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.