(Altman posts pending; postings will appear in December due to scheduling conflicts).
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.
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.