Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Film Appreciation - A Whole Family of Draculas
Cody Hamman dishes out praise and Film Appreciation for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
It may seem strange to many and perhaps inappropriate to some, but one of my earliest memories involves The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I had gotten into horror movies at the very young age of 3 after a life-altering viewing of Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, and it wasn't long after that when I had my first viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Being a little kid, I didn't know anything about the film's history. I didn't know that it was regarded as one of the best horror movies ever made, or that its intensity had caused it to be banned in some countries. All I knew was that it was captivating, awe-inspiring, and it instantly became one of my favorites. That's how we get to that early memory. The memory of a day in preschool when I chose not to play during playtime, but to instead sit and stare at a wall, pretending that I was taking in another viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Just staring at a wall, imagining the sight of the chainsaw-wielding masked killer Leatherface, as played by Gunnar Hansen, chasing the bloodied heroine Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) through the Texas countryside.
How could the film not have made such an indelible impression on me at that young of an age, when it has even stunned grown adults? I was never scared by it, though, only enthralled by the imagery, the sounds, the characters, the lines, the unforgettable sight of Leatherface. As years have gone by, there have been many, many more actual viewings of the film, not just imagined ones while staring at walls, and my infatuation with it and appreciation for it has continued to grow.
The more I've learned about the story of the making of the film, the more impressive and meaningful it has become to me. It's the story of a young filmmaker named Tobe Hooper, who teamed with his pal Kim Henkel to write a script partially inspired by the true crime case of Ed Gein, a murderer who would also dig up graves and use the body parts of the corpses to craft decorations and furniture for his home. It's the same real world horror that inspired Psycho a decade earlier and Deranged the same year. In their script, Hooper and Henkel created a family of Ed Geins. They then assembled a crew with little to no filmmaking experience, a cast with varying levels of acting experience, and went out into the area surrounding Austin, Texas to make their low budget, independent horror film.
It was a grueling production, carried out in the intense heat of a Texas summer. There were stinking, rotting animal carcasses on set, used as production design. Wardrobe was limited, so actors had to wear the same clothes for weeks straight. One marathon shoot famously went on beyond twenty-four hours, maybe well beyond. The heat, the stench, the lack of sleep, the pain they had to endure, and the insanity of the scenarios they had to act out began to put some the actors in a very troubling mindset. The rigors of the shoot only enhanced the effectiveness of the finished film, though. You may not know what happened behind the scenes, but the uneasy, dangerous, crazy energy that was on the set comes through in the imagery that Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl captured that summer.
That was the summer of 1973. Although many involved with the film expected it to go nowhere, it was a huge success when it reached theatres and drive-in screens in October of 1974. It was a film unlike anything audiences had ever seen before, it confronted them with a type of horror and level of madness that had never been put on film until then. And it claimed to be a true story. All of this had actually happened down in Texas a year before?
Of course, none of it was true, but the claim that it was helped the film draw attention and terrify viewers.
The "true story" behind the film is established by an opening crawl of text that's narrated by the awesome voice of John Larroquette, who would go on to be best known for his comedic role on the sitcom Night Court. The film is the account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths on August 18, 1973 and led to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history.
Following the text, we're plunged into a darkness filled with noise. The sound of digging, grunts of exertion, meat being cut. Whatever is going on, we only see quick glimpses of it as the scene is illuminated by the flash of an old camera, accompanied by a creepy, grating sound effect. These flashes are enough to give us the impression that someone has dug up a very disgustingly decomposed human corpse.
All is revealed at dawn, when the morning sun shines on that same rotten corpse, now wired to large gravestone monument and posed with the head of another rotten corpse in its hand. This image is accompanied by the sound of a radio news report, where graverobbing in Texas in the top news story. This "grisly work of art" and at least a dozen empty crypts in a cemetery in Newt, Texas. Ed Gein would be proud.
The news report continues throughout the main title sequence, a news report full of horrible things - disaster, disease, murder, mutilation, suicide, sabotage. It's a dangerous world, and there's nothing but bad news. The title sequence is also a showcase for the incredible, unique score that was composed by Hooper and Wayne Bell. A score full of clanging metal and an ominous rumbling.
Following the titles, the film dissolves to another corpse, this time armadillo roadkill. Hooper and Henkel's script had called for a dead dog on the side of the road, but when it came time to film the dog, it was just too awful to look at. Similarly, the corpse of a horse they discovered on the side of the road was too gross. So they settled for an armadillo that was taxidermied by art director Robert A. Burns. It worked out for the best, since the movie ended up having "Texas" in the title (earlier working titles had included "Headcheese" and "Leatherface"), and an armadillo really drives home the Texas of it all.
That armadillo is on the side of a road being driven down by a van containing those five ill-fated youths Larroquette had mentioned. The group consists of Sally Hardesty, the average girl next door type, although she's often at the end of her rope dealing with her handicapped brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who is a very whiny, demanding, exhausting fellow. Driving the van is Sally's jokester boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danzinger), and along for the ride is cool guy Kirk (William Vail) and his girlfriend Pam (Teri McMinn), a hippie type who's a vegetarian and is way into astrology. Pam has worries today because Saturn is in retrograde and her travel companions don't have very positive horoscopes.
Although the opening crawl had described their road trip as "an idyllic summer afternoon drive", there's really nothing idyllic about the time they're having. It's a hot, miserable day, and these college-age kids aren't out to have fun. As they drive along, past a reeking slaughterhouse packed with panting, drooling cows waiting for the slaughter, unaware that they're headed to the slaughter themselves, they actually have a serious purpose for being out. They're going to the cemetery in Newt to make sure that the grave of Sally and Franklin's grandfather wasn't disturbed by the artistic ghoul.
Thankfully, their grandfather's grave was spared, but while they're at the cemetery Franklin does have an encounter with a classic horror movie doomsayer character. In this case, the guy is fall-down drunk, but he still manages to deliver one of my favorite movie quotes: "Things happen hereabout they don't tell about. I see things. You see, they say 'It's just an old man talking.' You laugh at an old man. There's them that laughs and knows better." These are lines I quote all the time.
More quotable lines come when the group picks up a Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who turns out to be one of the oddest individuals you've ever seen. He tries to come off as being pleasant and friendly, he tries to bond with Franklin over their knowledge of slaughterhouses (he has been hanging out at the slaughterhouse, where his brother and grandfather used to work, while Franklin's uncle works at a different slaughterhouse) and a shared taste for headcheese, but he's so weird... He shows off butcher shop pictures ("I was the killer!") and invites the group to have dinner with him and his family. The others don't appreciate all this talk about meat and killing animals, and things really go downhill when the Hitchhiker takes Franklin's pocketknife and slices his own hand open with it, giggling like it's a neat trick his new friends will enjoy. He takes Franklin's picture and demands payment for it, and gunpowder and a straight razor get involved before the Hitchhiker is finally thrown out of the van, bringing an end to one of the greatest scenes I have ever witnessed.
In the VHS days, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earned a reputation for being a movie where it looked like the film print had been beat to hell. It was rare that you'd rent a movie that looked more grainy and scratched up than TCM. The film damage was part of its charm. As we've entered the DVD and Blu-rays eras, TCM has been greatly cleaned up. That's how you can now read a sign at the group's next stop that wasn't noticed in its battered, lo-def past.
The van is running low on gasoline, so the group stops at a gas station where a sign advertises "W.E. Slaughter Barbecue". This implies that the name of the gas station owner, a middle-aged man played by Jim Siedow, is W.E. Slaughter. He's credited as Old Man, and in the sequel twelve years later, he would be going by the name Drayton Sawyer.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was filmed right on the edge of a worldwide gasoline shortage that sent prices in the U.S. skyrocketing, and that is reflected in the movie. The gas station's tanks are even more empty than the van's tank is. The Old Man delivers this news to the group along with a warning. Franklin is wanting to stop by his grandfather's long-abandoned house, which stands on property still owned by his father, and he asks the Old Man for directions. Rather than help, The Old Man tells the group not to go messing around some old house.
The group doesn't listen. They buy some barbecue and head out to grandpa's place.
Another character is introduced at the gas station who will never be seen again. An oddball attendant who likes to sit and stare at the sun. He provides some great comedy while washing the van's windshield and front grill, because he'll only do the washing when the Old Man is standing at the van, talking to the kids. When the Old Man walks away, the attendant walks away, and when the Old Man turns back to the van, the attendant goes back and continues his washing. This happens twice. Anyone who knows The Texas Chainsaw Massacre knows that the Old Man is part of the murderous family the kids will be encountering later, along with the Hitchhiker. His barbecue is very likely made of human meat. He's a strange man with a stranger brother and has hired a strange guy to work at his gas station, but apparently the attendant is not part of the family. The Old Man just has questionable taste in employees.
It was a stroke of luck for the filmmakers that there happened to be a crumbling stone house directly across the street from the house they landed as the location for the murderous family's home. This stone house became The Old Franklin Place, the house that belonged to Sally and Franklin's grandfather. It looks great on film, shot with some nice angles from one collapsing room into another, its walls crawling with Daddy Long Legs that are given a loving showcase moment. Franklin also comes across something weird in the house... something that looks like a twisted art project made of feathers and bones.
All the strange and ominous events in the film to this point have been building to the moment when Kirk and Pam venture out to the swimming hole that's supposed to be behind the Old Franklin Place. They find that the swimming hole has dried up, but when they spot a neighbor's house in the distance and hear that they have a generator running, Kirk decides they should walk over there and see if they can get some gasoline from the residents.
This is how we get our introduction to one of the most iconic characters in the horror genre.
As Pam sits on a homemade swing in the front yard, Kirk knocks on the front door to no avail. Hearing someone inside, Kirk walks in, toward an odd-looking room. Red wall, covered with animal skulls, a small wooden ramp leading up into the room. Reaching the room, Kirk is met in the doorway by a towering figure. A man wearing a blood-spattered apron and a mask of human flesh, wielding a hammer which he slams down into Kirk's head. Kirk's body goes into spasms, just like Franklin said would happen to cows killed with sledgehammers at slaughterhouses. Pulling Kirk's body into the red room, the man slams the door shut, and it's a sliding metal door. This house is a sort of slaughterhouse itself.
Kirk's killer is, of course, Leatherface, and as of this moment horror officially gained a new icon that could proudly stand alongside the classics established decades earlier. Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Leatherface.
What follows is a shot I consider to be one of the best in cinema history. As Pam decides that she needs to check on what Kirk's up to, the camera follows her from behind as she stands up from the swing and walks toward the house. A lot of viewers think this shot is all about Pam's ass, some filmmakers have even said they've put Texas Chainsaw homage shots into their movies just by focusing on a female character's butt as she walks along, but they're not taking into account all of the elements at work here: the wonderful dolly track movement of the camera, the "how did they do that?" aspect of the camera passing under the low swing, or the main point of the shot, the way the house gets larger and larger in the frame as Pam gets closer to it. It's a beautiful shot.
Cinematographer Daniel Pearl went on to have a great career, with 73 credits to his name as of now (many of them for music videos), and it's no surprise. It's very clear in this film that there was someone with talent and vision behind the camera.
Entering the house, Pam is horrified to find that the place is full of bone artwork like Franklin found earlier, many of these creations made using human bones. When Leatherface discovers this second intruder in his house, he seems almost as scared as she is, letting out a scream as any that comes from her. Then he catches her and hangs her on a meathook in the kitchen, leaving her hanging and screaming there while he fires up a chainsaw that he goes to work on Kirk's corpse with. Scenarios don't get much more horrific than that, it's like something out of a nightmare and yet also something that's very realistic, and it's perfectly brought to the screen in a way as shocking and disturbing as possible.
While this awful thing is happening inside the farmhouse, the sun is starting to go down while the summer breeze turns the blades of the windmill in the yard. The world spins on.
The disappearance of Pam and Kirk leads the others into the clutches of Leatherface. First it's Jerry, who leaves his girlfriend behind with her annoying brother so he can make a quick search for their friends, a search that takes him to that farmhouse. Like Pam and Kirk, he makes the mistake of entering the place uninvited... And if you thought the scream Leatherface let out at the sight of Pam was a sign of some kind of emotional depth, the filmmakers deliver even more insight into Leatherface after the death of Jerry, when Leatherface is clearly suffering from high anxiety levels, wondering where this steady stream of intruders is coming from.
Leatherface being a non-verbal character, this emotion is conveyed entirely through the body language of actor Gunnar Hansen, who does an incredible job. He keeps things subtle while making it very clear that, despite his appearance and the fact that we've already seen him kill three people, Leatherface is not an evil, bloodthirsty character. He is a simpleton, doing what he has been raised to do, protecting his home and family, and worrying that he's going to get in trouble.
It's full dark when Sally and Franklin decide they need to go out looking for their missing friends. As they make their way through the uneven, overgrown countryside, tension rises not just because of the fact that we know what fate awaits them if they reach the farmhouse, but also because of the intense interaction between these two: how annoying Franklin is, and how frustrated Sally is with having to deal with him.
Sally and Franklin don't reach the farmhouse, though. Leatherface has taken it upon himself to see where these intruders are coming from, and he meets the siblings in the middle of a wooded area, chainsaw in hand. As Sally watches and screams in helpless horror, Franklin becomes the only person in the film to be killed with a chainsaw.
That launches us directly into a harrowing chase sequence, a precursor to many slasher movie chase sequences that would follow over the next decade and a half, and perhaps the scariest slasher movie chase sequence of them all. To me, anyway, largely because of the weapon Leatherface is wielding. Maybe watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre at such a young age did have one negative point of impact on me after all, because I find power tools to be exceptionally unnerving. When I'm going through a haunted house attraction during the Halloween season, nothing bothers me more in those places than when one of the performers comes out holding a chainsaw. They don't have the chain on them, of course, but it still freaks me out and makes me move through the room faster. It would certainly be terrifying to be chased by a machete-wielding Jason Voorhees or by Michael Myers with a kitchen knife in hand, but I would be out of my mind with terror if Leatherface were running after me with a chainsaw.
For Sally, there seems to be no escape. She runs to the nearest farmhouse for help, but this is Leatherface's home. All she finds there is Leatherface's decrepit old Grandpa (John Dugan) sitting in the attic, kept company by the rotting corpse of Grandma. After Leatherface saws down the front door of his own house to keep on Sally's tail, she is forced to leap through a second story window to get away from him. The next place she runs to for help is the gas station owned by the Old Man.
It seems like the Old Man might help her, but we soon realize that he's just another creep, and through this character we get a glimpse at a conflicted sort of evil. As he says, he takes no pleasure in killing, but this is his life. This is what he has to do. He tries to console Sally, assuring her that this will all be over for her soon, but there's no comfort in knowing that you're being led to your murder. At times, however, the sadistic streak that the Old Man tries hard to conceal starts to bubble to surface, sometimes he can't help but torment Sally a little bit, and when he does he can't contain a smile or a laugh.
The Old Man is also a very blue collar sort of fellow. Before he takes the bound Sally back home, he has to make sure to shut off the lights at the gas station - "The cost of electricity is enough to drive a man out of business." When he gets home to Leatherface and the Hitchhiker (who gleefully recognizes Sally from earlier), he is appalled to see what Leatherface has done to the front door. "Ain't got no pride in his home!" He's the only one in this bunch who can interact with normal society, and dealing with his more off-balance brothers causes him a lot of stress.
And yes, these characters are meant to be brothers. The Old Man has some years on Leatherface and the Hitchhiker, which has caused some viewers to think that he is their father - and forty years later the sequel/reboot Texas Chainsaw 3D would say that he is - but siblings they are here. As the Old Man/Drayton/The Cook will say in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, he has stooped his shoulders "taking care of my younger brothers."
Rather than kill Sally outright, the brothers have her as a dinner guest first, bound and gagged in an armchair at the end of the table. A literal armchair, there are human arms attached to the arms of the chair. Roughly 11 minutes of the movie are set around the family dinner table, and it was the filming of this sequence that required, for one reason or another, the notorious marathon stretch of shooting that went beyond 24 hours straight. When I say that Hooper and his collaborators captured madness on film, there is no better example of it than the dinner sequence. There is a jaw-dropping level of craziness on display here as the camera angles, editing, sound design, and performances work together to pummel the audience with insanity and terror.
Sally flips out to a degree that you would rarely see in a film, and her screaming is met only with mockery from Leatherface and the Hitchhiker, who just scream right back at her and make fun of her tears and sobs. What could be more frightening that to be at the mercy of people who have absolutely no sympathy or remorse? Hooper doesn't shy away from any of this, and actually shoves our faces right into it, so much so that there are extreme close-ups of Sally's watering, bloodshot, rapidly moving eyes.
The fact that the actors were dealing with sleep deprivation, intense heat, and foul smells during this filming marathon undoubtedly adds to the uneasy, off-kilter atmosphere of the sequence. Brains got so scrambled by the situation that, for a moment when Leatherface cuts Sally's finger, Gunnar Hansen grew impatient with the special effect not working and decided to cut Marilyn Burns' finger for real.
The finger is cut so that Grandpa can drink some blood, and he does so like a baby enjoying a bottle. Or a breast. Grandpa's age is well past the century mark, and the idea was that at this point he has started to revert back into an embryonic stage. He is a large, old baby. Grandpa is far past his prime, but his grandsons keep the legend of the good old days alive.
Earlier in the film, Franklin and the Hitchhiker had a debate over what the best method of slaughtering cattle was. The old fashioned way, with a sledgehammer, or the quick and easy modern way, an airgun. As the dinner sequence draws to a close, we learn why the Hitchhiker was so vehement that the sledgehammer was better than the airgun. The Hitchhiker said that the new way put people out of jobs, and Grandpa was one of those people who was driven out of the meat industry by automation. In his day, he was the best slaughterhouse killer that ever picked up a sledgehammer. The greatest achievement in his life was when he killed sixty cows in five minutes.
We're never told exactly why the family moved on from cows to humans, why the Old Man sells barbecued human flesh at his gas station, but one can theorize that the shame of having to walk away from the beef business might have had something to do with it. Then again, maybe the family was killing people even when Grandpa was employed. There's no way of knowing. Just like there is, thankfully, no way of knowing why Leatherface is the way he is, why he wears masks of human flesh, or why he changes face masks depending on the situation. These things aren't answered, and the film is better for having that mystery.
Grandpa has more than lost a step, but his admiring grandsons decide to give him a chance to relive a bit of his former glory. He'll be the one to kill Sally. They have Sally kneel over a large bucket, hand Grandpa a hammer, and have him start trying to bash our poor heroine in the head. Unbeknownst to them, they've just given Sally her lucky break. She gets an opportunity to escape while this is going on, and she takes it. As the beginning of the next film will say, Sally busts out of a window in Hell, running outside just in time to get some aid from people driving by.
Once again the intensity and madness builds up to the breaking point, until the sounds of Sally's screams and mad laughter and the roar of Leatherface's chainsaw are abruptly cut off by the film smashing to black and the end credit crawl. Audiences at the time must have walked away from their viewing experience absolutely shell-shocked.
For nearly thirty years now, ever since I first saw it in my preschool days, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has remained one of my top all-time favorite films, regardless of genre. The fact that it was such a guerilla production is somewhat astounding, because it is a masterfully crafted film, beautifully shot - even when the images are hideous - and wonderfully cut together, with flawless performances and a look and tone that feels very real.
It's tough to convey just how much I love this film and how much it means to me. This is a movie that I watch regularly, that is never too far from my mind at any given moment, a movie that I can get very passionate about. When you're such a big fan of some things, it's like they become part of your essence. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is very important to me, and even though I have it memorized and quotes are constantly popping into my mind, I couldn't go very long without watching it again.
Not only is it fascinating and captivating to me, it's also deeply inspirational. I am in awe of what Tobe Hooper, his cast, and his crew were able to accomplish in the Texas countryside in the summer of 1973, and makes me want to create my own works, to make my own movies, to put a production together in a similar fashion and go for it.
Recently, there has been heartbreak involved with being a Texas Chainsaw Massacre fan, as we have lost several members of the cast and crew. Jim Siedow passed away in 2003, art director Robert A. Burns in 2004, Paul A. Partain in 2005, assistant cameraman Lou Perryman, who had an acting role in part 2, was tragically taken from us in 2009. In back-to-back years, we have lost both our heroine and our iconic villain; Marilyn Burns passed away on August 4, 2014, and Gunnar Hansen just a couple months ago, on November 7, 2015.
The deaths of Burns and Hansen have struck me especially hard, as these are people I've been looking up to for a long time, and who I have had pleasant experiences meeting at conventions. I was only in their presence for a few minutes, but I cherish those starstruck moments. They were two of the greats in the horror genre, with Hansen delivering one of the most fantastic "sympathetic monster" performances ever, and Burns being, in my eyes, the ultimate scream queen. A lot of actresses have been given the "scream queen" label, some have been touted as the greatest, but for me Burns has always been #1.
Burns and Hansen were horror legends and the stars of one of my favorite films, and it hurt to find out that they were gone. But they will continue to live on as long as we fans have our copies of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to put on whenever we feel like taking in another viewing of this classic. Their contributions to the world of cinema will continue to be celebrated.
If you'd like to read a first hand experience of the making of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that was written by one of the major players, I highly recommend picking up Gunnar Hansen's book Chainsaw Confidential. Not that the film needs any help to blow your mind, but the knowledge of what went on behind the scenes provides a whole extra level of enjoyment to watching what plays out on the screen.