Friday 18 July 2014

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 40th Anniversary Restoration @TheRoyalCinema & FantAsia 2014 in Montreal - includes presentation of Lifetime Achievement Award To Director Tobe Hooper

Born: March 4, 1947
Died: November 7, 2015
On the occasion of a painstaking restoration in honour of the films's 40th Anniversay, I hereby present a preamble, a personal reminiscence of my first taste of the blade, on a big screen, on film, some 38 years ago:

I first saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on May 6, 1976 at Cinema 3, the long-gone Winnipeg art cinema at the corner of Ellice and Sherbrooke, tucked within a cool little one-block-strip that housed the Prairie Allied Booking Association (film buyers for hundreds of small-town movie theatres), Canfilm (where most 16mm feature film prints were stored and shipped out of) and the Winnipeg branch office of Universal Pictures (which hawked the studio's films to hardtops and ozoners in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario). Cinema 3 was my home away from home during my teen years and was where I saw actual film prints of the very best in classic and contemporary cinema.

On this gorgeous spring night, a few days after my 17th birthday, I drove downtown from North End Winnipeg to see a double bill of Andy Warhol's Frankenstein by Paul Morrissey (aka Flesh For Frankenstein) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I'd seen neither film at this point. The Warhol film was first released when I needed my Mom and Dad to take me. Though my folks were surprisingly liberal and took me to see anything I asked them to, I'd oft-bestow some mercy upon them and not request their adult accompaniment to movies I knew would probably disgust them.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had thus far eluded me. The only first-run engagement it had garnered in Winnipeg was at a drive-in movie theatre before I could legally drive a car. Though the notorious horror film found its natural home in drive-in theatres, I'm happy that my first taste of it was at Cinema 3, the birthplace of so many of my cherry-popping alternative-to-the-mainstream movie experiences.

And I can assure you, my memories of seeing it for the first time are vivid. I was as horrified and sickened as I was energized. Gooseflesh overtook my body, as much for the sheer terror the movie generated, as for its dazzling virtuoso filmmaking. Shot after shot, cut after cut, I knew I was seeing something I'd never seen before. I experienced my hair standing on end in ways that had never before coursed through me in all my seventeen years on Earth. When the last frame of picture cut-out abruptly in the famous Leatherface chainsaw ballet pirouettes at the end of the film, I felt like I'd been socked in the solar plexus and left breathless.

I remained rigid in my chair, still clawing the arm rests on either side of me until the lights came up and I was forced to stagger out into a clear-skied, pitch-black Winnipeg night, rip a cigarette out of the deck in the front pocket of my plaid hoser shirt, jam the fucker in my mouth, light it and suck back the toxins into my body, fuelling it with as much nicotine as humanly possible.

I knew I was hooked. I knew I'd have to see it again.

And again.

And yet again.

To that end, a couple of years later, I had begun working in the movie business as a film buyer, programmer and film critic. I not only kept seeing movies at Cinema 3, but on Friday afternoons I'd head on over to the little film plaza next door to have lunch at a nearby strip club with the Universal branch manager and a couple of old bookers from Prairie Allied. Once properly fed (usually Salisbury Steak with boiled potatoes drenched in watery gravy) and soused (on several shared bottles of Gimli Goose), I'd stroll into Canfilm to borrow 16mm prints of whatever movies were lying around the shipping room for the weekend, then drive them home to screen on my Bell and Howell Autoload projector.

Occasionally I'd borrow a 16mm print of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to watch on my own or to introduce to friends. These home and/or cottage screenings were often outdoors with a white sheet over a clothesline for a screen. One memorable screening of the 16mm print occurred in the odd home of former mercenary soldier and actor John Lansbury. Longtime Guy Maddin screenwriter George Toles accompanied me to Lansbury's creepy digs - a boiler room and apartment on the roof of the ten-story Ryan Building in downtown Winnipeg. The gents were suitably impressed. Lansbury's only comment was a grim, "The man who made this film, obviously knows and understands meat."

A couple of years after that, when programming my own repertory cinema, I played the masterpiece endlessly, often stepping into the auditorium to watch the movie with hundreds of shocked (and usually stoned) audiences.

In those 38 years since I first saw the film, it's been an important part of my life.

Frankly, I can't imagine a world without it.
* * * * *

It's ALWAYS about the MEAT!!!
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) Dir. Tobe Hooper *****
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Jim Siedow, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal,
John Dugan, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Robert Courtin, John Henry Faulk, John Larroquette

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"There are moments when we cannot believe that what is happening is really true. Pinch yourself and you may find out that it is." - A horoscope read aloud during The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

What hit me when I first saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is how brilliantly the movie is sectioned into two separate, yet inextricably linked halves, the first being a simple narrative set-up for its especially harrowing second half. Creepily building during the first 40 minutes, with occasional exclamatory jolts of violence, the picture delivers a solid bedrock from which it plunges you headlong into the second 40 minutes, a relentless nightmare on film. This is not a passive experience - you're slammed deep into the maw of pure, sheer, unrelenting terror.

Beg all you like. The nightmare never seems to end. When it finally does, the utter dread and revulsion generated by the whole experience stays with you forever. This, of course, is not because of the gore, or the extremity of the violence, but rather because the tone of the movie is so unlike anything you will have experienced. Even with all the slasher films, torture porn and moronically graphic remakes that have assailed contemporary audiences over the past decade, none of them come close to the disquieting power and intelligence with which The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so astonishingly infused with. As they say, this one's for the ages.

The film opens with the de rigueur 70s white on black credit crawl, read aloud by a sombre off-screen narrator (John Larroquette - yes, the John Larroquette). The slow, methodical accent he places expertly upon such words as "tragedy" and "invalid brother" is undeniably creepy, but when he places an almost lugubrious emphasis upon the words "had", "very, very", "the mad and macabre" and finally his halting, deliberate and portentous tone and rhythm of the final words of narration, the title of the film itself, you're pretty much convinced, before you see even one frame of picture, that you'll be expunging more than a few bricks o' waste matter. (Larroquette's full narration in cutline to photo below.)

The full text of John Larroquette's sombre narration,
over black as the titles crawl slowly upwards:
"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."
Once the white light of the credits disappear, we're left in pitch black and begin to hear heavy breathing, sounds of digging, tearing, ripping and sawing until we're jolted out of our seat by the sound and image of a flash bulb going off. We remain in the black, but every so often, the sounds of flashbulbs signal brief images of the most grisly kind until the tinny sounds of a transistor radio broadcast the sound of a news report as we fade slowly up from black into the blazing sun and we peer into the face of something utterly horrendous as the camera slowly pulls back to reveal a sight that's equally sickening.

The news report describes what we're seeing as the top Texas news story until the movie dissolves into a title credit sequence up against extreme closeups of the sun as it emits solar flares and the newscaster continues with more news - all of it of the disastrous variety: oil spills, suicides, various acts of criminal activity. Ultimately, things are not right in the world. They're especially not right in the great state of Texas.

The sun roils violently as the heavens overlook our fair planet and we're introduced to a world that seems completely off-kilter. We meet our protagonists in short order, five twenty-somethings in a van, out for a Sunday drive. Sally (Marilyn Burns), her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), Sally's boyfriend, Jerry (Allen Danziger) and another couple, Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn), have stopped to investigate the site of the aforementioned grisly discovery. Franklin is left alone in the van and he peers out through the open sliding door on the side to see a raft of law enforcement officials, reporters and local citizens buzzing about.

Franklin's eyes turn to the ground, where lying askew and unkempt is an old drunk (John Henry Faulk) who looks upside down at the chubby, sweating invalid peering down at him. The old man chortles manically and gurgles out the following creepy words of portent:
"Things happen here abouts, things they don't tell about. I sees things, but they say that it's just an old man talking. You laugh at an old man? It's them that laughs that knows better."
There's no two ways about it - shit is going to happen and it's not going to be pretty.

The film follows our van full of young folk as they drive out to an old farmhouse that rests on property owned by Sally and Franklin. On the way, they make the mistake of picking up a smelly, facially scarred hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) waiting outside of a slaughterhouse.

Their creepy passenger regales them with tales of how cattle used to be slaughtered. "They did it with a sledge," the creep says with a big grin. "The cows died better that way."

After passing around photos of butchered cattle, the hitchhiker performers a painful ritual upon himself, then instigates an altercation (of the shocking and violent variety), until he's tossed out of the van and our young people make the unwise decision of pressing on. Even more unwise is that they're seriously low on gas and when informed by the proprietor (Jim Siedow) of a gas station that his tanks are dry, they decide to press on - not before, purchasing some tasty Texas Barbecue for their sojourn.

The proprietor, who lives in a near-abouts farmhouse, is one hell of a good cook. A glimpse of his BBQ oven inside the gas station reveals an open closet-sized, oak-paneled chamber, glowing with deep reds and oranges from hot coals and filled with hunks of delectable, glistening meat. This is a site to behold. It almost makes you yearn for some good, old Texas BBQ. That said, your cravings to eat will not last long (unless you favour an upchuck or two whilst watching the movie).

Once the young'uns get to the old family homestead, Kirk and Pam excuse themselves to go take a dip in an old swimming hole out back. Sally and Jerry romp about gleefully in the house whilst crippled Franklin remains alone on the ground floor, chewing on his greasy BBQ sausage, expressing consternation at being abandoned and spitting out odd little bits of gristle.

Damnation! What in the hell is in that sausage anyway?

But, I digress.

When Kirk and Pam arrive at their destination, they're disappointed to discover that the swimming hole is dried up, but happily, Kirk spies a nearby farmhouse that appears to be powered by a noisy, powerful generator. He and Pam saunter over to buy some gas for their van.

This proves to not be the best idea he's ever had.

When Kirk and Pam don't return, Sally's boyfriend Jerry goes looking for them.

This also proves to not be an especially good idea.

As darkness descends, Sally and her crippled brother are alone near the van, honking the horn and screaming out the names of their chums. What's really anxiety-inducing is that the keys are not in the van. Do they wait or does Sally go looking for them, pushing fat Franklin over the rough terrain in his wheelchair while he holds the flashlight in front of them?

Given what we already know about what's thus far transpired, we're kind of hoping they stay put and maybe hide quietly in the dark until it's daytime again. That would make the most sense, but if they did that, then there'd be no movie.

Building on what's preceded thus far, it's here where The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shifts gears into sheer, panic-inducing and completely experiential overdrive.

The nightmare begins.

What this eye sees,
you do NOT want to see!
In many ways, I think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a perfect movie. I really have no idea precisely how many times I've seen it all the way through, but I suspect it has to be at least 50 full viewings. Not once over the 38 years since I first saw it has the film disappointed. It always delivers, and then some. The movie goes so far beyond what once would expect from a low-budget horror movie marketed to drive-in theatres and grind houses.

Its richness is beyond belief.

At the forefront is Kim Henkel and director Tobe Hooper's terrific screenplay. As mentioned, they've created a structure that shouldn't work, but does (and with flying colours). What contributes to making the separation between narrative and experiential so successful are all the superb details they've layered the screenplay with.

Firstly, there's the whole notion of the sun, moon and planets. Speckled throughout the film are references to the weather, time of year and the various ramifications of the astrological and planetary signs, my favourite being the whole "Saturn in retrograde" motif. Pam is the astrology nut amongst the group and is glued to her horoscope book. Given some of the strange events happening in Texas, she reads the following aloud:
"The condition of retro gradation is contrary or inharmonious to the regular direction of actual movement in the zodiac, and is, in that respect, evil. When malefic planets are in retrograde, and Saturn is malefic their maleficies are increased."
Pam is chided by her friends for her beliefs, yet within the overall context of the film, they'd have all been far wiser to heed her. Then again, she might have also fared a touch better if she herself had adhered more closely to this dire prediction. After all, this is an astrological period when individuals should be assessing their motives and needs and most importantly, to learn when they MUST say no or yes. Alas, several missteps are taken by our protagonists with respect to this. Where the script shines, is that our villains also push against the natural order of things and they too face dire circumstances.

Planets in retrograde are an especially interesting phenomenon. From the perspective of an Earth view, these planets actually seem to be slowing down and moving backwards, their orbit reversing unnaturally. The screenplay is replete with such skewed perspectives from both the protagonists and antagonists. Within the context of the more narrative-based first half of the film and especially during the second nightmare half, the perspectives of the characters and, frankly, even our perspectives as audience members seem to be spinning in reverse, though they are, in fact, moving forward.

The other interesting aspect to Hooper's and Henkel's screenplay is the family dynamic of the antagonists. There's Grandpa (John Dugan) the grand, old patriarch who is reduced to a wizened infirm state and sits mostly alone with the mummified corpse of his wife and family dog. In spite of this, his grandsons worship the ground he hobbles upon - after all, Grandpa was a legendary slaughterhouse worker when cattle were killed the "old way" with a "sledge". He was, as one of the boys says, "the best killer there ever was."

Separated at Birth?
LEFT: Milton Berle, famous comedian
RIGHT: Actor Jim Siedow as the "Cook" in TCM.
The three brothers take on a variety of domestic roles. The hulking, mentally retarded Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) is possibly the real heir apparent to Grandpa - his prowess with a sledge hammer and a chainsaw are unparalleled and yet, he fulfills an almost feminine hausfrau role, donning a female wig and dolling up his mask made of dried human flesh with oodles of makeup and lipstick.

All the performances in this film are extraordinary, but none more so than Gunnar Hansen - adorned in that insane mask, his is a truly physical performance. He has to convey so much by how he moves - it's truly an astounding piece of physical acting. How Hansen renders the acquiescence of Leatherface to his brothers, the lowering of his head in the dining room, his hunched back, his submissive shuffle in the house, and of course, his mad dash through the woods as he tears after Marilyn Burns.

I love how Hansen gives us that iconic little hop-dance when he needs to stop and turn a corner is not only genuinely terrifying, but hilarious at the same time. Hansen's squeals, yelps, hoots, gurgles, the deep breathing and his mouth open, just so, as he licks his lips to moisten them - there's just so much to his performance. No dialogue, a mask on his face and yet a fully formed character with all manner of traits to make him a genuine person - albeit a scary motherfucker you'd never want to run into.

Hansen delivers a genuine nightmare on two legs.

The other brothers have their own delightful peccadillos. The Hitchhiker is clearly the family hothead, whilst the gas station attendant is, within the perverse context of this family of killers, the voice of reason. The Hitchhiker taunts him with insults like, "You're just a cook." The "Cook's" considered response is the simple, "I just can't take no pleasure in killing." Always the voice of reason, of balance, he adds, "There's just some things you gotta do. Don't mean you have to like it." (That actor Jim Siedow resembles Milton Berle, perhaps on crack cocaine, is a major bonus.)

The screenplay is also rife with the most morbid black humour and it's this aspect of the writing that keeps the film always compelling and entertaining. The horror is occasionally tempered with some of the most hilarious actions and lines of dialogue. One of my all-time favourite moments NEVER fails to make me scream with laughter. After beating Sally viciously with a broom handle. tying her up, shoving a potato sack over her head and forcing her into his truck, "The Cook" starts the engine, looks over to an open door and the light pouring out from inside, turns the truck off, races back to the gas station office, flips the lights off and locks the door. Once he's back in the truck, he looks over at potato-sacked Sally, and like some cross between a Southern gentleman and down-home sage, he remarks, "Sorry to keep you waiting, young lady. I had to lock up the shop and turn the lights off. The cost of electricity these days is enough to drive a man like me out of business."

He's fat, detestably obnoxious
and a cripple in a wheelchair.
One of the best elements of the writing is the deft strokes used to define all the characters and even going so far as to accentuate negative characteristics in the protagonists (victims) and near-positive traits in the villains. The character that is, by far, the most bravely written (and beautifully acted by Paul A. Partain) is that of Franklin, the invalid. Larroquette's opening narration places a great deal of emphasis upon Franklin being handicapped and how tragic it is that this crippled young man is subjected to the indignities of this horrific scenario, but that he suffers several indignities, is utterly hilarious.

Franklin is horrid. He's a whining, spoiled and nasty young man and whether he's seen taking a tumble on his wheelchair down a steep ditch while he's trying to pee, or having his fat arm sliced open with a straight razor or even his brutal encounter with a chainsaw, he's the butt of innumerable sick jokes. And damn, if he doesn't deserve it. Franklin is easily one of the most detestable victims in any horror film. There's no sentiment here in his being crippled. He's a complete asshole - pure and simple. When he finally gets what's coming to him, we're slapping our knees with uncontrollable laughter.

From a purely technical standpoint. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a triumph. The art direction is out of this world, especially the way in which the farmhouse of the psychopaths is dressed. It's replete with such sickening touches as human body parts adorning the furniture (at one point, Sally is forced to sit in a chair wherein the arms are literal human arms that have been severed) and every nook and cranny seems layered with years of filth, blood and all manner of viscera. At times, the grime is so odious that you can almost smell how thick and foul the air is.

The makeup, special effects and gore are first-rate. There's nothing digital here, it's the real thing. Hooper and Wayne Bell's score and the latter's sound design work is a thing of absolute wonder, jangling your nerves and sticking resolutely in your craw. Daniel Pearl's cinematography is so stunning, both in composition, lighting and movement that it's hard to believe this movie was made for practically nothing. Even when you adjust for inflation, the base budget of this film was $60,000 and it not only puts virtually every low budget film ever made to shame, the dazzling imagination and virtuosity of this film makes even mega-budgeted work look like crap. Shot on gorgeous 16mm reversal film stock and recorded magnetically, then mixed for an optical track, there are few films that look and sound as good as this one.

Finally, though, it is Tobe Hooper's bravura direction that is the real star here. There isn't a single moment you aren't on edge and in the final half of the film, you will experience a nightmare on celluloid. There terror is relentless. It goes on and on and on and then, when you think you can catch your breath, forget about it.

You know the dreams well. Those dreams where we're pursued and no matter how hard we try to elude our pursuer, we simply cannot. Then, within the nightmare itself, we pass out. Coming to, we think we're waking from the nightmare until our eyes focus upon a few details and something's just not right and then, out of nowhere, a sound or action pierces our space and we're once again, smack dab in the middle of that which we think we've escaped.

You'll know the aforementioned nightmare logic when you see it in the film. It's at the family dinner table and it creeps you out beyond anything you've ever experienced in any movie. There's no escape. Not even when the nightmare ends. For me, this movie is so great, I never want the nightmare to end. I'm more than happy to live it over and over again.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been painstakingly restored from its original 16mm reversal stock via 4K digital means. It plays in limited release and at film festivals. Please see it on a big screen. In Canada, if you live in Toronto or Montreal, you have no excuse to miss this great film on the big screen. In Toronto the film unspools at The Royal Cinema until July 23. This grand old neighbourhood movie cinema, converted into sound mixing studios and screening venue features the most impeccable sound, picture and acoustics. For showtime and tickets, visit The Royal website HERE. In Montreal, the film screens at the illustrious FantAsia 2014 on July 30 at 9:45 PM in the Concordia Hall Theatre. The film will be preceded by the presentation of a FantAsia Lifetime Achievement Award to none other than Tobe Hooper. Visit the FantAsia website for tickets and info HERE.