Leatherface and Me- Growing Up With (and Without) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Leatherface and Me- Growing Up With (and Without) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the cinema the other day. It’s been a long road but I feel like I’ve had my own personal journey with this horror masterpiece. After years of not being able to view the film, it grew in my mind to almost mythic proportions. When I finally got to see the film, was it worth the wait and would it live up to the hype?

From the very beginning, there was a massive amount of controversy with the film in the UK. On its original planned cinema release it was banned outright by the BBFC. However, those were the days when local councils could override the BBFC’s official decisions and so, whilst some local authorities agreed with the Board’s decision, a number decided to allow screenings of the film.

The advent of home video would give the film a new, albeit brief, lease of life. The film was originally released on video in 1981. But in 1984 the Board decided that all videos had to be classified by them and so for three years or so the film could be rented and viewed in the privacy of one’s home. My father actually remembers seeing the film on video, an occasion which I wasn’t privy to. Maybe he had decided to watch it when I was safely tucked up in bed. My Dad’s attitude to me watching horror and violent films from an early age was rather laissez-faire, to say the least, but maybe even he thought that the film that had such a shocker of a title would be too much for me to take at such a tender age. When he spoke about it, he did so as if to say, ‘Yes, I saw that film!’ accompanied by a startled look on his face. With such a backhanded compliment I now regard my not being able to watch the film with the rest of my family as akin to some kind of child abuse.

TCMPreCertCover

With the Video Nasties’ moral panic, TCM was promptly banned. However, the parents of a friend of my older brother owned a local video shop and so, as many video shop owners did back in the day, they didn’t return any of the newly banned videos they were asked to take off their shelves. I got to see The Evil Dead via this route but my friend never showed anyone TCM as she had seen it and was truly traumatised by what she had witnessed. With this knowledge, the legend surrounding the film grew even bigger.

IFSTCMCover

There was an excellent film in the 80s called Terror in the Aisles which was a compilation of the juiciest bits of horror movies that were segued by legends Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen. Within the movie were clips of TCM along with scenes from another withdrawn classic, The Exorcist which meant the Terror in the Aisles was essential viewing. The scene in which Pam stumbles (literally) into the room covered with chicken feathers and adorned with bizarre home furnishings was included and was so perfect that the fact that the full film couldn’t be seen in the UK meant that I hated the BBFC even more than I already did.

TerrorVideoCover

As I then started to get into punk rock I saw a picture of Johnny Rotten wearing the stickers given away to the patrons of the original screenings of TCM that were being shown in London against the BBFC’s wishes. The Sex Pistols had seen the film and were endorsing it on their ripped clothing. It must be something really shocking and I needed to see it, like, NOW!

TCMStickerTCMJohnnyRottenIt wouldn’t be until 1994 when I would finally get to see the film from start to finish. My friend Tom has scored some horror classics that he taped onto two blank videotapes for me with the jewel in the crown being TCM (the others were Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust and Driller Killer). And so that’s how I got to see the film- a copy that had been copied from a copy that had possibly been copied numerous times before with diminishing quality each time. The picture was fuzzy, some facial expressions were a bit hazy and fine detail was very much lacking. But hey, here was the film! And I loved it! But whilst it was and is such an intense and unnerving experience, there was something that I hadn’t been told about and hence wasn’t expecting- the humour. ‘Look what your brother did to the door!’ was one such moment. Another was the moment in which the garage owner takes the time to go back inside to turn the lights of his garage off just after he’s kidnapped Sally after explaining that the cost of electricity these days could send a man out of business.

Something that also caught me off guard but that I loved was how much the film felt like the most surreal and violent EC Comic that just so happened to have been turned into a film. The film was lurid, colourful and surreal.

Skip forward a few years and I’m living in London and have just completed a film degree. The Institute of Contemporary Arts has curated a festival of film screenings in which still banned horror titles could be legally shown for one day each after getting the green light from the BBFC. One of these films was TCM and so I could finally see it on the big screen.

TCMICATicketStubMeathookCinema
My original ticket stub for the ICA screening

But it was a wider release shortly after this and without the OK from the Board that would lead to the film being legalised. Just as years before local councils could usurp the Board and show films anyway, Camden Council decided to show the film at a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue (and rather cheekily just a few streets away from the Board’s Soho HQ). I didn’t know about these screenings until I was walking past the cinema and my eyes jumped out of their sockets as I saw the poster. Camden Council even had their own certificate of ‘C for Camden’ for the film. I had planned an afternoon (and night) of drinking in London’s more salubrious gay bars but waylaid this to take an excursion into Hell first. The screening was amazing and the sound had been turned up to deafening levels. It really did feel like me and the two other people in the afternoon screening (that’s right, there were only two other people in the whole cinema!) had undertaken a traumatic experience together and as the film ended we all glanced at each other, nervously laughed and then exited.

TCM1999TicketStubMeathookCinema
My original ticket stub for the 1999 screening

It would be these screenings that would persuade the BBFC to reexamine their classification of the film and agree to pass it uncut with an 18 certificate. Another significant factor in these proceedings was that James Ferman had retired as Head of the Board. It was during his tenure that he had tried to cut the film to finally get it released. But he concluded that there was nothing that could be cut as there was very little gore and such an underlying sense of constant tension to the film that made it impossible to cut. So basically he was ensuring that the film remain banned for being a horror film that was too effective as a horror film. Ridiculous. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the film was then passed.

The film was duly issued in the UK on both video and DVD by Blue Dolphin in 2000.

TCMBlueDolphinDVDCover

But a funny thing happened just before this release. With the advent of the internet, there was a website called Amazon (you may have heard of it) that was based in America where loads of horror movies were available uncut and could be bought and shipped to the UK. This was very much a game of chance with some films being seized by customs and some not. The films that were confiscated bizarrely included some titles that weren’t even banned in the UK at the time. The artwork of other VHS and DVD titles that boasted of their notoriety were being let through (the box artwork for The New York Ripper proudly stated the number of countries the film was banned in but was amazingly let through by customs to the ever grateful horror fan who had ordered it). I ordered the Pioneer DVD of TCM which was chock full of special features such as a director’s commentary and blooper reel and it got through. Yeehaw.

PioneerTCMDVDCover

With such a film as TCM now being available, there was only one direction in which the releases from now on could go and that was to restore the film so that it could look and sound as good as possible. But with a film like TCM which has always had a grimy and gritty look to it, would these new restoration programmes mean that the film would lose some of this grit and dirt and look completely different?

Dark Sky picked up the film in the US and cleaned up the visuals and audio significantly for a 2006 DVD release. Suddenly, details that couldn’t be seen before were now visible. It was akin to layers of grime being lifted from a classic painting. There were also oodles of special features and presented in a 2 disc steel book to boot. And more importantly, the look of the film didn’t suffer one iota because of these new efforts to make the film look and sound as good as it possibly could. The film still sounded like it always had with the bassy and subhuman tremors experienced still present but now sounding even more unearthly. 

TCMDVDSteelbook

With the advent of Blu ray as a format and then 4K, this meant that even more work could be done on the film and even more care taken to present and preserve the film as the cultural force it had become. Again, Dark Sky took up the task and released a 4 disc Blu ray edition of the film, complete with a 7.1 Dolby remix (along with the original mono soundtrack for the purists) and all of the special features imaginable (3 discs worth to be precise!)

TCM40thCover

And it was this print that I saw the other day at a cinema that was state of the art and with the biggest screen I’ve ever seen this side of IMAX. It was ironic that I should be watching the film in such a beautiful cinema with gorgeous leather seats and state of the art projection equipment when the film would originally have been seen and experienced in grindhouses and Drive-Ins across America on its first run. But did the film still hold up in such surroundings? You bet it did! There was even nuance that could be only be picked up on the mammoth screen and details that could only be heard within the 7.1 remix that couldn’t be picked up in mono (the film gets gradually louder and bassier as the action goes on) with the latter part of the film being the hellish (in a great way) experience that all TCM fans know and love. 

ODEONThorpeParkLeedsScreen

So, as you can see my journey with TCM has been long and winding but so rewarding. The film being banned and then passed uncut and then released on new formats and after extensive work has been done on it has meant that the makers of the film have certainly got their dollars worth from fans like me. But the pleasure of snapping up each new release has been an absolute pleasure and I’m so happy that the film can be appreciated and savoured by future generations. TCM will always be in my list of my Top 10 favourite films. The wait was certainly worth it. 

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 31- Onibaba (1964)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 31- Onibaba (1964)

A mother and daughter in law (named in the credits as ‘older woman’ and ‘younger woman’ respectively) are waiting for their son/husband to return from the war he’s fighting in. A soldier named Hachi who fought alongside him comes back to tell them that in fact he saw him killed. He then starts having a torrid affair with the daughter against the wishes of her mother in law. This is going on in secret although the mother in law knows all about it and is jealous. All of this continues until…well, that would be telling!

Breathtaking cinematography, a great plot, amazing acting and imagery that will stay with you well after the film has ended!

Onibaba

This film was banned outright when it was first submitted to the BBFC and then released heavily edited. It’s now acknowledged as a classic with it being on the Criterion collection.

A classic.

***** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 29- Carnival of Souls (1962)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 29- Carnival of Souls (1962)

A teenage drag race goes dreadfully wrong with one car being forced off a bridge and into a river. From the car a woman, Mary manages to escape and clamber ashore.

However, Mary’s life after that isn’t the same. She seems to see ghostly figures when she seemingly disassociates herself with everyday life that is going on around her. One example takes place on a bus when she sees seemingly dead people coming for her. The film very creepily plays with space and time and does so without warning. The film is just as disconcerting and disorientating for the audience as it is for Mary.

CarnivalOfSoulsBus

The ghostly figures she sees seem to be led by a man (in reality, the film’s director Herk Harvey) who seems intent on somehow coming for Mary to take her somewhere as yet unknown.

CarnivalOfSoulsHerk

Mary is a church organist by occupation but even this is affected now with her only playing the kind of funereal pieces that in the future The Cure would be playing in 1981. Yes, they’re that bleak! One priest who hears her playing stops her and deems her playing as ‘Profane! Sacrilege!’

Add to this a very sleazy and creepy housemate who gets off on perving on her as she gets out of the bath and won’t let up.

CarnivalOfSoulsMary

The action builds up to an ending that actually takes place in an abandoned fairground. This all adds up to a truly great cinematic experience. There are sequences of this film that are far removed from anything I’ve ever seen in a motion picture before or since. The haunting photography, the use of some sequences such as a dancing scene in the carnival being sped up, the way the film takes the audience with Mary as she enters her limbo world where the dead walk and stalk her.

The idea of a limbo world between life and death was also brilliantly explored later on in the classic movie Don’t Look Now. Carnival of Souls went on to influence George A Romero who said that it was a huge influence on Night of the Living Dead as did David Lynch on Blue Velvet. The influence of the film can also be seen within the better parts of the Goth movement. The sequence where the undead run after Mary on the beach feels like a fantastic Goth version of something from a Fellini film.

CarnivalOfSoulsPipe.jpg

Carnival of Souls is an anomaly in cinematic terms, a one-off which is like no other. It’s also a masterpiece. I’m so glad it wasn’t forgotten. It was restored and released cinematically in 1989 after it’s original 1962 release and is now on the Criterion collection on Blu ray alongside the best of cinema. And rightly so!

***** out of *****

Review- Jojo Rabbit (2019) *****

Review- Jojo Rabbit (2019) *****

Jojo is a proud Hitler Youth member. He decides to go on a weekend for fellow brainwashed enthusiasts. However, after a (very funny) accident with a grenade he finds himself hospitalised. At home recovering he discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home. He confides this to his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (!)

This film is actually a comedy! An off the wall, zany and irreverant comedy that works beautifully. It was a massive gamble to make such a film in such oversensitive and ‘woke’ times. And it was Disney of all studios that made Jojo Rabbit! Should such a terrible period from history be depicted in such a chirpy and comical way? Should Hitler be portrayed as such a goofball within the film? YES! Whether it’s Mel Brooks (who said he loved JoJo Rabbit) with The Producers and it’s musical Springtime For Hitler or Joan Rivers making her controversial joke about the Holocaust on Fashion Police, humour reaches the parts that more earnest and serious pieces of ‘art’ can’t. It forces you to laugh at whatever is the target of the joke is and then analyse why you laughed at something that you normally wouldn’t see as comical.

17abacb1-3abd-4584-b266-6cfb6fd1e29a-large16x9_jojo1200

Whilst most critics have lauded the film, there are peripheral pundits who have either said that the filmmakers have gone too far (How dare they make a comedy starring Adolf Hitler?!) or that they didn’t go far enough (How dare they make a film about Nazi Germany and not show the full horror of what happened?!). The Guardian hated the film which is another reason for audiences go and see this gem of a film.

But, understandably, everything depicted in the film isn’t just for laughs. There are plenty of gut-wrenching moments when the full horror is brought home to the characters and audience alike. These poignant sequences aren’t milked for all their worth and this makes them all the more powerful and genuine. There were a couple of pivotal scenes which made me fight back tears. These scenes were played out for what they were without the whole film descending into a tissue-soaking cry-a-thon which would have cheapened and devalued the movie’s content.

The film also looks beautiful with set designs and a colour palate that makes Jojo Rabbit a feast for the eyes. This film is beautifully constructed. Jojo’s room, the house in which he resides, the cubby hole that houses Elsa and the surrounding environs are all aesthetically pleasing and a joy to behold.

 

026_JR_03406_CC

Also, check out the framing. Every scene feels just as quirky, off-kilter and as warped as the narrative. Watch out for the scene on the giant steps and the later scene with it’s emphasis on a character’s shoes and how this motif is used later on in the film in an extremely heartbreaking but dignified and tasteful way.

The soundtrack is also fantastic with The Beatles’ German language version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand (‘Komm, gib mir deine Hand’)  and Bowie’s Helden leading the way. In fact, these two rather obscure (to English eyes anyway) versions of well known songs normally heard in their Mother Tongue depict the whole feel of the film- off kilter, eschew and very original.

There are uniformly amazing performances by the likes of Roman Griffin Davis playing Jojo, Scarlett Johannsen as his mother, Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa the Jewish hideaway and Sam Rockwell (great to see him taking more risks with his choice of roles after starring in the ultra-woke and unbearable Three Billboards). Also, look out for Stephen Merchant as a very sinister Nazi inspector. He reminded me of The Demon Headmaster. But it’s director and screenwriter Taika Waititi who plays Adolf Hitler who steals the show. Every scene that hes in is comedy gold as he depicts Hitler as a kind of bro/dude best friend to Jojo. His lines and mannerisms are laugh out loud hysterical.

tenor

4 parts humour, 1 part sentiment, this film has a power that will seep into your brain during it’s running time and stay with you long after the film is over. In fact my first thought on leaving the cinema was that I wanted to see it again.

I feel privileged to have seen one of the best films of 2020 on Jan the 1st of this year. A cracking start to a new decade of movies.

5 out of 5 stars

 

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre- 31 Days of Halloween- Day 1

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre- 31 Days of Halloween- Day 1

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.

10682990
The eyes have it- Sally’s hysteria

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.

marilyn-burns-texas-chainsaw
The armchair dinner scene

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’.

tales_from_the_crypt_24
An example of an E.C. Comic- gaudy, surreal and terrifying in equal measures

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.

to-serve-man-is-a-cookbook
In your face. The invasion of personal space and assault on Sally and the audience’s senses

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.

1410845
Insanity lived rather than acted. The greatest performance in horror history?

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.

aa469413930d9404a6b96b205c013b31
‘Say (head) cheese!’ A family snapshot. No backstory, all the better for it

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.