Saturday, 11 October 2008
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
The first time I saw this film, alone in the middle of the night, I received a phone call halfway through from a friend who thought she was being followed after getting out of a taxi. Staying on the phone with her while she found a police station with Leatherface’s chainsaw screaming in the background isn’t something I’ll forget in a hurry.
At the time the film had an almost holy mystique after being banned in the UK for so long. I was filled with anticipation and dread before watching it - and the unfortunate events of the night aside, it scared me rigid. Last month I picked up an uncut DVD version for three quid in my local Tesco. How times change.
“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is the most respected, most influential and probably the most frightening film on the list. It excels in every area. The camera work is astonishing in its originality, the direction tight, the pacing unique. It eschews the traditional murky, dark tones of the time in favour of dripping colour, sunsets and sunrises providing a lurid background to the horror. And that horror hits you like a smack in the face, an abrupt switch part-way through the film that doesn’t let up until the very end.
Hooper uses unusual camera techniques – low level tracking shots, burnt-out lens flare, wide-angle lenses for closeups – to create a deeply unsettling, claustrophobic atmosphere. There are iconic scenes throughout – the blood-soaked, sobbing figure of actress Marilyn Burns as she is tracked at low-angle through sun-parched undergrowth; an extreme close-up of her terrified, fluttering eye; Leatherface's psychotic dance in front of a blinding sun. It's all shot on colour-drenched 16mm film, high-contrast and hyperreal, with an amazing sound design of chugging diesel generators, gibbering madmen and incessant, terrified screaming.
The subject matter and rural setting are commonplace nowadays but were unusual at the time. No-one had thought to exploit the city audience's fear of that other America of the isolated, inbred redneck. Hooper does it expertly, and though the formula has been imitated many times it's never been topped. There's even a queasy humour in there, hysterical in the literal sense, hardly ever commented on because the horror swamps it so utterly.
And it is absolutely terrifying. The speed at which the horror appears and then attacks with double-punches of cinematic shock and sickening cruelty leaves you breathless. The body count mounts so rapidly it seems the film must run out of steam but it doesn't, switching expertly to the drawn-out torment of a single character and a bleak, soul-destroying finale.
It's almost an insult to call this masterpiece a horror film, relegating it to the ghetto of the genre movie where it has never received the mainstream critical acclaim it deserves. But it is a horror film through and through, building on those that came before it and sticking to the same claustrophobic, tension-building formula that makes previous classics like “The Birds” and “Night of the Living Dead” so effective. It's proof that the horror genre is a vital and innovative part of cinema, driving the industry and giving it much-needed kicks up the arse, while remaining resolutely underground, independent and subversive.
Posted by Ben at 00:09