Monday, 10 October 2011

Horror Season - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I have a secret I must confess... Before two months ago, I had never seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I know, I know, it’s inexcusable. You’d think I might be able to find the time for a nigh-on forty year old horror movie, but I’d always been putting off watching it for one reason or another. As far as classic horror goes, this had always been at the bottom of my list, buried under a heap of 80s slasher fluff and vintage zombie movies that I’m still playing catch-up with. Exactly why I’d steered clear of Chain Saw all this time, though, I’m not so sure. Maybe I was worried about finding it badly dated, or perhaps it was simply because I wasn’t too impressed by the short clips I’d seen on all those “Top 50 Horror Moments” type shows.

Well, whatever the reason... I was wrong. And now I’m kicking myself.

If my viewing was anything to go by, then Chain Saw has lost absolutely none of its power to shock. Watching it had a funny effect on me, like as if I was suddenly transported back into the early seventies. The film’s visual style is of course directly responsible for this (although we shouldn’t forget those classic hair styles the characters rock). It has a dirty, almost documentary quality to it that sets its style far apart from similarly themed films which strived for a more cinematic event. The camera never shies away from zooming in and capturing every grimy detail in extreme close-up, whether it’s an artful display of human bones made into furniture, or the gnarled face of a rotting corpse.  Here, everything feels uncomfortably natural. And that’s where the horror comes from – we soon realise how something like this could actually happen (and yes, it was indeed loosely based on the same real life incidents that inspired Psycho).

But this realism isn’t merely limited to the film’s harrowing atmosphere, oh no. The Texan cannibal clan contains some of the most deranged and utterly convincing horror antagonists of all time. I’ll get to the big guy in a moment, but the remaining three unnamed family members are just as memorable. The ‘Hitchhiker’ is a worryingly unstable hotbed of insanity, with his jittery nature even going so far as to make me nervous; the ‘Old Man’ uses his elderly innocence to hide a truly sadistic and repulsive nature; while ‘Grandfather’ comes across as an affront against nature - there’s no way that thing should live, and yet it does! Somehow, ghastly just doesn’t quite do this deranged family justice.

Of course, Leatherface deserves a special mention. Physically enormous, smeared with dry blood, prone to cross-dressing, and wearing someone else’s face as a mask, he’s nothing short of terrifying. And that’s putting it lightly. This guy is like the complete antithesis to Michael Myers, and when I say that I certainly don’t mean to make it look like I think one character is more frightening than the other. See, Myers is scary because of how cold and calculating he is. His singular, shark-like desire to hunt something down and then emerge from the shadows to kill it, coupled with the fact that we knew next to nothing about him (SHUT UP, there were no druids involved) resonates fear. Leatherface, on the other hand... is scary simply because he charges straight at you, crying out with those bizarre animalistic noises, while swinging a freaking chain saw over his head! And he never slows down. EVER.

It’s enough to make a little poo come out.       

The ears of many a gorehound would no doubt prick up at the slightest mention of this film, so the degree of violence Chain Saw has to offer has always been a popular topic of conversation (in some circles, anyway). Usually, such a discussion about the level of bloodshed will involve Person 1, who hasn’t seen the film, asking Person 2 (who has) about just how violent it is. Person 2 will then respond, telling Person 1 how there is in fact very little in the way of blood and guts on show.

This is true. And yes, for a horror film with a title like that, the violence is surprisingly lacking in graphic details. But that does not for one instant mean Chain Saw isn’t brutal as all hell, because it most definitely is. While the meat hook-hanging and chain sawing leaves a lot to the imagination, there’s still a disturbing amount of realism to the proceedings. Your mind easily fills in the blanks. And when Leatherface brings that hammer down on one unfortunate victim, you can feel it crack the guy’s skull open, bringing him down like a sack of bricks. Even more horrific is the sight of the decaying Grandfather sucking blood from the tip of our heroin’s finger, like some kind of pathetic vampire leeching out for a little more energy. There’s no mistaking it: this is one gruesome movie.

It’s hard to find a real fault to pick on. I suppose the cast of victims are mostly forgettable, but in a way their sheer generality adds to the picture’s grisly sincerity. And even if you can’t remember their names, the terrible and believable experiences each of them has to endure will surely stick with you for some time. There is a chance you may find yourself smiling during the more chaotic moments, such as when Leatherface becomes enraged and does his ‘chain saw dance’ (something the splat-tastic sequel would make downright farcical), or during the carnage that ensues when the family decide to let Grandfather try out with the hammer at dinner, but I feel this just works to the film’s advantage. Much like The Evil Dead, Chain Saw holds, deep down, qualities of an extremely dark comedy.     

Sure, today’s generation of so-called Horror Kids may find the whole experience a little tame compared to the past decade’s worth of torture porn flicks, not to mention the movie’s own increasingly wacky and gory succession of sequels and reboots, but this is still an undisputed horror classic and a true landmark for the genre, with a serrated edge that has not been dulled with time.  

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