Friday, August 29, 2008

The State of Fear - Part One

In 1974, a small group filmmakers and unknown actors from Texas, with a budget of less than $100,000 and driven by the simple need to make their own movie, began filming on what would turn out to be a landmark in inpendent filmmaking, and which would essentially ruin the horror genre for the next 34 years. And counting.

Not intentionally, of course. But Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the film that is at the far end of the graph whose nearest point is Hostel and House of 1,000 Corpses and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes and on and on. Now you might be saying, "But hold on, Bill R.! I like some of those movies! Not The Hills Have Eyes, or House of 1,000 Corpses, but Hostel had its moments. And what's that other one? About the creek?"

Yes, well, okay, there are not-untalented people working on these films (and it's Wolf Creek you're thinking of). But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the film that issued in the era -- or at least legitimized the idea of -- horror as "slasher film", horror as gorefest, and little more. Sure, you can trace slasher films back further, even to Psycho. Psycho is the first major film to use a serial killer, as we understand the term today, as its villain, and as the source of its horror (although the twist aspect of the story doesn't make that clear until the end). And possibly Black Christmas has a claim as the father of this horror subgenre almost as great as Chainsaw Massacre. Both films have what can now be considered classic slasher plots. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a group of college kids get lost, and are eaten. In Black Christmas, a madman is loose in a sorority house. Both films came out the same year, and both films are far less violent than their
reputations would indicate. The big difference between the two -- and here's why Black Christmas exists as a cult movie, while Texas Chainsaw Massacre is seen as a classic, both as a horror and an independent film -- is that Black Christmas has its roots in classical Hollywood filmmaking, and Hooper's film, well, does not.

Black Christmas is structured as a mystery and suspense film more than a horror film. As the co-eds are picked off one-by-one, the police try to figure out who the killer is. Keir Dullea is offered to us as a possible suspect. The audience is invited to try to puzzle out the mad (and extraordinarily creepy) phone calls made by "Billy". We wonder who will be the next victim. John Saxon behaves awesomely. We grip the edges of our seats while the police try to trace the call, and are horrified by the plot turn that is the result of that trace (a twist that would be made famous by, and is forever associated with, When a Stranger Calls...which came out five years later. Fuckin' rip-off artists).

What do we get with Texas Chainsaw Massacre? In a film of roughly 80 minutes in length, we get five college kids on a road trip. They get lost. They seek help at the wrong house. Four are killed, one is terrorized but escapes, and we roll credits. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a huge success, and is the lazy horror filmmaker's rubber stamp. But what have subsequent horror filmmakers learned from it? That bad acting is no obstacle. That, despite the lack of gore, because it dealt with the most depraved kind of violence, an upping of the depravity ante could only work to their favor. That no story is plenty.

In other words, the wrong lessons were learned. Isn't that always the case? I don't feel that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a bad movie. I think it's overrated quite a bit, but it does some things extremely well. For instance, while there is nothing supernatural about it, the nature of its horror is unknowable and bewildering, as all horror must be. When Leatherface makes his first appearance, it is impossible for us -- and we can see that his soon-to-be victim agrees with us --
to understand what is happening, what this thing in front of us is capable of doing. The realization that this man wishes us harm, and is completely removed from such things as pity and conscience, somehow also clues us into the fact that he also has no gag reflex, or respect for human anatomy. This is not encountering some small human transgressor, like a shoplifter. This isn't even encountering an intruder in your home. The intruder might kill you, but he won't eat you afterwards. The intruder, if we encountered him, would fill us with fear and panic, even terror. If we were to encounter someone like Leatherface -- which we know is, technically, a possibility -- who knows how our brains would react? Hooper and Henkel's film seems to believe that our brains would begin to understand the depths to which this person will sink in order to cause us pain and himself gratification, and therefore shut down. Our fuses would blow, in order to protect us. Because that is horror. But what, pray tell, is Friday the 13th, Part 4?
I remember very vividly watching TV one night, some years back, flipping through the channels, when I suddenly came upon that movie (okay, it may not have been Part 4. It could have been Part Three or Part Five). I didn't know it was a Friday the 13th movie at first. The first thing I saw from the film was a nude, buxom young woman engaged vigorously atop a young man. I stopped flipping through the channels, as one does in these situations, and wondered what it was I was watching. I could tell it was bad, and cheap. The fact that they were in a tent should have tipped me off right away. In any case, my questions were soon answered, because presently a long, sharp, spear-like object was thrust through the woman's back and out her chest, and then jerked upwards.

The point of this very long post, and those that will follow, isn't to decry violence, even graphic violence, in horror films. If you're making a movie about flesh-eating zombies, you're gonna have to break a few eggs. I get that. But it's nice for these things to have some sort of point, isn't it? I mean, what was the purpose of the scene I just described? Because it wasn't to frighten the audience, I assure you. To shock them, maybe. To startle them. To gross them out. And then what? To make them laugh? Even if not that last one -- though I have my suspicions -- I know that the scene acheived the goal which was without a doubt at the top of the director's list, and that was to give horror fans what they'd come to demand from the genre by that time: tits and blood. This was their way of building off of the Hooper/Henkel film, and we've been living with it ever since.
NEXT: I Act Like an Old Man, Begin to Give You Some Idea of What the Hell My Point Is, and Most Likely Get in Way Over My Head


Greg said...

What's the point of Un Chien Andalou or Wavelength? Isn't one of the aims of cinema, even if not always used or endorsed, to produce an emotional response it the viewer? The emotional response can be overt where we care about a character and his relationships or illness or death. Or it can be a visceral emotional response, a chilled or shocked reaction to chaotic violence on the screen before us.

It's true that a big part of the horror genre was taken over by this type of film, especially in the early eighties, but serial killers also received more thorough treatment in Henry, American Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, etc and monster or zombie horror has been completely re-invigorated with movies like Descent or 28 Days Later. And if you look at box office numbers, these movies generally do better than the slasher flicks (for instance Lambs and The Ring are on the US All Time Box Office list but Saw and Hostel are not).

And I think with few exceptions, the gore slasher flicks now present not only more in depth characters (relatively speaking) but much more competent filmmaking on the purely technical level. Pulling clips from Hostel 2 for my horror trailer presented me with some difficult choices because the film had several very interesting well composed shots to pull from.

None of this is to say I disagree with, it's more of a devil's advocate presentation of questions I have whenever someone decries the cinema going for the visceral response over a more formally expected one. And I'm not saying you're decrying the cinema for that, simply that it is the point of my comment.

There is no doubt that Chainsaw Massacre took on the rep it did due to it's low budget shoddy appearance. Black Christmas and Suspiria were far too formal to whip up a firestorm like Chainsaw. It's grainy, "made in the basement" look gave viewers the feel that they were watching real people, not actors, even if the bad acting immediately betrayed that they were actors. It was also the right time, with movies like Chainsaw able to get wider releases than Dementia 13 a few years earlier.

bill r. said...

I'll be getting to some of this in later posts (note the "Part One" at the beginning), but as far as your "what's the point" point: by that argument, every movie that gets a response is somehow successful, even if the response is boredom.

I just remember being very bothered by that "Friday the 13th" movie at the time. If any horror film was ever catering to the bad element in its audience, it was that one. But that's not really my point (forgive me, but I'm off work today, and slept very little last night, so I'm not at my best right now). The main point is that graphic violence has become one of the sole objectives in horror. How many times have you heard people complain that a horror film was rated PG-13 instead of R? What they're upset about is not the possibility that the rating indicates that it will be less frightening. They're complaining that it won't be violent enough (or that it won't have enough nudity, but mainly violence). I'll stop now before I get too deeply into material for my next post, but that's basically the mentality of the people who both make and patronize horror films.

And I'll be talking about "Henry", "The Descent", "28 Days Later", all that. Not necessarily in depth, but I'll get into it. But first I have to rest and eat and watch movies and stuff.

Greg said...

every movie that gets a response is somehow successful, even if the response is boredom. I don't agree I was arguing this.

I said, "Isn't one of the aims of cinema, even if not always used or endorsed, to produce an emotional response it the viewer?"

That doesn't state that doing so makes it a success, just that it makes it cinema. It is the aim of a comedy to make the viewer laugh. Stating that that is the aim does not mean that said comedy will be successful and actually make people laugh. It could fail miserably or it could succeed greatly but the aim of the particular film does not empirically tie it to it's subsequent failure or success.

And watch taking off too many Friday's - employers look for that kind of thing. It is their aim to make our lives miserable, and they are often very successful.

bill r. said...

What, are you trying to make me paranoid about my job? I hardly ever take time off: I don't take week-long vacations, but instead take a day off here and there, and a few Fridays ago I was sick. Big deal! And if I'm going to use my vacation time in one day increments, what day of the week should I choose? Tuesday? What the hell, Jonathan!?, yes, movies set out to get an emotional response. Since this discussion is building off that scene in the Friday the 13th film, I'll ask you: have you seen it? If not, do you think you have a pretty good idea from what I described of how the scene plays out? If the answer is yes, what response were the filmmakers going for? My main point -- and maybe I didn't make it very well -- is that the response the filmmakers wanted had very little to do with horror. The response they were shooting for was somewhere in the "thrill" category. For horror to have been an element, the filmmakers would have needed to ask the audience to care. These movies don't ask that. All they do is set up pins and then knock them down in increasingly elaborate ways.

Greg said...

Looks like somebody finally knows what it's like to be on the other side of the blog huh?


Oh Bill, I'm not disagreeing with you entirely, calm down. It's more of a "splitting hairs" thing. I agree horror requires some form of caring for the characters to make it horrifying rather than just shocking. In Henry, you manage to care for the family being attacked without knowing anything about them because they make it seem real. In Friday the 13th movies you don't care for them and it's shocking instead.

I don't think those movies are particularly well made myself on a basic technical level much less as exemplars of great horror. But my original splitting hairs beef was that you asked what was the point and the point was providing gore/blood/shock. And I was simply trying to say that even if the 13th movies do it badly, that doesn't eliminate pure visceral response as a valid aim for a movie.

Okay enough hair-splitting. As for taking off days from work I've always favored Wednesdays. Seriously. You're off two days, work two days, off one, work two, off two... you never get burned out. I had that schedule with a job years ago and it was one of the best schedules I ever had. The four day a week thing only lasted about a month and they made us go back to five days but while it lasted it was sweet.

bill r. said...


Seriously, I'm going to beg off this discussion right now, because if I don't I'll make all the points I'm holding for my next post in the comments section. And you know how hard it is for me to come up with shit to post about.

Anonymous said...

Hey, guys ... it's my day off right now ...