Sunday, 21 October 2007

classic image (halloween special): the texas chainsaw massacre (tobe hooper, 1974)

What is it about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that makes it so terrifying? You must understand that this is coming from someone who has never been impressed, on pretty much any level, by any other slasher film. But something sets TCM apart. I feel it is, perhaps, better even than its cult reputation would have it. There are more intellectually nuanced and aesthetically richer horror films, but none, even today, that come close to achieving its raw, unrelenting, brutal terror. At the most basic, primal, lizard-brain survival instinct level, TCM remains the ultimate horror film.

And yet, the question again. What is it that makes it so terrifying? Why does it succeed where so many hundreds of films that have followed in its footsteps (including its 2003 remake) have, to varying degrees, failed? The most obvious answers are the superficial ones - the technical mastery that allowed director Tobe Hooper and his crew to create, on a shoestring budget, a film of frequently astounding cinematography and editing work; and, on an entertainment level, the relentless, unbroken, breathless tension with which the film is invested.

There are deeper reasons, however. I have already touched upon one in the opening paragraph, and that is its very rawness and bloody-mindedness. There is no polish or gloss to dress up or soften the blow of its subject matter (which is not to say there is no craft in its making, for, as I have already said, there is plenty); it is direct, matter-of-fact and utterly unadorned. Its violence is not intellectualized, or aestheticized, nor is it shied away from in the least; it is not glorified, gloated in or watered down. It is violence, pure and simple, it's ugly, and it feels real. Few other horror films leave one with such an acute awareness of the physicality, the flesh and blood, of human existence, and its fragility.

Another reason for the film's unique effect, I feel, lies in the story itself, and its thematic implications. Unlike other slasher films, TCM doesn't have a killer as an intruder into an ordered, safe world. It inverts the situation: the victims are trapped in an insane, almost alien world where the killer is "normal". This is a world of decay, corruption and death, a nightmare landscape of dilapidated colonial mansions, bones, grime and blood, populated by equally decayed, disfigured, barely-human figures. More than that, this is a place where the securities and laws of civilization have been peeled away - even the local sheriff is in league with the killer.
Civilization here has died and rotted long ago; furniture is made out of bones, while tools and other relics from the outer world are broken down and used to make seemingly pointless sculptures, as if their use has been entirely forgotten. This is an atavistic descent into primal, animalistic, hunter-gatherer humanity, stripped of all intellectual or spiritual pretensions, defined solely by the struggle for survival and the search for food.

And this, finally, is what makes TCM so unnervingly terrifying, even on repeat viewings when you know exactly what will happen - it is an almost unbearably nihilistic vision of "pure" humanity, stripped of social mores and obligations, as a grotesque, horrific, violent animal, living among the remains of its victims. We may begrudge it the countless insipid slasher films it helped spawn, but it is enough of an achievement not to be in any way lessened by the legions that, in reconstructing its elements, failed to come even close.

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