Tag: marilyn burns

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.

Carnage Park

Carnage Park (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mickey Keating’s horror-thriller “Carnage Park” commands a real sense of style. Clearly influenced by Quentin Tarantino in terms of its dialogue and characterization, ‘70s pictures such as Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” as well as raw and brutal grindhouse pictures’ effusive energy, the film may be considered both highly watchable and, for some, challenging to sit through. Its willingness to embrace polarity is exactly what I liked about it because movies worth watching, especially those that belong under the horror genre, are unafraid to push the envelope to uncomfortable extremes.

Ashley Bell plays a woman named Vivian who serves as our heroine. She plays the character with utmost conviction and I was reminded by performances not unlike Sandra Peabody in Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” and Sissy Spacek in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie”—both daring and successful horror pictures—seemingly weak in physicality but who are actually internally strong women protagonists. This contrast works here because standard scene setups at times come with surprising and bold character decisions that Bell sells completely. Notice, too, how unafraid she is to look unattractive on camera just as long as she delivers the necessary emotions of Vivian being stuck in a terrifying and impossible situation where a sadistic, psychotic sniper has created a sick playground in the desert.

The look of the picture fits well for the story being told. Credit to cinematographer Daniel Peal for capturing the beauty of the Californian desert but at the same time being able to highlight the horrors it offers when necessary. The images appear to be veiled in a certain yellowish fog which highlights the heat and dryness of the setting. The more desperate our heroine becomes, the style becomes more foreboding and suffocating.

Notice, too, how space, dialogue, and movements are utilized. In the beginning, there are large open spaces, characters talk plenty and fast, movements are brisk and full of energy. Later in the picture, especially noticeable during the third act, these elements are turned upside down. Claustrophobic spaces are more common and the feelings that come with them are amplified. Very few words are exchanged. We hear shuffling, running, and struggling for the most part. It is a picture of survival at its most desperate. I wished, however, there were less extended sequences that cut to black and all we hear are cries.

Equipped with an unsettling and unrelenting score, there is clearly a lot of thought and effort put into the creation of “Carnage Park.” Thus, its shortcomings, such as a lack of consistent and well-earned jolts (especially for a picture with a sniper in it), can be easily overlooked. Although some may argue that the story is stretched too thin, sometimes the movie is not about its story but the drawn-out horror it offers. Using the latter standard as a measuring stick, there is no doubt it succeeds.