From Psychopaths To Exorcisms
From Psychopaths to Exorcisms: A look at the most influential horror films of the latter part of the 20th Century.
From our earliest years we use our imagination to see ghosts where there are only shadowy shapes, ponder the existence of supernatural beings or even the devil, we are inquisitive into the unknown and have an innate fear of isolation from our peers.
Horror films are designed to invoke terror, panic and unlock our worst hidden fears. Watching a horror film allows us an opening into another world, an outlet for the essence of fear itself, without actually being in danger. They deal with our most primal and honest nature: Our nightmares, our vulnerability, our alienation or revulsions. They deal with our fear of death and dismemberment, loss of identity, fear of sexuality or inability to explain the unexplainable.
Horror films developed from a number of sources: folktales with devil characters or witchcraft, fables myths and ghost stories as well as Gothic or Victorian novels by way of Mary Shelley or Irish writer Bram Stoker. The very first known horror movie was only about three minutes long and produced by imaginative film maker Georges Melies, entitled ‘Le Manoir Du Diable’ (1896) or The Devil’s Castle and contained strong vampirism elements. Throughout the early existence of horror films, through necessity their themes generally reflected this aspect of supernatural fear. They were usually set in spooky old mansions, castles or shadowy locales. The main characters ranged from supernatural or grotesque creatures, including vampires, ‘Frankenstein’s’, demented madmen, ghosts, monsters and even mad scientists. However, as the genre-evolved film makers were forced to come up with more sophisticated ways to terrify their audience.
The 1960’s marked a definitive change in mainstream American cinema. With the collapse of the Hollywood Studio System came a weakening of censorship laws. Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ was the first film of many to depict violence and horror in a blatant and graphic manner. The title itself was a colloquial term used in the fifties and sixties as an adjective to describe the violently psychotic the suggested the imminence of a new generation.
The film was based upon Robert Bloch’s original novel that in turn was inspired by true events surrounding the Wisconsin mass murderer, Ed Gein. In 1957 police, whilst investigating a suspected robbery police arrived at Gein’s dilapidated farmhouse intent on questioning the recluse. Once inside they bore witness to one of the most astonishing and gruesome crimes of the 20th Century. It emerged that Gein had both killed and mutilated his victim’s bodies. There was evidence of recently dissected carcasses, humans’ skulls and genitals perfectly preserved in jars as well a suit made entirely of human skin. The perpetrator was subsequently arrested. Through examination revealed the extent of Gein’s madness and clues to his evolution into a monster were identified. It was identified that Gein was born to an alcoholic father and a fanatically religious mother in 1906. His father played no part in his upbringing and subsequently died prematurely. Gein’s primary influence was that of his mother, whom was bossy, domineering often verbally abusing both Gein and his brother believing they were destined to become failures like their father. They led a reclusive life isolated on the farmhouse; their mother reluctant to even let them go to school. Ed Gein was a very impressionable child and took everything his mother said to heart. This environment left Gein socially and emotionally retarded. Gein formed an unhealthy attachment to his mother and upon her death, finding himself alone in the world (his brother died in somewhat suspicious circumstances during childhood) his dementia began to take hold.
Gein, now alone in the large family farmhouse was free to pursue his most twisted fantasies and over the next decade perpetrated some of the most horrific and gruesome murders of the 20th Century. The case became one of the most notorious in American crime history and his name synonymous with the epitome of evil. The model of this story subsequently caught the eye of numerous filmmakers throughout the latter part of the 20th century. Perhaps the first example of movie making to portray the psycho killer is found in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Hitchcock was determined that Psycho break all the conventional boundaries. It contained a frank depiction of sex and violence unlike any mainstream film that preceded it. The story itself lends to the concept of a ‘psycho – killer, but centres around our doomed heroine – Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a woman so desperate to start a new life with her charming, but broke lover Sam Loomis she seizes on an opportunity to steal $40,000 dollars from a frivolous businessman and flees with the cash. After driving in torrid weather for a number of hours she decides to hold up at the Bates Motel. Having exchanged pleasantries with the motel owner, the naive, but strangely unsettling Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins in a quite astounding performance) she retires to her room. The audience are given a glimpse into Marion’s obvious guilt over her crime she states that she ‘has fallen into a personal trap’ and wishes to redeem herself. However, before she is granted the opportunity she is murdered in terrifying and horrific fashion. The story then evolves, with the subsequent investigation around her demise, identification of her killer and the reasoning behind this somewhat motiveless attack Hitchcock’s Psycho keeps the audience constantly guessing as to just what will happen next.
Prior to the release of Psycho Alfred Hitchcock was known as ‘the master of suspense without horror’, with the release of Psycho Hitchcock challenged the perceptions viewers and critics had of his films. The idea of a psycho – killer, one which was able to commit murder without rationality and reasoning was a new social phenomenon (one the public had recently experienced in the case of Ed Gein) and the very idea terrified the public. It has been documented that the public’s reactions to Psycho were as extreme as, fleeing the cinema in disgust, sheer terror, having patrons vomit in the aisles and several states in the U.S.A threatening to boycott screenings of the film. Many critics’s strongly disliked Psycho upon its initial release and rejected the film. They were unhappy as they viewed the film as a departure from traditional hitchcockian film – making. One critic reported at the time, ‘there is moral of any consequence …… in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho…He is simply attempting to lure us ……… and then make us jump with sudden acts of violence.
From an examination of the film itself, even forty years on, I can appreciate the controversy Psycho initiated. The performances by both Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins are mesmerising. As the villain Perkins is unsettling and creepy. His faux naïve innocence, icy stare and bizarre peculiarity leave an indelible imprint on the viewer. His love of taxidermy and seeming unnatural relationship with his mother all encompass a general fear of uneasiness whenever he is present. It is interesting that Perkins was being groomed by Hollywood studios as a leading man in the same vein as Cary Grant or James Stewart, however after his performance as the psychotic Norman Bates he would be typecast for the rest of his career. His performance as a transvestite serial murderer shows Hitchcock’s belief in the public’s changing social attitudes towards acceptability in cinema. However, the very essence of the character would have caused immense controversy amongst his audience and critics.
Psycho contains some of the most visually unsettling images in the history of cinema. The most notorious of all being the image of Mrs Bates in the cellar. It was previously believed that the decaying corpse was placed in actress Vera Miles dressing room to test its ‘scare factor’. Suffice to say the desired effect was achieved, audiences were petrified as to the visual impact of this scene as never before had they bore witness to anything as shocking on celluloid. The scene itself draws stark association with the case of the Wisconsin serial murderer Ed Gein. It is believed that after she died, he preserved his mother’s corpse and possessions in the house and even would dress up in her clothing. The sight of a maniacal Norman brandishing a butcher’s knife, speaking in his mothers voice, wearing her clothes and wig charging down the stairs of the Bates home towards Lillian Crane with murderous intent provokes extreme panic and terror with the audience.
With the release of Psycho, Hitchcock provided one of the most iconic cinematic images ever to grace the silver screen – that of The Bates Motel. The creepy house and hotel are ingrained in Hollywood legend influencing almost every major motion picture which required the image of a warehouse, abandoned factory, house, hotel or any dilapidated building to this very day. The sight of Norman Bates venturing up the hill to ‘check on mother’ sends chills down the viewer’s spine, as we all are fully aware something evil lurks within that gothic residence.
‘The most infamous scene ever shot’ is perhaps the only way to describe the grisly demise of Norman’s first victim, Marion Crane. The ‘shower scene’ is one of the most shocking scenes, of any motion picture in the history of film. The impact is unforgettable partly because the audience has no idea it is coming. Once Janet Leigh steps into the personal and claustrophobic environment the audience are immediately thinking, ‘Great we are going to see a woman in the shower.’ They are lured into a false sense of security. Then suddenly a vicious attack from an unknown assailant proves fatal. The scene itself was shot over seven days and there were seventy camera set – ups for forty five seconds of film. The original idea was to have a torso constructed and have blood spurt away from the knife, but Hitchcock instead chose to use a live stand in and merely suggest to the audience the events occurring. This was achieved through a montage effect of shots. There is no violence in the scene it’s all implied through good camera angles, clever music and artful inter – cutting. Bernard Herrmann’s score was both strident and bone – chilling and gave a major contribution to making this scene one of the classic moments in horror film history.
Through the character ‘Norman Bates’ Hitchcock gave audiences a portrait of the most disturbing screen figure to date. As the films narrative structure unfolds we learn that Norman Bates is psychotic. Aside from his crimes there is little to distinguish him from the everyday man. Though a little timid he seems perfectly nice, if even a little mundane and lonely. This as previously stated draws direct comparison with Wisconsin serial killer and is echoed in the last line of the film ‘ he wouldn’t hurt a fly.’ To the audience this very concept implies there is a subculture of inherently evil and sadistic people within society whom are capable of the most horrific crimes. This very concept was most shocking to the audience as in stark contrast to previous horror films the killer is not presented as a monster or supernatural being, but a regular person.
In order to ensure a mainstream release Hitchcock had to fight with the censorship laws of the day to ensure his picture was made as close to his vision as possible. Knowing full well the ‘shower scene’ would be considered too graphic and gory if shot in full colour he took the decision to shoot the film in entirely black and white. In 1960’s America cinemagoers were used to a somewhat limited amount of violence compared to today’s standards and it would be considered out of the question that the audience view the actual penetration of flesh. With long time collaborator Bernard Herrmann he devised a magnificent and piercing instrumental to accompany the visual aspects of the film that is the most recognised in cinematic history.
Psycho was described in one advertising slogan as ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest, most shocking mystery with a galaxy of stars’. Hitchcock was adamant Psycho appealed to a younger generation of cinemagoers. The timing for the release of Psycho was masterful. Hitchcock released the majority of cinema patrons were teenagers between the ages of 15 – 19 years of age. There was a current market for the ‘slasher’ film. Hitchcock felt audiences were ready for the horror and violence his film portrayed. The slasher film is a clear indication of peoples changing attitudes towards cinema and Psycho was the first film to challenge the standard Hollywood mould and prove undeniably successful.
Prior to the release of Psycho Alfred Hitchcock had a reputation as the ‘master of suspense without horror’. By blatantly displaying both horror and violence (instead of subtly hinting at their presence, as in his 1954 film Rear Window) he had altered the perception of what was considered acceptable within cinema and created a whole new genre of filmmaking. Today Psycho is revered as a masterpiece as it challenged the cinematic conventions of Hollywood from within the studio system and proved undeniably successful. Additionally, Psycho proved the horror genre was indeed popular and capable of drawing in vast sums of money. The film took the audience on a succession of visual and auditory shocks and thrills. Their reactions ranged from gasps of horror, screams and terrified yells to fleeing the cinema in terror.
Today almost fifty years on Psycho has a legacy in Hollywood and an imprint on our popular culture. Numerous directors have drawn upon the film itself as inspiration for their own projects. Some of the more notable examples include ‘Fatal Attraction’ (1987) and ‘Dressed to Kill’ (1980) and has even become the subject of television parody in ‘The Simpson’s’ (1989) Halloween Special where a mischievous Maggie Simpson wallops Homer over the head with a hammer and he falls into the bathtub knocking over a can of red paint in the process! Today Psycho is considered to be a masterpiece with one of the most memorable screen villains (Norman Bates), the most recognisable scenes (that of Marion Crane’s death), most memorable setting, (the Bates house on the hill and The Bates Motel) and the most memorable score and has cemented Alfred Hitchcock’s legacy within Hollywood. It would be thirteen years before Hollywood would unleash another such film that would provoke such strong responses from the viewing public.
‘The Exorcist’ released in 1973 directed by William Friedkin and based on the 1971 best selling theological horror novel written by William Peter Blatty is generally acknowledged by most movie critic’s, historians and the viewing public as the most frightening film of all time. The inspiration for Blatty’s novel is said to stem from a true-life two-month exorcism performed in 1949 on a fourteen-year-old boy with the pseudonym ‘Robbie Mannheim’ in Mt Rainier, Maryland U.S.A. The official exorcism was reported in Thomas B. Allen and Carl Brandt’s book ‘Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism’. The film’s plot was, in addition partially inspired by a similar demonic possession case in Earling, Iowa U.S.A. in 1928, though it is important to note that there are approximately five hundred cases of possession reported to the Catholic Church every year.
William Peter Blatty’s novel was released in 1971 and instantly became a best seller. However, The Exorcist the movie would create more notoriety than any other motion picture in the history of cinema. Over thirty years since its world premiere in 1973 it still sets the standard by which all horror films are judged. It is a seminal masterpiece of psychological horror. The story taps into our very real fear of losing one’s identity, with our body and spirit being forced to act against its own will. It bridges cultural, religious and social boundaries leaving an indelible disturbing imprint on the viewer.
The story begins in a dry dusty desert in Northern Iraq. An archaeological dig is in progress unearthing relics from a forgotten age. Assisting the locals is Father Merrin an elderly, scholarly Jesuit Catholic priest and archaeologist. Upon being informed ancient objects have been unearthed during his search for evil he goes to investigate. Amongst lamps, coins and arrowheads he discovers a small silver Christian medallion that depicts the image of Mary and the Baby Jesus. Merrin is astute enough to realise it is unusual to find Christian objects buried in a pre Christian location. He digs further to discover a small, greenish gargoyle – like stone amulet of the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu. This in turn establishes the presence of both good and evil and foreshadows the battle between the two forces – the central theme of the film. Upon reflecting on this discovery Father Merrin visits an ancient temple ruins and approaches a full size stone statue of the demon Pazuzu. Nearby two dogs are snarling and begin fighting with one another (an indication of the theme ‘evil against evil, as is unfolded in the latter part of the film, Father Merrin can only free the possessed soul by commanding the demon to usurp his body an soul, in effect an ‘evil’ act). He has a premonition that the amulet is a concrete manifestation of something evil and he feels the presence of the devil all around him.
In a clever transitional dissolve linking the two distant locales we are left viewing the orb of the dawning sun and in the next scene left looking at the views of early morning traffic in Washington D.C. U.S.A. The camera zooms into one particular house and focuses around a white electric light. Inside her bedroom divorced mother and actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is working on her lines in her latest script. She is struggling to concentrate hearing unsettling sounds coming from attic that resemble scratching or the dirt – digging sounds of the prologue. (As in documented cases of possession this is a classic example of the early stages of the odd occurrences). Chris then investigates following the sounds into the bedroom of her twelve-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) to find her sleeping with the bedcovers pulled back and the window inexplicably wide open and an eerie cold sensation in the room. This was only a prelude to the trauma Regan and mother Chris would endure over the coming months.
William Friedkin’s interpretation of William Peter Blatty’s novel is marked with restraint. The first glimpses the audience are given into the effects of possession are subtle. The most conspicuous example, which in the story is dismissed by Regan’s mother as an example of mental breakdown, is an incident during of her mother’s dinner parties when Regan startles the guests, appearing at the foot of the stairs whilst her mother is conducting a singsong with friends. She looks extremely pale, almost grey in her complexion and utters the words, ‘your all gonna die you know’. She then proceeds to urinate on the floor. This scene is extremely shocking, nauseating and frightening. It sets the tone for the film and reminds the audience that after being lured into a false sense of security concerning the direction of the film, they now are instantly jolted and transfixed to the screen about to bear witness to the most visually shocking horror film to date.
As Psycho thirteen years before broke all boundaries of acceptability within mainstream cinema, The Exorcist in turn re – defined the genre once more. Whereas Hitchcock’s Psycho relied solely on the suggestion of horror to invoke feelings of torment Friedkin realised audiences had become more sophisticated than those of 1960 and decided to visually stun his audience with a barrage of disturbing images, dialogue and unforgettable scenes. The result is perhaps the most visually disturbing motion picture of all time.
William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist wrote his novel as a response to what he deemed increasingly atheist views of people and their dismissal of the values upheld by the Christian church. He saw the novel as a way of scaring people into re – discovering their faith in a world full of evil that was in desperate need of holy salvation. It is unclear whether Friedkin upheld Blatty’s viewpoint, however he was faithful to the original text. It seems ironic that Friedkin is held responsible for the great resentment and disgust through his graphic depiction of blasphemous acts and in particular the graphic sex acts performed by a child, which include the infamous scene in which whilst possessed Regan repeatedly masturbates with a crucifix whilst screaming obscenities. It is understandable that despite being nominated for 10 Academy Awards the British Film Board, under Mary Whitehouse campaigned successfully to ban the film outright as a video nasty.
The films success and sublime notoriety are a credit to William Friedkin who managed to create a career-defining masterpiece. The direction throughout the film is masterful, the tension unbearable and there are some truly terrifying moments. Friedkin uses some subliminal references to the iconography of the devil in many of his shots. He builds the tension in a very subtle manner and then unleashes the horrific ordeal of the exorcism with the audience honestly unprepared for the extent of visual horror they bear witness to. Integrated into the visual torment one experiences whilst watching The Exorcist is the most unforgettable score ever composed for a motion picture within the genre. Jack Nitzche’s powerful soundtrack has earned a place in popular culture history as one of the most recognised in the history of film. Linda Blair’s performance however, is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film. As the audience we are fully aware that despite the appearance and behaviour of this young, innocent girl, vomiting vile green liquid and barking unnerving obscenities, often backwards or in multiple tones and voices at Father Merrin during the exorcism whilst inside the ravaged body mind of cherubic Regan (Linda Blair) there is a little girl craving salvation.
The Exorcist is an unforgettable motion picture experience. It contains some of the most memorable scenes, one of the most recognised soundtracks and one of the most controversial stories of any motion picture today. It plays on the religious and supernatural insecurities of its audience with truly horrific consequences. It is one picture that is difficult to purge from your mind and it does leave a lasting impression. There is no recognised killer and reasoning behind his actions (such as Freddie Kruger in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984) whom is reaping revenge from beyond the grave) this is the devil himself, the epitome of all that is evil and so much more powerful and threatening than a singular person.
Few who have seen William Friedkin’s The Exorcist have ever forgotten it. It is considered to be a modern horror masterpiece and one of the truly terrifying films of all time. This fact was not lost on Stanley Kubrick. Warners had already offered him the chance to direct a sequel, which he wisely turned down; the film was both a critical and commercial failure. The proposal stuck in his mind though. As early as 1966 he had confided in a friend his desire to make ‘the scariest film of all time’.
Stanley Kubrick had a reputation as one of the most accomplished directors working in the industry during the 1980’s. His relentless drive towards perfection often put exhaustive pressure on actors however, critically the body of his work is considered impeccable. With both commercial and critical successes such as ‘Dr Stranglove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb’ (1962), ‘Spartacus’ (1960) and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) he had firmly established himself in the pantheon of premiere directors. However his desire to direct the scariest film of all time remained undiminished. Whilst researching for the project Kubrick had discovered a novel entitled ‘The Shining’ written by a young author, Stephen King. Kubrick felt the transference of this story into film would potentially prove both a critical and commercial success and was furthermore encouraged to learn that one of King’s previous novels entitled ‘Carrie’ (1976) had resonated well with audiences four years previously.
The book tells the story of the moral and mental deterioration of Jack Torrance, a man assigned as the caretaker of a secluded lodge, called The Overlook Hotel over the winter. A morose former teacher and alcoholic with literary ambitions Torrance accepted the job in the hope the seclusion of the hotel allowed him the environment he needed to finish his first novel. Once confined within the hotel Torrance’s psychological stability begins to deteriorate. The malevolent forces within the hotel invade his mind, as they had the previous caretaker and he begins to resent his imperious wife (Shelly Duval) and unusual son Danny (Danny Lloyd) culminating in Torrance stalking the hotel with murderous intent.
Kubrick’s vision of The Shining differs from that of its author Stephen King. Whereas King saw The Shining as more of the possession of spirits within the house provoking Torrance into committing these atrocities, Kubrick felt the examination into one man’s descent into madness by an overbearing wife and a difficult and demanding son a much more interesting concept.
‘The only epic horror film’ is perhaps the best way to describe The Shining. Central to the story is the breakdown of Sam Torrance, portrayed magnificently by Jack Nicholson. The acting is probably the highest standard ever seen in a horror film.
Jack Nicholson’s performance is of such quality that as a visual point of reference it is impossible to take your eyes off him. Nicholson is devilishly ludicrous in his portrayal of Jack Torrance, a character whom appears pathetic at times; worthy of our pity in stark contrast to the descent into lunacy with dominates the latter part of his performance in the film. One of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history is that of a homicidal Jack Nicholson smashing through the bathroom door with an axe and bellowing “Here’s Johnny!” to a petrified Shelly Duvall. In his autobiography Patrick McGillian wrote, ‘His hair became mangier than Henry Moon’s, his eyes zoned out, his tongue lolled around inside his mouth…..Jack seemed to enjoy the murderous mood. He couldn’t resist a hint of comedy, playing the madness like an ape, grunting, muttering and swinging his arms from side to side as he lunged down empty corridors.
Kubrick exploits a very real fear within all of us, that of being trapped, isolated and at the mercy of a relentless killer. There are no supernatural forces at work here, no magical amulet to subdue the killer, no escape and no calling the outside world. Wendy (Shelly Duvall) is a meek little woman, unable to protect herself against the determination of Jack. The suspense and desperation of situation gathers pace throughout the film and reaches a climax with Wendy and Danny running for their lives from the person they trusted most in the world. At this point the audience is completely invested in the characters and the situation, we are literally put inside the Overlook Hotel and are fleeing from this maniacal killer ourselves.
Stanley Kubrick’s intention of The Shining is for the audience to challenge convention and to delve beneath the surface for a more astute explanation of the situation. For example, what on the surface seems perfect is in effect ugly. The idea of a compact, loving family unit is suffocating the patriarch of the family. This leads Torrance to turn on his family when he feels betrayed. When Jack reminds Grady that he did murder his own family, Grady doesn’t see it like that at all. His viewpoint is he was simply ‘correcting them’ when they didn’t adhere to his viewpoint. He felt it in his family’s best interest to stay at ‘The Overlook Hotel’ and encourages Torrance to ‘correct’ his own family. He doesn’t see the evil in what he did as he was acting in his family’s best interests. However, Jack’s conversation with Grady could be interpreted as an example of his further descent into madness, after all Grady is an apparition, or figment of his imagination used by Torrance to justify his desire to purge himself of his family. The significance of this scene obviously depends on which interpretation of the story the individual takes. If your interpretation is in agreement with Stephen King, then this event is purely a supernatural one and it demonstrates an example of the extent the spirits in The Overlook Hotel have control over the behaviour of Jack Torrance. However, if your interpretation is in agreement with the psychological standpoint of Kubrick, then this conversation is only occurring in the mind of Torrance, as he is attempting to rationalise and in turn justify his murderous intent by the fact that another man has slaughtered his family in similar circumstances. Of course either explanation does not detract from the true terror, that there is a homicidal maniac intent on slaying his family.
Some of the most startling images in contemporary cinema occur in Kubrick’s The Shining. Whether it was the elevator door sliding open to disgorge a flood of blood, the nude girl who rises from the bath and embraces Jack only to turn into the rotting corpse of an old woman, or the apparent scenes of homosexuality including two men in animal suits surprised in a hotel room in an intimate moment it is clear Kubrick intended The Shining to be one mass of nightmarish hysteria.
The Shining opened on Friday 13th June 1980 and broke house records at six cinema venues. ‘Newsweek’ called it the first epic horror film, a movie that is to horror movies what ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is to other space movies. However, its overall commercial success was met with lukewarm critical response. Stephen King disowned it; Variety savaged the film and Jack Nicholson’s performance, though it was among their top ten list of money-makers in 1980. Today The Shining is revered as a masterpiece of modern horror, recently topping a poll on Channel 4 as the scariest movie of all time. Kubrick had created an undeniable piece of cinematic history once more.
Stanley Kubrick was once quoted,’ A film is, or should be, more like music than fiction.’ If the Shining is a symphony composed by Mozart, then ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974) is a Slipknot concert. It is unlike any mainstream horror film that preceded it and today, thirty years on is considered as one of the most truly terrifying motion pictures of all time. Along with ‘The Exorcist’ (1971) and ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ helped establish the modern era of the horror movie.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is reported based upon a true story of a serial killer living in rural America whom delights in murdering and dismembering his victims with a chainsaw. This ghastly tale is only partly accurate as the story holds some similarities with the case of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, who also provided the inspiration for ‘Psycho’ (1960). The sociopath in this case is seen rampaging throughout a dilapidated mansion, brandishing a chainsaw and sporting a facial mask constructed from his previous victims flesh. Though the notorious serial killer Ed Gein was reported to construct whole suits made of his victims flesh, though there is no known evidence of him mutilating his victims with a chainsaw. However, the film struck an insalubrious chord with the audience, as they clearly identified the similarities with one of the most heinous crimes in American history, yet unlike Psycho, (1960) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre left nothing to the imagination and the full extent of the horrifyingly gruesome happenings both shocked and appalled the audience.
The story begins with five innocent kids journeying to checkout reports of grave robbing. They visit a cemetery where several corpses have been exhumed and constructed into sculptures. Sally (Marilyn Burns), her invalid brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) and three friends, Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Terri McMinn) head out to check the grave of Sally and Franklin’s late grandfather. Upon finding it undisturbed they travel to visit their late grandfather’s former home. Shortly after passing a slaughterhouse they stop to pick up a skinny maniacal – looking hitchhiker whom disgusts them with tales of working in an abattoir. He then takes their picture with an instant camera, slashes his own hand with a pocket – knife, attacks Franklin, injuring his arm before they push him out of the van. As they drive away he aggressively smears his own blood on the van. Unperturbed by this bizarre event and a warning that locals are not welcome when they stop for petrol they continue their journey to the house.
Upon their arrival at the house they friends find it to be deserted. Franklin remembers the childhood swimming hole and directs Pam and Kirk to its location. Finding the swimming hole dried up Kirk and Pam hear the sound of a gas – powered generator which attracts them to a nearby farmhouse in the hope of retrieving some petrol. Kirk investigates in attempt to barter for some fuel and Pam waits patiently on a nearby swing – seat. With his knock unanswered Kirk enters the farmhouse only to be confronted by a sadistic, maniacal killer, Leatherface (Gunner Hansen) wearing a mask of human flesh and brandishing a sledgehammer. This is the first of the friend’s encounters with Leatherface.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an independent low budget horror film recognised today as a true horror classic and one of the most influential horror films of all time. The film caused incredible controversy when it was first released for its shocking content and is credited with being so effective that people walked out of the sneak previews. It is considered an innovator within the genre pre – dating ‘Halloween’ (1978), ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984) and ‘Saw’ (2004) and ‘Friday 13th’ (1980) depicting an unstoppable maniacal sociopath stalking victims for pleasure. Director Tobe Hooper relied solely on the idea of creating panic within the audience in order to frighten viewers. The cinematography in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is masterful, the camera often fixed on the intended victim with Leatherface in hot pursuit of his prey. The film has a somewhat ‘documentary feel’ much like ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980) and ‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999), the grainy and inexpensive way in which it was shot only intensifies the realism of the violence. It looks as if the audience is viewing documentary evidence of actual events as opposed to a fictional motion picture.
The hysterical lunacy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre propels audiences to forever have the movie ingrained in their mind. The depth and gravity of the horror used in the film are constant. The audience are exposed to the peril, panic and a depiction of violence not seen before in a horror movie. Central to the story is the superior acting of the main protagonists. Tobe Hooper is utterly convincing as the mentally challenged sociopath Leatherface, though manipulated by his over – bearing and psychotic family is still a character of no redeemable moral fibre. He is simply a killing machine. He knows nothing else. He is like an animal in the wild, with no human emotion in his being. This is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the film as it poses the question is it possible to condition a young child to grow up devoid of all emotion, save their unquenchable blood lust and if it is possible it serves as a look at the ramifications when such person interacts with society.
One of the most disturbing scenes in the film entails the imprisonment of Sally and her subsequent psychological torture at the hands of Leatherface and his family. During a botched escape Sally is bundled up by Leatherface’s brother and brought to the farmhouse. Once inside she endures psychological torment at the hands of Leatherface, his brother and an old withered old man ‘Grandpa’ (John Dugan). Their cannibalistic tendencies are revealed as the old man lurches towards the helpless victim intending to suckle the blood from her finger. Sally subsequently passes out. When she awakens, some time later, the family is gathered for dinner. In one of the film’s most intensely terrifying scenes the full extent of the family’s madness and cannibalistic tendencies are revealed. The killers taunt her, expose her to depths of depravity she didn’t know existed and assure her she will be served on a platter as their next meal.
Tobe Hooper’s direction of this scene is of the highest quality. Through clever cinematography he places his audience in the room with both Sally and the cannibalistic family. The scene feels confined and claustrophobic which only serves to extenuate the feeling of terror and the knowledge that Sally has no means of escape. The audience are also exposed to the full extent of the family’s madness in plain view and are unable to detract themselves from the occurrences that take place in that room. We are able to feel exactly as the victim does.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre manages to petrify audiences on a number of levels. It exposes them to one of the most chilling villains ever seen on screen. A human being devoid of human emotion, this concept was repeated in another horror classic ‘Halloween’ (1978) to great success. It exposes audiences to the depths of human depravity and tackles taboos within our present culture, most significantly the existence of cannibalism. It also preys significantly on the audience’s fears of being isolated in a foreign place with no one to turn to with a rampaging sociopath complete with a chainsaw, the most violent of all weaponry, intent on slaughtering you.
It is no surprise that upon its release The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was banned or delayed in many countries. Once it was released it was frequently edited in many countries due to its extreme content. It was banned in the United Kingdom largely on the authority of then BBFC secretary James Ferman, but saw limited release thanks to various city councils. It was released in the 1980’s by Video Wizard, but banned in 1984 during the moral panic surrounding video nasties. In 1999, after the retirement of Ferman the BBFC passed the movie uncut at the cinema and on video with an eighteen certificate, almost twenty-five years after its original release. Produced on a budget of eighty three thousand dollars it grossed thirty thousand eight hundred and fifty nine thousand dollars at the U.S. box office, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time. Today the film has a large cult following and spawned many, if somewhat disappointing sequels. Upon its original release however, the critics savaged The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for its extreme depiction of violence and anarchy. Stephen Koch wrote in Harpers (1974) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a vile piece of sick crap…it is a film with literally nothing to recommend. It is nothing but a hysterically paced slapdash, imbecile concoctions of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sunday hippie – esque cults and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and heinous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it.’ Suffice to say The Teaxs Chainsaw Massacre delivers exactly what its title promises.
The idea of the unrelenting sociopath resonated well within the horror genre and the commercial success of ‘Black Christmas’ (1974) directed by Bob Clark demonstrated a market for what we know today as the teen slasher sub – genre. ‘Halloween’ (1978) is perhaps the most accomplished example in a long line of films to draw inspiration from Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ (1960), or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Halloween is seen as a blueprint that all successful slasher films abide by.
The plot begins with a long single shot prologue that begins on Halloween night 1963. A six year old Michael Audrey Myers surprises his sister after an intimate tryst with her boyfriend and maliciously stabs her to death in their family home in Haddonfield, Illinois. Upon discovery of this atrocious act he is sent to Smith’s Grove – Warren County Sanatorium and placed under the care of Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance). The psychiatrist, surmising Myers is suffering from a severe personality disorder tries unsuccessfully to understand and rehabilitate the boy. After eight years trying to help the boy (in which time Michael does not utter a single word) Loomis concludes he is purely the embodiment of evil. He then spends the next seven years trying to keep him locked up. However, at the age of 21, whilst being transferred from Smith’s Grove he escapes and returns to Haddonfield with Loomis in pursuit.
The story continues in Haddonfield where we are re – introduced to Myers as a twenty – one year old man. He stalks seventeen-year-old Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis, in her film debut) seemingly without reason, apart from the fact he sees her approaching his childhood home. However, it is later revealed that Laurie is, in fact Michael’s sister. The story develops throughout the course of the day with Laurie consistently glimpsing the man in a white mask from her bedroom window and out of her classroom window amongst numerous other sightings.
Later in the evening Laurie is babysitting a young boy, Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) when her friend Annie Brackett, (Nancy Loomis) who has arranged to meet her boyfriend asks if Laurie would watch Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), the young boy she is babysitting. Laurie considerately agrees and Annie heads for her car to meet her boyfriend. Once inside she notices all the windows are fogged up. Myers then jolts up from the back seat to claim his first victim.
The character of Michael Myers is undoubtedly one of the implacable screen villains in the history of the horror genre. In the opening scene we are shown a killers point of view as voyeur Michael looks on before he murders his sister Judith, seen through the eyes or a clown mask. The fact that he wears a mask obscuring his face makes the killer appear all the more frightening. He kills without expression or making a sound. His laconic movements give a sense of inevitability that no matter how hard his victims try to get away he will kill you. He doesn’t need to frantically hunt you down, unlike Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) he is calculating enough to conceal himself in the shadows, bide his time and strike when the victim least suspects.
John Carpenter’s Halloween is credited with initiating the stylistic elements of the slasher film craze of the 1980’s and 1990’s. First person camera techniques, unexceptional settings and female heroines are all typical of slasher films. Riding on the theme of Halloween ‘Friday 13th’ (1980) and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ owe much of their success and inspiration to Halloween. John Carpenter wanted to create suspense and murder without blood and gore. Debra Hill states ‘We didn’t want it to be gory. We wanted it to be like a jack – in – the – box’. John Carpenter obviously wanted to create consistent, heightened suspense before jolting the audience at the opportune climactic moment.
The unintended theme of ‘survival of the virgins’ became a major trope that surfaced in latter slasher films. Characters whom practice illicit sex and substance abuse generally meet a particularly grisly end at the hands of the killer. One the other hand, those characters that are portrayed as chaste and temperate survive the killer’s maniacal rampage, even the female protagonist. Critics have suggested that Halloween and its slasher film successors may encourage sadism and misogyny. Others have suggested the film is a social critic of immorality of young people in 1970’s America. They hypothesise that many of Myer’s victims are sexually promiscuous and substance abusers, while the lone heroine is chaste and innocent. Director John Carpenter has dismissed these theories, however the perceived parallel between the characters’ moral strength and the likelihood of surviving to the films conclusion has nevertheless become a standard movie trope.
Halloween is one of those films where attention to detail is evident in every frame. Whereas there are many memorable moments three stand out above the rest. The first is the long, unbroken sequence where a young Michael dons a clown mask and murders his sister. The scene is reminiscent of the infamous shower scene in Psycho (1960) and occurs very early in the movie indicating the intention and tone of the movie very clearly. The second also occurs early in the movie, as Michael escapes from the asylum during the rainstorm. As the audience are made fully aware of the psyche of this deranged individual, Carpenter lets this sociopath loose with the audience assuming ghastly consequences. Finally, whilst suitably building the tension to an unbearable level towards the latter part of the film Michael is relentlessly hunting Laurie. In the midst of her frenzied attempts to get away we are treated to Michael’s approach to the situation. Whilst Laurie is trapped and hysterically attempting to get away Michael approaches inexorably from behind. With the camera following his movements the tension mounts to an unbearably palpable manner leaving the audience gasping for breath.
Despite being relatively simplistic and unsophisticated Halloween’s music, especially its haunting score is one of its biggest assets. Carpenters dissonant themes provide an unsettling backdrop for Michael’s activity, proving that a film does not need an exquisitely symphonic score to be affective. The films’ score consists of a piano melody played in a 5/4 time rhythm, composed by John Carpenter. Halloween has one of the most recognisable themes within the horror genre, and one that conjures unnerving feelings from the onset of the film. The creepy, haunting music creates an unnerving atmosphere from the very first scene and works very successfully with the tone and pace of the film as the story unfolds.
Halloween premiered on October 25th 1978 in Kansas City, Missouri and a few days later in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. It performed well with little advertising, instead relying on word of mouth. However, many critics seemed dismissive or uninterested in the film. Pauline Kael wrote a scathing review in The New Yorker suggesting that ‘Carpenter doesn’t seem to have ant life outside the movies: one can trace almost every idea on the screen to director’s such as Hitchcock and Brian De Palma and to the Val Lewton Productions.’ The comparisons the Psycho were vast and critics in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s blame the film for spawning the slasher sub – genre that rapidly descended into misogyny and sadism. Halloween has also received much criticism from post modern academia. According to historian Nicholas Rogers, some feminist critics have seen movies like Halloween as debasing women in as decisive a manner as hardcore pornography. Critics have pointed out that those women whom are lucky enough to survive only do so through blind luck and they are, in fact only rescued when an alpha male arrives to subdue the killer. Carpenter himself is dismissive of the notion that Halloween has a serious moral undertone, regarding the film as simply a horror movie and movie fans remained unperturbed in Halloweens lack of feminist or moral conscience as the flocked in their droves to see the film. Theatrically the film grossed 55 million dollars world – wide, 47 million in the United States alone and was nominated for a Saturn Award by the Academy of Science Fiction. In 2007 Halloween is lauded as one of the most effective and successful horror films ever made. It spawned ten sequels and a 2007 remake is sure to introduce a new generation of movie – goers to the callousness of Michael Myers.
In summary, the horror genre has provided the viewing public with some truly terrifying creations over the last few decades. As fear is an entirely subjective emotion it seems impossible to emphatically decide which movie can be judged as the general publics most revered horror film. The hallmark of an excellent scarefest is to draw you in and rattle you emotions to the very core. If a horror film hasn’t got you looking over your shoulder when you’re alone, turning all the lights on just to make sure something isn’t creeping in the shadows or having you dive behind the sofa when suddenly startled it hasn’t had the desired effect. Personally, I would be hard – picked to chose between Psycho, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Exorcist to rent on Halloween, given the choice I’d probably chose none!!!!!
‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a vile piece of sick crap…. it is a film with literally nothing to recommend. It is nothing but a hysterically paced slapdash, imbecile concoctions of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, Sunday hippie – esque cults an unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and heinous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it’ – Quotation http://www.houseofhorrors.com
We didn’t want it to be gory. We wanted it to be like a jack – in – a – box’. – Quotation http://www.wikipedia.org
Quotation ‘Pauline Kael wrote a scathing review……. – Quotation criticism for Halloween www.wikipedia.org