the film seems relatively tame (sexually and with regard to violence and bloodshed) compared to something like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) or Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005).
Unsurprisingly, TCM has been the object of some alternative readings– from animal-activists groups who note the way the film compares the senseless slaughter of bodies to those of animals, and social Marxists, who see the film as a reaction to the brutality of the Vietnam War. In this readings, the “kids” are draft escapees ironically slaughtered by a bastardized version of the nuclear family [the “dinner” scene: the “cook” is the father, Grandpa is dead, the hitchhiker is the disturbed teenager, and cross-dressing Leatherface is the mother].
In many ways, TCM is considered a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War, post-Manson murders film– a film about dead ends, dried up creeks, dead industries with its workers [the Leatherface family] mutated by this apocalyptic world. Devoid of any [fertile] female influence, these men are perverted products of an outdated mode of existence, incapable of change, they are the ultimate victims of society changing too fast. Consequently, they throw one last punch by the only means they have left– killing, and then eating. By rule of thumb, there is a satiric strain folded into the horror. We see the quaint patio of the cozy white house, a tree swing out front, the big, blue Texas sky above– horror is all over [the war, cults] but what we least expect is it to come from inside, within the supposed safety of the home.