Tag: leatherface

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Remove the gruesome, in-your-face murders and mutilations and notice that “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” remains to be a thoroughly effective horror film. Inferior slasher films forget that violence does not define horror even though it is or can be a part of it. Director Tobe Hooper (who co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Henkel) commands a complete understanding of this simple but often overlooked idea. What results is a horror film for the ages: violent—yes—but also loud, uncomfortable, atmospheric, and filled to brim with unusual and downright chilling images. (A hammer being dropped on the ground repeatedly, for instance, allows us to appreciate its mass. And so we buy it when that hammer is used to bash in someone’s skull.) One does not walk away from this picture without a strong impression. It demands that you have an opinion.

Images outside of what we consider to be “typical horror” are seared into my brain. A terrified woman slides accidentally into a living room full of feathers. The camera observes with great patience; it allows us to appreciate what she finds to be frightening in that room. There are bones all around—most appear to be from animals but it is clear a few are human. But the bones are not randomly strewn about. They are used as decorations—a nudge to the real-life murders that Ed Gein committed. We notice the panic building in the woman’s body and eyes… yet she does not scream. At least not yet. Instead, we hear the manic clucking of a chicken in a cage from a few feet away, as if to communicate that this human is invading its space.

Another standout moment involves a second woman being driven from location to another. Her mouth is gagged, her hands are tied, and her head is covered with a sack. She lays on the floor of the passenger’s seat… which is important because it further underscores that she and her kidnapper are not on equal footing. Her assailant, the driver, holds a stick with his right hand and continues to hit her—and then laughing to himself—until they reach their destination, as if to remind her who’s in charge, who has the power. This is a work that does not rely on dialogue for meaning; it assumes we are intelligent enough to recognize what’s terrifying about a situation outside of the usual slicing and stabbing. It wants us to undergo an experience rather than simply sitting through one. There is a world of difference. And the answer lies in craft.

The plot revolves around Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother named Franklin (Paul A. Partain) who go on a trip, along with Sally’s boyfriend (Allen Danziger) and two friends (William Vail, Teri McMinn), to visit their grandfather’s grave. Word has gone around that a person, or persons, has been robbing graves and mutilating corpses. They did not plan to stop by grandfather’s abandoned house but one thing leads to another and they end up going there, unaware that right next door is a family of cannibals (Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, John Dugan). One of them wears human skin as a mask (Gunnar Hansen). We learn his name is Leatherface.

There is a rawness to this picture that I found to be beautiful and transporting. In its opening minutes, we can actually feel the heat of the sun by how sticky and sweaty the characters look inside their van. Their clothes are stained with sweat and grime. Perhaps they have not taken a shower for over a day. When they step outside, the photography highlights the dryness of the land. We see and hear heavy breathing when a person’s face captures the sun’s rays. We feel like one of the travelers and we already know it’s a very bad idea to pick up a hitchhiker.

Notice its use of sound. It assaults the eardrums. An obvious but important one is the revving of a chainsaw, Leatherface’s weapon of choice. When it roars, you feel it in your gut the whole time. Combine this sound when the masked killer chases after his victim. They run and run and run—in the dark, amongst dead trees, inside houses. Notice, too, how the distance between predator and prey tends to decrease over time. You are compelled to pull your limbs closer to your torso. And then the screaming begins. We stare into the victim’s desperate eyes in quiet surrender and wonder how the hell she can possibly get out of the house of horrors and live to tell the tale.


Leatherface (2017)
★ / ★★★★

A tidal wave of exasperation washed over me as I endured “Leatherface,” supposedly a horror film but more like a copy and paste of scenes from the most generic and uninspired of the genre released within the last fifteen years. Being the first film in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise which features only the name of one of the most recognizable villains in slasher picture history, one would be inclined to believe that screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood might have something interesting to say about the mind of a serial murderer who later wears his victims’ faces. Instead, we are provided an interminable hostage scenario so ludicrous that anybody with half a brain would scream at the characters to run with every easy opportunity to escape. Natural selection is not at play here.

It is a shame because two great character actors, often underrated, signed up for the project. Lili Taylor plays Verna, mother of the boy who would become the titular character. Meanwhile, Stephen Dorff portrays Hartman, a cop seeking vengeance against Verna’s family because her children killed his daughter. Both manage to create characters from nothing; they may be one-dimensional because the script lacks common sense, intelligence, and a genuine understanding of human psychology and behavior, but the parents command strong personalities. It is a missed opportunity that these two do not share more scenes because their clashes contain a semblance of substance.

Part of the would-be intrigue is guessing which teenager would become Leatherface. Because the boy was taken away from his mother at an early age and been given a new name while in a mental institution, it is mentioned that he might not even know who he is. There are three candidates: kind-hearted Jackson (Sam Strike), mute and corpulent Bud (Sam Coleman), and budding criminal Ike (James Bloor). It is not at all a challenge to guess correctly when the viewer comes to understand the mean-spirited nature of the project.

Yes, horror films can be the opposite. I argue that great ones are not rotten inside. In fact, a lot of them are hopeful because evil is almost always weakened or extinguished, at the very least defeated that day so the characters can have the opportunity to live their lives. Here, however, it is one ugly, barbaric death scene after another. Bags of flesh being slashed, beaten to a pulp, and decapitated tend to dull the senses not only due to the fact that they are terribly executed but they are also increasingly boring. Deaths do not have impact because every person we encounter is a caricature.

Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, “Leatherface” is a limp origin story, empty of surprises, empty emotionally, and certainly one that drags. While there are moments of inspiration, directly tethered to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, particularly one that takes place in the woods at night as blue, almost alien-esque light penetrates through the trees, these are not enough to elevate moldy, rotting scraps into something marginally edible.


Malevolence (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★

Four people (R. Brandon Johnson, Heather Magee, Richard Glover, Keith Chambers) decided to rob a bank and were relatively successful except that one of them had been shot. They divided into two groups. A mother (Samantha Dark) and daughter (Courtney Bertolone), on their way home from a softball game, were taken hostage by one of the robbers because he was caught stealing their van. The man took his hostages to a remote house and waited for his three accomplices. Meanwhile, there was a serial killer next door patiently waiting for his next victim. Written and directed by Stevan Mena, “Malevolence” was quite effective in delivering violence and scares. There was nothing particularly original about it but it didn’t need to because I was consistently fascinated with what was happening on screen. It was obviously influenced by John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” When characters were on the foreground, the masked killer would sneakily appear on the background and just… observe. The creepiness was elevated by the film’s score. I liked the way the picture took place at night and, since the abandoned houses were in the middle of nowhere, electricity was rarely used. Darkness hid certain corners, perfectly designed for something to jump out from them and I always expected that something would. There were times when I was actually caught off guard. When fluorescent lights were used, they flickered. Surprisingly, I found it scarier when lights were on because every flicker could potentially reveal something that wasn’t there just a second before. As much as it was violent, I loved that the environment was very detailed: House A had no decoration other than thick dust that invaded the air when there was sudden movement, while House B had all sorts of strange things like blood in a tub, a month’s worth of unwashed dishes, and possible signs of satanic ritual. The scenes outdoors were quite impressive, too. When the daughter attempted to escape from one of the bank robbers, she had to run and scream across a field. There was something quite unsettling with the way it was shot. However, I wish we knew more about the killer prior and during his killing sprees. What made this film’s inspirations so effective was the fact that we knew something disturbing about Michael Myers and Leatherface, something scary beyond the stabbings and chopped up bodies. Furthermore, the acting could have been stronger. Some scenes needed to be reshot, especially toward the beginning, because the lines uttered did not complement the actors’ facial expressions. It was somewhat amusing to watch. However, once it got to the meat of the conflict, when acting became less important, the material held my attention like a vise-grip. Most importantly, the writer-director did not allow his project’s low budget to get in the way of his vision. Instead of succumbing to limitation, he saw inspiration.