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A Look Back: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

WRITER : Admin | DATE : 19-10-20 | CATEGORY : Movies
It was the summer of 1973. A recent film school graduate from the University of Texas named Tobe Hooper, with a feature-length art film named Eggshells under his belt, was planning to break into the mainstream with a low-budget horror film about a dysfunctional clan of rural cannibals. He gathered together a cast and crew of Austin-area locals and rented an isolated house in which to shoot his film. The shoot lasted 33 days and contained multiple incidents of accidental injuries, on-set vomiting, and extreme exhaustion resulting from long shooting days in the relentless August heat, but resulted in one of the most intense and influential horror films of all time.

43 years later, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is still as startling and unnerving as ever, despite the fact that its plot devices have been reused countless times in the later slasher films and extreme shockfests that have drawn inspiration from it. The story is simple: A group of four friends, including a wheelchair-bound “invalid” named Franklin (Paul A. Partain) and his sister Sally (Marilyn Burns), are traveling through Texas in an Econoline van during the middle of summer, apparently looking for Franklin and Sally’s childhood home. Before reaching the house, they pick up an unhinged hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) near a slaughterhouse and meet a gas station owner and barbecue cook (Jim Siedow), who advises them not to go looking around the nearby houses. Nevertheless, they ignore the cook’s ominous advice, and soon cross paths with the Ed Gein-inspired Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his family of former slaughterhouse workers, who take pleasure in killing passersby and putting them on the dinner table.

While George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead had also changed the face of the horror genre and reflected the cultural anxieties and chaos of the late 1960s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre provided viewers with an even more uncompromising vision of Vietnam-era America, where young people were treated like cattle and arbitrarily selected for slaughter in the prime of their lives, and where Manson-like cults could operate undetected in isolated rural corners of the country. The disturbing uncertainty of the times comes through loud and clear in the film, without ever becoming explicitly allegorical.

The characters are also some of the most iconic in horror. The grotesque, skin-wearing Leatherface is the most famous, but Neal’s hitchhiker and Siedow’s cook provided a template for darkly suspicious supporting characters like Friday the 13th’s Crazy Ralph, while Franklin set the standard for loudmouthed victims and Sally initiated the “last woman standing” trope — which would become one of the most enduring traditions of the slasher subgenre.

Director of Photography Daniel Pearl also deserves mention for his beautiful and arresting cinematography, which is reminiscent of the films of Terrence Malick at times. Pearl’s work lends the film with a level of artistry that is not often found in other films of the era focused on murder, torture and cannibalism — such as Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. The sharp and darkly comic script by Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel also raises Chain Saw above a level of more crude and exploitative films like Craven’s. For these reasons, as well as for the enduring shock value of the film, it is not surprising that a print of the film resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art — while also remaining high on lists of the best horror films and even earning mentions in general lists of the greatest films ever made.

But regardless of the film’s artistic value, it will likely always be divisive and shocking, even for jaded audiences of modern horror movies. Its sheer gut-wrenching intensity has not been dampened by the passage of time, and it still remains unique in its complete refusal to comfort the audience by falling back on predictable horror tropes (although it created a new wave of them) or providing an explanation for its characters’ fates. Recent “torture porn” films like Hostel, The Human Centipede, and the Saw series are clear descendants of Chain Saw in their presentation of amoral serial killers and their helpless victims, although in their focus on graphic gore effects and disgusting torture scenarios they often sacrifice the raw terror and disturbing lack of explanation present in Hooper’s film.

And while Chain Saw spawned a number of sequels in the decades following its release (including Hooper’s own comedy-horror cult favorite The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), continuing to the present day with 2017’s Leatherface, none of these have succeeded in replicating the original film’s inexplicable and practically goreless scare factor. Modern horror movies have been influenced immeasurably by Hooper’s film, but for an experience which succeeds in terrifying and fraying the nerves of an audience without the use of CGI or blaring, bass-heavy musical scores, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is still in a class of its own.


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