Tuesday, October 13, 2015

You'll Never Unsee: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) is Tomorrow's Bugs Bunny

I recently caught the original Texas after work, 5:30 PM on Showtime. Whoever's idea it was to put on super bizarre past classics of angry Kafka-esque alienation and prolonged terror in the afterwork slot, God bless you.  Mt frazzled zombie stress magnet soul found it very cathartic. I relished the murk. This is life how it really is, I thought: modern living's shallow callow delusions are, in Hooper's masterpiece, stripped off the bone in star Marilyn Burns' solar eclipse pressure eyeball cooker fluids. Back when I was a child, Bugs Bunny cartoons used to come on right after school and it was the same release, the trappings of douchey civilization stripped off in a whoosh of anarchy. I could funnel my full ectomorph shy nerd fury through Bugs' clear-eyed savvy and bemused trouncing of the odious carnivore Fudd.  For Texas, the situation is the same but the power dichotomy reversed: the innocent bunny barely escapes from the family of giggling hunter-cannibals.  Marilyn Burns'--even her name is seared with pain-- wild-eyed constant incoherent scream seemed on behalf of all wage slaves, all captives to the brutal Leatherfaced Stanley Kowalski world. 

Still, I am not entirely sure why this lurid fit of lunatic giggling and incessant screaming--the constant dropping of the hammer into the empty basin as grandpa oscillates between being a corpse, a stuffed dummy, and dimly alive-- would wind up fitting my black as pitch post-work mood, but it gave me a new appreciation for the craft of acting and the way this extended family of inbred all-male killers is treated with a strange compassion and respect. They are a family, and genuinely insane -- beyond merely Hollywood sadism --and perhaps made that way by having to butcher our meat for us at the local slaughterhouse, decade after decade, so we can have our bacon and believe we're compassionate too. They see all the blood on our behalf, our carnage proxies- who wouldn't go insane after awhile?

And more than any other thing, I noticed the weird off-kilter but sincerely troubling oscillations from giggling barnyard sadist to concerned compassionate papa bear in the performance of Jim Siedow as the father (?) or older brother, but mainly the cook (he doesn't take pleasure in killin' - he says)--he's so good it took me til this most recent viewing to catch the genius of his constant and sincere Jekyll-to-Hyde-and-back-again shifting. I noticed too Leatherface's (Gunnar Hansen) butcher apron, a 'real Ed Gein' type, going whole hog with a mother's face and hair affixed to cover what is surely a hideous countenance (we only see his disgusting teeth through the mask), and to fill the role of mother like only a grieving insane son could; he too oscillates though from apparent anxiety to bloodlust (again, he's not a sadist, for he kills with the same dispassionate eye as the slaughterhouse worker, thinking more about the meat in its future form rather than its present screaming incarnation); and Edward Neil's playful joi de vivre as Junior, his simple-minded joy over a good knife or grandpa's slaughterhouse skills, swinging his razor around, or windmilling his bag of road kill around like Jeeter Lester with a stolen bag of turnips -- he's a being well-suited to the empty distances of their backwoods rural location, the Ralph Sid Haig in Spider Baby. When there are no more neighbors for miles, this clan can eat only what they can catch... if you get my meaning.  Like the Merrye Family, they eat local, or locals.

Five dollars! 
And when the locals are all eaten, they eat any old thing that washes up along their remote little stretch of the asphalt river...

It's scary because it's true, Ed Gein true, the kind even my aforementioned savagery switchpoint can't combat, because there's no recognizable foe, no malice behind it. It takes a real artist to get there. Shrieking, dilated eyes, their optical fluid sending up solar flares visible as the dilated pupil eclipses the iris; the bloody mess lurking below every human skin when all the layers of crud are laser-zapped away to expose the world as it really is, infinitely stretched out in a series of 9-5 slogs, 12-8 sleeps, and the rest jonesing for grub and the right movie to contextualize why you even bother. But the right movie can illuminate the full Lovecraftian horror of the universe so it hits you hard, like an ice cold Killian's Irish Red funnel in the dead of a Syracuse winter; the long wide funnel rolling you slowly around and down to the chute of crucifixion and death. But oh lord, the other side, the black hole monster of the nothingness that awaits a suddenly unmoored soul. Seeing Chainsaw in the hour preceding your own death is not something I'd wish on anyone. "Look" what it did to Dr. X - The Man with X-Ray Eyes. It can turn you into one of those stolen turnips, too, the realization how this world of human skin seems ever ready to erupt and spill out elevator oceans. All it takes to 'spill' it is some crazy person swinging a sharp object around.

So yeah, hard to believe there was a time I would have run the other way from this film, for I had developed the foolish opinion it was a 'slasher film' - and hence against my teenage feminist agenda. For I had been maimed, o me brothers, by stumbling on Looking for Mr. Goodbar on my buddy's parent's afternoon Movie Channel while he was mowing the grass and thinking I was finally watching Annie Hall.  By that terrifying tragic end I was forever scarred. I've never gotten over it, to this day. But I've changed my mind about a lot of things. Turns out Friday the 13th (which I avoided in protest, too) has an eerie, hushed quality that none of the Sunday School teachers salivating over the string of murders could have conveyed. Maybe they didn't notice. And why? Because you would need to have seen Halloween a dozen times to notice it, to feel out just how few blood drops are shown vs. how many darkened corners, the way night and rain in a forest with no street lights or anything makes it seem like the whole world has gone dark and you're the only one who hasn't noticed, your head haloed by an ever shrinking flashlight reflection on green canvas tent flaps or waterlogged wood panels, or capturing the way girls and guys blinded by hormones and a life of never being punched or bitten have left them blind to the possibility. There's them that laughs, and there's them that knows better. It's not just her virginity that sets the final girl apart, it's that she's the only one cagey enough to suspect she's in a horror movie. Her friends admonish her for not being unconscious to the world around them. They're complacent, head wrapped up in dates, telephone cords, post-sex malaise, and/or New Wave music on a 'walkman' --she's different, she's traumatized like I was by Goodbar and the realization that my fellow teens were all lapping up the misogyny of Porky's, Last American Virgin, Losin' it, and that crap on one side and the slasher movies on the other -- all in all a terrible omen of what was to come. Then 1982's Blade Runner, The Road Warrior, and Conan showed us we could have more (and outside of rapey HBO, the grim portent of the sex comedy/slasher film glut was never realized).

Friday the 13th (1980) - the darkness breathes at last

The million misogynist manglers that mopped up all the collateral dollar ordinance of 13ths success didn't necessarily see the films they were copying more than a few times either. They just presumed the subject was enough, but both Halloween and Friday the 13th showed--better than anything since Val Lewton--that in horror, the dark is everything. It's also the first things the pan and scanners cut out. So we never saw the true wide darkness during the days of cathode ray tubes square TVs. Therefore, until HD widescreen came around, they were forgotten.

Well now we can see it all in perfect rectangles and all the time, and no movie is ever the same twice; it changes even as the mood and caloric consumption of the viewer, the cleanliness of their glasses, the blackness of their post-work mood, and their ever advancing age and the every higher definition larger scale format, the TV size, one's distance form it, and the time of night, and the fellow audience, if any. I've learned that horror is ideal seen late at night, alone with big clunky headphones and no other lights, ideally while out in the country with no street lights. But it's tough to get to that level - it takes guts. And the main thing is -repetition. The more times we see it, the less scary, so we begin to own our fear, the corners of the attic of the self become lighted even as our exterior world darkens. We take regular trips to every room, armed with butcher knives and fire pokers, poking them into every closet, every room corner, and under every bed. But then, having completed the upstairs we hear a noise downstairs, so we have to start all over again.

But that's called options - we can save the right movie for the right time - and boom - so it's up to us to provide these things. Time and culture can't be depended on. Therefore we must find common threads in any two films we view, and to argue whether these threads are there or not is the only bad investment of our time. Therefore, if you peruse Netflix or wherever, as I do, and see any two movies back-to-back on a rainy afternoon, chosen hastily so as to not have to cede the remote, then you can be sure they're an ideal relevant double feature with common subtextual threads spanning decades, continents and genre listings. Since there is no past now, cinematically speaking, every movie throughout history is available all the time and most looking better now than they did even on the big screen (if you saw them at a shitty drive-in with too much ambient lighting and honking). You can rewind and pause and make stills prettier than you could buy in 8x10 glossies on the street back in the old days. Those were the golden days, but none so good as these, which include the old amongst them, and every day between. What kind of long term damage this day in and day out carnage will do to our souls and sanity of course remains to be seen...and seen again (and never unseen), until our grandsons are putting the remote in our hand over and over but we just keep dropping it, and only then will we know that we are dead, and then not.

You can pay me now!

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