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.

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