Saturday, November 21, 2015

Field Trip to the Texas Chainsaw House

This October, I took my first road trip through the Southwest as my wife and I drove from Las Vegas to Houston. Among our many stops along the way, I talked the missus into stopping at a little cafe in Kingsland, Texas.  Known as the Grand Central Cafe, the website shows a very quaint, modest eatery with your usual cafe fare.  I, however, wasn't as interested in the menu as I was in the fact that this house was the site of "one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history."

The Grand Central Cafe, you see, is the house where Tobe Hooper filmed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Funnily enough, while this is the original house, it's no longer at the same location where the film was shot.  Originally built in Red Rock, TX in 1909, when the house was purchased by its current owner in 1998, they dismantled it and moved it to Kingsland. According to a 2014 interview with co-owner Drew Gerencer, they don't do much to play up the fact that the house was used to film the TCM, mainly due to the fact that they didn't want their customers focused on a movie about a family of cannibals when they came in to grab a bite to eat.

That's not to say that they ignore the house's history.  The website has a section explaining the house's origins, and Gerencer mentioned that they watched TCM at the house to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary.  And they certainly don't mind when horror dorks such as myself ask to take pictures of the house, which of course I did.

As you can imagine, the house underwent extensive renovations before they opened it to the public, so much of the house was unrecognizable.  However, one element of the house was still quite familiar, and to be honest, it gave me chills.

This, of course, is the site of one of the most brutal scenes ever shot in a horror movie, and the one where we first meet one of the most iconic killers in cinema history.

Not only was this a nasty scene to behold on-screen, it was also apparently harrowing to shoot for Leatherface's portrayer, Gunnar Hansen (RIP), and even more so for co-star William Vail.  According to Hansen's memoir of the production, he got a bit carried away during a take and when he threw Vail through the door, Vail hit his head pretty badly.

While I suppose one could argue that given the amount that the house was changed, and the fact that the house wasn't even in the same location as it was when the movie was shot, that technically I haven't truly visited the site of the Sawyer's grisly deeds.  But I defy a fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to walk down the foyer and not get a bad case of the willies.  I'm very happy to have made the trip, and I recommend stopping by if you're in the area.  If nothing else, the club sandwiches are outstanding and they have much stricter weapon restrictions than the Sawyers did in their day.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Month of Horror Blind Spots: Black Christmas (1974 version)

I'm taking this October to finally get around to checking out those movies/genres I've neglected up until now.  I call these my horror blind spots, and it's time for me to finally give them a look.

Spoiler Warning:  This is yet another decades old movie, but I suppose I really shouldn't be judging those that haven't seen it since the whole point of this month is to watch movies that I should have seen years ago.  Oh well.  You're warned.

Of all of the movies I've watched for the Month of Horror Blindspots, Black Christmas is the only one that I was truly pissed at myself for having not seen sooner.  This may actually be the best horror movie I've seen this year.  There were so many impressive elements to this film, including effective use of Christmas decorations to create a dreadful atmosphere, character development that actually invests the viewer in the outcome of the movie, and an interesting depiction of women's reproductive rights in the wake of Roe vs. Wade.

Directed by Bob Clark (who cut his teeth in film with several horror movies before moving on to comedies like Porky's and A Christmas Story) Black Christmas tells the story of a group of girls living in a sorority house a few days before the holiday.  The girls are dealing with a variety of problems:  family issues, drinking problems, and even an unplanned pregnancy.  They're also receiving obscene phone calls from someone  who may or may not be the same man who has made his way into the attic...

One of the first things that struck me about Black Christmas was the effect use of atmosphere.  The opening shot is an exterior of the house, fully decorated in yuletide accouterments.

Coming into this movie cold, the house looks very warm and inviting.  It's a place I would love to visit for a Christmas party.  But as the movie unfolds and people start dying, the mood of the lighting shifts to become much more sinister, especially since the lights at the time still used incandescent bulbs rather than LED lights.

Now, for me, atmosphere can only take you so far if you don't care enough about the characters to be invested in their well-being.  Fortunately, Black Christmas pays enough attention to its characters to do just that.  Margot Kidder's Barb, while caustic and a drunk, is also very charming in her own way.  Mrs. Mac is hilarious as the foul-mouthed house mother.  And, of course, we have Jess, our main protagonist and the one going through the most difficult situation in the movie (besides, you know, the deranged killer stalking everyone).

We find out early in the movie that Jess is pregnant with the baby of her longtime boyfriend, Peter.  The problem is, though, that Jess isn't ready for a child.  She explains to Peter that she, like him, has dreams and goals and that she cannot do that if she keeps the baby.  She tells Peter that she wants to have an abortion, and he reacts as one would expect an arrogant misogynist to react:  he calls her selfish, he pleas with her not to "kill our baby," and throws pretty much every argument at her that he can think of.

The decision to include this plot point in the movie is particularly interesting considering this movie came out in 1974, only one year after abortion was made legal by the decision of supreme court case Roe vs Wade.  Since the debate over that decision continues over 40 years later, it must have been permeated the public consciousness when the move was released.  I'm impressed that the movie was willing to explore the topic, and was particularly intrigued by the ending.

Throughout the movie, all indications point toward Peter being the killer.  He's selfish and obsessive even before Jess announces her plans to abort her pregnancy, and he becomes more volatile as the movie progresses.  Jess, thinking he has broken into the house to kill her, gets the upper hand and kills him.  We find out in the final scene, however, that Peter was not the killer, and that the killer is still hiding in the attic as the credits roll.  The movie could have gone the heavy-handed route and made Peter the killer on top of being a neurotic, controlling prick, but I think that screenwriter A. Roy Monroe was smart not to go down that path.  It highlights the fact that Peter's viewpoints can still be problematic without him being a serial killer, which is true of most people. 

Perhaps that's what's most effective about Black Christmas.  While all but one of the people killed in this movie are women, the movie doesn't lean on the trope, which by 1974 couldn't event be considered a trope yet anyway.  Rather, the movie pulls its frights from showing us the type of crap women have to deal with in these kinds of situations.**  They're dismissed by authorities when they attempt to report the obscene phone calls.  They have to deal with jerk off boyfriends who tell them what to do with their own bodies.  They're at the mercy of often incompetent police officers to serve as their guardians.  And, at the end of the movie, after everything seems to be resolved, it turns out the threat is still there, waiting to strike again.

Black Christmas was such a great watch, I've decided that I'm going to have it cap off my Month of Horror Blindspots (Sorry, Jaws and Psycho, there's always next year).  But Black Christmas has found a permanent place in my horror movie rotation.  I realize I've never had a horror movie suitable for the holiday season, which makes the fact that I took so damn long to watch this one that much more annoying.  But no use in crying over spilled egg nog.  At least now I know I have some black to mix in with all of the red and green this year.

**At least, that was my reaction to the movie as someone who is decidedly not a woman, so I hope I'm not off base.