Slasher movies: some rules of the game

by Kate

Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the formation of genre rules

A cannibal family dinner in Texas Chainsaw Massacre

A cannibal family dinner in Texas Chainsaw Massacre

As I was watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) for the first time, it reminded me of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972). What is ominous about both these movies is how intimate the terrorized victims become with their killers. Subsequently, the viewer also becomes familiar with them. This differs dramatically from a film like Halloween (1978), where Michael Myers/the Shape terrifies because he is an entity of pure evil, remaining unseen until it’s too late.

Leatherface

Leatherface

There are three captors in Texas, whom the online literature refers to as the Proprietor, the Hitchhiker and Leatherface. While spectators never get the privilege of seeing Leatherface in his entirety, there is a shot where the camera gets close enough to reveal his tongue and his teeth peaking out from behind the mask. There’s a definite human being underneath, and this is further emphasized by the way he blunders about with his various instruments.

The odd physicality of Leatherface has comedic qualities, which his comrades share. There is a classic comedic chemistry at work in the combination of their three personalities, along the lines of the Three Stooges or Marx Brothers (more on that later). Comparisons to Last House on the Left can be drawn the most clearly by the way the villains, excluding Leatherface, don’t visually differ in a dramatic way from the protagonists. This makes Leatherface a transitional feature in the genre, and makes the film a bridge between exploitation in the manner of Last House and true slasher horror like Halloween (1978), which came just a few years later. In Last House two young girls are needlessly tortured and killed by a group of escaped convicts. And while the viewer’s sympathy lies with the girls, the convicts share enough of the screen time to become relatable characters.

literal gut-wrenching scene from Last House on the Left

A literal gut-wrenching scene from Last House on the Left

Between the folksy soundtrack the and behavior of the criminals, the tone Last House strikes is at times light and humorous. In the beginning, the convicts don’t treat the girls too poorly, beyond frightening and humiliating them. While the ragtag group seems slightly eccentric, viewers aren’t given much reason to really fear or even dislike them. They even have an entertaining rapport, much like the trio of brothers in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Until they gut one of the young woman and disembowel her by hand, that is. At this point, the horror becomes palpable, grotesque and psychological. Part of the inherent strangeness of this film derives from the visual treatment of the criminals. All things considered, there’s not much in appearance separating these convicts from the girls they torture and kill.

Masking the Id in horror movies

The Shape looms in Halloween

The Shape looms in Halloween

In most slasher movies, the terrorizer/villain/stalker has a visual element that paints them as definitively “other,” such as a mask or costume. The more mature genre slasher films are accompanied by highly stylized atmospheres, as in Halloween or Scream. Viewers know something will pop out at the protagonist as soon as she is isolated, and that that thing, whatever it is, will be somehow less than human, denoted by a mask, robe, or grotesque disfigurement. On the other hand, in early slashers like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there’s a slippage between these stylized horror elements and moments that seem to belong in another genre entirely. Once the three cannibal killers get their hands on Sally (Marilyn Burns) they toy with her before finishing her off. Because of their buffoonish chemistry, it’s tempting to laugh. However, once the Hitchhiker suggests that the near-dead grandfather be given the opportunity to administer the deathblow to the back of Sally’s neck, the scene enters an in-between state that is unnerving, funny, and as immersive as the intestine-yanking scene in Last house.

Perhaps because of it’s genre-forging status, the movie tends towards entropy in a way that Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and others do not. Still, Texas helped to create the rules of the slasher film. It has the virile young women and parties of teenagers that disappear one by one. It contains an unforgettable chase-scene through the woods, and one final girl who beats the odds. With the help of Leatherface, this film helped to establish the masked killer as a convention in slasher films. Noticeably, the only one of the three brothers in Texas who actually hacks at the bodies is the masked Leatherface, suggesting that to do the unthinkable, one has to be less than human. And Leatherface is ultimately the icon audiences associate with this movie.

Horror and physical comedy– two sides of the same coin?

harpoI doubt Tobe Hooper’s aim was to draw out the dark side of classic comedy routines, but he nevertheless picks up on the masking trope used in many horror and comedy films. And while the comedic face isn’t traditionally masked with heavy make-up or an external element, there is a comedic “mask” that involves manipulating the facial features for effect, or limiting the face’s movement entirely. After all, isn’t there something discomfiting about Harpo Marx? Out of context this face is unsettling. You can even consider Buster Keaton’s inexpressive mug here. The dehumanized face finds a unique home in certain horror and comedy genres.

Buster Keaton masquerades as a monkey onstage in The Playhouse (1921)

Buster Keaton masquerades as a monkey onstage in The Playhouse (1921)

Another probing question would be what comedy and horror ultimately have in common that makes this the case, and why the face is only ever obscured completely in horror films. I think it has to do with unconscious psychology. On film, we feel the need to render basal psychology through masking. There’s no better way to reduce a human body to animal-like characteristics than by removing the subtlety of facial expression, which is the essence of what makes us human. What about physical comedy has to do with the unconscious? Harpo is an easy case, because he doesn’t speak and makes outlandish faces and gestures that are animalistic and vaguely obscene. Keaton too has an animal quality. In The Playhouse (1921) he very convincingly portrays a monkey in a vaudeville act when the real one is accidentally released. Keaton often responds to his circumstances in the least intellectual of ways, simply reacting to the chaos of his surroundings without plan or strategy.

A continuum of masking

Parts of Texas operate in between these two seeming-poles of comedy and horror by having a trio of villains that portray a spectrum from most-human to nearly in-human. The Proprietor appears totally normal, while the Hitchhiker’s technically unmasked leer still marks him as somehow off. This is emphasized in the beginning when Pam (Teri McMinn) notes that he’s weird looking, reluctant to pick him up. Finally, Leatherface is covered entirely. This array of villains helps to pose this film somewhere between slasher, exploitation, and even comedy, leaving spectators at times unsure how to feel about the goings-on, and unsure how to position themselves in relation to the villains in question. The way viewers read villains in the horror genre is heavily dependent upon visual portrayal*, and the mark of the other is a huge part of that. Without it, or with varying levels of otherness, spectators lose their footing, and they might end up in the unnerving position of identifying with the killer. In the end, the inability to reduce evil to a symbolic specter representing the id is deeply disturbing, which is why its much easier to deflect evil onto the visage of Freddy Krueger or The Shape.

*Okay, this is an obvious point. Especially in classic hollywood even femininity and masculinity were visually coded using more benign factors like lighting.
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