A mark that you’ve made a great movie is when your film spawns a number of imitators. One such movie is The Exorcist.
One such imitator is Beyond The Door. But whilst some imitators are pale and shoddy rip offs, this film is amazing.
Starring esteemed actress Juliet Mills this deals with her posession and pregnancy.
Cue plenty of body horror grossness, surreal scenarios (you haven’t lived until you see her eat a discarded banana skin) and much profanity. Add to the mix a potty mouthed child and you have a great cinematic experience. The film is also beautifully shot and staged. It has a feel all of its own.
Apparently Mills is extremely proud of this movie. And so she should be.
4 out of 5
This is the movie that made me into a major fan of horror and cult cinema in general. I saw this when I was 11 years old on its release onto video. Since then I watched it numerous times and know it off by heart.
With a film so ingrained into my psyche it would have very easy to watch it again for this review and miss out details and nuances that I would tend to subconsciously gloss over. Such is the tendency on watching a film so many times. I have therefore made a real effort to watch this again with fresh eyes and ears and imagine seeing it for the first time. Here goes.
One thing that strikes me is Wes Craven’s subversion of the horror genre. Like Halloween, this film is presented as a teen movie. Tina talking to Nancy about the dream she had the night before is punctuated by Rod talking about waking up with a hard on. The teen girls talk is penetrated (pun not intended) by a horny teen male’s talk of sex. But then Craven subverts the 80s teen genre with the brutality of the following events just like Romero subverted the horror drive in sub-genre with the brutality and pessimism within Night of the Living Dead. ANOES reads like a knowingly atypical 80s teen movie up until Tina’s quite extraordinarily violent demise.
The scene of Glen playing the airplane sound effect tape also plays like a scene from an 80s teen movie. Again, Tina’s death shows that this is no ordinary 80s horror movie depicting teens. Instead it stands out as an intelligent horror film that is just as violent as the most shocking video nasty Mary Whitehouse was trying to ban.
Not only is Tina’s death too graphic for an average 80s horror movie, its also too innovative. Tina literally climbs the walls and ends up on the ceiling. If Lionel Ritchie wants to dance on the ceiling then Wes Craven wants to portray a more realist depiction of the 80s- a bloodied victim being lifted skyward and killed on the ceiling.
Tina’s death also subverts horror film conventions like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead did. The female character we presume to be the female lead is dispatched of early on in the film just like Marion Crane was in the shower and Barbara was made incapacitated via her catatonic state.
Thus it is left to Nancy Thompson to become the film’s heroine. She fulfils all of the classic attributes for being a Final Girl. Where as Tina has been shown to have just had sex with Rod, Nancy is shown as chaste by rejecting her boyfriend Glen’s invitation for a game of hide the salami.
There are several incidents and signs that make Nancy realise the truth about the dream world, whatever happens in it and how elements from this world can be brought into the real world. The burn on her arm during the classroom dream, the single feather she sees floating out of her bedroom window, the cuts on her arm and the appearance of Freddy’s hat she retrieves in the dream clinic are all used for Nancy to gain knowledge which leads to Nancy eventually applying this logic to bring Freddy out of her dream so that he can be defeated. This demonstrates another Final Girl attribute- shes smart.
There is a sequence that shows where Nancy may have got her Final Girl attributes from- her mother. When Nancy is almost killed in the bathtub, Marge deftly picks the bathroom door lock. Maybe this resourcefulness has been passed down from Marge to Nancy. Later in the film Marge confirms Nancy’s Final Girl status by saying ‘You face things, thats your nature. Thats your gift. But sometimes you have to turn away.’ This also predicts the end of the film.
Nancy’s proactive qualities are also shown by her taking sleeping pills and drinking copious amounts of coffee. She doesn’t want to succumb to sleep and potential death until shes hatched a plan and had a crack at defeating Freddy.
This plan also shows Nancy’s Final Girl attributes- and her boyfriend’s ineptitude. Nancy asks Glen to stay awake and stand guard over her. She wants to go into her dream, grab Freddy and bring him into the conscious world. He fails, falls asleep and Nancy is left to battle Freddy alone. The fact that she isn’t killed shows her strength and the fact that she can do this alone. Its also a subversion of horror film cliches. Rather than having a guy defeat the killer, Nancy will do it herself.
There is another example of Nancy’s resourcefulness being highlighted at the expense of inept male characters. Nancy brings Freddy into the real world and as he stumbles into each of the traps she has laid she calls out for help to the cop watching her house. Its only after her repeated screaming for help and saying ‘Get my Dad, you asshole!’ that he says ‘I’d better get the Lieutenant…’ Men are seen as impotent, inactive and ineffective.
The scene which precedes it in which Nancy lays the traps in her house for when she brings Freddy out of the dream sphere. This has to be one of the most empowering scenes in horror history. Craven loves his booby traps with them being an ingredient of both Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. But they have never felt so satisfying as in Nightmare. This is true Girl Power rather than the fake manufactured kind peddled by The Spice Girls in the 90s.
The scene in which she shows the peak of her Final Girl qualities is the penultimate scene with Nancy showing Freddy that she feels no fear towards him anymore and turns her back on him- the ultimate act of power and defiance. She literally takes away his power and becomes all powerful herself.
Freddy Krueger’s cruelty manifests itself throughout the film. This man was a child molester and murderer ‘the most loathsome of creatures’ as Craven said and the seriousness of this isn’t passed over. Freddy likes to inflict harm to himself to disgust and repulse his victims. Hence he slices off two of his fingers when pursuing Tina and slices himself open during Nancy’s school dream. Both of these acts are done whilst smiling sadistically. Freddy seems to revel in the Grand Guignol act he can transform his body into.
There are also signifiers towards the sexual and violating nature of Freddy’s crimes- the scene where he says ‘Come to Freddy’ to Nancy and then flicks out his tongue vulgarly is repulsive in the extreme. Also the scene involves Freddy’s tongue coming out of the telephone receiver demonstrates another violation. The most obvious example of Freddy’s sexual intent of his crimes is when Nancy is in the bath. Freddy’s glove appears from in-between her legs. This scene depicts Nancy as victim in the most vulnerable of situations in the same way that Hitchcock did with Marion Crane in the shower.
And yet these aren’t the only examples of Freddy’s need to violate and invade. He wants to intrude into the different spheres of his victims lives- their homes, schools, even their bedrooms. And yet his biggest violation is the sphere of their sleeping lives. By violating this sphere he can affect their conscious non-sleeping spheres also.
Craven seems to be critiquing Reagan era America within the film. The neighbourhood is shot to look idyllic on the surface- gleaming white houses with no trace of any dysfunction at all. Advertising at this time was saturated with these kind of images.
However, Craven is ironically sending up the images seen so frequently in the adverts of the day. Scratch beneath the surface of the characters living in these houses and theres parents hiding a secret and the lynching of a child murderer after several of their children had been murdered by him. Maybe this influenced David Lynch and his portrayal of small town life in Blue Velvet.
The ultimate signifier that things aren’t quite right in this idyllic town is that whenever the neighbourhood is shown in this Norman Rockwell way, the angelic little girls are shown to be actually jumping rope to a rhyme about Freddy. This is a crack in the shiny veneer of the manufactured lie.
Another way in which Craven is showing the rancid underbelly of Reagan America is through his depiction of the law in the film. Policemen are shown to be either inept and pathetic, sometimes dangerously so. Rod Lane dies in police custody and is of Hispanic descent. This painfully mirrors news stories then and now as this is still a pertinent issue. This is portrayed in the film as the loaded look Rod’s father exchanges with Nancy’s cop father during his son’s funeral when the priest says that ‘He who lies by the sword must die by the sword’.
The example of the policeman who is supposed to standing guard over Nancy outside her house as she brings Freddy into the real world also shows that the police are inefficient and this can result in lives being lost. Institutions valuable to American society under Reagan aren’t functioning properly.
There is also another valuable insight into American society at the time of the film’s production. When Tina is killed in her bed, Rod sees no killer just Tina being killed by an invisible force. This is eerily like a filmic representation of AIDS, the invisible killer that is killing thousands of people in their beds. With hindsight this is telling of the mentality of the Reagan led era- it was decades before Reagan even acknowledged AIDS as a disease that needed to be combatted even when people close to the Reagans such as actor Rock Hudson was dying of the disease.
The fact that the film depicts a female character as resourceful, strong and assertive as Nancy also goes against the female gender role the Reagan era wanted women to aspire to. It wanted women to be wives, mothers and homemakers. They should have no aspirations or ambitions let alone possess or demonstrate any redeeming qualities.
Watching this film again was a treat. I loved the film as a child and my opinion hasn’t changed. The film is multi-layered, insightful and above all a kickass horror film experience.
Heather Langenkamp’s amazing portrayal of Nancy heads a brilliant cast. The photography is stunning as is Charles Bernstein’s menacing synth score. Only the rushed and lacklustre ending marrs the film.
This rightly deserves to be seen as a horror classic.
The first time I saw this I knew nothing about it. My viewing experience was increased massively because of this. Hence I’m not going to disclose this film’s plot in my review. But I will say that this is one of the most warped and fucked up movies I’ve ever seen. If this isn’t enough of a recommendation then I don’t what is.
I first saw this classic when I was a late teen and studying for my A-levels in college in 1994. My friend taped this for me on the same tape as Last House on the Left. With it being copied from a copy the picture and audio were crappy but somehow this added to the experience of watching a film that at that time was banned in the UK.
Watching the film for the first time was a confusing experience. I knew that it was a powerful film regarding the horror aspect of the movie but I wasn’t expecting the humour that the film contained. It truly is gallows humour but its there loud and clear. ‘Look what your brother did to the door!’ barks the old man. ‘Get back in that kitchen!’ he then barks to Leatherface in a bizarre twist on the maternal role of the extended family.
I also wasn’t prepared for the surreal content I was seeing. The end dinner scene with Sally tied down to an armchair that literally had arms. The frantic shots of her eyes and indeed the veins in her eyes along with the buzzcut music that made up part of the soundtrack.
It took me a while for my brain to process and comprehend these components. I then came to grips with the films intention- these elements were like an E.C. Comics publication. If The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of those comics then there would be a lurid illustration of a terrified Sally on the front cover strapped down to the chair during the dinner scene with face shots of the ghoulish cast of The Old Man, The Hitchhiker and Leatherface buried in a side panel.
Indeed, Tobe Hooper has acknowledged the influence of E.C. Comics on the film’s vision. ‘I started reading [EC comics] when I was about seven,’ he told Cinefantastique in 1977, ‘I loved them … Since I started reading these comics when I was young and impressionable, their overall feeling stayed with me. I’d say they were the single most important influence on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’.
The film’s beginning is a well paced introduction to the film’s upcoming events. With hindsight, whilst the build up to the first kill is well paced and crammed full of significant events you realise that this reletively gentle when compared with whats to come. The full horror of the ‘Saturn in Retrograde’ will be discovered at full pelt soon enough. The asking for directions to the old house resplendent with the old drunk/seer sat in a tyre on the ground, the encounter with the garage owner and the humour of the car window screen washer, picking up the hitchhiker and the first interaction with a member of the family, the rundown old Hardesty house with the spiders in the corner of one of the rooms, the old creek that has dried up long ago…most horror films would love these kind of events, visions and plot elements. The audience is already engaged and fascinated.
But then The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t any horror film. With the character of Kirk entering the cannibal’s house a shocking chain reaction of carnage, insanity and psychosis begins. These elements are turned up to 11 and don’t drop down again for the rest of the film’s duration. This film has murder on its mind and will do everything to satisfy this need.
This movie is a physical, mental and emotional assault on the senses not just for the characters but also for the audience. The teens learn this on entering the cannibal’s house. But its not just the teens who have their senses assaulted. So does Leatherface. Hes just as confused, scared and freaked out by these strangers invading his home. But its the teens who are truly powerless and suffer the most. The dinner scene in which Leatherface starts pawing Sally’s hair but then invades her personal space by sticking his made-up dead skin mask into her face is intrusive, disgusting and violating. Tobe Hooper knows this and so turns this into a POV shot so that the audience gets to fully comprehend what the lead character is enduring at this time.
At this point Sally starts gnarling, growling and crying as something emotionally primeval is brought to the surface. Its here that I’d like to celebrate the Marilyn Burns’ performance. Every time I watch this film her acting leaves me breathless. This feat has to be seen to be believed (like the film itself) as she portrays disbelief, terror, resilience and ultimately insanity. I realise that these are just words and do nothing to fully encapsulate this performance. How good is her portrayal of someone steered towards madness? Compare the end of this movie in which the bloodied, bruised and battered Sally is now being safely driven away in the back of a pickup truck to Dana Kimmell’s attempt at trying to portray insanity at the end of Friday the 13th Part 3. One is masterful, the other is half hearted and utterly unconvincing. The bad emphasises the brilliant.
In fact, whilst most horror movies dream of one great performance that goes the extra mile, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has at least five. Burns’ performance is one. The performances of the actors portraying Leatherface, The Hitchhiker, The Old Man and Grandpa all pull out the stops and are batshit crazy and brilliant for it.
Another major reason why I love this film is because no backstory or explanation is given for the family or the events depicted herein. There are clues- the gruesome sculptures made of bones and body parts in the family home (taken from the real life case of serial killer Ed Gein on which the film is loosely based) suggest previous victims, conquests and adventures. The talk of family members being employed by the
local slaughterhouse and being the best at their job also suggests part of the family’s history (and their possible unemployment- the Hitchiker says that the airgun used to kill the animals ”is no good. It puts people out of jobs…”). The Old Man has a garage business as ‘he takes no pleasure in killin’ ” as is later disclosed in the later dinner scene. But there is no clear history given for the family or the events that the film depicts. This lends a massive sense of mystery to the film and gets the audience something to think about long after the film has ended. Explanation would kill this film as it would kill nearly all of the great examples of any genre. I just wish the filmmakers who inflict remakes on the world would take heed of this fact.
On closing this review I’d just like to speak about the availability of this film on home media. I watched the film for this review on Dark Sky’s 4K blu ray. I’ve never seen the film look or sound so brilliant. I never expected this film to get such a loving restoration treatment- but it has and for that I’m eternally grateful. This film certainly deserves it. This release is a far cry from the first time I saw the film on a grainy fifth generation VHS copy.
If you’re a horror fan and haven’t seen this then you can’t call yourself a true fan of the genre. If you’re a fan of film in general the same applies. Let this film get under your skin (pun not intended). Your life will be better for it.
Remember lobby cards? Scenes from film displayed under the main cinema poster. I remember poring over these cards outside my local cinema (The Odeon in York, England) as a kid and trying to imagine the scenes depicted. I even had nightmares looking at some of the posters and lobby cards for certain horror films. And this is where my love of horror and cult cinema began. Happy days.
I bought these lobby cards for £1 (yes, £1!) from a film memorabilia store in London. The kind of play where you would spend hours and was run by reasonable people who don’t overcharge. I picked up loads of film related goodies here including more lobby cards. I’ve just scanned most of these and so theres more on the way. Stay tuned!
The telephone has always held sinister connotations for me. I grew up in a time before mobile phones, when everyone had a landline and telephone systems were positively archaic. This primitive system meant that calls couldn’t be traced easily. This was perfect for every nutjob, crank or serial killer to call you. And this happened to people a lot! These kind of calls were a regular occurrence in our neighbourhood and indeed everywhere.
I also remember reading as a kid an article in Reader’s Digest about how everyday and seemingly innocuous appliances had traumatic effects on a few unfortunate select people. One involved a woman who always went into panic on hearing a telephone ring. This was because on answering the phone years before at her home she could hear her kidnapped husband being tortured.
Its interesting how this phenomenon of different kinds of telephone terror manifests itself in the horror films of the time. This is a further example of art imitating life and vice versa.
One prime example of telephone trauma in the horror genre occurs in the film Black Christmas. This film is seen as a forerunner of the slasher film as it was made in 1974 and concerns a group of sorority girls who are bumped off one by one in the sorority house they are having a party in before they all leave the next day for Christmas.
Prior to this they receive a series of threatening and disturbing phone calls from the killer. In fact to call these calls disturbing is a massive understatement. These calls are so horrific that in the original UK cinema release of the film these calls were cut out of the film. Heres one example.
Another great example of the telephone used to get use is in the masterpiece Halloween by director John Carpenter.
Carpenter lovingly depicts a quintessential small town in America called Haddonfield in Illinois. Everything seems to be completely normal here in an almost Norman Rockwell type way. However the town holds a dark secret. Years before an 8 year old boy called Michael Myers killed his sister Judith with a butcher knife. And on Halloween in 1978 he has escaped and is returning home. And not to go trick or treating.
The telephone establishes the normality painted by Carpenter regarding the town. Teenage girls call their friends to gossip and idle away the time. They also call their boyfriends like the character Annie does. Whilst their conversation turns to carnal delights the threat posed by the returning killer is unseen by Annie as she too busy planning an evening of hide the salami to notice the pale faced boogeyman who lurks at windows and to the side of open doors.
Here Carpenter subverts the quintessential everyday activity of calling a friend or boyfriend. Just as the character Dr Sam Loomis (who presided over Myers during his time in a mental asylum and is now in hot pursuit of him) chillingly tells the town sheriff ‘death has come to your little town’. After this the viewer sees how the idyllic small town charm of atypical Haddonfield is once again about to be shattered and the viewer is made privy to this. The spectator can see the killer lurking behind Annie as she in engrossed in her phone conversation. We are watching the prelude to a massacre whilst the characters are blissfully unaware.
The telephone later becomes an actual tool of murder later on in the film. As Lynda’s boyfriend has begun to act very strange indeed whilst dressed in a sheet like a ghost on reentering their bedroom she calls her friend Laurie. What she doesn’t know is that the person (or should that be entity) hidden from view is actually Myers. Just as she is about to speak to her friend she is strangled with the telephone cord. Laurie interprets this as at first a joke (she had received a call earlier from Annie which she had misinterpreted as an obscene call when all she could hear was chewing) but then decides to investigate further and heads on over to the house opposite where the call has come from thinking that this is another gag by Annie. Here the telephone has directly led to a characters murder by being used as a weapon and has also led another character to curiously enter the house where the murder has just taken place. Two birds, one stone. Almost. Heres Lynda’s demise. ‘See anything you like?!’
When A Stranger Calls was released shortly after Halloween and is based on the ultimate telephone based urban legend- a young babysitter receives a series of blood curdling obscene phone calls that get worse as the night progresses. She calls the police who try and fail to trace the calls to a precise location. As the teenager is close to becoming catatonic with fear she receives one more phone call. It isn’t the nutter whos been making her night of babysitting almost intolerable. Its the police. And they are calling to say that they have discovered that the calls are coming from inside the house!
Whilst this plot device seems cliched these days, back in 1979 this was still pretty fresh as a film plot twist. It was handled by director Fred Walton with noticeable aplomb as the scene builds and builds with palbable tension which eventually erupts into one of the most tense scenes in horror history. In this clip the killer elaborates what he wants with his victim. And the result is utterly chilling.
This scene is interesting as the police are shown as condescending and just a little bit stupid. The fact that they don’t take the victim seriously only adds to the tension. The fact that they can’t trace the call quickly also gives the killer another advantage. The killer has a plan and is in complete control. He uses the telephone as an instrument with which to first destroy his victim emotionally and psychologically and then finish her off when he comes down the stairs. Two out of three isn’t bad.
The filmmakers knew that the ‘calls are coming from inside the house’ was so well known amongst American teenagers that they even used this plot device as central to the films advertising. They reckoned if audiences knew what was a major part of the film they’d flock to see the film rather than thinking that a huge plot twist was being divulged and stay away in droves. The filmmakers were right as the film was a huge success and rightly so. Heres a TV spot for the film.
Whilst this film seems to revolve around the scenes involving the telephone there is plenty more to love it. Its not just the first and last scenes that are remarkable. The killer is played with unhinged brilliance by Tony Beckley who passed away just after the films release. Watch the scene in which his character stands naked in a public restroom and gazes into the mirror. This is one of those performances which really does go the extra five miles. Unhinged, psychotic and utterly brilliant.
Watch also the performance of esteemed actress Colleen Dewhurst as the barfly who has more than a passing air of Bette Davis about her. After witnessing a bar room brawl she remarks ‘I ask myself why I still come to this dump!’ This film is a treat from start to finish and is a masterclass in tension both in the direction and the acting. High five to the location scout too- those shots of the tunnel being built which are part of Tracey’s walk home are so striking and beautiful.
A slasher movie that was made in the wake of Halloween was Prom Night (1980). This film features the great Jamie Lee Curtis and whilst not being as brilliant as Halloween its still an amazing movie. The film is like a heady mix of Carrie, Saturday Night Fever (or should that be Roller Boogie) and yes, Halloween.
There is a sequence in this film that is truly nightmarish as the killer (who could it be?!) calls each of the teenage characters who are preparing for that nights prom. The killer is in a sparse room with just a telephone, a list of each of the kids he wants to call and some gritty mood lighting. Add to this a stern and truly frightening music piece for this scene and you have one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Part of this scene is in one of the film’s tv spots.
1982 spawned a low key and little known oddity in the shape of Murder By Phone (aka Bells). A phone can actually kill people just by them answering it. A madman has perfected a certain frequency that can actually kill people just by listening to it. This movie is camp but also a prime slice of cansploitation that looks great and is played straight. Yes, it was never going to win any Academy Awards for that year but thats a mark of excellence, right?
The kills in this film are really something to experience and here they are.
As the 80s progressed telephone companies began to invest more in being able to track where a call was coming from. A major device used by horror movie directors was now gone. I actually learnt about how phone calls could now be traced from personal experience. It was 1987 and I was 12 years old. Whenever my father went out at night (which was a lot as he had just divorced our mother and was going through a second adolescence if you will) my brother and I surrounded by his friends would scour the local paper for ads placed by readers. We’d then ring the unlucky people with (what we thought were) hilarious results. An example would be people who had placed an ad about a pet that was missing.
Me: ‘Hi. Have you lost a dog?’
Person who placed the ad: ‘Yes I have.’
Me: ‘Is he an Alsatian?’
Ad owner: ‘Yes it is.’
Me: ‘Does he have a red collar?’
Ad owner (now getting excited) ‘Yes he does!’
Me: ‘And he’s called Rover?’
Ad owner (now beside themselves with joy): ‘Yes! Have you seen him?!’
Me: ‘Yes! He tasted lovely’
And this point I’d slam down the phone. Myself, my brother and all of his friends would dissolve into laughter.
I was on a Saturday afternoon not long after that my father spoke to my brother and I. Someone from British Telecom had called. They had traced dozens of prank calls to our number and would be monitoring the phone line for the foreseeable future. If the abusive phone calls continued then they would ban us from having a phone line. We had been rumbled. My father bought a phone lock (we had one of those bright red telephones with a dial where the lock would be fitted) and used it whenever he wasn’t in the house.
Leave it to fellow lunatic John Waters to revive the nuisance call on film. His film Serial Mom contains a sequence in which loving mother and psychopath Beverly Sutphin calls a neighbour, Dottie Hinckley who she hates for being domestically inferior in her eyes. Waters rightly captures the mixture of hatred, dark humour and distress involved to making nuisance calls and receiving them. This is probably the most infamous scene within an already impeccable movie. This scene is like a lovingly sick tribute to the art of the malicious phone call. I understand your love, John.
There have been other horror films about obscene phone calls that were made in recent years but most feel contrived and somehow unauthentic. I prefer the horror films involving telephone terrorism which were made when the threat of such an intrusive and foul act was still a reality for many people.
I’ll ask you again- have you checked the children?!