Monday, October 31, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #3 - Leatherface

I could have easily put any of the members of the cannibalistic family from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in this space. There's the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who sets our teeth on edge from his first scene - he's a very extreme version of the experiences we've all had where we're having a conversation with a stranger, realize something is not quite right with that person, and proceed to awkwardly extricate ourselves from the situation. There's the cook (Jim Siedow), the most seemingly normal of the family, whose admission that "I just can't take no pleasure in killing," along with the sheepish grin on his face during the climactic dinnertime scene, are deeply unsettling. And Grandpa - okay, Grandpa isn't as scary as the others, but the 100-year-old man's infantile joy as he sucks blood from a the hysterical Sally's (Marilyn Burns) finger has a powerful "Yeeechhh!" factor. Collectively, they make a potent collection of flesh-eating good ol' boys that should strike fear into the heart of any pinko homo lefty Yankee like myself.*

But of course, the scariest member of the family is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). From his first appearance - suddenly entering and dominating the frame, swiftly whacking poor Kirk (William Vail) and dragging him back to his makeshift butcher's shop and slamming the door shut behind him with a loud clang - Leatherface is completely terrifying. A huge, childlike brute, Leatherface kills not because he loves doing it but because his brothers make him to or because his victim has frightened him by entering his house. Leatherface, like Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill, was partly inspired by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, but the film does not recreate the extremely disturbing facts of Gein's murders and use of his victims' remains. We get glimses of this in the bony furnishings of Leatherface's house and his wearing of other people's faces, of course. But although Leatherface's murders are very brutal, director Tobe Hooper wisely spares us the goriest details - by employing suggestion, witholding the impact of his monster's weapons as Hitchcock did with Psycho), Hooper provokes our imaginations to fill in the gory details.

Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 shifts the tone from documentary-like starkness to campy humor - I rejected this combination at first, but it gradually grew on me. The movie is hilarious for its blunt acknowledgement of slasher movies' sexual politics (it may be the source of Heathers' infamous line "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw") and Dennis Hopper's scenery-chewing performance as a revenge-seeking, chainsaw-wielding Texas ranger. The next two sequels are mostly dull; the remake and its prequel are not as bad as their reputation suggest, and I'm particularly fond of the scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning where R. Lee Ermey's character calls a family meeting to inform everyone they're cannibals now. Still, the defining image of Leatherface will always be his "chainsaw dance" at the end of the first film - spinning in circles in a state of both brutal, inarticulae anger and ecstasy until the movie cuts to black, suspending Leatherface in his own holy moment forever.

*An analogy I suggested in a discussion about the Republican presidential candidates: Mitt Romney is the cook, Rick Santorum is the hitchhiker, Rick Perry is Leatherface and Ron Paul is Grandpa. Michelle Bachmann is Baby from The Devil's Rejects. This was before the Cain surge - Farmer Vincent, maybe?

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