[Note: I’m not always careful with spoiler warnings on this blog. The movies I talk about are almost never new, and I proceed from the assumption that anyone interested enough to read what I have to say about an older film has already seen it him- or herself. However, in tribute to the original marketing campaign for one of the movies discussed below, I feel obliged to notify the reader that this post isn’t going to be coy about which characters live and which ones die. If it’s still possible for someone to be ignorant of the plot twists in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, that person needs to be quarantined immediately and shown this film. For the rest of you, and while I’m at it, here’s a general warning about the disturbing subject matter of these films. I’m not going to be vulgar in describing them, but there’s just no harmless way of explaining how “Leatherface” got his name. All right. Here we go.]
Skeletons aren’t as scary as they used to be. Whether found in cartoons, Halloween decorations, or high school classrooms, the internal latticework of the human body doesn’t usually make for a threatening image. Sometimes horror films try to insert skeletons (or mummies) to force a fear of death on the viewer, but the imagery is so familiar and banal as to render it impotent. Context and implication are essential. They are what set Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre apart. Each film was revolutionary in its presentation of the act of killing itself — the intimacy and specificity of the carnage shocked and repulsed many in the 60s and 70s, opening the door for modern movie violence — but beyond those shocks is the fundamental dread and disgust of the stories. Much of that dread derives from exhumation; body snatching; sacrilege. Dying in a horror movie is unexceptional. Finding the remains of another person who has been killed and since been treated like an animal is something else.*
These two films are the patriarchs of the slasher movie family and still arguably the greatest examples of that disreputable form. Both were inspired by a real-life American murderer, Ed Gein, known for his mother fixation and a Nazi-like creativity with human remains. Given the fact that “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs is another Gein imitator, the man had a tremendous influence on the horror genre. Not bad for someone who may have only killed two people. Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, kills that many people onscreen as well. There. That’s the twist. Up until the last fifteen minutes or so, the original audience wasn’t meant to suspect Norman of killing anyone, but rather of covering up the crimes of his psychotically overprotective mother. As it turns out, he was doing it all himself under the throes of a split personality. The ways in which Hitchcock makes his audience identify with this ferociously disturbed individual are the real horror.
To back up: the first half of the film is told from the perspective of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a frustrated secretary who, on the spur of the moment, steals a great deal of money so she can marry her lover and start a new life somewhere else. The film gets inside her head with remarkable voiceovers, exposing Marion’s anxiety and sense of guilt. Her inner life is so clearly expressed that the audience shares her perspective completely, fearing that everyone who notices her unusual behavior somehow knows everything she did. Finding her way to the Bates Motel one night, she encounters Norman. To her, and the original audience, he’s just another suspicious male asking some awkward questions. In fact, he’s the nicest, least threatening one yet. She couldn’t guess what he’s about to do, and he couldn’t, either. The brilliance of their scene together — with “Mother” looming over the room in the form of a stuffed owl on the wall — is that, although each character is keeping huge secrets from the other, they’re also letting their guard down, finding a connection. It’s enough to make them both reverse course. She’ll head back home and confess her crime, he’ll tell his mother he’s his own man now and won’t be bullied anymore. First comes a prurient glance through a peephole. Hitchcock’s style is confrontational throughout Psycho. Nearly every character looks directly into the camera at least once, making the audience ever mindful of perspective. But when the camera looks through the peephole, we are looking through Norman’s eyes, a new paradigm for the rest of the film.
Marion Crane, the assumed protagonist, is stabbed to death in the shower about fifty minutes into Psycho. At about the same point in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) becomes the sole survivor from her group of friends, and Burns, who to that point hadn’t made much of an impression, instantly transforms into the second coming of Fay Wray. She had to. Audience identification rests entirely on her shoulders, and her survival is the only balm amidst the unrelenting shocks of the film’s last half-hour. TCSM is such a sensational piece of work (in the literal sense of the term, but the other definitions will do as well) that its subtext only grows upon reflection afterwards. Sally’s friend Pam (Terri McMinn) reads from a horoscope in the film’s first scene, suggesting the tale as an allegory for the 70s murdering the 60s as well as pointing to the way the film orients itself by the greater and lesser lights in the sky. The perverse cannibalistic family in the film represents, like Norman, the people whom civilization has left behind — literally, in the case of the Bates Motel (“They moved away the highway”). Inside either movie’s house one can find the bones of an old woman seated in a chair, a civilizing feminine influence dead and gone but allowed to fester.
Again, it’s the bones, more than the violence, that strike fear into me. When Pam trips and falls into a room filled with them, obscene decorations that suggest so much more than any violent act could deliver, the house becomes a truly horrifying place. I wouldn’t venture into the Bates home’s basement, but there isn’t a room in the TCSM house that I would want to be in for any length of time. The art direction of Tobe Hooper’s film, done by Robert A. Burns, is morbid perfection. The character of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) is an imposing physical threat and deranged beyond understanding, but the skin mask he wears, and the brief but meaningful glance at the eyes behind them in one scene, are the most disturbing part of him. He’s just killed three people, but he almost becomes sympathetic as he sits down to collect himself. Why do these people keep barging into my home? What’s going on here? Indeed, these road-tripping teenagers walk into the trap one by one despite warnings that they should leave. Death and the appearance of death haunt the entire film. On my first viewing, I thought for sure the grandfather was dead until I discovered otherwise. Such is the power of suggestion.
These films changed the culture of movies even as they identified cultural shifts on a larger scale. America was destabilizing, but movies were coming into their own with new freedoms and a generation of filmmakers who had absorbed cinema’s powers from a young age. Psycho paved the way, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with almost no budget to speak of, triumphantly followed through. Hitchcock’s work remains uniquely bracing. The cubist editing of the shower scene is justifiably famous; each shot feels immortal, with or without Bernard Herrmann’s indelible music. If the deaths in TCSM don’t feel comparably earth-shattering, they carry a grotesque fascination of their own. One way in which the later film is actually superior to the earlier one is its ending. The long speech of the psychiatrist in Psycho has been criticized for decades. It explains away the most disturbing mysteries of evil and grinds the film’s momentum to a halt. TCSM, by contrast, is lean and raw from start to finish, with only a few moments of wordless denouement. Both times I’ve seen the film, I’ve gasped at the suddenness of the cut to black. Psycho‘s critics are always quick to point out that the final moments of the film make a nice recovery from the psychobabble. We are left in a room with Norman Bates, and for just the blink of an eye, his mother’s skull is superimposed on his face — the perfect symbol of everything we have to fear on this earth.
*The first paragraph is adapted from a Letterboxd review of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre I wrote two years ago.