Class is in sessions, fiends! All right, today I am recommending a double feature of foundational horror. Horror, like any other film genre, becomes more entertaining when you know its history. For one, the work that became the foundational building blocks are usually fantastic movies in their own right and are still as entertaining now as they were when they were first released. Knowing these historically significant films can enhance the viewing of later entries because they typically reference them. For today I have picked two films that were the building blocks for the slasher genre. They also have their genesis in the true-life story of the notorious serial killer Ed Gein. Today’s Cineray double feature is Psycho, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper.
Psycho is a horror masterpiece by a great director at the top of his game and superb acting talents of Janey Leigh and Anthony Perkins. The story starts with Marion Crane (Leigh) who’s boss has just begun a business with a chauvinist who carcasses Marion. When her boss gives Marion the cash from the man for a deposit, she cannot resist the money’s temptation and skips town with it hoping to send for contact her boyfriend Sam later. She wants to marry him. While driving, Marion gets nervous whenever she sees a cop, and as it gets dark, it also starts to rain. She happens on the Bates Motel and the hotel manager named Norman Bates, who sets her with a room. He seems harmless, if not a little creepy running the hotel for his mother, who lives in the home above the hotel. That night while Marion showers, a woman whose face is obscured in shadows stabs her to death. Norman discovers the body and cleans up the room, and disposes of her car and the body to protect his mother. After a while, Sam and Marion’s sister Lila decide to hire a detective to find Marion. After Norman’s mother kills the detective, Sam and Lily decide to investigate the two disappearances on their own.
There is so much that is impressive about Psycho that it’s hard to attribute its notoriety to one thing. To start, the film is one of the few films that shifts its focus of protagonist as successfully as it does. It’s more like we are witnessing a history than a story centered on a protagonist. Despite how small a part she has, Leigh is excellent, and Perkins sells his lonely mamas boy impressively. And the little detail that the boss’s new client is a chauvinist harasser male the audience sympathetic to Marion’s crime. The camera work in this film is outstanding, from the opening shot to the murder of the detective. Hitchcock was not only guarding the mysteries of the film as it progresses but made it visually interesting. And there is the twist ending. I won’t spoil it, but if you don’t know it, don’t try to remember or look it up; just watch it and enjoy.
Up next is another story of murder with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Using the old storytelling method of stating upfront that this is a tale of true events, the film was effectively startling for its time. Some young people venture out to check on the gravestone of Sally and her brother’s grandfather. Afterward, they decide to check out the family homestead in the country and pick up a hitchhiker along the way. The hitchhiker is more than a little creepy, and after mutilating himself and cutting one of them, they force him out of the car. As the friends continue down the road and arrive at the homestead, two encounters a home. They are both murdered inside by a madman in a mask made of human flesh. Soon all of them are trying to survive the killer Leatherface, his brother the hitchhiker, and the rest of their cannibal Sawyer family.
Tobe Hooper’s genius direction is what really gives this film its power. Add to that the simplicity of the story, and you get something iconic. That story – a group of friends who run into a murderous backwoods family is harrowing in its relatability. It feels like the kind of story that gets featured on the news or in urban legends. It’s very easy to believe as entirely possible and, therefore, all the more terrifying. It was such a simple setup that it’s one that has been copied many times in horror movies. The claim of that this is a true tale is an old convention in fiction. It’s also an effective one. For example, the Blair Witch Project creators contracted their stars to not appear in other projects until after the film’s release to further the concept the audience was watching the found footage true story of a group of doomed friends. Besides the conceit of truth, Hooper made a starkly realistic film. I also cite a scene wherein one of the women in the group crashes into a room filled with chicken feathers and furniture made entirely from animal bones. The camera pans around the room slowly, and as the woman takes in her surroundings, the audience takes it in with her. It may seem mild now, but when you put yourself in the character’s place and realize how immensely creepy the room is and the terrifying nature of the people that must inhabit the place. Hooper also wisely was to show violence and gore and were to imply it. It created an after effect whereby audiences believed they had seen so much more than they had.
Both films were landmark films by directors who are legends in horror. Both also helped to establish the genre of the slasher film. For a triple feature, try Halloween by John Carpenter. Another film by a legendary horror director and just as smart. All of these films also created the convention of the final girl. Now, in each case, they have been remade and have multiple sequels, but nothing quite compares to the original films. It’s also important to consider the world these movies were made in. Released in 1960, Psycho was considered graphic and shocking to post-ratings code America. In the case of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the year was 1974 and the world was in turmoil with Watergate, the oil crises, and the end of the Vietnam War all of which was on the nightly news. Hooper has stated that his film pales compared to the daily images of of violence and atrocities in ‘real life.’
Finally, Psycho is available to rent on the most popular streaming services, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is on Shudder and Arrow as well as rentable on the popular streaming services.