Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Psychical Damage of a Nation

How an Independent Horror Film Revealed the Nightmare Below the Surface of Culture

by J. Albert Barr

"Every art, every philosophy may be viewed as an aid and remedy in the service of growing and striving life: they always     presuppose suffering and sufferers." - Friedrich Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals

Just this past week the star of one of the most iconic films - let alone "horror films" - of all-time, Marilyn Burns, passed away at the age of 65. The film in question is none other than Tobe Hooper's 1974 groundbreaking, nightmarish classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Marilyn's character, Sally Hardesty, the lone survivor at the end of the film, was later dubbed what the slasher-genre refers to as the "final girl". And she is also known as one of the original "scream queens" in the annals of horror films.

Horror film buffs (as well as general film buffs and film critics too, quite frankly) usually count The Texas Chainsaw Massacre among the all-time great horror films ever made. So it's a film that has accumulated quite a reputation in the ensuing 40 years since it first, controversially, hit theaters with an unforgettable force back in the fall of 1974. Why is this so? Why is this "slasher flick" so important? Is it because of its pop-cultural pedigree in terms of its utter originality and perpetual popularity? Yes, there's that, of course. Also, there's the undeniably immense influence it has had on subsequent horror films, particularly regarding the sub-genre of "slasher films", thus inspiring the likes of slasher film franchises such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and even the classic sci-fi horror franchise, Alien, as well as "found footage" horror films, such as The Blair Witch Project and the notorious Cannibal Holocaust. Most of these film institutions depicted the notion of the indomitable antagonist; the implacable dark force from our worst nightmares; the ultimate "boogie man" coming to get us in the remote regions of darkest night (even in broad daylight, as was the unfortunate case for the first two victims of Leatherface).

These monsters were something far beyond the "popular monsters" of, say, the 30s and 40s - the Draculas and Wolfmen and Frankensteins and Mummies. No, these monsters were something new, something modern (even perhaps postmodern, given the association with industrialism and consumer consciousness), and something all together more horrifying and psychologically disturbing: Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddie Krueger, and, of course, the one that started it all, Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding maniac from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To enhance the realistic aesthetic of this film, despite it being a work of pure fiction, it was convincingly advertised as a "true story", and given a grim voice-over at the beginning of the film by, then unknown, actor, John Larroquette, who would become famous less than ten years later playing Dan Fielding on the popular 80s sit-com, Night Court.

It's particularly crucial to put The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its proper context, both culturally and historically. The movie was filmed during an extremely hot and humid summer in 1973 at a farmhouse located on Quick Hill Road near Round Rock, Texas, making it especially uncomfortable for all those involved, besides the disturbing nature of the film's subject matter. The budget was fairly cheap at approximately $300,000. The cast featured relatively unknown actors from the Lone Star state area, including Gunnar Hansen (who was actually born in Iceland), who portrayed the feral lunatic, Leatherface. Director and co-screenwriter, Tobe Hooper, initially got the idea for the film based on what he saw happening in the culture and political climate at the time. The Vietnam War was still, exhaustively, in progress, and the "come-down" from the abject failure of the 60s cultural revolution was still very fresh within the collective consciousness of most of America's liberal-minded and progressive demographic. Also, Hooper was inspired by a moment he had at a busy, crowded department store when he noticed a wall full of displayed chainsaws in the hardware department, offhandedly thinking to himself how effective it would be to scatter the crowd away by simply starting up one of the chainsaws. And, lastly, Hooper was influenced by the grisly murders of the infamous serial killer, Ed Gein, whose farmhouse of horrors, which included lampshades made from actual human skin, created a media frenzy during the late 50s, and was the inspiration behind what became Alfred Hitchcock's most famous and controversial film from 1960, Psycho.

I would also argue that there was a direct link, culturally speaking, between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and key countercultural examples such as the 1969 film, Easy Rider, and Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 gonzo journalist novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both the film and novel dealt with the notion of searching, in vain, ultimately, for "the American Dream"; and a veritable exposure of "the state of the union" of sorts as being the main point of departure, again, for both. Tobe Hooper's unprecedented horror film seemed like the logical, if extreme and unpalatable, conclusion to this necessary venture. In other words, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was, and is, a perfect, and wholly unsettling, metaphor for the death of the 60s. And representing a "se[e] change" within the collective American psyche, still reeling from the deep wounds incurred by a severely divided nation over the justifications behind the Vietnam War; JFK's, and his brother Robert's, respective assassinations, as well as Martin Luther King's; not to mention the horrific "Sharon Tate murders" perpetrated by Charles Manson's brainwashed followers, as well as the "Zodiac killer" who terrorized San Francisco.

A deep-seated cynicism and disillusion set in shortly after the 60s ended in America, and other parts of the Western hemisphere, particularly, but especially in the U.S. This disillusionment was further exacerbated by the Watergate scandal, implicating then President Richard Nixon in 1973. And the year before, on the international stage, there was the tragic hostage killings by the Black September terrorists during the Munich Olympic Games, so things were less than positive and hopeful around that rather dark and sobering time to be sure. A thoroughly unsettling, grainy, d.i.y., grindhouse film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre irrepressibly expressed the disillusion, fear and cultural confusion so ineluctably felt by most Americans at the turn of the decade, representing a collective nightmare of sorts that needed projecting in some form of cultural media that struck an immediate cord with movie-goers, because most couldn't articulate it verbally and openly. And it was one of great and heavy pessimism, too, that would continue to reverberate all through the decade (especially in American cinema), only finally lifting around the end of the 70s when viable, escapist media and pop culture, like disco, arena rock, sillier sit-coms, Farrah Fawcett Majors, cinema porn, Corvettes, Trans Ams, Pet Rocks, and most definitely Star Wars, provided some diversion and relief. Perhaps Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster, Jaws, was necessary to make, psychologically speaking, given that it followed the commercially successful, but immensely upsetting, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, by changing the antagonist from a seemingly incomprehensible "human monster" to the far less identifying "sea monster" that was the great white shark, as a substitute, reason-devoid "killing machine".

Of course, by 1978 and 1980, two more slasher-film franchises would be respectively launched: Halloween and Friday the 13th. Only by then would that horror genre's formula be well-established and executed - in a manner of speaking - to further provide psychological release of internally-checked, libidinal desire and cultural anxiety, particularly among the younger generation, then growing up and orientating themselves in an increasingly expanding and ubiquitous consumer culture, as "late capitalism" (in the words of critical theorist, Fredric Jameson) was priming up for the excess that was 80s "Reaganomics". By then, pop culture, which was experiencing a massive consumer explosion, thanks in huge part to Star Wars paraphernalia hitting the stores everywhere, and mall culture, in general, making a big splash, not to mention more and more movie blockbusters popping up every other weekend it seemed, there was plenty enough cultural membranes and ideological buffers to allow slasher films to more comfortably co-exist within this new consumer-obsessed world we, seemingly, unwittingly created around us, like an artificial, surrogate "mother's womb". By the mid-90s, cyberspace and virtuality would be that womb's "technological upgrade".      

Reverting back to the 70s, interestingly, the "women's lib" movement was also in high gear which caused even more confusion for the predominately patriarchal establishment still clinging to the more traditional notions of gender relations within the culture, particularly those residual perspectives that remained from the Eisenhower years during the 1950s, before the counterculture openly challenged them, along with pretty much everything else regarded as wholesome, conservative and anti-modern, by the mid-60s. And so the idea of the "final girl" in horror films, especially within the, relatively, new slasher-film genre, which would gain more momentum and ultimately peak (at least the "first wave" of this kind of horror film) in the early 80s, would assert itself beginning with Tobe Hooper's unforgettable first film.

However, it wouldn't actually be until 1987 (in a published academic essay entitled, "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film"), and 1992 (in a book called "Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film"), that University of California at Berkeley professor, Carol Clover, would coin the now fairly well-known catch-phrase, "final girl", to describe, by then, the cliched, standardized role of the noble and innocent female who, almost invariably, is the sole survivor at the end of nearly all slasher flicks. Despite her clean reputation and innocence, she is always attractive and nubile (a word, coincidentally, that was first used, contextually, in 1973 - the year The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was filmed, remember - to describe a "sexually attractive young woman", unlike its original connotation [dating back to the 17th century] meaning "marriageable" - a key distinction, I feel).

Marilyn Burns, and her character Sally Hardesty, of course, were both attractive and nubile during the filming of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Moreover, during the difficult shoot that hot summer in 1973, Ms. Burns was subjected to excruciating conditions that pushed her own sanity to its absolute limits, especially during the horrifying "family dinner scene" near the end of the film. One of the several terrifying and sick moments playing out during this gruesome scene called for Sally's freshly cut and bloody finger to be sucked by the excessively old and dead-looking grandfather sitting, catatonically, at the dinner table. Because the blood-squib on her finger malfunctioned, Ms. Burns' finger was actually split-opened to get some blood flowing. And the long, exhausting hours of filming were so taxing on the actors that the line between real and fake was blurred, thus making the psychological torture Sally was being put through all the more convincing and disturbing for the actors to experience and the viewer to, ultimately, watch. In the end, Sally manages to escape her tormentors and would-be murderers, by luckily being rescued, yes, by a guy in a pick-up truck just before Leatherface caught her. Much feminist literature, and discussion, preceded, and especially followed, Carol Clover's fascinating insights on the role of females in slasher flicks, particularly, and the sexist notion of the "male gaze" regarding said females' treatment in these kinds of films.

When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was first released at the beginning of October, 1974, the film was met with some harsh opinions from established film critics. For instance, Steven Koch of Harper's Magazine said: "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a vile piece of sick crap...It is a film with literally nothing to recommend it; nothing but an hysterically paced slapdash, imbecile concoctions of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it". And Linda Gross of the L.A. Times called it, "despicable". Rex Reed found it an effectively terrifying experience. Roger Ebert was, at least, impressed with its technical skill. However, Patrick Taggart of the Austin-American Statesman praised it highly, calling it the most important horror film since George A. Romero's, Night of the Living Dead. Famed horror novelist, Stephen King said: "I would happily testify to its redeeming social merit in any court in the country". There were reports of film-goers walking out of the theater in disgust over the film's graphic violence and gore, however little of it there actually was. And there was even an incident in Ottawa, Canada where two theaters were advised by Police authorities to withdraw the film on the grounds of morality violation. The film had indeed become a sensation, both positively and negatively. Great art usually incites polarizing responses.

The great American/British poet, T.S.Eliot, once wrote, in his first Quartet poem, "Burnt Norton", back in 1936, that "Humankind cannot bear very much reality". Despite all the bravura surrounding the modern notion of "pushing the envelope", people today, for the most part, as it was for them back in 1974, let alone in Eliot's time during the 30s, "cannot bear very much reality". Our technologically-obsessed, and virtuality-addicted, populace here in the early stages of the 21st century are, indeed, living (I use the word "living" in its loosest sense) proof that Eliot's crucially telling line of verse is more true now than ever, regardless of what "truth-harboring" piece of art gets any substantial exposure in the mainstream. The defense mechanisms /unbridled ignorance, currently operating in the majority of people, continue to keep at bay the mental ability to process metaphors and symbols, thus accessing, at least to a considerable degree, the realities of the world we actually live in. Of course, there's also culture-industry ideology and hegemony to take into consideration too, as being an effective tool used by corporate power and ubiquitous, psychologically-manipulating advertising to surreptitiously relegate whole bodies of active consumers into incessantly, and blindly, forwarding their insatiable, capitalist agenda. Or so the "theory" goes, that is.

The maniacal character, Leatherface, I feel, serves as a perfect metaphor for the unrelenting, masked force of unbridled capitalism; an unyielding force that, ultimately, refused outright to allow a young, spirited and informed generation to change the world for the better. And it was more than appropriate that Tobe Hooper was in a busy department store, on that inspired day in the early 70s, witnessing a crowd of unconscious shoppers filling up commercial space for the purposes of ceaselessly filling up the "artificial gas tanks" of their consumer culture existences, and feeling a strong urge within himself to disperse the crowd with a purchaseable item of no small discretion. With tech-savvy consumerism literally consuming our lives, identities, purviews and very dreams/nightmares, can there possibly be an escape from it? Can we ever become like the "final girl", collectively?


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