The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Growing up in the early 80s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was notorious as an almost mythically gory horror movie.  Part of its infamy was due to the "based on a true story" introduction (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is "based on" the Ed Gein case in the same way that Predator in based on my life- not at all). When I first saw it in high school, I was honestly a little disappointed.  At that time I was obsessed with horror movies, having refused to watch them my whole adolescent life out of fear, and like the Cenobites in Hellraiser I was on a never ending quest to reach new heights (or depths) of horror and gore.

The thing with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that it is really not very explicit at all.  Like Halloween and Psycho, much of the violence is suggested so expertly that your mind fills in the blanks.  For a young gorehound this was too much work and I hadn't had the experience watching (good) horror films that I do now, and it was impossible for me to appreciate just how good this movie is.

I have seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre now half a dozen times, and it gets better with each viewing- more suspenseful and tense, more beautiful.

Concerned by news of corpse mutilations in Texas, Sally, her brother Franklin, and their friends decide to check out their grandfather's grave to make sure he is still there and intact.  Along the way they pick up a disturbed hitchhiker, setting into motion the events of the rest of the film.

What makes this movie work is, unlike the slashers of the 80s and 90s, Sally, Franklin, and the others are generally likable kids.  The movie starts off slowly and is mostly the kids driving around and chatting.  They're good kids and their reason for getting together is innocent and noble.  Franklin is often cited as an unlikeable character, and while he does whine a lot I found him to come across as a sympathetic and even charming character.  He seems genuinely interested in communicating with the bizarre hitchhiker for example, when most characters in horror slashers would act dismissive and insulting.

The pacing is impeccable.  Starting off slow, once the murderous and infantile Leatherface shows up the movie hits breakneck speed and doesn't slow down until the end.  The introduction of Leatherface in particular is an amazing and shocking scene.  In fact, Sally's attempt to escape from the family of cannibals is so frantic that it almost feels like a single 40 minute take, broken up only when she is knocked out- only for her to wake up in an even worse situation and renew her escape.
Special mention must be made of the house much of the last act takes place in.  Its rooms are filled with bizarre sculptures made of human and chicken bones, its floors covered in feathers and grime. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a particularly (surprisingly?) beautifully photographed horror film.

There is also a surprising amount of character development when it comes to the cannibal family.  At first they are presented as an actual family, but later in the movie you realize they are more a clan than anything.  They stick together more out of necessity than anything and it is clear that they don't really much care about each other though they try to maintain the semblance of a family.  The "father" is a very interesting character, who, contrary to his "sons" claims to get no pleasure from killing, but at the same time cannot help but smile as the others torment Sally.

While the empty and meaningless slashers that were influenced by this landmark film could be fun, they missed what made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre work- likable characters and villains with (some) depth.  This movie has become a Halloween tradition for me, and I am eagerly awaiting this year's viewing.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho is so entrenched in our popular culture that, even as a huge fan of horror movies, until now I have never really felt the urge to watch it.  I knew the story, I had seen the most famous scenes more times than I could count, I even knew all about the true story it is roughly based on.  I suppose I felt that the film had been ruined for me in a sense, and that it would hold no surprises for me- no suspense, and what would be the point of watching a Hitchcock movie without suspense?  Having finally watched it in its entirety, I realize I could not have been more wrong.

Marion (Janet Leigh) is handed $40,000 in cash to deposit for a client but decides instead to take the money and run.  As the weight of her crime weighs on her conscious she begins feeling and more importantly acting paranoid, attracting the attention of a police officer and a used car salesman.  Finally she checks in to the Bates Motel, managed by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who has a disturbing relationship with his mother.

The rest is cinematic history.  Much of the audience was likely drawn by Leigh's appearance in the film, and it must have been unbelievably shocking for them to witness her violent death halfway through the movie.  The movie then switches to the perspective of private investigator Arbogast (who is also suddenly murdered) before finishing up from the point of view of yet another set of protagonists.

I really enjoyed Anthony Perkins' performance.  His portrayal of Norman Bates has been
parodied and referenced to the point where I was expecting a one-note depiction of an awkward mama's boy.  I was surprised to see that Bates is instead boyishly handsome and charming in his own way. His mask of sanity slip now and then, but he almost always seems to realize when he has gone too far or said too much and reels himself back in.

When he is being interviewed by Arbogast he starts out cool and friendly but within a few questions he has been caught in a lie and ineffectually tries to modify his version of the story.  What he doesn't realize is that the local sheriff pretty much considers the case closed, assuming that Marion has run away with the money.  His problem, like Marion, is that he cracks under even the slightest pressure.

Technically, the movie is perfect of course.  The black and white photography is moody and beautiful with excellent use of shadow, and Hitchcock's direction is of course masterful.  The pacing is perfect (with one little problem I will go into later) and while I still found the movie to be suspenseful having known the story before watching it, even if I didn't the movie would have been a pleasure to watch.  It is always fascinating to watch people doing something they are expert at, and that is a fitting description of Psycho.

I have two problems with this film.  The first is the shower scene.  It just doesn't work for me.  I've not been stabbed to death in a shower so I can't say for sure, but I never get the feeling that the knife is actually even touching Marion.  I'm not saying it needs to be more explicit, but something seems off about it... knife seems to slow, angle is off, the way Marion slides down the wall seems overly theatrical and not realistic.  Having said that, the lead up is perfect.

Regardless of my hangup over the shower scene, it doesn't diminish the movie in any way.  That can't be said of the closing scene.  First we get Norman Bates shrieking "I'M NORMAN BATES" as he rushes into a room wearing his mother's clothes.  He doesn't even seem to be saying it, and it appears to have been dubbed in after.  Was this done in fear that audiences would not understand what was going on?  Next, we get a hammy, rambling speech by a psychiatrist explaining what exactly is wrong with Norman Bates, and it completely spoils the pacing of the movie.  Finally, a long shot of Norman Bates that would have been way more effective without his internal monologue.

I can forgive the last 10 minutes due to the strength of the rest of the movie.  Psycho is still an effective thriller and a masterpiece of suspense half a century later.  Who will even remember garbage like Saw in 2060?


The Shining (1980)

Very few film adaptations can be said to be unquestionably better than the books they are based on in every way.  The Shining is one such film.

As a fan of Stephen King I had resisted seeing The Shining due to Stephen King's dislike of the adaptation.  The film is indeed quite different from the novel; the changes go way beyond those one would normally expect in adapting a 200,000 word novel into a two hour film.  Whereas King's novel focuses on how alcohol can turn a decent man on his family, Kubrick's movie seems to assume that the same man is bad from the start and seemingly destined to go off the deep end.

I can thus appreciate that King himself is not a fan of the film and I would not blame a diehard fan of the novel for looking down on the adaptation.  Having said that, I believe that King's novel would have been almost impossible to film effectively as it was in 1980 and I appreciate the work that went into changing not only the story but the characters as well in order to get it up on the screen.  This is really a fantastic movie that is beautiful to look at and atmospheric in a way that the original novel is not.

Jack Torrance accepts a job as caretaker of a massive hotel during the winter, and brings his wife Wendy and young son Danny along.  The hotel is remote and secluded and a previous caretaker had gone stir-crazy and murdered his family with an axe.  Jack has got no problem with that, since he wants to be left alone to do some writing.

The movie then follows Jack's (predictable) descent into madness as he first becomes frustrated
with Wendy's interrupting him while he is writing, then becomes seemingly jealous of her closeness with their son.

It's a great movie, and the pacing is perfect; before you know it you have been sitting there for two hours and the movie is over.  As far as I am concerned the movie is perfect... if not for two things (one of which is not really the fault of the movie).

First, Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Jack Torrance, while fun, is so over the top he is almost campy.  As a madman stalking his family with an axe he's fine, but he gives Torrance a menacing edge from the very first scene.  He is constantly fidgeting and making bizarre facial expressions even when he is supposed to be "normal" at the start of the movie.  It's possible that the intent was to show that Torrance was off from the very beginning, but I would have appreciated a gradual descent into madness rather than going from "kinda crazy already" to "jumping off the walls insane."

The other problem I have with this movie is actually a problem with the novel.  The titular Shining (Danny's psychic powers) just does not work for me.  In the novel it plays a more important role, since the hotel itself is some kind of entity and wants to eat Danny's "Shining" powers.  Even when I first read the novel in high school, I felt the book would have been better off without explaining this at all.

Watching the movie, I feel like Kubrick wanted to reduce the importance of the supernatural stuff, but had to keep the Shining in for the title to make any sense.  This is downplayed so much that the character of Halloran, who shares a psychic connection with Danny, could pretty much have been cut from the film with no effect.  As it is, he exists to deliver exposition (on the Shining itself) and then rush in during the last scene to be killed.  The movie would have been stronger without the explanation.

It thus goes without saying that I approve of the changes made to the supernatural elements of the story.  I feel like they distract from what the film is saying, but even distract us from the point of the novel.

Having said that, the film works as is, as does the novel.  They are different enough that it is worth experiencing both.


They Saved Hitler's Brain (1969)

They Saved Hitler's Brain was made by combining a short feature with new footage shot by amateurs much later, and it shows.

The short feature, Madmen of Mandoras, is nothing special and concerns a plot to establish Hitler's head as the ruler of the world.  It could have been a shlocky but fun little appetizer for the main feature, but the budget is so low that the entire conspiracy to bring Hitler back to power is limited to Hitler's head (that just sits there in a glass box blinking), and a few guys.  They plan to release some kind of nerve gas, but I just don't see how this could possibly work out well for them.

Ten years later, some students filmed 20 minutes or so of footage and added it to increase the running time.  Instead of skillfully splicing scenes into the feature to lengthen it, they just filmed some nonsense and dropped the whole thing at the start of the movie.  Sure, it's in black and white like the rest of the movie, but the film looks newer as the costumes, hairstyles, and cars are obviously from a different generation or era.  I don't even understand how the new footage is related at all to the Madmen of Mandoras.

The only thing common to both is that they are awful.  I had trouble following what was going on because scenes didn't seem to flow into each other at all.  The movie is disjointed.  Nothing much happens for most of it, and like all awful 50s/60s "science fiction" movies, most of the running time is taken up by scenes of talking in offices, which are cheap to film.

I suppose I get what I deserve for watching stuff from "50 movies for $10" DVD collections, but it's pretty disheartening to watch these kinds of movies.  Hopefully the next one won't be so bad.