A Horrifying Sight: Capturing Perspective in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE

•26/10/2014 • Leave a Comment

26 October 2014

The psychological damage, done to both the characters and viewers, is truly the most frightening part of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).  As the film opens, a cryptic crawl appears on the screen, “The film you are about to see is an account of a tragedy….”  From there, a black, ominous screen.   A camera’s flash.  Body parts.  Back to the black, ominous screen.  More flashes, and more decaying body parts, and more blackness.  Although little movement takes place in this prolonged opening sequence, fear sets in.  Why?  Well, there is no clear view of what is on the screen and no indication of when the next flash will come.  Not to mention, there is no way for viewers to guess what grotesque evidence of human mortality the next flash will reveal.

This opening highlights exactly how The Texas Chain Saw Massacre will terrorize its audience: by manipulating sight.  Jumping between blindness (the dark) and glaring evidence of brutality and decomposition (the flash) is exactly where the opening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes viewers.  Although the film struggles to maintain such a wrought degree of tension throughout, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is able to bookend itself with an equally diabolical conclusion, which echoes the opening’s emphasis on sight, and ultimately leaves viewers wishing to be blinded by the darkness once more, but, instead, witnesses to sights more terrifying and inescapable.

After opening crawl and darkness punctuated with flashes of light, the film cuts to its narrative, one in which a group of teenagers traveling through Texas unknowingly wander into the home of family of men, three generations of slaughterers, who also have a taste for human blood (quite literally).  The teenagers are killed off rather quickly, and violently: one of the females is hung up on a meat hook, while some of the males are decapitated with a chain saw.  The sole survivor, the “final girl,” Sally (Marilyn Burns), is also chased by the killer (Gunnar Hansen)—who wears the mask of a human face—but her cleverness and speed suggest she may get away.  That is until she is tricked into accepting help from the killer’s father, who inevitably takes Sally right into the family home where his son awaits.  In one of the most twisted and perverted final scenes, Sally, strapped to a chair (an arm-chair, literally, because the arms of the chair are actual human arms), dines with the masked killer, his father, his brother, and his decaying grandfather (who dines on Sally’s blood).  When it comes time to kill Sally, the attempt goes awry, giving Sally one final opportunity to escape the warped madhouse and its equally demented maniac inhabitants.


The entire middle of the film is uneasy, but rather tame, only abruptly punctuated with a handful of horrific deaths.  However, the dinner scene at the end, arguably the film’s most memorable scene, calls on the type of psychological terror explored in the film’s opening sequence.  The opening, rather overtly, comments on seeing.  Viewers are teased with macabre images; teased because, in the opening, viewers are as frightened of what they don’t see (the darkness) as what they do see (in the flashing light).  The dinner scene also comments on seeing as overtly.

Tied to the “arm-chair,” Sally is trapped in a darkened room of horrors.  To capture her psychological unravelling, as she endures unrelenting torture from her captures, the film cuts to shots of Sally’s eyes.  The cuts are sudden extreme close-ups and often follow shots from Sally’s own point of view.  That is, the film breaks the fourth wall in making one of its repeated shots during this dinner scene Sally’s perspective at the table, but then jumps to shots of her bright green eyes, wide and full of fear, as they dart around at the cast of killers around her.




The cuts to Sally’s eyes highlight that the most terrifying part of this experience is Sally cannot cover her eyes; she is looking straight at death, a gruesome and brutal death, and it is very close, figuratively emphasized by the proximity the camera is to Sally’s eyes in the extreme close up.  But, because the cuts to her eyes are intermixed with cuts capturing Sally’s point of view, the shots of her eyes are actually mirror images of viewers’ eyes.  Viewers are Sally, both when the shots are from her point of view and also when viewers are eye to eye with Sally, as though they are looking in a twisted, fun house mirror.



And, these shots of Sally’s eyes are haunting and difficult to see.  Her eyes are large and bloodshot, and sometimes the camera closes in on one or two distinct red veins in her eyes.  Like Sally, the eyes are vulnerable; they cannot bear what they see, but they also cannot look away.  Also, and still considering the shots of Sally’s eyes unique reflective shots of viewers’ own eyes, viewers are in the same position as Sally: the audience cannot bear what they are seeing, but they cannot look away either.

Filming from a character’s point of view is not a new technique for horror films, not even in 1974, but pairing those point of view shots with shots of the perspective’s eyes is much more original and interesting. From the crawl, the film warns audiences that viewers will “see…a tragedy.” Assuming this film was like so many others, viewers would simply have to witness horror, but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre attempts to heighten the experience; viewers are not simply seeing horror happen to a character; viewers take on the character’s role, and therefore the horror happens to viewers, a much more affecting and sinister manipulation of sight.



•19/10/2014 • Leave a Comment





Tunnel Vision: Indirect Communication and Bold Lighting in SHOCK CORRIDOR

•12/10/2014 • Leave a Comment

12 October 2014

The film opens with a doctor (Philip Ahn) adjusting his framed diploma, which hangs on a wall in his office.  Through the frame’s glass, the audience’s first impression of the doctor is indirect; viewers only see the doctor’s reflection.  The shot cuts to Johnny (Peter Breck), the antihero, seated on a coach in the office as the doctor questions him.  Although the camera does capture Johnny directly, Johnny is side-lit, meaning half of his face is flooded with light, but the other half is in complete darkness.



The first shots of a film are significant.  Typically, they foreshadow plot, reveal background information, and/or capture mood of the film.  In Simon Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), the first few shots of the film communicate to viewers that deceit and secrecy are pivotal elements of the film.

First, meeting a character initially through a reflection often communicates that the character is deceitful and withholding truth(s).  The doctor’s appearance is hidden from the audience upon the first meeting; figuratively, he cannot face the audience.  Why is that?

Moreover, Johnny is only half lit; half of his face is concealed from the audience.  Side lighting is very different than shooting a character through a reflection (the doctor), but, like the doctor, Johnny is not being direct with viewers.  Part of him is openly on display, but an equally sized part of him hides in the shadows of the lighting.  Again, why is that?

As this opening scene progresses, the audience learns that the doctor is not treating Johnny for the incestuous feelings he claims to have for his sister; the doctor is coaching Johnny to fool other doctors into thinking Johnny is sexual aroused by his sibling. In Shock Corridor, Johnny is a reporter trained to infiltrate a mental asylum, by pretending his is insane, in order to solve a murder which occurred inside the institution.

Therefore, retrospectively, viewers see the doctor indirectly, through the glass, because he is lying.  Through a reflection, the audience recognizes the man as a doctor, but cannot clearly see that his questions to Johnny are not authentic, but merely a rehearsed test.  And, Johnny is side lit because he is keeping his true self hidden during the doctor’s questions; he shows half of his face, but is lying, thus leaving most of his face, his true identity, hidden and unlit.

This indirectness continues after Johnny enters the asylum, with the mask Trent wears and in the superimpositions of Cathy (Constance Towers) dancing on Johnny’s pillow as he sleeps.  Like the doctor’s introduction through the reflection, Cathy’s superimposed dancing is not direct communication.  These images of Cathy are Johnny’s manifestations of her, as a stripper, threatening infidelity and defiance.  Like the doctor who was not who he appeared to be, Cathy is not who Johnny dreams her to be in the superimposed scenes.



Nevertheless, Johnny blurs the line between reality and fantasy, as well as his own sanity and insanity, justifying a continued use of indirect filming techniques, climaxing in Johnny’s actual mental breakdown, which is shown clearest through a Technicolor, powerful image of rushing water. Figuratively, this powerful rush of water floods the scene as Johnny finally loses his ability to control his own mind. Like the aforementioned techniques, the cut to stock footage of rushing water is another way the film uses and indirectness as a technique.

And so defines Shock Corridor, a film that specializes in indirect communication and experiments in dramatic, bold lighting (particularly around Johnny) to consistently communicate the striking juxtapositions between truth and lies, sane and insane, and right and wrong.

The dramatic and bold lighting used to capture Johnny in his establishing shot continues.  As Johnny receives electroshock treatment, his doctor is in complete darkness.  This is a rich, valuable use of intense lighting.  First, this lighting connects to the film’s juxtaposition between truth and reality.  The doctor, literally, is in the dark at this moment; he thinks Johnny is mentally unstable and therefore needs his help, but the doctor has no idea Johnny is lying.  Thus, the doctor in this shot, quite literally, is in the dark.


And, this bold lighting also connects to the film’s attempt to juxtapose sanity and insanity.  The doctor is completely fooled into believing Johnny is insane, but (at this point in the film) he is not.  Therefore, the doctor, the one trained in sanity, acts more insane that the patient because he cannot distinguish insanity from educated pretend.   In this shot, the dark is the place of insanity, just as that dark side, insanity, existed in Johnny right from the start, in that doctor’s office, ultimately overtaking him in the film’s conclusion.


•05/10/2014 • Leave a Comment



Turning a Blind Eye: Seeing DOGVILLE

•28/09/2014 • Leave a Comment

28 September 2014

Set in a small Colorado town during the Great Depression, Lars von Trier’s 2003 film, Dogville, tells of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious and potentially dangerous stranger who happens into Dogville (the town) seeking refuge from gangsters hot on her trail.  The citizens of the town agree to hide Grace for a trial period, and, in thanks, she tries helping out the citizens with chores: cleaning, visiting, gardening, etc.  As time goes on, the people of Dogville welcome Grace, but when the gangsters reappear searching for her once more, conflict mounts.  The citizens begin abusing Grace; feeling entitled to treat her like their slave because they are hiding her from danger. The men rape her, the women torture her, and even the children take a hand at tormenting the mystery woman. Even her closet friend, Tom (Paul Bettany), becomes abusive.  When Grace tries to escape the town, she is literally shackled with an iron collar and chain, preventing her from fleeing.  Eventually, when conflict peaks, Tom calls the gangsters, willing to give Grace over to danger for reward money.  What the citizens of Dogville do not realize is Grace’s father is one of gangsters; he is not looking to harm her; Grace’s father wants to reunite.  After speaking privately with her father, and gaining a new perspective on the evils of Dogville and its citizens, Grace orders the gangsters to kill the people and burn the town.


From one perspective, Dogville is a film about sight, filled with references to blindness, misperception, and concealment.  First, there is a blind character who absolutely denies he is blind, that is until Grace tricks him into revealing his “condition.”  Also, there are several references to what the people of Dogville think they “see,” such as when a character “sees” Grace and Chuck having sex.  This was misperceived because Chuck raped Grace. Then there is what overtly hides from sight in Dogville.  Grace hides from the mobsters in the film; she is in Dogville so she will not be seen.

So, what is it all for?  In one of the most visual mediums of storytelling, what is the film saying about sight by highlighting blindness, misperception, and concealment?  Well, one possible reading is that the film is, ironically, warning about the dangers of turning a blind eye, misperceiving situations, and concealing by creating a “blinding” experience for viewers. In Dogville, von Trier conceals something in plain sight, something the audience spends the entire film misperceiving until the film’s conclusion.  That something (or, more pointedly, someone) is Grace.


Jumping straight to the final hour of the film, the citizens of Dogville rape, abuse, and torture Grace. As a result, the audience feels anger and sadness for her; viewers see Grace as the victim of the darkest side to human nature.  And, in the end, through an epiphany realized by the way the moon’s light shines on Dogville’s flaws, Grace decides to burn Dogville and kill all its residents.  As a result, what does the audience see happen?  Justice for the wrong done to Grace?

The reaction the audience wants in the conclusion is justice.  Grace was victimized and her abusers must face a consequence for their heinous actions.  But, are they served a conscionable consequence?

When Vera breaks all of Grace’s figurines and tells her, if Grace does not cry after the first, Vera will not break another, knowing that Grace will not be able to control her tears, Vera is torturing Grace.  Yet, when Vera receives her consequence—having her children shot in front of her and being told, if she does not cry, the next may be saved, knowing a mother will react to her child’s brutal murder—this consequence is unacceptable.

The audience does not see justice at the end of Dogville.  Why?  Because, by the end of the film which has consistently drawn viewers’ attention to sight, both literally and metaphorically, Dogville allows viewers to see Grace for the first time, and she is not the character viewers thought her to be.


Metaphorically, the blind man represents viewers.  He pretends to see, but he does not.  Viewers pretend to see Grace, willingly forgetting that, from the moment they first meet her, Grace is in hiding; her existence is about concealment, making it impossible to truly see the mystery woman.  The audience does not actually see Grace until she is found by the gangsters in the film’s conclusion, and the Grace viewers finally see is not the heroine once hoped for; not to lessen the severity of the citizens’ behaviors, but Grace is as calculating and, perhaps, more shrewd than any of Dogville’s citizens.

The final shot of the movie is of Moses, the town dog.  Up until this shot, Moses was represented via audible barking; no animal was ever filmed.  But, supporting a reading that the film’s conclusion reveals sight, as viewers are able to Grace for who she really is in the film’s climax, von Trier also allows viewers to see Moses.  Like Grace, Moses was with viewers all the film; he was a character who emerged at the exact time as Grace; yet, it is not until viewers finish the film’s journey and realize their own blindness can they see Moses.

On some level, Dogville is a statement that people wear blinders, perhaps by choice, and not being careful about what one sees can be dangerous.  It was dangerous for the citizens of Dogvillle.  And it is alarming to viewers who realize, at the very last moment, their film’s heroine is actually another villain.

Dogville Photo:  Framegrab


An Idiot’s Guide: HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (or a Poor Man, Criminal, Liar, Etc.)

•21/09/2014 • Leave a Comment

21 September 2014

Obviously, and unoriginally put, Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire is problematic for women.  In today’s world, this film is outdated and the humor is lost; however, in its day, 1953, this film was celebrated as a romantic comedy, a demeaning and oppressive comedy about women, marketed to women.  Essentially, this film is about three single women who create a “bear trap,” meaning they set-up a façade of wealth to attract millionaire husbands.  Setting the trap involves lying and cheating, not to mention using their feminine wiles to seduce the objects of their desires.  And, in the end, each woman marries, but each decides to pick love over money; yet, ironically, the bear trap worked because two of the three women did, in fact, marry millionaires.


The real problems in the How to Marry a Millionaire revolve around the film’s representation and treatment of women.  Some limiting and degrading claims asserted by the film are: women’s only goal in life should be marriage; women are jokes; and women who step outside their traditional role in society must be corrected.

First, the three women in this film never aspire for any more in life than a husband.  Not one has a career objective; not one communicates any inkling that her success or happiness could be achieved without a man.  And, in the film’s narrative, how could any of these women be fulfilled and accomplished without a man?  These three women live in a man’s apartment, work as models for a man (where they model only for men), and devote their lives to attracting men; in How to Marry a Millionaire, it is a man’s world, and so the female characters in the film exist only to find a man to care for them.


Furthermore, the women are the comic relief of the film.  Although each woman is unique—Schatze (Lauren Bacall), clever and hardworking; Pola (Marilyn Monroe), sweet but completely naïve; and Loco (Betty Grable), foolish yet fiery—each is reduced to one role, gold digger.  Despite their differences, which actually offer each of them independence from the others, the film eliminates their uniqueness by fitting each women into the same money-hungry category.  And, as gold diggers, these women are the butt of all the film’s jokes.  Pola, for example, is too vain to wear her glasses, convinced “men are not attentive to girls in glasses.”  She is so blind without her glasses she literally walks into a wall at one point in the film.  This moment, of course, is pure comedy, but it is the woman, the gold digger, who is the punch line of the joke.  Or, in the film’s conclusion, when Tom reveals himself to be a millionaire, all three women fall of their stools in shock.  The men stand up and “cheers” to their unconscious wives. A final crack at the women the film spends the entire time making fun of.


According to film theory, female characters who break from the standard representation of “woman”—typically by trying to manipulate a man or assert her dominance/power—are punished by the end of the film, either by transforming her into the traditional representation of a woman or by killing her off.  This typically happens in the thriller and drama genres; however, even in How to Marry a Millionaire, an inferred punishment awaits all three women.

Sadly, the fiery Loco marries a firefighter.  Read on a slant, the marriage marks the end of Loco’s sassy, outspoken disposition, as her husband exterminates fire.  Pola finds her happy ending with Freddie, who also wears glasses and encourages her keep her spectacles on.  Trouble with this union is Freddie is a criminal.  He, quite literally, tries to kill someone just before the film’s conclusion, according to Pola.  Considering she now wears he glass (which means she will see things more clearly, both literally and figuratively) and that she met her murderous husband while reading the book Murder by Strangulation, Pola’s future does not look very good.  Lastly, there is Schatze, the only character of the three who actually marries a millionaire.  Shatze is clearly the smartest, most resourceful character in the film, but she, unexpectedly, ends up with a man as dishonest as she is.  Her assertion of power, as the ringleader in the entire film, is tamed by her husband who will always, because of his financial and business dominance, control her; she is transformed into a housewife…the role she wanted, then did not, but is now stuck with.


Again, this film is a classic, but is not as celebrated today as some of its contemporaries because its ideology about women, men, and marriage is uncomfortably outdated.   Nevertheless, it is interesting to look back at films of yesteryear, with a contemporary lens, and investigate how these films help perpetuate and shape society’s expectations.  In this case, the 1950s mentality about a woman’s role is evident.  Although some argue the film is trying to poke fun at the way women are stereotyped, the film also does a fine job contributing to the stereotypes itself, hence the problem with How to Marry a Millionaire.



Written in the Wind

•15/09/2014 • Leave a Comment




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