Film review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I plan to write a review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, an (I think) unfairly maligned black comedy, but in the meantime, here’s a (slightly edited and expanded on) review of the original, which I first published on Amazon.co.uk a couple of years ago.

The title of Tobe Hooper’s classic might make it seem like torture porn to some modern viewers, and it was certainly part of a 70s horror renaissance which, in the 80s, decayed into sleazy, low-budget, morally dubious slasher films. (Or “Dead Teenager Movies”, as Roger Ebert called them.) It is, however, utterly anemic when compared to torture porn, like Eli Roth’s Hostel or even its own remakes and prequels. It depends, instead, ruthlessly and almost entirely, on atmosphere.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has the raw and immediate impact of a great short story. Below its simple linear narrative is a wealth of implications. For instance, early in the film the heroes discuss slaughterhouses and methods for killing cattle. Their eventual fate will echo this conversation.

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) goes on a road trip with her friends and crippled brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) to see if their grandfather’s grave is among those recently robbed in Texas. After completing this task they visit a gas station, eat some barbecue then explore an abandoned house which once belonged to Sally and Franklin’s family. They also, one by one, discover a nearby farm, which houses psychotic man child Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his cannibalistic clan.

Burns’ role as heroine (or “final girl”) only really requires a good scream and convincing run, both of which she has. Some actresses could mess up even such a simple character, but Burns manages authenticity. Her face is very expressive, and I loved a close-up of her when she leaps through a window and scans her surroundings. She looks completely manic, which under the circumstances she should.

Leatherface and his family are gleefully grotesque. I liked their lack of back story. Often a horror film of this nature (teenagers, imposing weapons etc.) will kill any suspense with misunderstood Freudian babble about abusive childhoods and transvestitism (take a bow, Cherry Falls). But TCM wisely lets us view these people just through the heroine’s immediate experience of them. What she sees and hears while being chased or held captive is all we do as well. This means that, unlike some final girls, she connects with us on a primal level. We find ourselves in her shoes. She’s not a character so much as an audience surrogate.

There’s some beautiful shots inside the farmhouse, when one character literally stumbles across a living room with furniture made of bones, some animal, some maybe human, and a live chicken in a cage suspended from the roof.

Though this film does have hardly any blood it is, naturally, terrifying and gruesome. A scene with a meat hook is appalling to the eye even without gore. There’s also a harrowing sequence which involves a decrepit old man, a hammer and a bucket. And so on. TCM is not for those who don’t like any kind of horror story.

P.S: Early posters for and the intro of this film claim it really happened, or is at least based on true events. It isn’t, and nothing here has much correspondence with reality, though the story was inspired by a real-life killer and graverobber, Ed Gein, who killed two women and used their bodies, as well as the bodies he stole from graveyards, to upholster furniture. He also inspired Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, which was made into the famous Alfred Hitchcock film.

    The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

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A small thought on political correctness in art

I don’t know about you, but I like a little political incorrectness in art. I like the undertones of misogyny in some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films; the misandry of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Trying to talk with a man”; the homophobia of some of Charles Bukowski’s work; the description of all straight people as gay-haters in Queer as Folk‘s American offshoot; the implicit racism disguised as cosmic terror in several H. P. Lovecraft stories; not because those prejudices are acceptable, but because they colour and inform the work and reveal truths about people. Sometimes, even, they’re just fun, like the casual sexism of Roald Dahl, whose most famous villains are often mannish or predatory women. If we give political correctness too much control of our art, we’ll crush its individuality.

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    Art galleries: in no darker places do hate, resentment and bitterness hide.

Opinion piece: Conan the Lovecraftian

I recently downloaded Complete Conan, a work containing every Conan the Barbarian story by Robert E. Howard, to my Kindle for 77p (plus VAT). Though I’m still an annoying romantic about biodegrading paper-and-glue books, I’ll admit Kindles are a great thing. A lot of history’s greatest writers and thinkers, I’d wager, would have been positively awed by the notion of carrying an entire library around with you. (Fun fact: the name “Kindle”, meaning to light a fire, was chosen as a metaphor for reading and intelligence.)

But back to Conan. Since downloading I’ve read a couple of stories: “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Scarlet Citadel”. Both are fast-paced fantasy thrillers packed with gore, and overtones of the cosmic horror pioneered by H. P. Lovecraft. Cosmic horror, or cosmicism, is a type of story where people are confronted by their helplessness before an enormous, powerful and indifferent universe, where humans lack significance.

What defines this genre isn’t pessimism, but indifference. The cosmic visions and races whose aspects drive men mad aren’t malign so much as indifferent to humanity, just as humanity is indifferent to termites. This idea informs Conan’s universe somewhat, and it clearly lacks a benevolent patriarchal god, relying instead on a more, well, barbaric approach to the spiritual. That said, magic is evil’s domain, and Howard’s magicians in both stories mentioned above are physically inferior men who dominate through sorcery alone.

Due to cosmicism’s influence on the Conan stories, Howard’s been accused by some writers, like Stephen King, of lazily pastiching Lovecraft. Howard and Lovecraft were friends and referenced each other in their work to such an extent that Conan can be seen as a part of the Cthulhu Mythos, the cosmic mythology created by Lovecraft’s stories. However, I don’t think Howard pastiched Lovecraft as much as King suggests, if only because their styles are remarkably different.

Though “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Scarlet Citadel” have somewhat crudely assembled narratives, which when analysed seem like a series of set pieces, they have a stronger emphasis on character and action than Lovecraft’s work. Many of Lovecraft’s heroes are distinguishable only by their names; one white, male scholar is much the same as another. This fits into his cosmic philosophy, which is more concerned with atmosphere, imagery and setting than human dramas.

Howard, on the other hand, creates personalities which, if not complex, are sharp and well-defined. The evil wizards talk and behave in their own way, which can be distinguished from how Conan talks and behaves. Conan is a slight paradox: he’s a barbarian who faces his enemies with violence, but he’s a kind and benevolent king whose lowliest subjects, as explained in “The Scarlet Citadel”, are treated well. He stole the kingdom of Aquilonia’s crown, but did so from a despot, and rules fairly.

Also, where Lovecraft’s stories are slow-paced and tense, Howard’s brim with exciting action. There’s a truly fantastic image in “The Scarlet Citadel” of Conan atop a turret, soaked in blood, watching as an evil prince he’s just thrown from its height is torn apart by peasants. That image symbolises these stories’ appeal. For all their cosmic elements, what they are at their core is gritty, ultraviolent medieval thrillers.

Lovecraft’s stories are thematically richer, and I prefer them for their deep, abiding horror, but Howard offers a different, equally valid kind of entertainment. Just as Lovecraft pioneered cosmic horror, Howard pioneered sword-and-sorcery, or heroic fantasy. The stories are pure escapism, letting readers imagine themselves as honourable barbarians, fierce in battle and always triumphing over scrawny, pathetic wizards.

A brief summary of the stories mentioned above:

“The Phoenix on the Sword” (Weird Tales, 1932) follows an evil count, a commander, a fat king and a mad poet as they plan to assassinate Conan, whose kingdom lives in unrest as the people mourn his late, despotic predecessor, forgetting his atrocities against them. The count has as his slave a wizard, Thoth-Amon, who’ll bring to Aquilonia a nameless cosmic horror. The climax of this story is a riot of bloody, claustrophobic action, taking place in a small chamber where Conan must face off with several assassins.

“The Scarlet Citadel” (Weird Tales, 1933) uses similar archetypes: evil wizards and incompetent rulers, though this time the wizard, Tsotha-lanti, has kings as his servants. These rulers, Amalrus and Stradabonus, have their armies ambush Conan, killing thousands of his knights and imprisoning him in lanti’s titular home. The scenes below lanti’s citadel, where Conan must fight a giant snake and various cosmic horrors, some of which seem influenced more by myth than Lovecraft, are beautifully written.

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Short story review: “The Whisperer in Darkness” by H. P. Lovecraft

“The Whisperer in Darkness” is a 1930 story by H. P. Lovecraft, about a correspondence between two scholars: Albert Wilmarth, who narrates, and Henry Akeley, a recluse in an area of Vermont supposedly haunted by strange bodies found in rivers, and inhuman voices in the woods. The story’s place in the so-called Cthulhu mythos, a mythology containing all of Lovecraft’s fictional alien races, is with the Mi-go. The Mi-go are a crab-like species whose wings propel them through space, and whose various antennae, protruding in place of a head, serve them with senses subtler than human sight, sound or hearing.

This is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories, because it’s one of the creepiest and weirdest, which says a lot in a body of work defined as weird fiction. (“Weird fiction” was a name given to stories of horror and fantasy before those genres developed their separate niches.) In the story, Wilmarth is a literary scholar whose hobby is folklore, and Akeley is a noted folklorist. The aforementioned bodies in the rivers arouse much discussion, and Wilmarth initially takes the sceptics’ side. Local peasantry, popular side characters in Lovecraft, claim that the bodies are crab-like and unnatural, while Wilmarth attributes those claims to rustic imagination.

Ever-present in Lovecraft stories is a deep fear of knowledge, despite their scientific interest and pioneering move away from spirituality. Though Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein merged science and the Gothic, Lovecraft could be credited with creating the sci-fi horror genre as we understand it today. Earth-centric mythologies are often cited in his work, but they’re treated as naïve explanations for supernatural phenomena, the true horror being what non-human races exist beyond not just our celestial niche, but also our darkest imaginations. Almost every Lovecraft story posits that knowledge of outer space and things outside the scope of our everyday lives can only bring soul-shattering terror.

Ironically, Lovecraft decried the boredom and misery of real life outside his stories, once saying this about his work: “There is no field other than the weird in which I have any aptitude or inclination for fictional composition. Life has never interested me so much as the escape from life.” If this was true, “The Whisperer in Darkness” may be one of his most effective attempts at escapism. Akeley’s descent into paranoia and fear is utterly compelling, revealed in a series of letters to Wilmarth which convey his approaching doom. The Mi-go are a mysterious, malevolent race, their motives more shadowy than some of Lovecraft’s aliens’. In an especially chilling scene, Wilmarth receives a recording where a Mi-go and a human accomplice exchange weird ritualistic dialogue.

As I suggested earlier, ritualism creates the background of Lovecraft’s stories, but never the backbone. The dialogue references goats, but not in connection with the Christian devil, and the rites of superstitious humans form only atmosphere. Lovecraft recalls the elements of traditional Gothic horror while forging a new, cosmic path. The last act of this particular story is profoundly chilling, at least in my opinion. It is there that the true whisperer in darkness reveals himself, and many dark universal truths are revealed to Wilmarth, once a sceptic, now a reluctant believer. Though Lovecraft’s prose is notorious for its Victorian heaviness, slow pace and lack of conversation, these final scenes are grimly compelling. “The Whisperer in Darkness” made me shudder once I’d finished, which is as good a recommendation as any.

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Opinion piece: The Flaws of Perfection

I recently read some articles about H. P. Lovecraft, and whether he was a good writer. “Good”, of course, is subjective in the context of art (to an extent; I think we can all agree that a poo-stain ain’t Botticelli, and Fifty Shades ain’t Macbeth), but nonetheless there are many people who don’t “get” Lovecraft, the New England horror pioneer. Who can blame them? I’ve read a lot of his stories and been thoroughly compelled by the majority, but I have to admit he’s not the most natural or pacy writer.

For one thing, he uses very little dialogue, no doubt because he couldn’t write it well. His novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, has one conversation, right at the end, though letters and a few quotations are sprinkled throughout. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, a short story, contains a several page monologue, delivered ostensibly as advice from one character to another, but used as a giant exposition dump. Lovecraft is infamous for his exposition dumps, more so than for his monsters in some quarters.

But the best bit of clunky, cliché-ridden dialogue I recall is in “The Dunwich Horror”, a story whose first half is as good as or better than anything he wrote, but whose latter takes a somewhat pedestrian good-versus-evil route. Good (and naiveté) is represented, as it often is in Lovecraft, by white male scholars. In this case, it’s a Dr Armitage of Miskatonic University (a recurring Lovecraftian establishment), who muses thusly about Dunwich’s rural townsfolk:

“‘Inbreeding?’ Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. ‘Great God, what simpletons! Show them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal! But what thing – what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensional earth – was Wilbur Whateley’s father? Born on Candlemas – nine months after May Eve of 1912, when the talk about the queer earth noises reached clear to Arkham – what walked on the mountains that May night? What Roodmas horror fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?’“

I ask you, has anyone ever mused or muttered to himself in such a way? If you overheard an elderly scholar muttering this, would you assume he was idly thinking, or reciting some lunatic ramble? Stephen King, in his memoir On Writing, cites the dialect-heavy sayings of Lovecraft’s rural characters – his decadent peasants, farmers and magicians – as a prime example of his failings in this area. But the unnaturally verbose and leaden monologues of his heroes is more memorable to me.

When compared to a lot of contemporary horror and fantasy, Lovecraft’s stories were also a bit lame-footed in the structure department. Novellas like At the Mountains of Madness have great imagery and gruesome scenes, but they’re stuffed with long, dry, expositional passages, devoid of action. Modern pulp writers tend to use the “every sentence must advance character or plot” rule in their shorter fiction, but Lovecraft could ramble for ages about the layout of some alien city, stopping action in its tracks.

So why, if this is true, is Lovecraft worth reading? Well, because despite his density, pacing issues and cardboard characters, he’s a master of existential fear. The atmosphere in his stories can almost be tasted. I’m still struck by images in Dexter Ward, such as a strange light through a barnhouse roof, a resurrected man running dumb and naked through the streets, weird abominations of nature writhing in underground cells…

The aforementioned first half of “The Dunwich Horror” is a stunningly beautiful evocation of a small, decrepit, decadent town, populated by a barely literate peasantry. Then there’s Lovecraft’s mythology, sometimes referred to as the Cthulhu Mythos. The mythology amounts to a complex timeline of alien species, so superior in their faculties to us that they’re worshipped as gods by ancient cults. These species lived, died and sometimes interacted with each other, all before mankind even dreamt of a civilisation.

Maybe, however, part of Lovecraft’s charm is his flaws. His technical faults as an artist are idiosyncrasies which, it could be argued, give his work character. Some horror stories are polished to such a fine point they become mere funhouse excursions: “look! A ghoul! There! A vampire!” This brings us to a larger point about writing, and art in general: is perfection an achievable or even admirable goal? True perfection is an oven which never breaks down, or a car that never stalls. It applies to practical objects. But art?

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Film review: Three… Extremes (2004)

Finding a film as sick and nasty, yet intelligently understated, as Three… Extremes is rare. The film assaults you with cold, logical evil, surreal dreams and a few truly disturbing shots, but does so through pure storytelling. That won’t be enough to justify the horror for some people, and this is the kind of film which, if it was made in the west, would have invited angry pickets from the moral minority. We round-eyes are fine with misogyny and torture, so long as it’s just mindless crap for teenagers theoretically too young to watch.

East Asia, however, has wedded extreme aesthetics to smart, even playful plots. Three… Extremes puts western “torture porn” to shame. Where, say, the Saw sequels are about pain and pain alone, this film is about the far extremes of human behaviour and selfishness. There are no ghosts or invincible masked killers, just the black swamps of the soul, if such a delicate thing as the soul can exist in the film’s world.

Three… Extremes collects three directors from parts of East Asia: Fruit Chain, representing Hong Kong; Park Chan-wook (Oldboy‘s director), South Korea; and from Japan the infamous Takashi Miike, author of such shockers as Audition and Ichi the Killer. Each director contributes one short film, beginning with Chan, whose Dumplings may be the most likely to cause offence.

Hinting at issues of misogyny and bodily perfection in some Asian cultures, Dumplings follows an aging actress (Miriam Yeung) as she visits Mei (Bai Ling), a friendly but sinister woman who’s discovered a fountain of youth. This secret ingredient she puts in her meat dumplings, which she serves to Yeung and others for a price. Guess my age, she asks Yeung. She looks like a twentysomething. Her real age is a shock, and proves the magic of her recipe.

Said recipe is what drives this little film, which was made into a standalone feature by Chan in 2004. What that recipe is will sicken and horrify as you edge closer to it, culminating in a perfectly, evilly logical conclusion, where decency is sacrificed on the altar of youth. Yeung gives a fine performance as a woman who’s not really vain to begin with, but a member of a world always chasing beauty. She’s long past her peak as an actress and wants what a lot of aging celebrities do: another chance.

Ling is mesmeric in an almost Mephistophelian role, so sweet and charming on the surface, but wholly callous underneath. There’s a tragic subplot about a young woman whose mother goes to Ling for help after her father attacks her, and Ling’s thorough exploitation of the naïve girl. She’s the kind of woman who’ll smile and comfort as she leads you to ruin. Dumplings is a shining example of intelligent, suspenseful and hauntingly realistic horror.

It creates a bizarre scenario and somehow gives it a gritty edge, as though it’s something that could happen. It couldn’t, but if it was possible I imagine people like Ling and Yeung would be there to do what they do in this film. Chan’s nasty little story works, even when we know what the dumplings are made of and feel ready to flee the film. In a world where beauty is the much-sought standard, inhuman selfishness rules. Be warned, though: I can’t stress enough the sickness of what Ling’s dumplings are.

The next film, Cut, tackles a carefully constructed moral dilemma. The characters are nameless and led by Lee Byung-hun, as a successful director who’s attacked in his home by one of his extras, Im Won-hee. This man gathers the director, his wife (Kang Hye-jung) and an anonymous child in a room where they’re each tied up, the wife to her piano. The extra, sickened by the director’s good fortune in being not just rich, handsome and talented but also nice, forces him to play distressing games.

If he fails, his wife will lose a finger. These games include a demand that, if he wants his wife to retain her digits, he strangle the unknown child, kidnapped and tied to a sofa by the extra. The extra is an ugly and unfortunate man, cursed also with a defective personality. He wants to bring the director to his level and prove his selfishness, and by extension the selfishness of all men, no matter how “nice”. Cut is probably the most mainstream-friendly of the three films, though it’s still disturbing and extreme.

It’s essentially a moral puzzle. What would you do in this situation, and how would you justify your actions afterwards? It ends with a twist which is kind of unnecessary. A more straightforward reality would have cemented the moral horror of this film, whereas opening it up to standard thriller twists dilutes its core. It’s effective, though, and utterly gripping for most of its run. The performances are beautifully measured, especially from Won-hee, who creates a hateful and smart but childish psychopath.

Miike’s film, Box, tells the most surreal and baffling story here. It begins with a lonely woman who’s haunted by memories of her childhood, when she and her twin travelled with their father as a magic act. They’d fold their small bodies, like dolls, into boxes, at which their father would then throw darts, opening them to reveal not his daughters, but flowers. Behind the scenes, paedophilia haunts the relationship between the father and one of the girls, whose sister is the woman we see in the present.

Many strange events unfold, all or none of which might be real, and the last shot complicates things even more. Leaving aside the brain-teaser plot, what distinguishes Box is its potent use of sound and visuals. One dream scene combines a music-box tune with an image which haunted me. It’s just so darn creepy and indefinably evil. Countless directors have tried to pervert things like music-box tunes and little girls into objects of terror, but none that I’ve seen have done so as well as Miike.

Box does in about 40 minutes what David Lynch couldn’t in an entire career: create a dream-like and nasty horror film without a trace of pretension. Three… Extremes is the definition of “acquired taste” when it comes to cinema, but even those outside its target audience, if they somehow see it, should admire its fearlessness and intelligence. It doesn’t set characters up to be blandly tortured and killed for our transient amusement. It cuts to the quick our very hearts, exposing dark, deep chasms of psychology.

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Book review: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H. P. Lovecraft

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath will understandably infuriate some readers. It has almost no speech (like most of Lovecraft’s work) or clear, sensible plot. It has a narrative, all right, and a destination, but events don’t follow each other in a conventional way. No matter how many tangents The Lord of the Rings has, for instance, you know they relate to an overall point or theme. There’s an epic structure, peopled by classic archetypes, at work. Not so much in Kadath, whose destination and point are modest, to say the least. In that sense, it’s a bit like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The story opens with a Dreamer in Dreamland, Randolph Carter, hero of Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle stories. Carter’s dreamt of a beautiful sunset city, hauntingly evoked by Lovecraft, but has now been denied those dreams by the secretive gods of Dreamland. To beg their favour he goes looking for their home on Kadath, a mountain few have travellers have returned from, and only one sane.

That’s roughly all there is in the way of plot, as the book’s more about scenes than story or character arcs. A review, therefore, amounts to merely a description of certain scenes alongside comments on Lovecraft’s prose and images. It’s more like a poem than a novella, bearing comparison with Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and other modernist works. Kadath, however, isn’t modern in the slightest. Though devoid of strong message and theme it resembles ancient storytelling. It’s mythical in landscape, image and event.

My favourite scenes are those with the ghouls, who loiter in the dark recesses and graveyards of Dreamland, feasting on dead human flesh. Despite their morbid habits they’re friendly, and have among them Richard Pickman, once a living artist who appeared in the short story “Pickman’s Model”. In that story he painted ghouls which, in one chilling picture, surrounded a hanged witch. Now he’s one of them, and helps Randolph on his quest. Lovecraft creates a gorgeously macabre image of Pickman the ghoul sitting on an 18th-century gravestone. I hope some artist has visualised that image.

Lovecraft’s prose and imagination are what make Kadath worth reading. The glimpses we get of the sunset city are almost painfully poignant, as is a scene with a Dreamland king, the only man to return from Kadath sane, who recalls his English boyhood to Randolph. As a king he can use his memories to conjure the landscapes of his youth, but they’re not quite the same. He’d give his kingdom, he says, for the real places that formed him.

Lovecraft’s infamous racism shows in his portrayal of dark-skinned, turbaned men who do little but leer, kidnap and emit an aura of menace. Even these villains aren’t allowed an intelligent design of their own, however; they’re the slaves of weird, globular pink monstrosities which live on the moon. Personally, I find Lovecraft’s racism easy to ignore, as it never forms the backbone of his works. It’s more like a nasty odour that appears from time to time, like his comparison of a black man to a knuckle-scraping ape in “Herbert West – Reanimator”.

Those pink monsters may be the most viscerally disgusting and threatening creatures in Kadath, though they’re minor characters. At one point the turbaned men drug and kidnap Randolph, taking him to the moon in their ship (Dreamland’s cosmos owes something to flat earth myths). There, the pink monsters, who are sadistic by nature but also intelligent, take Randolph up a mountain, where an army of cats rescues him.

I could go on like this, describing creatures and scenes, but you get the idea. Critic Joanna Russ opined that the book was “charming … but alas, never rewritten or polished”. That may be the case, but it doesn’t feel like it needs to be rewritten or polished. No amount of editing could give it a traditional style, and neither should it. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath isn’t an epic in the Greek sense; it creates a vaguely Grecian world of gods, magic and journeys, mixed with weird fiction, but conveys no moral lesson. It’s merely a story about dreamers and dreaming. A beautiful and terrifying story.

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