Halloween ruminations from the age of…innocence?
There was no hype accompanying Texas Chainsaw, mainly because there were no “media” shows on television. (In fact, very few people back then knew who or what “the media” was.) It opened on a Wednesday, as all films once did, to generate word of mouth for the weekend trade. But I don’t recall reading any reviews or hearing anything about it at all. By all appearances, it was just another cheap horror movie. And as the major studios had fallen, such fly-by-night distributors as Hallmark, Crown International and Hemisphere were flooding neighborhood screens with such grade-Z junk.
Bryanston Pictures was the distributor of Texas Chainsaw, and they paired it on a double-bill with something claiming to be called The Mad, Mad Moviemakers (1974). After arrangements were made over the phone late in the afternoon on Friday, October 4, I walked to the Wantagh Theatre with other members of my coterie: Bruce, Herbert, Jeffrey, and perhaps Steven R. A brisk evening, I sported my Army trench coat, which accommodated a case of beer in 12oz. cans in its deep pockets, twelve cans per pocket. And a double feature of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Mad, Mad Moviemakers surely warranted the fortification.
Playing first, Mad, Mad Moviemakers was a travesty, and I’m hard pressed to imagine a theatrically released film that could be any worse. We were buzzed on beer, gluttonously piling popcorn in our mouths, and growing aggressive from boredom. After the movie ended there was talk of leaving…or of watching just the first few minutes of Chainsaw to see how bad it was. After intermission, the lights dimmed, and we nearly gagged upon seeing the Bryanston logo once again.
With the first shot of the gooey corpses mounted on a tombstone, I think that the general feeling in the theatre was, yes, we’d found something worse than Mad, Mad Moviemakers. As the story began, a weird rhythm began to take hold. We overlooked the garish lighting, the poor color…so much of the frame looked a jaundiced green while actors’ lips were in magenta. But it was ridiculous, wasn’t it? That hitchhiker burning photos, the greasy fat guy in the wheelchair, the girls with their late-’60s hairstyles. It’s garbage, right…guys?
Thirty-one years later, I can still recall when the negative energy level in that theatre subsided, some fifteen minutes into Texas Chainsaw as the group of young people wandered away from the van to a house across a field. The desolation and heat, the feel for that hellish environment. And the first couple, stumbling into the neighbors’ makeshift slaughterhouse. The boy gone missing, the girl looking up at a chicken packed into a birdcage, the fear, the cuts on her body, the masked man with the sledgehammer, the determined slam of that cold steel door.
The film shut us up there and then. We had seen Psycho (1960) and Night of the Living Dead (1968), but the horror there was permanently fixed on the screen. Texas Chainsaw was something possessed with madness, a complete dismissal of human dignity. I’ve yet to see a film that touched me in quite the same way. It wasn’t about being ‘grossed out’; it was a lesson in flesh, bone and sanity. A few months ago I found a ‘special edition’ DVD for $5.50 at Walmart…and I’ll be damned: the thing still holds up.
Recently while flipping through the channels on cable TV, I began to watch a remake that came out in 2003. So overburdened with cosmetic styling, it was without an ounce of tension or thought or purpose. It immediately hit me that anyone who could sit through all of this new Texas Chainsaw and derive any pleasure or entertainment would probably draw a blank on the 1974 movie. But that’s alright, because I remember what happened back then on that cold autumn night as we left the theatre. Like the rest of the audience, we were silent and spent, as if we’d just experienced personal loss. The quiet suburban streets were void of life, except for us, clammy and perspiring, and the cold mist coming from our mouths and noses as we breathed, and the rustling of bushes we watched with fixed eyes, hoping that our time wasn’t up, that we’d make it home alive.