A couple of reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #35:-
THE BOOK(S) OF THE FILM
Auteur Publishing continue the good work of giving serious critical attention to significant horror films with two more slim volumes in their Devil’s Advocate series.
James Rose turns the spotlight on Tobe Hooper’s seminal slasher from 1974, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (Auteur Publishing pb, 105pp, £9.99). He starts by giving us valuable background information on the film, taking in the people involved, the details of funding and budget restrictions. He also discusses at some length the problems the film faced in getting a certificate from the BBFC, its case unusual in that there was little overt violence in the film, nothing that could be easily resolved with a few cuts, despite attempts to do so, but rather the prolonged psychological torment of the Sally character gave the censors pause, all of which probably seems ridiculous to cinemagoers of today. Inevitably, the whole video nasty farrago gets a mention in passing.
Having provided this contextual information, Rose then supplies a breakdown of the plot, starting with the documentary style of the opening scenes and going right through to the iconic image of Leatherface’s crazed dance of frustration and pain. Each chapter deals with a section of the narrative and brings out the underlying themes. Rose identifies links with the classic definitions of the Gothic, the house in the film reified as the modern equivalent of the ruined castle, while also tying the film in to Carol Clover’s concept of ‘the Final Girl’ in slasher films. He shows how it tapped into America’s feelings of guilt over Vietnam and the changing idea of the family (on the latter score, I could have done with a little more exegesis). His most pertinent point, at least in the current climate, is that the events of the film are driven by economic factors – the chain saw family used to work in the meat processing plant, and unemployment has driven them into poverty, with cannibalism adopted as a last resort – and the link between the family and the teenagers they slaughter, who are simply the other side of the same coin. Finally he addresses similarities with Freud’s idea of ‘the uncanny’ before closing with a brief discussion of the other films in the franchise and how The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has influenced later horror films.
Given that it’s a fairly recent film, I don’t feel that THE DESCENT (Auteur Publishing pb, 116pp, £9.99) has yet attained the canonical status of TCSM, but there’s no doubting that it’s an excellent horror film and author James Marriott makes a strong case for it being the finest example of the films that revitalised the genre in the early years of the new millennium, rising above the status of ‘torture porn’.
Marriott takes a slightly different tack to James Rose in dealing with his subject matter. His introduction discusses the background to the film and the structure of the book, after which he then gives us a detailed synopsis of the events that take place in the film, the facts and nothing but the facts.
Subsequent chapters deal with the various themes on offer. One looks at the reasoning behind having an all-female dramatis personae, and how that ties into feminist themes, with arguments both for and against. (For me a particular revelation was Carol Clover’s theory, if I’m understanding it correctly, that horror films essentially require viewers to adopt a masochistic perspective and for men that will only work when filtered through a female viewpoint. I really need to get my hands on a copy of Men, Women, and Chain Saws.) Another chapter examines the ‘solipsist’ nature of the film, asking at exactly what point we cross over into a world that exists only in Sarah’s imagination. The most detailed sections deal with the cave setting, discovering how these fit into the psychology of the viewer, touching on the work of people like Freud and Adler, tapping into ideas of birth trauma and the safety of this womblike environment, material that became a bit heavy going at times but worth persevering with as the implications are fascinating, Marriott showing how the action of the film reflects such theories. In what seems almost like an addendum, he gives us an account of other cave films, both past and since the release of The Descent. This is probably the best Devil’s Advocate volume that I’ve yet seen, an absorbing account of a film that could so easily be dismissed as just an action come horror outing, and indeed works so very well on that level.
In general terms, reading these Devil’s Advocate books I have to wonder how much of what the writers uncover is deliberate placement on the part of the film makers, and how much of the work arises from the subconscious, is down to the fact that their psyches float on the same dark waters as the rest of us. The best critical writing illuminates its subject matter and opens up new possibilities, and as far as that goes Auteur’s books more than deliver the goods, with cogent arguments, a wealth of research and, most importantly, eminently accessible writing, making each one an engaging read, with enough critical meat to satisfy but not so much that non-academics will choke on the meal.