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This past weekend, the deconstructed slasher flick “The Cabin in the Woods” opened in theaters. From the mind of Joss Whedon and his co-writer/director Drew Goddard, the film sets up multiple horror archetypes and then soundly and with a great sense of humor and affection for the genre breaks them down. As a woman who was once deeply enamored of the scary story, the release has called to mind what was, for me, the first moment that a chiller set itself deeply and irrevocably into my psyche.
There are horror films that I have found beautiful, poetic and masterfully crafted and still others that have simply opened a previously unknown gate of fear in me. But it is the sequence in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” described below that forever remains the first time a scene delved into my id and burned itself onto my conscious mind.
As a little girl I had a deep affection for both mischief and horror films. And so it was that I found myself watching a forbidden and forbiddingly gruesome cinematic offering one, oh yes, dark and stormy night with my best friend in a cabin tucked into the woods of South Carolina. My family and I had rented the cabin for a week so that my southern mother could educate her city-slicker children on the ways of nature. She found it necessary to do so after my brother identified a herd of cows as "big cats" on a drive through Vermont (which we referred to as upstate New York).
Now, let me take a moment to explain that as a New York City girl, even the most structured of suburbs was deemed "the forest." And "the forest," by all accounts, was filled with nothing but Jason Voorhees and the creature from the black lagoon. As such, my friend Lisa and I assumed that each pine-cone to hit the roof on our Hilton Head rental was actually the work of the angry (though likely misunderstood) "lizard man."
Like all true horror buffs, we were both attracted to and repelled by the notion of confronting the ice-blooded genetic hybrid we imagined lived in the rafters. The attraction-repulsion dance is one that every true horror fan is familiar with, which may explain why we chose to watch a film about the quintessential dangers of back-woods inbreeding (no not "Deliverance") in this environment.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is a relentlessly raw and brutal look at limited dating and breeding options gone awry. And as far as dysfunction is concerned, well, they say the family that slays together...
The film is illustrative of a trend at the time which played into the fears urban dwellers had of both the untamed, uncivilized wilds they had left behind, and ultimately, their own unbidden and primal natures. “Straw Dogs,” “I Spit On Your Grave” and the aforementioned “Deliverance” are all examples of films of a similar thematic ilk, though with varied aesthetic merits.
But all of these films look at what we sometimes imagine our true, stripped-down selves to be: viscous animals driven by base needs at best and a lust for violence (and sexual violence in particular) at worst. Indeed, these films cast the “non-urban” other as little more than guttural beasts, creatures we ourselves must become in order to survive or defeat them. They are darkly salacious invitations to release the veil of culture if only in the confines of a 99 minute run time.
The kills in the “Chainsaw” are stark, viscous, relentlessly cruel and dehumanizing. They leave the viewer with an acute sense of both terror and loneliness. Few films have more vividly captured the idea that the victim is little more than a thing to the killer. A vision of a human slaughterhouse, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” asks us to confront our most base and fundamental fears. It asks us to look at our own cruelty and imagine it turned against us.
Yet the moment in the film that remains branded in my memory is the final confrontation between our heroine Sally and Leatherface when she, in an act of desperation, jumps directly though the glass of a second story window. The pure, unadulterated fear, the hysteria that she expresses remains one of the most realistic responses I have ever seen in a horror film. It is both flight and fight, it is the will to live, and the willingness to die rather than stay for one more moment in that house of abominations. One gets the sense that she will never again recover the girl she was, that some part of her will be forever chained to that dinner table.
It is somehow perfect to me, a viscerally satisfying manifestation of triumph over one's demons and demonstration of the cost of engaging openly in the metaphorical battle against them. Meanwhile, when my brother turned on the blender in the kitchen just as the credits rolled, I did Leatherface a solid and jumped out of my own skin, saving him the trouble.
It made a sweet little change purse for Grandma Sawyer.
What was your first formative horror film experience? Let us know in the comments section!
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