The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974
Dir. Tobe Hooper
“Exclamations/interjections,screams/interruptions,interrogations/on/the putting into question/of/the Last Judgment”-Antonin Artaud, To have done with the judgment of god.
One of my interests in film lies at the strange intersection between exploitation and art film and perhaps nowhere is that move evident than in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. From it’s jittery voice over, the apocalyptic sun spots of its credit sequence, to its gorgeous ending, the film has the ambitions of something greater than sensational drive-in fare.
(more after the break)
“Our spiritual anarchy and intellectual disorder is a function of the anarchy of everything else-or rather, everything else is a function of this anarchy.” Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, 79. This is from, perhaps, his clearest definition of his Theatre of Cruelty (No More Masterpieces), and this “spiritual anarchy,” referred elsewhere as a sickness, hunger, or (as interpreted by later writers) homelessness, was what his Theatre was to cure.
Aside from the apocalyptic sun spots of its credits, the radio in the van during the road trip recites the wars, violence, and chaos of the world outside of the rural setting of the film, serving as something of a chorus. The missing bodies from the graves, others artistically displayed as abject sculptures, suggest an end of the world; a profane resurrection.
It is not much of a stretch to apply Artaud to a film like TCM, except that it is, a film and not a work of theatre. His theatre would hold attention “at first by crude means,” as part of placing the spectator in he middle of the spectacle. TCM accomplishes this by placing the viewer in a privileged situation, via the voice over, knowing beforehand that what they are watching has, in some temporality, already taken place. A similar situating of the spectator is doubled in the infamous and celebrated dinner table scene. In this essay, after the crude, follows the importance of sound: “sonorisation is constance: sounds, noises, cries are chosen first for their vibratory quality, then for what they represent” (81). The unique sounds and the avant-garde score, fits this proscription.
Aside from the score, the most notable thing about TCM is its lack of blood. Viewers, in retrospect, seem to recall the film being uniquely violent. But there is only one scene of explicit bloodletting (the hitchhiker). Everything else is not just implied, but transferred via bizarre push ins and shots of feathers, ambiguous structures of bone, spider webs, etc.
“A violent and concentrated action is a kind of lyricism: it summons up supernatural images, a bloodstream of images, a bleeding spurt of images in the poet’s head and in the spectator’s as well…the violence and blood having been placed at the service of the violence of the thought…the superior use of the state unused by the action and which, restored, produces purification” (82).
One of the other elements of Artaud’s theatre was a borrowing of the foundational myths. TCM is really more a Grimm’s fairytale than an adaptation of Ed Gein’s murders. Only instead of a huntsman you have my favorite character in any horror film ever: the Mack Truck driver.
The framing of TCM as a cinematic Theatre of Cruelty serves not only to rescue it from its many, many imitators, but also to prescriptively ask why did more than half of every horror film after borrow its structural template, but stylistically why have few, if any, other horror films followed suit?