Friday, August 29, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Shock Waves



Shock Waves

This is the best Nazi zombie movie ever made.

A bold claim, I know. I’ve seen more than a few Nazi zombie films, but I haven’t seen them all. How can I judge this the best? Well, for one thing, it is actually pretty creepy at times – I’m a fan of Dead Snow as well, but that’s not a scary movie. Zombie Lake is frightening, but mostly because of how crappy it is, not the zombies ("AAAAGGGHHH! He got green makeup on me!  ARRRGGHHH!!"). Oasis of the Zombies? The less said, the better (though I have an old review of that piece of cinematic excrement that I should post sometime.) For another, it stars Peter Fucking Cushing. That’s right – the same year he was Moffing it up in Star Wars, he was putting on a German accent and fake scar for this little beauty.

I have yet to see Outpost or Frankenstein's Army, so I’m ready to change my opinion if either of those ups the ante. There are a few other films with Nazi zombies in them, but either they’re not the focus or the movie is terrible. (Like Revenge of the Zombies, which features another Shock Waves cast member, John Carradine.)

Shock Waves is one of those movies that I had heard about, but never gotten a chance to see when I was younger. None of my local video stores had a copy when it was The Time of VHS, though I saw trailers for it on some of my horror movie rentals. ("Shock Waves! The deep end of horror!") The trailer pushes a certain exploitation feel and I got a weird impression that it was a low-budget gore-fest, something on the same level as Italian zombie cheapies like Burial Ground.



Because the original negative has mysteriously disappeared (what DON’T THEY WANT US TO SEE??!!) it took 20 years for a DVD to be made available (produced from the director’s personal print). I didn’t have huge expectations – I’d heard Zombie Lake was awesome, but I’m no longer friends with that guy. So I was pleasantly surprised. Yeah, it's a low budget ($200,000) film, but it's no gore-fest - there's surprisingly little in the way of gore. It's also a fairly effective, atmospheric horror movie with characters that are a little above your usual cookie-cutter victims - and of course it's got both Carradine and Cushing, and the movie uses their brief appearances to good effect.

The Medium
The copy I have is the Blue Underground release form 2003. The disk includes commentary by director Ken Weiderhorn, makeup artist Alan Ormsby (of Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things and Dead of Night) and Fred Olen Ray (because why not), and the commentary is pretty fun and worth a listen. The picture quality is, to be fair, about as good as you can get given that it's a blown-up 16mm print - and not from the original negative. It's grainy and blurry and washed out, with plenty of scratches and small defects. Somehow, that adds to its charm for me. 

Looks like there's a Blu-ray release scheduled for late this fall. I hope they've found a better print to build from, but I'll probably pick it up anyway, 'cause I'm a sucker like that.

The Movie
The movie starts off with a voice-over talking about special Nazi squads that were never captured and “fought with their bare hands.” I don’t usually like voice-overs, but this sort of reminds me of In Search Of and I let it pass.

After that we get a scene where a father and son on a fishing boat rescue a girl who has been floating in a small dinghy on the open ocean. She's incoherent and dehydrated and can barely interact with her rescuers. Another voice over (I know), apparently by the girl, talks about how she's only just now remembering what happened. I'm guessing it's nothing good.

Then we’re introduced to a group of vacationers on some sort of Caribbean cruise in a dilapidated boat that’s constantly breaking down. The captain is John Carradine – doing his ‘crotchety old man’ routine. The young first mate sporting the awesome 70’s ‘stache is apparently the kid from Flipper, if that matters. The girl in the bikini is Brooke Adams, who you might have seen in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Is that... a missing plot element?

I have a bit of a crush on Brooke Adams.

Anyway, there’s some kind of confusing event that turns the sky orange. I say confusing, because later on the captain explains it away as something to do with cold currents and hot sky combining to bring stuff up from the depths. I think I missed something. (Actually, it's the movie that's missing something. According to the commentary, a scene was shot with in which debris floated up. There was also a corpse, created by Ormsby, but the footage was unusable.) Unfortunately, it throws you out of the narrative for a moment, as you try and figure out what they're talking about.

Later that night they run into a wrecked ship, causing them to have to evacuate everyone to a nearby island. On the island they find an abandoned hotel and a former Nazi officer (Cushing) who invites them all to leave - or get shot.

Meanwhile, the earlier event has apparently thrown up a ship full of… NAZI  ZOMBIES! The Nazi officer explains that they’re the results of experiments to create the perfect soldier – and that these are designed for underwater assaults. They proved unreliable (really?) and, as the war wound down Cushing brought them out here and sunk the ship they were in. He’s watched over them ever since. Now they’re out – and in surprisingly good condition, given how many years have passed while they were underwater.

The zombie designs are really nicely done, especially for such a low budget production – pasty, swollen skin, eaten away slightly, with SS uniforms and smoked-glass goggles. They don’t make a noise as they appear – usually rising from the water in synchronized formation. Some of the creepiest moments of the film are of the zombies lying quietly in the water, waiting. The director uses them sparingly and manages to make it look like there are dozens of them. They also seem to use tactics, something you don’t find in most zombie movies. One will rise out of the water near a victim, driving them into the waiting arms of the rest.

"I knew we should have taken a right turn at Albuquerque."

As I mentioned earlier, there's very little gore for a zombie move made post-Night of the Living Dead. The zombies seem to prefer to drown their victims – one even going so far as to use an aquarium. There's a little bit of rotting going on with the zombies, but it's pale and the only real blood I can remember involves one of the cast getting his hand jammed in a door.

The zombies do have one weakness – if you can pull off their goggles they seem to de-animate after stumbling around a bit. However, this seems to only work during the day – one zombie who has his goggles removed and begins to rot a bit shows up later, after night has passed.

Most of the attacks are quick, surprise assault sorts of things. Lunges from deep or dark water, with plenty of tense buildup. There are a few longer chase sequences, though, including one where Brooke Adams flees a zombie who just keeps coming, even through a wooden fence. There's a particularly tense scene with a character trapped in a half-filled swimming pool. You know there's one of the zombies hiding in the water - and so does the character. Other zombies circle the edges, and I was reminded of a deer being circled by wolves.

The acting is decent, especially given how low-budget the production is. Having veterans like Cushing and Carradine help give a level of respectability to the proceedings. They only had the actors for a few days apiece, but they sprinkle the appearances (Carradine in the first half, Cushing the second) so that there's always a scene with one of the more famous faces every 5 minutes or so.

The shirt is filthy, but the kerchief is immaculate.

The movie is surprisingly moody and tense in spots. The zombies are menacing, especially in shots where they stand in the distance, then slowly turn as one and disappear beneath the waves. There’s a certain feel to the film that I tend to associate more with Italian horror films from that era, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a sort of rawness that makes everything creepier than modern, slicker films. The score helps a lot, with weird, atonal sequences and deep, off-kilter sounds. The first time I saw the movie I thought the score was a little annoying, but this time around I found it very effective - it actually reminded me a lot of the score from Forbidden Planet.

As is zombie movie tradition, it’s the problematic behavior of individuals that causes everything to fall apart. We’ve got the selfish, loud asshole who leaves Brooke behind and pays for it. We’ve got the muscle-guy (who isn’t played as a jerk, which was refreshing) who can’t control his claustrophobia. Even our nominal heroes – the first mate and Brooke – leave one of the characters, blinded, to fend for herself while they hide. 

In the end, their only option is to try and escape the island in a small boat - but we already know how that ends, given we see the sole survivor at the beginning of the movie. At that point it's no longer about who will survive, but how will they die?

"Time to get up already? 5 more minutes!"

The Bottom Line
It’s a 1970’s horror film made on a budget of about $200,000. It’s not high art cinema. It IS a surprisingly atmospheric horror movie, with above average script and acting, some decent makeup effects and a couple of horror's all-time greatest actors. Yeah, they're slumming it a little, but they class it up, rather than the movie dragging them down. It's also got some of the best and spookiest zombie Nazis you'll find on screen. Well worth checking out if you get the chance.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Tarantula


Tarantula
I’m a bit arachnophobic, so spider-based horror movies have a greater effect on me than they might on the average movie-goer. I saw Arachnophobia in the theater with my friend Chris and he laughed the entire time because I’d slide down in my seat, realize that spiders would be on the floor if they were in the theater and then jump up onto the seat. Rinse. Repeat. I don’t HATE spiders – in fact I’m kinda fascinated by them – but holy crap do they creep me out.

I don’t like being irrationally afraid of anything, so I’ve worked hard to desensitize myself to spiders. I do my best not to kill them and I’ve gotten to the point where I can actually pick up small spiders to take them outside (bigger ones get carried out on something long – like a yardstick or a broom). However, I’ll still freak out if I get surprised by one or stumble through a web. If you ever see me staggering along, waving my arms madly in the air as if fighting off invisible birds, well, you’ll know I’ve walked through a web.

I trace my fear of spiders back to a childhood event that is almost certainly a dream, but that I simply assumed was a memory for the longest time. I would have been four or five (I hadn’t yet gone to school). My brother Scott, sister Jen and I were rambling about my grandfather’s camp on Cedar Lake in northern Maine. Out in front of the camp was a short, rocky path down to the water and at the base of the path was a large rock that had a scoop taken out of it, forming a shallow basin. As we came ‘round the edge of the path and caught site of that rock we saw a spider FILLING THE BASIN. In my mind’s eye the basin is roughly 3 feet across, but I was 5 and terrified and since then I’ve looked and it’s roughly 8-10 inches across.

Maybe not QUITE this big. Maybe.

To my mind, this doesn’t make things much better.

My siblings and I ran screaming, but of course the spider was gone by the time adults showed up. I started swimming off of the dock from that point on. I figure if it WAS real and not a dream I probably saw an oversize fishing spider (which we used to call wood spiders). I’ve seen them get as large as 3 inches or more and maybe this was just a particularly large specimen that didn’t really fill the basin, but appeared to through the filter of abject horror.

You can imagine what effect Tarantula had on me as a kid.

Hi Bob! See you in your nightmares!

The thing is, for the longest time I didn't even know what movie it was that had scared the crap out of me, because I only caught the last 20 minutes or so. I saw it at my grandmother's on a Saturday afternoon, which is where and when I saw a lot of 1950's sci-fi pics - like Day of the Triffids. I'd been playing outside when it began to rain, so I came in, plopped down on the couch and turned on the TV only to see this freakish, monster-looking guy in pajamas and a spider as big as a damn house! BIGGER! Then some cops tried to stop it and got eaten. Then they tried to blow it up with dynamite and didn't even scratch it! Then it was heading towards a town and HOLY CRAP LOOK AT THE SIZE OF IT!!! By the time the jets finally came in with the napalm and blew it up I was so worked up I could barely sit still.

It was several years before I got a chance to see the whole film in all its black and white glory, and by then it had become some epic creepshow in my mind. The reality wasn't quite so scary - but of course by then I'd seen a lot worse. It was still a ton of fun, though, and it's one of my favorite 50's monster/sci-fi movies even now (right behind THEM! and The Incredible Shrinking Man).

The Medium
I really wish some of the classic 1950's films like THEM! and Tarantula were available on Blu-ray in the US, but they're not, at least not yet. The version I watched for this review was part of the Classic Sci-fi Ultimate Collection, and was fairly sharp and clear for an older DVD release. (This set is very much worth tracking down, if you're a fan of 1950's sci-fi films.) 

The Movie
Tarantula was written and directed by Jack Arnold, who made some of my favorite sci-fi films: It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. He also wrote The Monolith Monsters, which is an interesting little film if you get a chance to see it.

The titular monster is the result of experiments by a scientist named Deemer. He’s invented a  nutrient formula that he hopes will be able to sustain the human race in the face of food shortages that he expects to be caused by overpopulation (one of his dire pronouncements is that the world population will reach three billion, six hundred fifty million by the year 2000 – it was closer to six billion!). In animals, the side-effect is enormous growth. In humans it’s accelerated acromegaly (which we know because his colleague and assistant both experiment on themselves – I assume in the hope that they had discovered Viagra several decades early).

"Let's see, giant rabbit, giant hamster, giant... very funny guys, are you high again?"

Deemer’s assistant goes mad, attacking him and causing several of the animals to escape. Now they’ve used some standard lab animals – including monkeys, rats, rabbits and guinea pigs. Unfortunately, they’ve also used a tarantula for some reason. These are people who injected themselves with a radioactive, experimental nutrient  remember, so I guess we should just count ourselves lucky it wasn’t an alligator or a tigon.

Anyway, in the chaos, the tarantula – already the size of a large dog – escapes and Deemer is injected with the nutrient as well, giving him 4 days before he’s overcome.

The hero is a local doctor, who is immediately suspicious when the sheriff finds the body of Deemer’s colleague in the desert. He’s never seen a case of ‘acromegalia’ happen in 4 days before and takes every opportunity to go out to Deemer’s lab and ask him questions. He befriends Deemer’s new assistant, a lovely woman named Steve and is generally hanging around all the time, rather than seeing patients. (To be fair, the script mentions this as well.)

Meanwhile, the tarantula is growing. It’s feeding on cattle in the high country and leaving skeletons and big pools of venom around (I burst out laughing when the Doc actually tastes the damn stuff). It was big enough for nightmares before, but now it’s close to 30 feet high and probably 80 feet across. 

The special effects are pretty darn good for the time. The use of an actual tarantula for most of the matte shots makes it more effective than the ants in THEM! (though I think THEM! Is actually a better movie). There are problematic bits, of course (in one scene the spider moves beyond the matte frame, causing its legs to suddenly disappear into thin air), but in general the effects are as good as it gets for 1950’s giant monster movies. You won’t see ‘Tonka’ written on the bottom of any overturned buses, anyway.

What? Is there something on my face?

The scene in which the spider attacks the two story house where Deemer (by now overwhelmed by acromegaly) has his lab is the one I remember the most from a kid. The model they used for the closeups of the spider is still pretty gruesome and the matte shots and model work are great. It’s a pretty tense sequence and well edited.

The final scenes where the air force is called in to deal with the skyscraper sized spider, making its way inevitably towards town, are tense and exciting as well. It’s a fairly well known bit of movie trivia that Clint Eastwood makes his first film appearance as one of the fighter pilots. The credit sequence with the corpse of the spider burning in the background, looming over the town, reminds me of the end of Independence Day with the crashed spaceship.

Paging Mr. Eastwood, Mr. Eastwood to the enormous spider, please.
 
The Bottom Line
Tarantula is a fun, ‘50s monster film - better than most, with decent acting, writing, good special effects and lovely desert scenery. Maybe not one to check out if you're arachnophobic, but still a decent chiller after nearly 60 years

Friday, August 15, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: Phenomena (aka Creepers)


Phenomena (aka Creepers, 1985)
I have a soft spot for Italian horror movies. It's an acquired taste, like my enjoyment of Moxie, and not something for everyone. I can usually find something to enjoy in even the worst Giallo or low-budget zombie flick, however, and filmmakers like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and, most especially, Dario Argento, have directed some of my favorite horror movies of all time.

My first experience of Italian horror films was not an auspicious one. The film was Cannibal Holocaust, and I hated it. Having watched it again recently I realize that the very reasons I hated it - it was too realistic and full of hateful, awful people - are some of the reasons why it works so well. I mean, this is a movie where the director had to bring the actors into court to prove that they hadn't been brutally murdered during the making of the film!

This is literally the only non-horrifying screencap from the movie.

Regardless, having seen Cannibal Holocaust and really, REALLY not enjoyed it, I was in no hurry to view any other films directed by anyone with an Italian surname. I passed by films like Demons, Suspiria and City of the Living Dead, and things may have continued on that path, leaving me with that huge gap in my horror watching, if it hadn't been for my brother Scott.

Scott is and has always been a massive heavy metal fan (as well as a lover of horror movies) and his favorite band in the 80's (and probably today) was Iron Maiden. I was not so much into metal, but I could appreciate his enthusiasm (and endless parade of Iron Maiden t-shirts). One day at the video store he came up to me with a copy of Creepers and began waxing poetically about how cool the movie was supposed to be and how we should definitely see it. I looked at it. It did look cool, and that guy from Halloween was in it, but... Argento sounded Italian. How about The Mutilator instead?

Scott was insistent, though, and I soon found out why - there were heavy metal songs on the soundtrack. There was an IRON MAIDEN song on the soundtrack! I sighed - there was no other recourse, we'd have to watch it. Maybe we could watch The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 after. 

Creepers got me right from the start, though, with that whole opening sequence involving a teenage girl lost in the Alps. The opening music - by Argento stalwarts Goblin - also hooked me. In fact, I love the whole thing, except for the heavy metal bits (they just seemed incongruous and often ruined the mood). I was hooked and went out to rent whatever I could find with an Italian name attached.

The Medium
Creepers was the original US release title and had a bit over 20 minutes cut from the original film. For this viewing I had the Anchor Bay Special Edition of Phenomena, the original title and original edit. The DVD also includes a commentary track, a short documentary, some music videos and other miscellany. 

The picture quality is... okay on my HDTV. There are some significant moments of 'swimming,' where parts of the image seem to move and shift erratically. It's also not without some heavy grain and inconsistent softness. As there's no current blu-ray release, however, this is probably the best option if you're looking to buy. (It's available to stream on Amazon Prime under the Creepers name, but I can't vouch for the edit or quality.)

The Movie
Phenemona is about the American daughter of a famous movie star going to school in Switzerland who teams up with a Scottish entomologist and his helper chimp to track a serial killer. Oh, and the girl can communicate telepathically with insects.

Wait... I thought I was auditioning for Heathers?

Listen, if you’re looking for a logical narrative or understandable dialogue, you’re in the wrong place. This is an Argento film and you have to sort of check your brain at the door and go along for the ride. Yes, “It’s perfectly normal for insects to be slightly telepathic” is one of the crazier lines Donald Pleasance has ever had to say, but it’s no worse than his egregious “Scottish” accent and come on – SHE TALKS TO INSECTS. It’s a madhouse, just nod and go along.

Jennifer Connelly’s character (and yeah, total teenage crush when I first saw this movie) also sleepwalks, and that sense of unreality, that dream-like quality pervades the whole film. It’s more a dark fantasy than a horror film (although there are plenty of horrific moments) and its logic is dream logic. What’s the school’s response to Jennifer’s sleepwalking? To give her an EKG – she could be schizophrenic. Never mind that she been examined by specialists already. And when she threatens to go all Carrie on the bullying schoolgirls with a swarm of insects? Sedate her and call the mental hospital. Apparently the proper reaction to potential demonic influence (the headmistress refers to her as ‘diabolic’ and mentions Beelzebub) is straightjackets and potential lobotomy. And of course it’s perfectly logical to send a 15 year old girl and a corpse-chomping fly on their own to find a serial killer who likes to kill teenage girls.

Having me hunt a murderer with a fly in a box - he really is the worst scientist ever.

And that’s all tangential. For another director the story of a girl with awakening psychic powers in the pubescent pressure-cooker of an all-girls school would be a movie all by itself. For Argento it’s mere window dressing, one of half a dozen different stories that don’t really relate but somehow combine to form this gestalt of weirdness. I mean, in addition to kooky entomologist and psychic bug girl you’ve got this sort of Giallo story with a serial killer stalking adolescent girls and keeping their bodies somewhere. You’ve got the ‘original sin’ bullshit of a woman raped by a madman giving birth to a monster. There’s a Friday the 13th double (or triple) ending as well and more subtext (abandonment, awakening sexuality, father issues, loss of control) than you can shake a stick at.

And it’s got a chimp with a straight razor. 

And weirdly, for an Argento film, some genuine emotion. After one of the scariest bits (when the killer stalks McGregor while Inga, the helper chimp, tries to tear her way back in to help) the reaction of the chimp to McGregor’s death is truly touching.

The Bottom Line
I know some reviewers (Kim Newman, for instance) dislike Phenomena, but it was my first Argento film AND my first Jennifer Connelly movie, and I still love it. From the opening sequences in the windy Alps (set to Goblin’s moody electronic score) to the frenzied multiple-endings (including a pit of rotting corpses and a razor-wielding chimpanzee) it never fails to entertain – even when it’s not making much sense.

I know it’s not epic in the way that Suspiria is or as tight and suspenseful as Deep Red (my two favorite Argento films), but it’s full up on dark wonder and well worth a look. Even if the occasional heavy-metal feature sequence starts to drive you a little nuts.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Fear Flashback Friday: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre



The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Directed by Tobe Hooper, Produced by Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper, Jay Parsley and Richard Saenz, Screenplay by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper, Starring Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, and Teri McMinn

I still approach viewing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a little trepidation. This is not a safe movie. It's weird and ugly and violent. Of course it's also familiar, strangely beautiful and has less gore than your average X-Files episode. It's a horror movie classic that this horror movie fan could only bring himself to watch once before.

I didn't even intend to watch TTCM for this installment of Fear Flashback Friday, as it's not really a movie I think of as enjoyable. But Marilyn Burns passed away this week. As Sally Hardesty she was the only one who escaped Leatherface, the original Final Girl. I wanted to make a joke about the 'great Leatherface in the sky' finally catching up to her, but it seems disrespectful (and I see I managed to sneak it in anyway).

Anyway, it seemed like I should revisit Chainsaw, the great bugbear of my horror movie viewing, the one classic horror film that seemed too much for me. If it was grueling and awful to sit through, well that would be my penance for that 'Leatherface in the sky' joke.

The reason for my apprehension about Chainsaw is all about childhood and anticipation, a combination of factors that lead to the movie becoming bigger (and more awful) in my mind than it actually was. This will ramble a little, so bear with me.

When I was 8 or 9 years old I went 'camping' with one of my many relatives. I think might have been Danny Snowman, if so - thanks for scaring the crap out of me, Danny! When I say camping, what I really mean is that we dragged our sleeping bags out into the backyard and slept under a camper shell. That's one of those white, aluminum, hard top things that sat on the top of a truck bed. Danny's folks had put it out on the grass and we climbed in, closed the back and got cozy - if a little claustrophobic.

The absolute peak of truck camper technology.

This was probably late summer, early fall, and it was cold and DARK at night. We were pretty far out from town and there were no streetlights and, if I remember correctly, no outside lights on Danny's house either. A little moonlight made its way through the cloudy plexiglass to limn our faces, but that's about it. To pass the time we engaged in that time-honored camping tradition - we told scary stories. I have no recollection what story, if any, I might have told. (Maybe about bigfoot, which was a favorite topic of mine back then, thanks to In Search Of.) I remember - DISTINCTLY - the story Danny told.

There was this family, he said, in Texas. They were all weird and stuff, like mutated or something. And they used to grab people, like hitchhikers and young people walking, or maybe sometimes people would come to their house looking to use the phone or something. Anyway, they would grab those people and hang them up on meathooks. And then they would chop them up with chainsaws and make them into, like, sausages and stuff. And then they would EAT THEM! And they would make furniture out of their bones and skin. 

I may have opined how this seemed really gross and not at all likely (though I remember thinking uneasily about how I had no real idea what went into sausages). Danny emphatically shook his head. No, this was REAL! This ACTUALLY HAPPENED. And they made a movie about it and the movie was called THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

There were a few moments of silence after this declaration. The name sort of echoed in my mind, fraught as it was with horrific possibilities. TEXAS. CHAINSAW. MASSACRE.

And then, in the distance, in the dark, the sound of a chainsaw starting up echoed through the trees.
Now this was northern Maine, and the sound of chainsaws is not exactly an unknown thing, even at night. Coming as it did in the dramatic pause after that story? We may have gone a little mad for a moment. There was a frantic scramble to get out of the camper and into the house. There may or may not have been some (manly) screaming. And I'm fairly sure we slept with the light on (even though that's what babies did). I never forgot about it, that's for sure.

Fast forward several years and I'm sitting on a couch at a friend's house, about to watch some horror movies. I was a fan by then, a veteran of movies good, bad and ugly. I'd seen 10,000 Maniacs and Blood Sucking Freaks. Hell, I'd seen Cannibal Apocalypse, which had a certain nasty reputation of its own. I was well versed in the language of gore, and could compare decapitations and blood splatter with the best of them.

But I had still never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It had grown, somehow, in my mind. It had become some apotheosis of horror, a gruesome and grueling experience only one step removed from a snuff film. It put paid to all my notions of being a hardened connoisseur of horror, because I was afraid of it. Afraid of a movie.

My friends had discovered this egregious gap in my horror movie viewing, and had set about righting this perceived wrong. There was a stack of horror movies on the coffee table and amongst all the gaudy VHS covers was one featuring a man in a leather mask wielding a chainsaw, behind him was a closeup of a woman's bulging eyes. At the top, yellow text proclaimed "The Most Horrifying Motion Picture I Have Ever Seen" by some guy named Rex Reed. I couldn't stop staring at it. We watched a few movies before finally getting to Chainsaw, but I don't remember any of them. I just remember getting more and more worked up, sweating, heart racing. Today we'd probably call it a panic attack, but at the time I thought I was getting sick.

Uh... how about Goonies? Can we watch Goonies instead?

When we finally watched the film I was so worked up that I could  barely pay attention. Even now I can only remember flashes of that viewing. The hitchiker cutting his thumb, Leatherface slamming the kitchen door shut, the only really gory bit where Leatherface falls and the chainsaw cuts into his leg. The screaming. It was all vaguely stroboscopic in my mind - flashes only. And then it was over. And I remember thinking, "There. I've seen it. Now I never have to see it again." And I never did.

Until last night.

I had decided on Tuesday, when news of Marylin Burns' death had broken, that I would finally re-watch Chainsaw. I had assumed that enough time had passed that I would no longer be so uptight about the film, but as the viewing time approached I found myself growing anxious. I was annoyed and astonished to discover that this movie - technically, just the IDEA of the movie - still had so much power over me, but I guess that's what childhood trauma does to you (again, THANKS Danny). When the time finally arrived I descended into the basement like a man heading to the gallows. "Well, I guess I'll see you," I said to my wife. If she heard the nervousness in my voice she didn't comment on it.

The Medium
The version of the movie that I have is the two disk Ultimate Edition DVD. Yes, I own a copy even though I haven't watched it. It just seemed like something a horror movie fan should have in their library, you know? Anyway, for a DVD the picture quality is quite good and the list of extras should please any fan, with two documentaries, two commentary tracks and plenty more. Until the 40th anniversary blu-ray comes out this fall, this is as good as it gets, content wise.

The Movie
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has been studied and critiqued and reviewed over and over. There's not much that I can add that'll be in any way a new thing. So this is just a quick overview of my experience watching the film this time.

The opening text crawl explains the film setup quite well and if the voice sounds familiar that's because it's John Larroquette. The following opening sequence - a series of strange noises in darkness followed by flash of light illuminating what appears to be a rotting corpse - sets the tone and lets you know that things are going to be pretty awful. That the filmmaker is not going to play nice. After a brief burst of anxiety - like static on the radio - I was able to settle down and enjoy this sequence and the credits as fine bits of horror filmmaking. I particularly like the credit sequence with the shots of sunspots - even the sun is sick, Hooper seems to be saying, so what chance does life on Earth have?

A really quick plot outline: A group of kids, including brother and sister Franklin and Sally Hardesty, are traveling in a van. Ostensibly they're going to check on their grandfather's gravesite, as there has been a spate of grave desecrations in the area. Low on gas - and unnerved by a violent hitchhiker - the group stops at the old Hardesty family home, now a rundown ruin. They run afoul of a local family with unique appetites and are killed, one by one, until only Sally remains.

I hadn't realized how well shot this movie is. The framing and editing is just top notch. The shot where the hitchhiker runs to catch up with the van, framed with a vast stretch of blue sky and empty Texas countryside, is a favorite. It simply oozes isolation.

As the hitchhiker scene progressed I once again experienced a surge in that old anxiety, but it's just a great sequence, a really unnerving bit that serves to throw the group off their dynamic and, of course, set us up for some of the really disturbing scenes to come. After that I was able to really throw off the old expectations and just enjoy the movie for what it is, which is a fantastic horror movie.

There's a certain documentary feel to the film, which serves to heighten the fear. It really DOES feel like something that might have happened. The acting is pretty naturalistic and gets even more so as things progress. Marylin Burns, in particular, really sells her horror and desperation in a way that's almost uncomfortable to watch. 

Time and time again watching the movie I found myself just amazed at a shot or a scene - the sequence when Pam goes into the house is fantastic, for instance. That tracking shot under the swing is just a thing of beauty - the house looming in the frame. Later on you remember her exposed back in this shot and shudder at what happens. That living room and the furniture.

Don't go in there! And put some sunscreen on, for crying out loud.

Gunnar Hansen is awesome in this as well. Having never really, REALLY watched this before, I was blown away by his performance as Leatherface. With no lines to speak of and a face always covered in a mask, he manages to convey a fully realized character. That moment - after Jerry shows up and is dispatched - where he walks into the living room and almost has a nervous breakdown is tremendous. There's a whole life behind that moment, and Hansen sells it.

Things crank up to 11 after that, with Franklin and Sally trying to find their friends, a pretty horrific dinner party and lots of chases featuring chainsaws. The final shot, of Leather face almost dancing in the sunset, spinning around with his chainsaw, borders on the poetic. This is a classic film for a reason and I feel a little sad that I've neglected it for so long.

The Bottom Line
This was, honestly, a bit of a revelation for me. Once I got past my anxiety and was able to settle in and just watch the film I was transfixed. It's just a tremendously well-made film. Yes, it's a bit grimy and raw, but that's part of what makes it so good. It feels real, and as such you become invested and a little bit scared.

I'll be watching this again soon, I think. I missed out on having this as part of my horror movie background and feel like I need to catch up. Luckily these DVDs have plenty of background material, so I'll get some of the history and details I've been missing.

And Marilyn Burns, wherever you are, you were pretty great.