Three more selections of chilling terror to inspire your choices for next October or whenever you feel the call to horror. Afterwards, either I talk about something contemporary finally or more 80s retrospective entries.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Image from Youtube (Welcome to the Family, girl.)
Why am I talking about a 70s horror movie rather than the expected 80s one again? Because one of my selections for 80s horror is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and I had yet to see the highly influential and still highly effective original. It’s a movie that is able to shock and repulse, as it has been said, through not every element of what Leatherface and his family does is explicitly explained or shown off.
Much of what this movie does show you makes you think about what else goes into the process of this particular family’s lifestyle in some remote part of our second largest state, even if due to atlases we often see it and think of it as the biggest.
That Texas is this big, unwieldy state in the American Union adds to the tension of the concept of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not just that you could be effectively alone in this wide open place with any potential help far away, but that somewhere, maybe closer than you think, is a group of people more mad and macabre than you can fathom.
Another element is that while the narrative of the movie is indeed fictional despite the claims of the opening crawl, it was inspired by a real serial killer who is just about the most screwed up in the analogues of American history: Ed Gein. His influence is great, seeing as how he already inspired Hitchcock with Psycho and would later inspire Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, among others.
Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterwork is the most viscerally influenced as if there was doubt, but again it doesn’t go as far as you would think and it’s just as uncomfortable in spite of its restraint. While there is blood, especially near the end, there is basically no gore and only one person gets chainsawed, and it’s shot late at night and far enough away from view that the details are not graphic if still undeniably clear.
More than artistry, Hooper actually didn’t go further because he was originally aiming for a PG RATING. Now, of course, the PG rating back then was more broad in what could be covered, an issue that led to the PG-13 rating a decade later. I’ve seen PG rated movies with full on nudity and sex so there.
The raters at the time not only laughed at Hooper’s gall at trying for a PG rating, they initially slapped him with an X rating. Just the subject matter couldn’t allow for that low rating, hell, it would be very hard to pull off any story with cannibalism with even a PG-13. X was the original NC-17 and a lot of movies that once had that rating would be considered R or even lower by today.
1969’s Midnight Cowboy was given an X almost entirely because it had male prostitutes. Nowadays, it would be a light R or even PG-13 and even then the severe rating didn’t stop it from receiving Oscar Gold, at a time when that Gold meant something. Another film that could be given a less harsh rating or has done so is The Wild Bunch and TTCM 74 now has a fair R classification.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is often viewed alongside Black Christmas of the same year of being the first real slasher movies. Psycho is considered a precursor than an actual example and the slasher genre in many people’s eyes truly began with John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974 tells what is now an overly familiar tale of a group of young men and women going on a road-trip through a desolate place, all in their Volkswagen which sadly does not have A/C and the Texas heat is certainly sweltering. I thought Texas gets hot in the Summer now but I suppose it was little better in the 70s.
The crew consists of five, three males and two females, one of which is called Sally, who will become possibly the first of many, many “final girls”, the often feminine sole survivor of a slasher’s rampage. She has her brother Franklin, overweight, stuck in a wheelchair and the most overly Texan sounding of the group. Despite the circumstances of his condition, Franklin will be the last of the group to die, perhaps done to subvert the obvious expectation he’d be among the first.
After a seriously unsettling encounter with a hitchhiker called Nubbins, who acts as a clear forewarning for the film’s events, they come across an old abandoned house that used to belong to Sally and Franklin’s family. In fact, that near plantation-like house is due to them being part of a family which runs a slaughterhouse business, which makes the coming events all the more ironic.
I first thought that this was Leatherface and Co’s lair, but no, it’s nearby which contains most suspiciously before you reach the house a large tent containing a bunch of cars, with their fuel being drained to help power the lights. Hmmm, that’s odd. If I was remotely genre savvy, that would’ve been a titanic red flag to run back, collect your friends and keep on trucking along. That this is a movie at essentially the beginning of the slasher era actually helps as these youngsters have no cultural reason to be wary, though I suppose some deductive reasoning could’ve worked just as well.
The first teen to reach the house, who is the leader of the five, is also the first victim. I would not be surprised if the choice to off the leader early on would inspire the brilliant narrative move for Alien at the end of the decade.I should note now how ingenious this first encounter with Leatherface really is. You would expect a scare chord upon seeing Leatherface encounter our ill-fated teen.
Instead the admittingly disturbing music, which was meant to resemble sounds an animal would hear in a very particular place (do I need to spell it out?) is playing before, during and after the guy’s encounter with the big, apron-wearing fella. There is no sudden rise or drop in the music in the scene. There’s no need when what you’re seeing is the scare.
Despite the creepy music, it doesn’t fully prepare you for the moment and might leave you off-kilter with what you had just seen. It happens so fast. The dude walks into the house, asking if there’s any gas they can borrow for their van, which is running low, and decides to up and enter the house. I mean, I get that this is set nearly 50 years ago, but c’mon my man!
What further intrigues the guy to enter the house is not only that it’s an open screen door but that he hears a strange, off sound like a pig squealing, the source we never get to learn for certain. He comes across a red-colored hallway at the foyer, full of displayed animal skulls when suddenly Leatherface is there and he looks and acts just as surprised to see the teen as he is to see him. He immediately whacks the guy on the head and carries him further into the house, but not before shutting the hallway with a metal door. All of this occurs in around 20 seconds or less.
In spite of how genuinely scary Leatherface is, he’s also paradoxically the least evil of the family. For one, Hooper has stated that Leatherface’s behavior in at least the first movie is not predicated on rage, blood-lust or sadism, but on pure fear. He has been taught by his brothers that make up the appropriately titled “Sawyer” family that he must be wary of anyone that comes from outside the family grounds, most likely due to their activities being exposed and stopped. He is also overly subservient and pathetic around the Old Man (Jim Siedow), who may be one of three things: his father, his uncle or even his brother.
Right after he has caught and killed the third teen, while he was looking for his girlfriend the second victim, Leatherface rushes over to the window, looking out and around with terror in his eyes. That’s right, one of the most legendary, frightening and violent slasher villains of all time is, in at least one interpretation, as scared of you as you are of him.
A lot of the details of what the teens go through and see are pretty well known by now and not just because this film is currently 48 years old. It’s such a defining, influential and starkly memorable piece of American horror that a lot of moments have entered into generally broad knowledge, so I risk repeating a lot of what may be known or spoiling something that should be left for one to finally discover, such as the immediacy of Leatherface’s debut.
What I can also say is that Hooper’s filming of the movie is genius, as it doesn’t always feel like I’m watching a movie in the conventional sense. The minimalist approach to the soundtrack and how the camera is framed with a scratchy ,DIY feel to the camerawork almost feels like a found footage movie if it wasn’t for how many of the shots are staged. It’s unconventional, near Indie take on filmmaking reinforces a sense that what you’re watching is either really happening or that you are watching an utterly earnest recreation. It was this direction which led many to believe that the marketing had told the truth of this being a real event.
The third act , by which Sally is the last one standing has a near breathless pace, where neither her nor the audience have any time to decompress. A sense that any minute now, especially during the infamous dinner scene I have up there as header image, Sally will die. Despite being only an observer on a fictional series of events, I felt just about as helpless as Sally, hoping that the nightmare would end, that she would just wake up.
It even got to a point where it almost became too much. In spite of the lack of all the things a movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre has you expect to feature, the endless screaming of Marilyn Burns’ Sally, the utter lack of sympathy or awareness that what the Sawyer family is doing is horribly messed up to say the least and wondering just how the first final girl will ultimately escape put me for in an exhausted yet exhilarated final stretch.
The famous conclusion, of Sally being chased by Leatherface onto a road and then finally finding safety on the back of a pickup truck, left me feeling not so much triumphant as weary, but in a good way. As the famous final shot of Leatherface twirling his chainsaw around in the air in frustration for failing to stop Sally which leads to an utterly sudden but correct cut to black, Sally is seen slowly laughing to the point of hysteria. She physically survived her stay at the Sawyer place, but as for her mind…
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is often seen as not only the sole good movie period in the franchise it spawned, but as a must see for those with the stomachs to get through it. What I saw and what I experienced has me gladly join that bandwagon. If you but the courage and the will for just one of these kinds of movies, make sure it’s this one. It’s a literal grind-house film with a brain on top of its guts.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Image from The Austin Chronicle (Here, have a non-disturbing image to help lighten the mood after the last section.)
Rather than go for a straight follow-up to his 1974 classic, Tobe Hooper, who had (maybe) directed 1982’s Poltergeist and 1985’s Lifeforce (which I covered for this year’s Horrorthon), wanted a different approach than outright trying to top the original. It could be that the first couldn’t be topped, it was just so well done the way it was. But on the other hand, he still wanted to return to the grisly world that started his career.
He opted for a black comedy approach that, more than anything, reminds one less of the original movie in tone and more like the cult classic 1980 cannibalism horror comedy, Motel Hell. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 does actually carry a lot of the same plot beats of the original, including another dinner scene and the final girl that you see above you laughing mad by the end of it all. Despite being a narrative followup set thirteen years later, it’s almost a darkly comic remake or re-imagining of the first, much like Sam Raimi’s approach to the second Evil Dead.
The Sawyer family is still out there, still preying on people who happen to walk into their part of the figurative woods. Police officer “Lefty” Enright, portrayed with enthusiasm by Dennis Hopper, knows it and has spent the past near decade and a half looking for any clues that will lead him to Leatherface and company. Everyone thinks he’s mad, and they’re right. But, he’s also quite right about the Sawyers being out there.
“Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), a radio DJ living near Wichita Falls in Northeastern Texas, manages to catch evidence of Leatherface’s latest predation as some late-night callers, known to harass Stretch and her radio station with prank calls, happen to record the fatal attack they’re victims of. Hearing that is enough for Lefty to realize that he has to get literally revved up to face the family and end the massacre once and for all. In one of the best scenes, Lefty goes to a Chainsaw store, browses the many selections and decides on three that will do just nicely on gaining both justice and revenge on the cannibal family, seeing as how he has an out of nowhere connection to one of the victims of the first movie.
However, the Sawyer family also learn of the recording Stretch made of their activities. They send to the radio station the replacement for Stubbins the hitchhiker (seeing as how he’s the only family member that died in the original), Chop-Top, and as the consensus as proven, he is the best new addition for the movie. Even people who aren’t really hot about Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 admit that Bill Moseley’s performance as the music obsessed Vietnam veteran-hippie from hell is the true highlight of the movie.
The scene where he confronts Stretch alone in the radio station and rambles on and on to the point that Stretch gets increasingly worried (as she should) about what his actual intentions are is possibly the other standout moment aside from Lefty’s chainsaw shopping. He has a metal coat-hanger that he keeps scratching his head with, all the more concerning considering that he heats up the tip with a lighter though we soon learn why and how it relates to his Vietnam history. It also sheds light that more than a few of the Sawyer family may not be related by blood necessarily though supposedly Chop-Top wasn’t there for the first movie as he was busy serving in Nam’. The original movie was released in 74 but set in 1973, the last year of American involvement.
The encounter between Stretch and Chop-Top cascades into another fantastic jump scare reveal of Leatherface. While Leatherface was already revealed during the scene where the callers are killed on the road, his introduction regarding the lead characters is even better. How he appears actually made me jump in my sofa seat. It’s followed by a different take for the hulking slasher that keeps the mentally challenged grunting and mannerisms from before but frames it as much more comedic. In almost every scene involving Leatherface and his now much longer chainsaw, he moves his feet up back and forth and motions his chainsaw up in the air in a funny motion that’s purposefully silly. While he is still a killer and a threat, this Leatherface is even more sympathetic than before, due to him being treated even worse than last time from his family.
Leatherface is also shown for the first time to have the quality of mercy, if only due to becoming infatuated with Stretch. It’s both creepy and sad in how Leatherface goes about with Stretch and how she has to go through a hell of a lot to allow him not to, you know, do some chainsaw massacring on her. By the time the film crescendos with Leatherface engaging in an honest to God chainsaw duel with Lefty, I actually felt sorry for the big guy, likely because had he been in a much less depraved nurturing environment, he could’ve been a less dangerous and even friendly mentally challenged Goliath of a man.
The guy that nurtured Leatherface to be the horrifying yet tragic monster that he is the returning Old Man played by Jim Siedow. To tell you the truth, I often got Siedow confused with Gilbert Gottfried due to how both their face and manner of speaking are close if not exact. It was as if I was watching an evil relative of Gottfried onscreen and had a ball with his interplay antics with both Leatherface and Chop-Top.
The film concludes at an abandoned Texas History amusement park, which is the new Sawyer family hideout. What the family is up to now echoes the intent of what the couple from Motel Hell were about: taking their “practices” and making a profit out of it. The Old Man is the proud winner of a Texas vs Oklahoma chili contest and that he wins at all is you better believe a statement about how actually closer than not we may be to a much more savage, worse aspect of ourselves from the neanderthal age.
Despite the praise I’ve given to TTCM2, it’s not as good a movie as the first. It’s pacing especially at the end can feel overstretched (pun not intended) and that it copies, as a joke or not, a lot of the same moments from the first time around can make the proceedings feel repetitive. The last moment, which is more of a spiritual reflection of the last scene than a copy does work and honestly, were I or any to survive the events of this movie, would I not lose just a little bit of my sanity?
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is not as strong a recommendation for me as the first, but once you understand what Tobe Hooper is getting at with his ersatz return to this flavor of slasher horror and you can also stand it, you should have a satisfyingly memorable time. If you can’t bring yourself to see the whole thing through, I still recommend finding and viewing online clips of the scenes with Lefty at the chainsaw store, Chop-Top’s introduction and maybe Lefty and Leatherface’s duel, a moment that like with Motel Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired a boss fight from Resident Evil 7, replete with chainsaw vs chainsaw.
After all, RE7 also clear took inspiration from Texas Chainsaw Massacre with its own first person dinner scene, a moment that counts among the most comically dark and disturbing in Resident Evil’s entire history, especially since all the player can do up to a point is move their head around in desperation, like Sally and Stretch before.
If you got the guts and the time, jump right in and see what you think.
Image from Upcoming on Screen (The least disturbing yet still disturbing image I could find.)
Upon it’s impending American release, Stephen King himself declared that the future of horror, the guy that would carry the torch after him, was Clive Barker, the author/director behind the movie you see before you. He didn’t quite become the title he was heralded for, but he for certain became a facet of the horror landscape. He’s one of two figures identified with body horror, the other being our boy David Cronenberg.
There have been 11 movies in the Hellraiser series, the most recent being a reboot attempt under Hulu with a now female Pinhead. When it comes to films from the series to recommend, that has been difficult to ascertain, as only the first movie has garnered acclaim from both audiences and critics, albeit overtime. If I had to guess, it would be based on whats fans of the series say and on how closely or not Barker was involved in the project.
The first movie, as many allegorical horror movies are want to be, are about asking uncomfortable questions about ourselves and not being OK with the answers we might discover. Despite its title, Hellraiser is not about the horror of discovering that, yes, Hell and demons or something akin to that is real, but about how actually different the experience of pain is to pleasure. While the general attitude is that there is of course a difference as we always desire pleasure and fear pain, the truth is much more complicated.
What arouses or feels good to a human being is a canvas that gets bigger and bigger the more we study it. For a long time we have been aware of those who can find pleasure in pain being put upon them. Whether you call it BDSM or not, whether you find it morally abhorrent or not, it doesn’t change that it’s there and that plenty of everyday people, people you wouldn’t call suspect or concerning engage in it. They engage in it consensually, with rules and the understanding that it’s always OK to stay stop when the need arises.
Culturally, this side of sexual identity or expression, with it not always necessarily having a sexual aspect has been vilified, feared or at least questioned by those who either have or are instilled in them conventional attitudes or tastes in sexuality. I myself don’t quite get BDSM based on what I find pleasurable or not. When I feel pain, I simply feel pain and don’t want more of that. And yet, somehow, I do get the sense that someone could find a way to derive pleasure from it. For instance, after pain of many different sorts subside, you can feel pretty good even great afterwards. Have no idea if that’s a connection but there.
Hellraiser is not strictly about the “painful” pleasures as conventional pleasure is also explored. It’s core idea is what happens if you reach a point where all the options to experience pleasure are used up, explored and you still can’t get no satisfaction. That is the lead motivation behind Frank, a man who gets his hands on a puzzle box called the “Cube of Configuration”. Upon using it, the Cenobites arrive, led by Pinhead (Doug Bradley with his wonderfully sonorous voice) and give onto him a supernatural experience that to some is a true nightmare but to him is the true peak of what he craves. The only cost is his soul under the Cenobites.
However, Frank’s brother Larry (who I just learned writing this is played by Andrew Robinson who portrayed one of the best characters on Deep Space Nine, Garak) arrives at Frank’s home with his British wife Julia. Because Frank seemingly abandoned the place, they get to buy it in his absence. Julia, who we learn in flashback was in an adulterous affair with Frank, learns to her initial horror what has become of Frank. In a freak accident where Larry bleeds on the floor where Frank was taken by the Cenobites, that begins Frank’s slow, gruesome yet amazingly filmed resurrection.
Just as Larry’s daughter Kirsty comes to visit the family, does Julia encounter a returned Frank, who is little better than a zombie in appearance. In order to get his full body back, he needs more blood and the best way to expedite the process is through whole ass people being brought over to the house when Larry and Kirsty aren’t around and killing them. At first Julia is horrified at what it will take to get her lover back, but eventually upon remembering her promise to Frank in the throes of passion that she would do anything for him and plain old lust, she slowly lets go of her reservations and starts to gladly help out.
As film academics have made note of, all while likely smoking a pipe thoughtfully, Julia and Kirsty are meant to be contrasted as the two female leads. Kirsty, in spite of being a young, sexually open woman is a kind, decent person who never falls victim to the same temptations as Frank her Uncle. Julia however, shows how simply unsuitable a partner she would be to Larry or basically anyone with ethics as she lets more and more terrible things slide, all to get someone that was really great in bed, if indeed the best, back. The things we do for lust.
Sexual arousal and the compulsions around it are near-universal, unless you are asexual or have a weak or non-existent sex drive. While most of us would be aghast at Julia’s actions, you never really know where those sexual desires could take you if you let them. Even worse, the drive could be so strong that a question of whether there was any choice in the matter arises. Our instincts define our choices more than we would like and rarely for the better.
Kirsty does get involved with the Cenobites’ cube, out of sheer curiosity, having no idea what it does save that it relates to what it’s doing to her family. It’s the cube’s capabilities, among others being a portal to a dark other-world. That alone can best explain why there is so much meat on the bone of Hellraiser as a franchise, so many possibilities. The meat proved to be not of the best quality, but still.
It’s when the Cenobites get directly involved with Kirsty’s use of the cube is where the film really picks up and becomes more of what I was expecting. I had no idea that a good chunk would deal with an unfaithful wife’s attempts to help restore a lover to life. The Cenobites are intriguing on top of how they look due to being evil beings who have a surprisingly ambiguous side. It could factor into Barker’s atheism, but they’re not strictly the hosts of hell the name implies and may not even be from Hell.
Often in fiction the devils or demons seek out human targets for their unholy games and agendas. The Cenobites are demons that wait on you to come to them. They are secure in the knowledge that the appetites of humanity will always be so that eventually someone will learn of their cube and their power and seek them out. In spite of the consequence that your soul and being will be forever in their hands, it is very much a deal with a devil that puts the impetus on you to see it through.
To save time and my carpal-tunnel hands from further undesired pain, the film concludes in a practical effects spectacle that once again shows the nigh unique things that practical 80s horror can bring to the table that is all but gone from today. In spite of its dark, brutal and oh so bloody imagery, there is a strange savage sense of satisfaction in watching the ultimate fates of Frank and Julia. No matter how horrible their ends by the cenobites are, they are very much deserving of what comes to them. You may cringe, but you still won’t call it inappropriate.
Like the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is enough that you cautiously check the first Hellraiser. It’s a still novel vision of horror and the supernatural that taps into various insecurities just about all of us have. I felt uncomfortable and yet I was glad I did as it reminded me of my humanity. If you didn’t feel anything from watching Hellraiser, I would be very sorry for you indeed. Unlikely I know, as this British classic HAS SUCH SIGHTS TO SHOW YOU.
On a final note, I must give props to composer Christopher Young, who does a classical sounding yet oddly fitting score that, of all things, reminded me of the music from my favorite Wallace and Gromit feature, The Wrong Trousers. Sounds random, but it’s a hearty endorsement all the same just to listen to Hellraiser on top of watching it.