Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

I must admit my project in horror literacy is outlandish and juvenile in many eyes. Sturgeon's law is no exception to my genre of interest, 90% is absolute crap, and I embrace such a reality. However, such a law does not mean to diminish the value of that 10% that strives to join the pantheon of arts. Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974, is a member of the 10% that succeeds in art's eternal struggle to evoke emotion.

I interpret Hooper's success to the employment of the objective correlative, a modernist term to describe art's effect. Championed by T.S. Eliot, this theory of art argues:

"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked"


Unlike the above definition, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as an singular film presents its simple "external fact" at the beginning of the experience, namely that it was a real, historic event. The subsequent mundane dialogue and rural American setting that introduce the doomed protagonists further re-enforce the singular "external fact". This (ir)rational grain of knowledge looms at the back of the consciousness a germinates to a dread that "this could actually happen" within the bowels of the American heartland. Within this structure, the objective correlative horror of individual scenes act by juxtaposition of objects and human senses that become unified by the terminating "external fact" which leads to a dread about our frailty against the madness of cannibalism.  
After corrupting the mental domain of the audience member's mind, the film begins a merciless assault upon sensory organs. Once the date fades from the screen, pure audio clips of scratching shovels and shifting earth begin the tale. Suddenly a flash of light burns the retina with the image of a decaying hand. Visual disgust initiates as the mottled, shrunken fingers shock the audience with the simple image of decay. The flashes, the decaying masses, and the whining of the bulb's capacitors all act to create an unnatural experience of rot but deny the audience a complete image. The sudden change to an orange hued image of a skinless corpse is the final shocking, unexplained scene of the introduction. The rotting skin glistens in the sunlight  signalling, if not a specific smell, the realization that this corpse is an abomination of the olfactory. This introductory sequence finishes its own objective correlative micro-arc with the radio's announcement: "Grave-robbing in Texas is this hour's top news story". At this moment, the audience understands that the camera flashes were the dreadfully unnatural transgression of the living against the dead. 

A second, powerful employment of the objective correlative occurs when Pam follows her boyfriend into the house and stumbles into a parlor with more bones than an ossuary and a single, caged chicken. The dark, ruined homestead is already a site of terror and unknown, but this single room sets up the film's central conflict of cannibalism. Feathers, bits of fur, and bone fragments coat the floor and offer a tactile sensation of filth as Pam falls onto the dirty floor. The single, freightened chicken provides an organic clucking that layers over the horror soundtrack and adds links the defiled room to the American image of the farm. The camera pans over the detritus on the floorboards and finds the bones of a human leg. It follows the familiar forms of leg and arm, creating the expectation of a sitting skeleton. Instead, the surprise is another piece of art, a couch outlined with the human skeleton. The continued panning over cracked turtle shells and swinging parts again offers the tactile sensation of their delicate fragility. Pam's wretching summons the viewer's imagination to construct the physical cringing of the internal organs. The sudden action sequence of Leatherface capturing Pam and carrying her into the "kitchen" climaxes to the most powerful physical sensation in the entire film. The meat hook. I will argue that proprioception, the sense of one's own place in space, is a more primal sense than the traditional five external senses. The ability to "feel" where our limbs exist allows to place ourselves into three-dimensional space. As a result, although we will never be held up off the ground by a meat hook piercing our back, every audience member can sense the pull of their body mass against the hook. Horrified by our own minds creating the self-perception of being hooked, the scene completes its absolute sensory overload. As a last treat, the objective correlative again offers up the "external fact" that this is the home of cannibals, and that the protagonists will be chopped up and eaten. 

The final objective correlative I present is Sally Hardesty's interaction with Grandpa. At this point the audience has been living in an adrenaline typhoon as Sally escaped Leatherface only to be captured and returned by the proprietor of the gas station. The blinding glare of the unshaded lamps casts shadows throughout the dining hall. Gagged and tied, the film's use of proprioception allows the tense audience to "feel" the constraints. After bringing Grandpa, the chair-bound human husk, to the table, the hitchhiker and Leatherface slice Sally's finger (one of the few, explicit moments of blood). The final objective correlative moment in this scene happens simultaneously with the revelation of the "external fact" that catapults the audience into the finest level of dread and disgust; Grandpa begins to suck. At this moment, the audience realizes that the mummified body is still alive. Defying age, the man sucks at the finger like a child sucks the nipple. Vile on basest, Freudian level, the audience can feel the sensation of having their finger sucked. Comprehension of this infantile sensation coupled with disturbing visual of an old man slurping and squirming like a new born throws one "over the cliff". It's the gross-out moment of the film, the horror that simultaneously becomes unbelievable, terrifying, and comic. The horrality

This analysis of the objective correlative is my evidence for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's classification as a masterpiece. The film applies the modernist definition of emotion evoking art by creating scenes that employ all the senses of the spectator. Through sensory overload, the film gains control over the audience and concentrates their emotions to a single feeling of dread for being at the pointy end of society's cannibalism taboo. This dread is not inferior to the emotions created by other art. Just because it may be more uncomfortable than a Beethoven symphony or D.W. Griffith epic  does not justify a label of inferiority. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an overwhelming cinematic force and deserves respect for its ability to make civilized man fear.

Misc. Thoughts

My side thoughts that would not fit within the above essay.
The demonic red chiascuro of the title sequence is beautiful. If this visual aesthetic interests you, consider the contemporary abstract art/horror film Begotten.

 I want to point out the reference to Psycho by using the motiff of family members maintaining the corpses of their elders, in this case "Grandma" and "the dog".

There are essays that consider the parody of the family American dinner table while Sally is tied up. I thought that the attempt to have Grandpa kill Sally is similar to Patrick Star's attempt to get Squidward to hold the jelly-fishing net. Absurd comedy for the win!
"firmly grasp it!"

Finally, the gritty art style,  obvious chain saw-wielding antagonists,  "horror soundtrack", backwater decaying buildings, and use of cannibalistic implications all make me conclude that Resident Evil 4's art direction borrowed greatly from aesthetics of this film.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Horror Literacy: Let the Right One In (2008)

In preparing for this short response, I browsed other internet articles on Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In. Most commentators and reviewers state how LtROI stands out from the pack of 2000s vampire revival culture. I can honestly say I feel removed from that discussion (I know nothing about Twilight and Ann Rice). Instead, this short response considers LtROI's spatial positioning of the vampire in comparison to Murnau's  Nosferatu (1920). Both European vampire films, they rely on the vampire living close to the protagonist's window (Figures 1&2).

Figure 1:

Figure 2:
Nosferatu takes us residence in an abandoned wearhouse that looks directly into the bedroom of the protagonist's girl. LtROI places Eli's apartment adjacent to Oskar's apartment. Axial vs Adjacent. This is the core reason so many critics are quick to claim LtROI is a refreshing escape from other vampire cinema.

The rat-like Count Orlock in Nosferatu defines his existence by lusting over his female victim. His voyeuristic gaze seeks to hypnotize the young maiden to leave her defenseless. As a result, the vampire lives as a horrific abomination in opposition to society. LtROI opens with Oskar looking out the window. He sees his partial reflection and fixates on a bully that harasses him at school. There is not vampiric "other" that gazes back at Oskar, he is all alone in his muted and dreary apartment complex.

I enjoy that the first segment of the film is actually two parallel narratives: Oskar's isolated school life, and Hakan's task to harvest blood as an unexplained guardian for Eli. Compounding the divisive nature of the film is the elderly circle of friends who also live in the apartment complex. The few murderous junctions that propel the plot are the only times they overlap with the young leads. Oskar's school is another isolated narrative that only connects to the vampire plot during the ice skating scene and the final slaughter of the bullies. This division speaks to the vampire's role in an alienated society.

Oskar wants to connect with Eli to remedy his isolation. Morse code through the apartment walls and an failed "blood pact" are two examples of his courage to reach out and befriend Eli in spite of her folklore status as a demonic entity.

Looking at the title, both Oskar and Count Orlock's victim had to let the vampire in, by verbal acknowledgement or physically opening the window. In Nosferatu, the woman believes that only through her sacrifice can she trap the vampire to die by sunlight. She "lets in" the vampire to destroy it. Oskar however lets Eli in to help himself find meaning and love. His undergoes an empowering, stunning transformation by being around Eli. Bopping around his living room, rocking to some tunes while waiting for Eli to finish her shower, he looks five years older in style and motivation. His vampire next door is the gateway into puberty.

No longer does such the blood sucker plague society by existing in opposition to European communities. Instead, the vampire lives at the fringes of our lives, whose monstrosity is secondary to draining self alienation and despair that already infects the population. Instead, her monstrous instincts empower Oskar, the runt of society.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Horror Literacy: The Crazies (2010)

Last Night, I watched Bruck Eisner's remake of The Crazies. I haven't watched Romero's original yet but since the plot, military chemicals altering residents of small town USA, seems to be part of cultural knowledge, there were no real surprises or plot twists. The strength of the film is clearly atmosphere. These Iowans were not caricatures. Their town was a real slice of rural American life. I particularly marveled at the juxtaposition of the mayor's pool in the middle of a flat farmland, an example of rural American pastiche that selectively chooses its comforts. The sudden militarized containment of their humble town gave me shivers. This film, up to the final satellite image, espouses a fear of a faceless military government annihilating a community for the "greater good of America".

Voyeurism is not a new theme in the genre of horror, however, The Crazies distinctly puts the owner of the all-seeing camera into the nameless military. The satellite's computerized gaze shares a lineage with the dreaded panopticon but as a method of execution instead of discipline. Compounded with telecommunications being jammed, the film's rising action prays on the fear of helplessness through isolation.

More importantly, I want to comment on the connection to the zombie genre. I will argue the premise of The Crazies is theoretically more interesting than the common zombie-apocalypse plot. My reason is that two separate, enemy factions for the protagonists creates stronger pacing. There are multiple moments where escaping the threat of the military leads the Duttons and friends into the murderous clutches of the crazies who would be relatively harmless on their own because they are so slow. I see clear connections to video game series that place two enemy factions in the same area as the player's avatar. Such three-way dynamic puts a greater drive for pure survival and escape instead of brute force slaughter. The typical horror conflict of "us vs them" becomes "us vs them vs the government"; a powerful statement in our post 9/11 world where surveillance and military secrecy exist at the fringes of everyday American living.

Horror Literacy: Introduction

I was christened into the horror genre when I saw The Evil Dead at midnight 3+ years ago. Something clicked within my mind in the comfy couch of that little independent cinema. My aversion to blood and loud scares morphed into an attraction to the thrill and humor for the horrifically absurd and the comically gory. And so I began a steady march to watch more horror.

I saw films like Carpenter's The Thing and Videodrome at the Boston Science Fiction Marathon and my seedling began to draw nourishment from such genius. Then in our senior year, my high school friends and I watched the Romero trilogy. Suddenly the entire world of societal commentary became apparent. The greatest horror had messages directly related to society.

Freshman year of college, a class named "Zombies and the Apocalypse in American Pop Culture" appeared in the course catalog and I . Looking specifically at zombie cinema, the class focused on historical and societal messages in horror. Since this class, I've been watching horror with sparing regularity.

With such academic foundation, I now challenge myself to complete my foundation in horror literacy. This project commits me to watch 51 horror films that will elevate me from amateur to aficionado. Here is the list
(strike through denotes already watched) :

The Exorcist
Rosemary's Baby
Texas Chainsaw Massacre
A Nightmare on Elmstreet
The Howling
Friday the 13th (original)
The Crazies 1973
The Crazies 2010
Let the Right One In
Trouble Everyday
When a Stranger Calls
Angel Heart
The Haunting (original)
Eyes without a Face
The Legend of Hell House
The Grudge
Black House
Blood Beach
Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things
Dead and Buried
Dead of Night
Dog Soldier
Dracula's Daughter
Kiss the Vampire
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
Noroi: the curse
The Grapes of Death
The Midnight Meat Train
The Mist
The Unknown
The World, the Flesh and The Devil
Last House on the Left (original)
I Spit on Your Grave

I hope to finish by the end of January. Short critiques and interpretations of each film will follow.