Wednesday, May 23, 2007

At the family dinner table

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) A-
"What separates Texas Chainsaw Massacre from its predecessors is its anarchic, cynical hysteria—its bizarre and dark-as-hell gallows humor. Watching Night of the Living Dead today with the wrong audience can turn the one-time king of terror films into a monotonous and campy affair, thereby sabotaging the film's 11th-hour plunge into hell. But because Chainsaw is often as audaciously funny as it is distressing, no one dares laugh. In many cases, the juxtaposition of horror with comedy is so confrontational, it can have a stultifying, choking effect. When the first victim wanders into the lair of the infamous Leatherface and is beaten to death by a sledgehammer, Hooper mutes the man's screams and substitutes them with a frightened hog's squeals. That's just one of many examples of Hooper using the friction of stylistic dichotomies to create an atmosphere of perversion and dread. In addition to the horror-comedy split, there is also a persistent tension between the film's monochromatic, grainy, hand-held verité cinematography and the abstract rusty-razor editing, and between the campy tin pan guitar on the van's radio and the mechanical nightmare music score (which had to have been a primary influence on Trent Reznor's Downward Spiral). The only place where some semblance of balance exists is in Franklin's sister Sally (Marilyn Burns), and when her stolid composure is brutalized by the Leatherface family, it damn well knocks the film's fragile grip on sanity into the void. In the final, prolonged dinner sequence, the film's pseudo-documentary realism gives way to arrhythmic editing, more non-diegetic animal sound effects, and extreme close-ups of the broken, red capillaries in Sally's eyes."

"Throughout the film, Hooper maintains a level of miasmic, grimy funk that is just about unparalleled in horror cinema. Much has been made of how Texas Chainsaw Massacre is hardly as gory as its reputation suggests and that much of its ingenuity is attributable to its power to strongly suggest gore and blood. One could add that it's infinitely more impressive the way Hooper elevates human sweat, clinging dirt and tangled hair to the harrowing effect of gore. When Pam (Teri McMinn) wanders into the aforementioned room of bones-on-twine, it's almost as distressing to see her collapse, choke back vomit and struggle not to inhale the floating chicken feathers as it is to see her walking toward the house (in a stunningly non-verité low-angle tracking shot earlier in the film) or later being hung up on a meat hook. And Sally's night escape from Leatherface through the woods is made terrifying not so much by Franklin being sawed to death in his wheelchair moments earlier, but by the way her wispy, long hair seems to constantly wrap itself around tree branches and thorns as she herself runs around in an ever-tightening circle like a clueless farm animal." -Eric Henderson (4/4)

Note: Score ratings in bold are Select Reviews, and "( )" the authors cited.