Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Final Cut: How Documentaries can be the Most Terrifying Genre Ever

                The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Audition are two of my favorite horror films of all time, but they are also two of the most difficult movies for me to watch.  They are too uncompromising, too unrelenting, too raw for me to be able to stomach multiple viewings.  As of writing this, it must be at least a year and half or longer since I’ve viewed either film.   I’ve often said this to people when I show them Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, but part of what is so upsetting about this film is how genuine it feels.  Like a snuff film discovered in the attic of your house from some long unknown owner, this movie is creepy because of its…authenticity.   It has an almost documentary quality, especially with the prologue.
                This is partly to do with its shoe string budget.  Lacking the sort of funds you might find on another film, Tobe Hooper and his crew were forced to think smaller and tighter.  To save costs, rather than fabricate blood and gore, whenever possible they used actual blood donated from a local slaughterhouse and collected real road kill for set dressing.  Even the chainsaw was real, held carefully just a few inches from the actor on certain shots.  It is unsurprising then why it has such a sense of veracity. 
    Less camera movement and fewer cuts not only save money but also make the document you’re watching seem eerily unstaged.  To this day the dinner scene with grandpa always leaves me with my jaw hanging open because of how brutal it is.  You keep wanting them to cut away, if only for a moment, but they never do.
                Audition works on a similar wave length.  It’s a film masquerading as if it is from a different genre.  Sometimes, when I know the people I’m showing it to have the stomach for it, I won’t even mention it’s a horror film.  It starts off like a promising foreign language rom-com.  The hardworking, widower father who has sacrificed everything to make his son’s life as stable as possible is suddenly reminded by his growing child that it’s okay to fall in love again—come on, put Tom Hanks in this with Haley Joel Osmond circa 2000 and you’ve got a winner.
                The beginning reads like a behind the scenes invite to a small TV station, complete with meetings and a casting call.  It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when things start to go awry, but by the film’s end your sense of dread will feel like a literal weight on your chest.  And one of the reasons why this film seems so awful (and I mean this is the full of awe, so terrible it’s hard to conceive sort of sense) is that he really isn’t a terrible guy.  She misread a few key signs, but he really just wanted to find a decent girl and settle down.  That’s far from the worst thing a man could want and certainly no reason to charge a guy an arm and a leg.
                But this seems to me to be the core reason why these two films work so well in their own particular way.  These characters were living their own normal lives, caught up in their own personal adventures, when fate caught up to them.  Texas Chainsaw could very well be a teenage road trip movie the way it starts and I’ve already mentioned how Audition looks and feels like a romantic comedy through almost its entire first half.  It’s the sudden reversal on our expectations and the lo-fi quality of the films that give it their punch.  Most horror films don’t behave like these ones do.  They simply don’t look like this.  The sparse soundtrack, immobile cameras, low budgets, real looking locations all give it the sense that these events are happening and you are watching it through a window.  Which begs the question: If this could happen to them, does that mean it could happen to us as well?
                This conceit is why I find the final moments of Texas Chainsaw so powerful.  Leatherface’s temper tantrum has been emblazoned in the film zeitgeist, and while that closing shot is truly striking it is not the reason why I feel so strongly about the conclusion.   It’s actually that brief moment when the picture stops and right before the credits roll.  The cacophony of his chainsaw and her screaming are so incessant they replace all other sound in your mind.  Maybe everything you thought before this moment was a fantasy; no other sounds have ever existed besides these two.  And when it gets to the absolute breaking point, where you can’t stand a moment more of its grinding, it cuts to black.   Leatherface is such a force of nature, implacable and unable to be reasoned with, the final moments of the film feel like the doomed final moments of some prey entrapped by a hunter.  It all appears too real.  I feel, but hope to never know for certain, that this is what it must be like at the end.  Sound.  Fury.  And then only silence.

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