The Saw is Matrimony

October 21, 2014 — There are a lot reasons for me to fit Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre into the 2014 Halloween Season. For instance, this year is the 40th anniversary of the movie. In September, it was released on Blu-ray, including a limited edition “Black Maria” version. In August, Marilyn Burns, who played the survivor(ish) Sally Hardesty, passed away. And in May, I visited Texas for the first time and saw the graveyard from the first scene. But the real reason I put Texas Chainsaw on the Halloween calendar is that last year I discovered, to my surprise and horror, that I’d never shown the movie to my wife, Lindsey.

Good thing I already had a Halloween Season gimmick for getting my non-horror movie fan wife to watch intense horror movies with me.

Every season, I introduce her to a classic horror movie and then interview her afterward (so far it’s been The Fly, Hellraiser, and Re-Animator). It was during the Re-Animator interrogation that she casually mentioned that she’d never seen Texas Chainsaw.

This was a massive relationship oversight on my part. I mean, Texas Chainsaw is, to me, the ultimate horror movie. It just nails evil, how bizarre and banal it is, how powerful and pathetic it is, how it’s not something you can squeeze into a plot or pepper around your protagonists. I realize I’m not making complete sense on this one. I’ve never quite been able to describe what it is that I find so true about this movie (although I tried it a little here). One day I’ll do it justice.

Anyway, this year, I remedied the oversight. A couple weeks back we grabbed some drinks and snacks, lit the Halloween decorations, and watched it all the way through, from Larroquette’s narration to Leatherface’s ballet.

ME: So what did you think?

HER: That’s it? It’s over? That wasn’t that bad to watch. It was really good.

ME: I…didn’t expect that answer. Why do you think it’s good?

HER: Mostly because it was beautifully filmed. And had a great pace.

ME: You know, I never really thought about it as a beautiful film. I mean, it has that distinctive grainy-film feel like it was made by somebody who just found a camera on the side of the road. And, of course, the tortuous, sweaty Texas-ness of it all.

HER: Did it win any awards for its cinematography? It should have.

ME: I think it swept the 1974 Academy Awards. What did you know about this movie going in?

HER: Nothing really. I knew it was one of the few movies that you had a collector’s DVD of.

ME: But you’ve heard of the movie, though.

HER: Yes, but I had no idea about the plot or really anything about it.

ME: Right. At one point you said, “Oh, is this where ‘Leatherface’ comes from?” and you meant the name, which you’d heard before, and not the character you were seeing.

HER: Yeah, I’d heard the name Leatherface, but didn’t know where it came from or what he looked like.

ME: What was the worst part of the movie to get through for you?

HER: When he put that girl on the meat hook.

ME: Sissy. Why?

HER: It felt like the movie was about to take a turn into being intolerable, I guess. I thought it’d get worse from there.

ME: It didn’t?

HER: No, not really.

ME: Okay, favorite part?

HER: I like the beginning. How it set the movie up. They pick up a hitchhiker, there’s no gas, they’re trapped. It’s a classic setup. I also really liked the pace of the movie. It didn’t drag anywhere.

ME: What did you think of the movie overall?

HER: I thought it was the fun kind of horror. Not the suspenseful kind that makes me ill. Just fun. They didn’t try to build things up. The killings just happened.

ME: You jumped big-time when Leatherface popped in to take out the wheelchair guy. Why was that?

HER: I think obvious reasons. I knew they were going back to the house, so I thought it was going to be a slow encounter since there were the only two people left at that point. I wasn’t expecting him to be out there and I wasn’t expecting it to go down to one victim so fast.

ME: You keep talking about how fast it was. What do you mean?

HER: I say this about every movie, they’re too long, they need tighter editing. Every movie has boring or obvious sections. This one didn’t.

ME: So did you find the movie scary or horrifying?

HER: Yeah, it was horrifying, the chainsaw, the Texas heat, but it wasn’t terrifying. I feel like I finally got to experience a horror movie the way you experience a horror movie.

ME: What?

HER: You don’t watch horror movies to be scared. You just like them. Horror is fun for you. I never have that feeling because I have such a physical reaction to what I’m seeing and hearing. But this one was…enjoyable. I liked it. For me, horror movies are plots padded out just to turn up the tension. They try to scare you by hiding things, drawing things out, setting you up. This movie wasn’t at all contrived like that.

ME: That’s definitely how I feel about it. It doesn’t try to do anything really to you. Almost couldn't care less that it has an audience. It just is.

HER: What happened to the truck driver?

ME: Ha. Yeah, the big mystery of the movie. Not, "How did this family get this way?" or "What’s up with Leatherface’s gender issues?" It's "What happened to the Black Maria guy?" I do love that last scene, everything from the flight from the house to Leatherface dancing with his chainsaw. So good.

HER: That got me. It was so chaotic, and I thought we were still halfway through the movie. I had no idea what was going to happen next. Certainly not the end credits. Made that scene very surreal.

ME: Let’s see….the movie was 84 minutes long, so not extremely short.

HER: Felt like it.

ME: So do you think the movie deserves its reputation as a classic horror film?

HER: I do. I think it was a really great movie. Like if every horror movie was like this, I would understand why people are so into horror movies. It didn’t make me miserable. I could keep my eyes on the screen the whole time.

ME: Except for the chase scene in the woods.

HER: Oh, that definitely scared me, but because I was anticipating it going really, really bad any second. But it stayed its own course, the way it should have.

ME: But it go "really, really bad," right? The dinner scene?

HER: Well, she was already in a bad situation at that point. The chasing was over. So I kept thinking, “What’s going to happen to make her situation worse?”

ME: So it didn’t get worse?

HER: No, not really. The dinner scene was bizarre, but it wasn’t like the film was trying to gross you out or anything like that.

ME: What about its aesthetic, the whole bones-and-rotting-meatness of it all? Was that hard to take?

HER: The bones and feathers and stuff were much easier to take than the beating sun and everybody sweaty and miserable.

ME: So, you maintain it was fun and didn’t go into intolerable depths. Do you think four decades have dulled it? I mean, I’m wondering if you'd say the same thing if you were a movie watcher in 1974.

HER: Well, it was definitely disturbing. I’m not saying it’s not. But it kept its distance somehow.

Now, I usually don’t write a coda at the end of these interviews, but Lindsey opened my eyes a bit to this movie that has played in front of those same eyes uncounted times.

First, she’s dead-on about how beautiful this movie is. Granted, she’s a big film camera fan, so she’s drawn to that look and feel, but I reviewed parts of the movie again later while grabbing screen shots for this post, and she’s right. There are frames in it that a non-horror fan might feel compelled to hang up in their living room. Maybe it’s easy to tire of the slickness of digital photography or the unending ways you can tweak scenes with computers, but the cinematography of Texas Chainsaw seems honest somehow.

But more important, this “seeing a horror movie like a horror fan would” surprised me. It’s true. None of my favorite horror movies disturb me (except in a detached, philosophical way). None disgust me. None scare me. But I will push them as great horror movies until someone slams a gravestone on my head.

These are the horror movie that stay good past the shock. Like the Universal Monsters. Like Psycho. Like some of the early slashers. Anybody can tie up a victim and torture them. I mean, on film. That’ll make us uncomfortable every time. But to do so in the context of, not even a great story, but a great, lasting effect, that’s the art. That’s what makes a horror movie last.

And Texas Chainsaw never relies on the easy horror tropes that make us squirm. There’s hardly any blood. No sexual assaults. No drawn-out gore. No child endangerment. It doesn’t make us like its characters as a set up to making their later deaths worse. Characters aren’t the point. The effect is the star. And that effect is what lasts when the shock of it has been tamed by time.

And that's the greatness of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Suddenly that scene in Summer School where they’re watching Texas Chainsaw seems more profound than goofball.