Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974):
While many of the movies discussed on SNBC will be a bit more obscure, I have decided to go with a true classic for the first review. The reason for this is twofold. First, Tobe Hooper’s film is a masterpiece that left an indelible imprint on the collective consciousness and can serve as a touchstone for other films of this period. Second, I notice that many younger film viewers are often unaware of gems like this one, relying on lower quality sequels for accessing the mythos.
This is definitely a Sativa film. You will want to surrender yourself to the narrative. It suggests a central nervous system with amplified anxiety levels. The first thing I suggest is to be attentive to the rich visual and auditory environment that Hooper provides. Enjoy the bleak Texas landscape. Listen to the radio in the background. Everything in this film is claustrophobic and speaks to a culture imploding in its own senility. This is a universe where people commit suicide, refineries explode and cemeteries are defiled. The madness experienced by the characters is not unique, but an extension of the world around them—the world most people do not want to see.
I will not belabor the narrative since it is familiar to most horror fans. A group of young people travel through decaying, central Texas and stumble into the territory of a family of cannibals. They are traveling to Sally’s ancestral home, now being sucked back into the unforgiving Texas soil. Contrary to popular myth, it is not a gory film, but achieves all of its effects through strategies that are designed to evoke foreboding and panic. There are inspired performances by Marilyn Burns, who plays the protagonist Sally, and the trio of cannibals who each express differing types of psychosis (Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen, Jim Siedow). As antisocial as the characters are, they are also victims of the unforgiving landscape and climate, living in abject poverty. Murder and cannibalism is all they have. But I would like to give special attention to one of the often overlooked characters in the movie.
Among the group of unfortunate young people is Sally’s brother Franklin played by Paul Partain. I don’t know where Hooper found this guy, but he is terrific. Franklin drives the first half of the film and I believe he is one of the best written and best portrayed characters in cinematic history. Often, fans of this movie will describe how they find this character distasteful or anxiety provoking. He bothers them. That is exactly the point. Franklin, a wheelchair bound man with a morbid imagination, is constantly needling the viewer. The way his voice breaks when he is upset puts the viewer on edge. In the opening scene, where the annoyed travelers have to stop so he can urinate into a coffee can along the side of the road, illustrates the problems he represents. When the air-blast from a passing truck sends him tumbling down through the weeds, leaving him weeping in histrionics, the stage is set for a once in a lifetime performance.
Franklin is the only one in the group who can see the oncoming storm, though he cannot quite discern its outlines. At the same time, he is a burden to those around him. Perhaps this is the source of his heightened sensitivity. One of the best scenes in the film occurs when he and Sally fight over who is going to carry the flashlight when nightfall comes. As the crisis mounts, his desire to meet the oncoming threat is thwarted by his own inability to manage the profound self-pity that clouds his judgement. But it is precisely his helplessness and the way that he functions as an obstacle to those around him that puts the audience in the correct psychological state. He pisses-off many viewers, but because of his perceived helplessness, some of that anger must be suppressed. The suppression of anger often leads to profound anxiety. And that is why the first half of the movie works so well. He sets the stage for Sally’s ordeal as she travels through the slaughterhouse. She will learn the lesson well. As Charles Manson once said, “The truth is in your stockyards.”
Five Hits/Two Shots