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Fright Fest: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

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My review comes from two viewpoints: first, there is me—ten years old, watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the first time, and then there’s me—thirty-something years old, re-watching with a fresh pair of modern, adult eyes. I have no problem remembering the first time I saw this movie, even though it was a long time ago. If you waited until almost 2am then tiptoed upstairs, you could adjust the rabbit ears on my parents’ awesome 32-inch box TV, flip it to channel 6, and get a fuzzy view of the Showtime channel. The best part about sneaking TV at 2am on an “adult” channel, was that you never knew what you were going to get, like a prize at the bottom of a cereal box (only much, much better). At 3am (on a school night, mind you), following a bizarre clown movie called Blood Harvest, I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard and saw these words: “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths…”

Immediately, I was glued to the screen, watching a movie called the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and I wholeheartedly believed what I was watching was true. It didn’t help that the opening credits had these creepy flashes of what appeared to be crime scene photos, either. I watched the movie from beginning to end, not moving from my spot, and hiding my eyes at least a dozen times. I was HORRIFIED by it. Permanently scarred. And for the record, I don’t advocate watching this movie until you are at least a teen.

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After my first viewing of it, I secretly checked the TV guide in the newspaper every single Sunday to see if, and when, it was coming on again.

Anytime it was on, I would write down the time and date in my diary, then stay up as late as I had to on the designated day in order to watch it, even if it meant not sleeping at all before I caught the bus the next morning. And each time I watched it, I dared myself not to close my eyes. And here’s a funny side note—one day on the school bus I overheard some older kids talking about how it was “banned”, and for a while, I wondered if the police would bust in and steal my TV set. But I digress…

Now, fast forward twenty years…I’ve seen bits and pieces of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre since my childhood obsession, and I’ve seen the sequel and most of the modern reboot versions of it. But now I’m watching it with a critical eye, because I knew I had to write this, and just like old times, I’m sneaking around in the dark at 2am to do it, only, this time, I’m trying to hide my movie choice from my own kids.

I expected to be unimpressed this time. I expected to fall asleep. I expected to have some bad stuff to say about it…

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Instead, I’m shocked by how fabulous this movie still is. Unlike modern horror films with tons of bad language, impressive stunts, special effects, nudity, known actors, and lots of gore—this one is simply brilliant because all it does is scare the bejesus out of you. No tricks, no flashy stars…just pure terror.

The fact that it’s low budget and gritty lends to the scare factor and the whole “true story” facade, in my opinion. No wonder I believed it was real as a kid—some of the filming looks like a jerky, homemade movie. And the sound effects—random camera shutter sounds (you know what I’m talking about—that bizarre flash bulb sound that has been recreated in haunted houses everywhere) and the amateurish banging of cymbals or drums in a serene, calm section of the movie, are ridiculously effective, for some reason.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is loosely based on Ed Gein, who did, in fact, wear human skin on his face like Leatherface did in the movie. But that’s where most of the similarities end. The people were just actors, the details filled in…but the effect is still the same.

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If you haven’t seen it (first of all: what’s wrong with you?) here is the general gist:

Five hippie teens are driving in rural Texas in the seventies. They like to smoke pot and talk about astrology. Their goal? To check on some family property after Sally and her disabled brother, Franklin, find out that their grandfather’s gravesite may have been desecrated. The whole purpose of the trip is a little vague and turns out to be of little importance once they get there, honestly. Things get creepy when they pass by a slaughterhouse, have a discussion about the delectability of “head cheese”, and then pick up a psycho hitchhiker. The guy has a knife and is bat shit crazy, and they finally throw him out of the van. Sally, Franklin, and three of Sally’s friends (I say SALLY’s friends because although they seem to tolerate Franklin, they don’t seem to like him much), make their way to the family’s homestead, low on gas and supplies. The relationship between Sally and Franklin is strange. When she’s around her boyfriend or friends, she’s a total jerk to him. But she seems to soften when they are alone, and it’s obvious that he thinks of her as a mother figure.

I can remember the first time I watched this movie, thinking that Franklin was whiny and obnoxious, but I felt sorry for him this time. The property isn’t wheelchair friendly, and while all the attractive, self-absorbed teens race up and down the stairs, and talk about going for a midday swim, he’s stuck downstairs all alone, panting as he tries to finagle his wheelchair around. This time around, I was totally rooting for the guy to be the sole survivor of what’s to come.

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Franklin also seems to be the only one with any sense—while the other teens treat the visit as a fun retreat, he’s the only one still worried about the psycho hitchhiker and what happened near his grandfather’s gravesite.

Now enter a family of cannibals next door, and a creepy guy with jacked up teeth and a creepy skin mask, and oh yeah—he’s wielding a chainsaw. And beauty is made!

The sheer sound of the chainsaw and the first scene when Leatherface comes running out of the room in that initially quiet scene was just as shocking as the first time I saw it.

I didn’t know it the first time I saw this, but this film cost almost nothing to make and these actors were inexperienced. Maybe it is for that exact reason that the movie seems so terrifying. It looks and feels like something that could happen in your own backyard to everyday-looking people. Plus, living in a small town myself…crazy killers in a seemingly quiet, rural setting using everyday power tools to kill people makes it that much more shocking. And the kids on the bus were right about one thing—the movie was initially banned in countless theaters.

Surprisingly, the acting is pretty good, in my opinion. Their fear and shock seemed genuine, the scenes unrehearsed and random.

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This movie is brilliant and the things that happen to the teens are so unexpected and horrifying that this movie will never lose its horror appeal in my opinion. If anything, its age just makes it that much creepier now.

This movie is a cult classic and inspired a new breed of slasher films, and horror as a genre in general. Let’s face it—everybody knows that the haunted houses without chainsaws in them suck. And most bad guys in books and movies will always be second best to the chainsaw wielding psycho we know and love.

To this day, I run in the house when I hear a neighbor start up a chainsaw. The sound itself triggers an uncontrollable fear reaction from me, and I don’t think I’m alone in this.

Unfortunately, seeing it at a young age sort of dulled my senses and ruined subsequent movies that I normally would have found frightening. While I’m at it, I also blame the movie for my crazy horror obsessions AND my chronic insomnia that started at an early age.

But one thing is certain…it was all worth it. And watching it again just confirmed what I already knew—this movie is the gold standard of horror and slasher flicks. And critics can say all they want about it—it’s untouchable in terms of criticism, in my book.

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Carissa Ann Lynch is the author of the Flocksdale Files trilogy, Horror High series, Grayson’s Ridge, This Is Not About Love, 13: An Anthology of Horror and Dark Fiction, and Dark Legends: A Collection of 20 Paranormal and Urban Fantasy Novels. She resides in Floyds Knobs, Indiana with her husband and three children. Besides her family, her greatest love in life is books. Reading them, writing them, smelling them…well, you get the idea. 

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Insidious: Chapter 3 in review

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The simple fact that I have to write this disclaimer is a testament to how uber-critical we horror proprietors can get. We get caught up in the haves and haves not’s, the that’s and this’, we forget how to unplug and enjoy a movie on the sole basis of watching a movie. Our brains are at a constant state of flux. And we judge everything. Actor performance. Dialogue. Setting. Mood. Plot. Storytelling. And of course, meaning. While all these are important, I fear we’ve allowed the benchmarks of our business to eclipse the most important aspect…entertainment. There are some movies that are pointless to pick apart because they’re not movies with great plot or have terrible actors or more often terrible scripts. Some require such a single scoring method. Some simply beg the question: Was the movie entertaining? And thus we must answer. Yes or No. You can keep your own opinion on the subject. If a movie is in a series, especially, you may regard with disdain without ever having watched it, stating, “Ugh, I hate that series.” And this is okay. Its your opinion, isn’t it?

I am not innocent of these charges. I’ve been there, said that. For example, a buddy of mine asked if I wanted to go see this new Vin Diesel flicks, The Last Witch Hunter. I impudently turned him down, saying something akin to, “ugh, that movie looks lame. Its going to be awful.” I made this assumption without ever stepping into the theater. Why? Well…its a reasonable assumption, right? Judging from the previews, it looked kinda stinkerish, correct? Maybe so, maybe the acting would be terrible. Maybe the plot would be silly. Maybe the dialogue would feel cheesy. Maybe…  there’s lots of them. But what about the most important aspects…? Was the movie entertaining? I wouldn’t know, and never will, unless I watched it.

If we want to judge a movie, we must first watch it, then judge.

What does all this have to do with my review for Insidious? Well, I’ll tell you. Over the weekend, I stopped by our local Redbox to pick up Pitch Perfect 2 for the wife. Lo and behold, Insidious: Chapter 3 was available as well. At first, I scoffed at the idea. “Horror series’ are lame,” and all that. But then I got to thinking…”why not?” It only added $0.50 cents to my cost. Why not? And I’m glad I got it. Because even having already judged the movie because its part of a series, and most horror series’ are lame, I found Insidious: Chapter 3 to be…what’s that magic word…? Oh yes. Entertaining. Sure…the character relations got a little sloppy, at the beginning. The relationship between father and daughter seemed catawampus, at best. Was there an over abundance of “jump scares?” Sure. Maybe they could have dialed those back a nudge. But the movie was highly entertaining. How entertaining you ask? Well, while screening the movie, I never once opened my tablet to check Facebook. Boom. That’s how entertaining it was. Enough to keep my attention, despite whatever short coming it had.

Here’s a quick fire synopsis:

When teenager Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) senses that her late mother is trying to contact her, she seeks help from gifted psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye). However, Elise’s tragic past makes her reluctant to use her abilities. After Quinn is attacked by a malevolent entity, her father (Dermot Mulroney) pleads with Elise for help. With support from two parapsychologists, Elise ventures deep into The Further — where she finds a powerful demon with an insatiable craving for human souls.

And there you have it…

Simple.

AND we can dig a little deeper, if we want. We’ve already established the flick was entertaining enough to garner our short attention span. What else was there? Well, the movie seemed to focus a lot on the loss of loved ones. Not only did character Quinn lose her mother, to cancer I think. But psychic Elise also lost her husband (suicide). And not just her, but a well known neighbor had also passed away too (unknown causes) and we get to watch the uncomfortable “gee, wiz, sorry to hear about your loss. If you need anything, anything at all, please don’t hesitate” conversation between the bereaved and clumsy father, Sean Brenner. To say that Insidious: Chapter 3 dealt with the meaning of loss and separation and coping with death would be an understatement. Following the plot felt like strolling down the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) in one form or another, between all the characters, not just Quinn and Elise. Besides the expectant “jump scares” that accompany such as movie, the mood and tension was very well tuned. It started in slow and then built from there. The tar footprints were a lovely touch. And the fact that, given this is a series, the story moved away from the “dream walkers” to something more akin to possession and…looking for the right word here…hmm…the closest I have is paranormal slasher. Kinda like “It Follows,” but better. The “demon” doesn’t want to enter the world of the living, according to Elise. It wants to take souls back with it to its own world, back into the darkness, or as they coin, The Further, which I find to be even more creepy than the plain Jane possession. To be possessed seems short term. You’ll either be saved or die, in which case you will likely be free, assuming as much anyhow. With the “paranormal slasher,” you’re not just possessed, but you’re also possessed, forced to kill yourself,  and then stolen for eternity to this dark nightmarish underworld.  For me, thanks in part to my oh so lovely fundamental religious upbringing, the “eternal punishment” aspect sets the creep factor pretty high!

Insidious: Chapter 3 may seem like a flick unworthy of your time. But I hope my review here has changed your mind on this. It was a great break from the previous storytelling, whilst keeping true to its shared universe. And I think “paranormal slasher” is a budding horror sub-genre that needs farther exploring. While we most certainly can nit-pick at the things the movie suffers from, Insidious: Chapter 3 was still highly entertaining movie. And in the end, isn’t that what truly matters?

My Review: 4/5