JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

In the visceral scene where Tommy Hewitt kills Eric by chainsaw, the over-emphasized sound of the chainsaw provides a sound bridge for a montage of discontinuous visual images. With the first close-up, Chrissie, who is hiding under the butcher table, reacts to Tommyís sudden appearance in the Hewitt family basement.

Tommyís hands rev up the chainsaw in close-up, providing a visual emphasis on the chainsaw to build suspense and terror.

A medium close up of Tommy as his hand apparently pulls back from the chainsaw follows, suggesting the narrative link between him and the saw.

In a tighter close up, Chrissie reacts to the sound of the off-screen chainsaw.

Ericís precarious situation is relayed through the canted angle of this close-up, accentuating his destabilized emotional state. The use of close ups in this scene for both Eric and Chrissie provoke stronger engagement with their charactersí predicament.

Tommy prepares for the first and final thrust of the chainsaw into Ericís off-screen body.

A low-angle canted camera angle from the opposite side of the butcher table creates the visual illusion that the chainsaw enters Ericís body. At this point, the increased amplitude of the saw parallels its movement, underscoring the emotional moment of the narrative.

That emotional moment is reinforced by Chrissieís reaction in tight close up.

In turn, Chrissieís reaction is followed in a tighter close up of Ericís apparent response to the chainsaw plunging into his body

The shallow focus extreme close up of Ericís hand conveys the moment of his death as his fingers stop moving.

As the closing image of Ericís death, the close up shot of Chrissieís reaction to the splattering blood pans left toÖ

Ö a close up shot of the chainsaw blade as it moves up and down in the image, suggesting Ericís continued off-screen vivisection.

 

 

Formal motifs conveying anxiety

According to remarks made in the DVD voice-over commentary, the production team set out to make TCM: the Beginning look more like the 1974 original, at least with respect to the camerawork. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre uses a lot of hand-held camera work and erratic editing that provides the film with much of its emotional energy and replicates much of the characters’ neurotic anxiety. In contrast, the 2003 remake of that film favors more conventional camera work, using stationary camera or smooth camera movement. As a result, the remake lacks the original’s adrenalin energy and emotional impact. TCM: the Beginning uses a production style that synthesizes formal elements from both of its predecessors. The prequel appropriates the use of hand-held camerawork as well as emphasizes off-screen narrative space, a cinematic technique utilized effectively in the original film. From the 2003 remake, the 2006 film liberally borrows expressionist chiaroscuro lighting techniques that visually define the Hewitt family’s “terrible house” as well as the slaughterhouse.

Several aesthetic patterns contribute to the dark poetics and cultural critique. As noted earlier, near monochromatic images suggest a bleak social environment grounded in a rigid social hierarchy. Remembering that Sheriff Hoyt’s psychological and physical torture techniques are not the same thing as Tommy’s expertise in vivisection, the film provides plenty of the former while sparsely integrating the latter. The manipulation of light and shadow, hand-held camera framing, and rhythmic pacing of the editing withholds as much information as it explicitly reveals. As noted earlier in Layden’s amazon.com criticism of the film, the imagery is heavily drenched in blood splatter but relatively free of explicit on-screen bodily penetration by a revved-up chainsaw. While Layden perceives this cinematic technique as a weakness in the film, it can just as easily be viewed as the film’s strength. The combined cinematic techniques prompt, to a large degree, a greater reliance on the viewer’s stitching together the horrific mayhem, potentially accessing darker anxieties than even the filmmakers could have explicitly presented.

In the dark basement where Tommy plies his butchering skills, the extensive use of shadows reveal sideway glimpses of his vivisection of Eric. Similarly, the extensive use of off-screen story space often implies monstrous narrative action rather than showing it. This technique prompts the viewer to fill in “the blanks” of horrific acts, heightening his or her anxiety more than explicit on-screen gore exploited in torture porn films such as the Saw franchise (2004-2009). As noted, skillful rhythmic editing works in tandem with the manipulation of off-screen space. As Chrissie hides under Tommy’s work table where Eric lies shackled, images quickly cut between hand-held close-ups of Tommy’s hand as he revs up the chainsaw and both Chrissie’s and Eric’s horrified facial reactions. As the attack continues, the shots are linked together on the soundtrack through the overarching sound effect of the chainsaw. These shots are then followed by a medium close up in which Tommy raises the chainsaw. A side-view canted lower-angle shot of the saw touching Eric’s abdomen implies that it has penetrated his flesh, but no explicit display of saw ripping into meat is included in the sequence. Rather it is the blood splattering from off-screen over characters’ faces and hands that indicates that the chainsaw is in the process of penetration. These are followed by a close up and quick camera pan as the chainsaw blade penetrates below the worktable in front of Chrissie’s face. For the most part, the images are captured through hand-held camera work and linked together using quick pacing and shot order to convey the horror of the situation and increase narrative anxiety.

According to the DVD voice-over commentary, the filmmakers conceived this scene as the visual and narrative centerpiece in TCM: the Beginning. From a narrative standpoint, this action defines Tommy’s emerging identity as he pursues his monstrous goals through his own volition, rather than Hoyt’s direction. It is a transformative moment for Tommy. He abandons any reluctance to pursue his own perverse desires. Here, Tommy’s narrative function shifts from that of a victimized man whose actions are motivated by economic, social and biologic forces beyond his control. Now he becomes the monstrous figure, unleashing his class rage. As a result, audience sympathy fully shifts to Eric and Chrissie. Formally, the predominant use of close-up reaction shots and point of view shots, an allusion to horrific action happening outside the visual frame, and an exaggerated amplification of the chainsaw’s grinding sound foreground both Chrissie’s and Eric’s emotional suffering and Eric’s physical destruction.

The emotional intensity of this scene’s construction —  among many others in TCM: the Beginning —illustrates the cathartic function of the U.S. cinema of excess. Mike King argues this cinema of excess is a national cultural form that exposes the obsessive, paranoid, and destructive underbelly of American values, values such as narcissistic individualism, exploitive manifest destiny, distrust of the federal government, fear over the loss of a standard of living, and a pessimistic pre-millennialism.[35] [open endnotes in new window] King bases his critical framework on Aristotle’s model of tragedy. Building from Aristotle’s basic ideas, King argues that cinema of excess must embrace the emotions of pity, aroused by unmerited misfortune, and fear, aroused by the misfortunes of someone similar to ourselves. The formal qualities of a cinema of excess encompass transgressive acts.

“The term ‘transgressional’ means here a cultural production that offends against mores or taste, dealing with such extreme matters as death, torture, rape, suicide, or which presents marginal ideas and experiences which challenge the norm.”[36]

However, the trangressional must be framed by narrative plausibility, especially that no dues ex machina extracate tragic characters from their predicament. The cinema of excess emphasizes the emotions of pity and fear through scenes of intense suffering, which are in turn bracketed by narrative pauses that provide time for an audience to absorb the moral implications of the suffering. In a cinema of excess, formal elements are organized in a serious manner to evoke the emotional intensity of the tragedy. Ultimately, the cultural function of the cinema of excess is to provoke catharsis, wherein the audience that has witnessed the film faces its worst fears, develops compassion for the tragic characters, and is in better shape to deal with its actual world experiences.[37]

During this most emotionally intense scene in TCM: the Beginning, Tommy’s transformation into his pure monstrous identity is also the most transgressive moment in the film. Initially, he is a victim of economic downsizing and a dysfunctional family. However, unlike a character who overcomes both external and internal obstacles to become a “better” individual, Tommy’s character inverts this narrative process. He loses any shreds of humanity due to the chaotic disorder of the Hewitt family, reverting to an animalistic primal state. Here, the invasive insanity of the chainsaw ripping into Eric’s midsection invokes a similar disgust for the insanity associated with the invasion of Iraq and the prison atrocities at Abu Ghraib. Dread and guilt about those national acts erupt as cinematic blood splatters in the Hewitt basement.

While Tommy loses his status as the tragic figure in the film, the young adults, especially Eric and Chrissie, become the tragic focal points in this scene. As the characters that engender pity from this point on in the film, Eric and Chrissie are the victims of a different type of unmerited misfortune. They are in the wrong place, the Hewitt family territory, at the wrong time. Given Eric and Chrissie’s youth, these unlucky characters closely mirror the most likely demographics of the film’s target audience, thus providing an audience with identification points for the fear, dread and social anxiety that surface in the film. Given the volatile social context in 2006, could such young people become either victimizer or victim if unwillingly forced into an insane military battle not of their choosing, such as the Invasion of Iraq?

Certainly, no deus ex machina rescues Eric from his tragic plight on Tommy’s butchering table. Indeed, no one rescues any of the hapless young adults. While it has become a common convention that one character escapes from the homicidal monster at the end of a contemporary horror film, this film frustrates even that sense of cultural refuge. Just as Chrissie, the final girl, seems primed to make good her escape in the slaughterhouse manager’s car, Tommy plunges the chainsaw through her from the backseat. In both instances, the film builds compassion for the two ill fated victims. Following both Eric’s and Chrissie’s deaths, TCM: the Beginning pauses the narrative action, providing moments to contemplate the moral implications of their suffering. At the end of the scene where Tommy murders Eric, the narrative action and editing pace of the film decelerates. Presented with events primarily from Chrissie’s point of view, we see Tommy deliberately sew the cord that will hold Eric’s face in place as his mask and then stand before a deteriorating mirror as he places the mask over his own barely visible mutilated face. He stares into the mirror, as if to ask himself: What does it mean to steal someone’s identity, especially that of a soldier? What does it mean to lose all sense of social constraint to torture and kill those who are only imagined to be a threat, but are no threat at all?

Horror in the era of the Bush-Cheney Administration

In his germinal work synthesizing the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, Robin Wood argues that the psychological heart of the horror film is a particular culture’s attempt to deal with the repressed ideological inconsistencies and contradictions that structure its social environment.[38] Given the historical context of U.S. society in 2006, TCM: the Beginning taps into a cultural zeitgeist of ambivalence toward and paranoia of those in authority at that time. In the film, the Hewitt family is the symbolic nexus of these conflicting and contradictory values and practices. On the one hand, this administration advocated a return to traditional patriarchal family values. These values grew in large part from the ideological demands of the conservative religious right, a social movement integral to the ascension of the Bush-Cheney Administration to political power.

In contrast, the Bush-Cheney Administration’s economic policies continued to support the corporate capitalist practice of deregulation and outsourcing industrial production that undermined, and continue to undermine the economic security and social stability of blue collar and white collar families in contemporary U.S. society, especially the traditional patriarchal family with a single male income provider. This ideological conflict of interest, in turn, has generated social anxiety about the basic survival and viability of the traditional U.S. family in the new millennium. The practices of the Bush-Cheney Administration have been the source of this anxiety. Faced with the decay of the domestic industrial economy that has been the economic basis for the traditional patriarchal family, the Hewitt family’s anxiety about basic survival erupts into the both Hoyt’s and Tommy’s psychotic and monstrous behavior. In fact, based on their narrative actions, the Hewitt family’s identity, in particular as defined by its paranoid territoriality, xenophobia, militarism and evangelical religious conservatism, corresponds to recent U.S. global identity, now perceived as aggressive, self-serving, savage and horrific. Contrary to Palermo’s popular review of TCM: the Beginning quoted near the beginning of this essay, the film does confront contemporary U.S. social demons, particularly those summoned by the policies and actions of the Bush-Cheney Administration.

The ideological tone of a particular film depends on the organization of story events, characters and the setting that construct meaning within it. A horror film can have a reactionary, conservative cultural function that reinstates the initial social norms that begin the film. As Wood argues, this is usually indicated by the destruction of the monster at the film’s climax and the escape of its protagonist(s). Or, a film can have a radical cultural function that offers a critique of those ideological norms, signaled by the inability to clearly destroy the monster or restore society by the end of the film. In his analysis of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the values of the young adults are presented as the norms of society while the actions of the male cannibal family are presented as aberrant.[39] What Wood’s discussion does not clearly address, however, is a horror film in which monstrous values and actions are synonymous with ideological social norms, defined as such from the beginning of the film and remaining in place at the end of it. In the case of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning, the Hewitt family values and actions define acceptable norms of attitudes and behavior. Given that the resolution of the film does not leave the Hewitt family in a better social position from where they begin, the narrative is hardly a celebration of either their values or their actions. Rather, the failed implementation of those values as a means to prosper becomes a cultural critique of them.

The film foregrounds both iconographic and ritualistic elements of conservative evangelical Christian religious practices, which here literally rip apart the bodies of the youthful protagonists. In only a slightly more subtle manner, the film integrates anxieties about political corruption and ineptitude that surfaced in the Bush-Cheney Administration. Finally, the militaristic conundrum of the Iraqi War — enacted in the film through Sheriff Hoyt’s military jingoism, his reliance upon physical and psychological torture as methods of social degradation, and the young adults’ immersion into an unstable social environment -- also contributes to the overall critical tone of the film. In particular, the Hewitt family’s value system, as an allegory for the Bush-Cheney Administration’s insane political, economic and militaristic policies circa 2006, are framed by the film’s ending as not only dangerous, but apocalyptic as well.

When popular film critic Roger Ebert reviewed the 2003 remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he derided the film for causing “disgust and hopelessness in the audience…” while it “…wipes its feet on our dreams.”[40] In effect, he found the film to be a toxic series of gruesome events. The hopelessness in that film is mild when compared to that found in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning, especially given its nihilistic ending where none of the young adults make it out alive. Perhaps out of touch with that part of U.S. society occupying the lower economic strata in 2003, Ebert’s comments assume that audiences did not already feel hopeless before viewing the film. In contrast, Boggs and Pollard argue that any example of a postmodern cinema of mayhem resonates more closely with the contemporary audience’s social experience, precisely because of its cynicism and hopelessness.

“If postmodern cinema is bleak, it is probably not much bleaker than the lived social relations it has come to encapsulate, however unevenly or melodramatically.”[41]

By 2006, many of those living at the lower end of the U.S. socio-economic scale had few dreams left to soil. They were becoming further disenfranchised from the American dream by official policies favoring the social and economic elite. Moving into the second decade of the 21st Century, the global financial crisis, continued U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, and the political rise of the anti-government Tea Party are the most obvious legacy of the Bush-Cheney Administration’s policies. Eschewing the politicized polar oppositions of Wood’s reactionary and radical cultural functions for the horror film, King suggests a different cultural function for films that explore social mayhem through cinematic excess. A culture must recognize its social insanity in order to maintain even a tentative hold on its sanity, King suggests.

“If a nation can talk to itself in a relatively untrammeled way through its cultural productions, then it is at least partly sane, even if those various productions look at times like ‘poison.’”[42]

Certainly, TCM: the Beginning is bleak and cynical in its ideological perspective. It is excessive in its depiction of brutal psychological and physical torture. Because of these characteristics, not in spite of them, the film is a significant cultural index of the social, economic and political chaos set loose by the expanded financial deregulation, militarism, xenophobia, and social conservatism in the United States.

After the emotional intensity of Chrissie’s death, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: the Beginning offers a few final cathartic moments to contemplate the mayhem that has preceded it. As Tommy lumbers along the Texas farm road toward the foreground of the image, the film focuses on his character as the source of the social destruction behind him. The film celebrates neither the success of the Hewitt family in its ability to survive nor the ability of the idealistic young people to persevere in the face of repressive authority. However, the final shot of Tommy walking away from the roadside carnage into the darkest apocalyptic night offers a few moments to critique the destructive potential of the Hewitt family values. As Boggs and Pollard have pointed out, U.S. cinema, since its inception, has used the narrative device of the family as “a repository of established values,” initially in celebration of those values.[43] There is no idealized deux ex machina to save the young adults, and in turn the audience, from the Hewitt family insanity; no easy solution to the social disorder and chaos of U.S. society in 2006. In the era of the Bush-Cheney Administration, established values have been pushed to extremes that border on insanity if not encompassed by it. Consequently, the film, through the personification of the Hewitt family, vividly captures the overall psychological malaise of this particular desperate period in recent United States’ history, wrapping it in a dark poetic shroud. With its cinematic finger on the audience’s ambivalent cultural pulse, this particular horror film creatively draws, with dark and foreboding strokes, the social anxieties circulating in the collective social landscape of 2006.

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