Fun with opening shots: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
As we near Halloween, I’m going to shift this blog’s attention to one of my favorite genres: Horror. No genre is as visceral or as reliant on the camera as the audience’s eyes. And as I continue to over-analyze opening scenes, I turn my attention to one of the greatest horror films, Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Unlike the dreadful, inept remake from 2003, the 1974 original is a near-perfect exercise in building dread and terror out of thin air. Its grindhouse title belies a genuinely disturbing, stunningly crafted and shot horror film, one almost devoid of gore. Here’s how it opens.
First, an ominous voiceover recites the title card, which tells of a horrific, apparently true story of nightmarish summer afternoon which resulted in the murders of five young people. Now, a bit of film history. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was technically “inspired” by a true story, if you use the word “inspired” as loosely as possible. The genesis for the film came from the story of serial killer and grave robber Ed Gein. Gein enjoyed digging up graves to eat the corpses and make, ahem, skinsuits so he could pretend to be female. Apart from “having cannibals”, there are no details from the Gein case in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. As far as I know, the level inspiration the Gein story had on the film began and ended at “cannibalistic grave robbers are terrifying”.
None of which is reason not to pretend that your film is a true story. Horror films have done this for ages. Horror is a visceral genre. We don’t watch horror movies; we experience them. The more real it feels, the frightening it is. Even “Fargo”, which is very much not a horror film, famous opened with a fake claim that it was a true story. It’s a classic film narrative device, and it sets an ominous tone. Now, back on topic:
That’s not a mistimed screencap. For a few moments the screen is black, and we hear scraping sounds and dissonant background music.
Holy whatnow? That was creepy. A camera flash, followed by a rotten hand, in a pair of almost subliminal quick cuts. The shots are accompanied by ominous, non-melodic violin music.
We can start piecing together what’s happening here. The scraping tells us that the departed is being either buried or exhumed. I’m not sure which is worse in this case. Either way, the gravedigger is also taking pictures. Make of that what you will.
The screen goes black again as a radio broadcast plays, saying something about…
graverobbing. I guess our buddy here was being exhumed. The radio broadcast mentions a grisly graverobbing crime spree, in which corpses are being arranged as ghastly monuments.
This opening has told us nothing about the film so far. It has much in common with a cold open on television, when a scene that has little to do with the main plot opens the episode before the credits. The scene’s purpose is to set a tone that draws the audience in. Horror films occasionally use a similar device, usually in the form of offing minor characters, usually unnamed or extras, in a memorable fashion (think the skinny-dipping scene in “Jaws” or the first-person murder in “Halloween”). Here, Hooper eschews bloodshed in favor of plain unsettling imagery. Already he has toyed with our senses, depriving us of sight apart from some subliminal shots, before hitting us with an unforgettable image that gets worse as it pans out. He hasn’t shown a single character yet, or even an action. Yet we’re already preparing for the worst.