The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

(USA 1974)

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“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare.”

— Narrator

 

“Look what your brother did to the door! Ain’t he got no pride in his home?”

— Old Man

I didn’t expect much when I sat down for the low budget slasher classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a movie that somehow escaped me all these years. I’ve got to admit, it’s not bad.

The premise is simple: five friends in their 20s, three guys and two girls, are driving a van on a road trip through rural Texas in the summer. The purpose of the trip is to check on a few dearly departed relatives of Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her disabled brother, Franklin (Paul Alan Partain), after a gruesome grave robbery in the town where they grew up. It’s very Scooby Doo.

They pick up a crazy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) outside a slaughterhouse who grosses them all out talking about killing cattle with a sledgehammer. He passes around a few photos of some he finished off himself. He’s dirty, scabby, and jittery. He snaps a photo no one asked him to, then has the nerve to charge them two bucks for it. He invites them over for dinner (head cheese) with his family before he cuts his hand with a pocketknife. Freaked, they pull over and throw his nasty ass out.

That’s not the worst of it — it’s just the beginning. Working from a screenplay he wrote with Kim Henkel, director Tobe Hooper taps into something pretty fucked up here. Mixing hicks with chainsaws is unsettling enough, but “Leatherface” (Gunnar Hansen), the masked executioner behind that sliding freezer door, is truly frightening. So is decomposing “grandfather” (John Dugan). When you stop to think about it, so is a gas station barbeque.

All the essential elements of horror are here: characters stranded in the middle of nowhere, empty houses, no phones or gas, bugs, bones, rotting corpses, chases in the dark, falling down, power tools as weapons, kidnapping, a faceless menace, and a bunch of blood.

Cinematographer Daniel Pearl creates some surprisingly artful shots, particularly on the highway, in a sunflower patch, and a scene with feathers. They look great. The artful moments, however, are far and few between. The pacing is strange: the first four victims are picked off in quick succession, leaving just Burns, who has nothing to do but run around and scream for nearly the entire second half. Even after all she goes through, no one needs that. Still, for all its flaws, I winced, I snickered, I looked away in disgust. But I saw the whole thing through to the end — no pun intended.

I hate to spoil the ending, but contrary to the movie poster…none of this is true.

With Allen Danziger, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Jim Siedow, John Larroquette

Production: Vortex

Distribution: Bryanston Pictures (USA), Astral Films (Canada), New Gold Entertainment (Italy), Succéfilm AB (Sweden), Jugendfilm-Verleih (West Germany), Bac Films (France), New Line Cinema (USA), René Chateau Productions (France), Filmways Australasian Distributors (Australia)

84 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) B-

http://www.thetexaschainsawmassacre.net

Wild at Heart

(USA 1990)

“Man, I had a boner with a capital ‘O.'”

—Sailor Ripley

 

“And this here’s a story with a lesson about bad ideas.”

—Lula Pace Fortune

 

“Don’t turn away from love, Sailor.”

—Glinda the Good Witch

Wild at Heart is one of David Lynch’s more maligned films. Roger Ebert hated it to the point of indignation (https://www.google.com/amp/www.rogerebert.com/reviews/amp/wild-at-heart-1990). Vincent Canby seemed perplexed—I can’t tell whether he was bored, annoyed, or just flummoxed (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE5D7123EF934A2575BC0A966958260). Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “appalling,” “inept,” and “debasing” (https://www.jonathanrosenbaum.net/1990/08/bad-ideas/). A host of other critics rolled their eyes and sighed, dismissing it, I suppose, as a violent and exploitive piece of shock fluff.

I never saw Wild at Heart until now. Some of the points raised by its detractors are valid, but I still liked it for the same things that made them hate it. Erratic, vulgar, and really sweet, it’s offputting yet compelling and—surprise!—it has a happy ending.

An atypically straightforward narrative for a Lynch project, Wild at Heart is a decidedly deranged, bloody road movie/romance/thriller based on Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name. Upon his release from a North Carolina prison after serving time for murder—never mind that it was self-defense—Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) exits the jailhouse to find his lover, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), waiting for him outside in the sunlight with his snakeskin jacket, the symbol of his individuality and his belief in personal freedom. They spend some time catching up in a motel room and at a speedmetal concert before they decide to blow off his parole and take off for California.

Meanwhile, Lula’s mother, Southern lady Marietta (Diane Ladd), is making plans of her own—and they involve her private detective boyfriend (Harry Dean Stanton) and a hit man (J. E. Freeman) who’s got Sailor as his target. A bad omen detours the starcrossed lovers to Big Tuna, Texas, where they unwittingly plant themselves smack in the middle of a bad situation that looks to be turning deadly fast.

OK, I’ve seen versions of this same story before. The plot is familiar and for the most part implausible—not to mention really, really thin at times. Lynch goes overboard with his depiction of sex, violence, and gore—even though they all have a place here. None of this matters, though, because the characters, which are both the focus and the strength of the film, are fantastic.

As usual, the casting is stellar. Cage is at his best here, working that edgy deadpan earnest manic thing he did so well in his early films. Dern is flawless as a sweet Southern girl who’s found her place with bad boy Sailor, everyone else be damned. Willem Dafoe is super creepy as hayseed bad guy Bobby Peru—those teeth! Above them all, however, is Ladd, who’s fucking fabulous even with her face covered in red lipstick. She’s vengeful at times, remorseful at others; but all the while, a perfect lady. She shines here. There’s a reason she was nominated for an Oscar for her performance (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). This film works because the actors give it their all.

Wild at Heart is loaded with Lynch’s trademark what-the-fuck weirdness—a man at a bar quacking like a duck (you read that correctly) and cousin “Jingle Dell” (Crispin Glover) sitting on the floor in the bathroom screaming for Christmas or standing at the counter in the dark making a hundred sandwiches for lunch are bizarre moments even by Lynchian standards. There’s a lot more to it, though. I love the theme of finding a happy place in the midst of horrible things happening. I love all the references to various staples of Americana—cowboys, cars, highways, Elvis Presley, and my favorite, The Wizard of Oz. I love that underneath it all is a touching love story that we can all relate to.

What I find most interesting, though, is that so many things about Wild at Heart scream Quentin Tarantino, yet he had nothing to do with it. In fact, it came out two years before Tarantino’s first major film, Reservoir Dogs. I never thought of David Lynch as an influence on him, but Wild at Heart makes me wonder.

Side note: Wild at Heart is a rated R movie. For the screening I attended, however, I was lucky enough to catch an unreleased rated X version. The X rating was no doubt due to the graphic violence—it wasn’t the sex scenes. The print was in bad shape, all scratchy and beat up, but it was totally worth it to see an X-rated Lynch film.

With W. Morgan Sheppard, Grace Zabriskie, Isabella Rossellini, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee

Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Propaganda Films

Distribution: Manifesto Film Sales, The Samuel Goldwyn Company (USA), Palace Pictures (UK), Bac Films (France), Cineplex Odeon Films (Canada), Finnkino (Finland), Hoyts Distribution (Australia), Háskólabíó (Iceland), Meteor Film Productions (Netherlands), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), Solopan (Poland)

125 minutes
Rated X (alternate version)

(Music Box) B

David Lynch: A Complete Retrospective

http://www.davidlynch.de

Good Will Hunting

(USA 1997)

“Well, I got her number. How do you like them apples?”

—Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting, the final screening of Chicago International Film Festival’s Totally ’90s series, is not something I associate with its director, Gus Van Sant. Frankly, I didn’t know he directed it until I saw his name in the credits.

No, I associate Good Will Hunting with longtime friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who while they were both still relatively unknown turned the former’s drama class project into the script that would become this film (http://www.eonline.com/news/802830/looking-back-at-the-totally-crazy-story-behind-the-making-of-good-will-hunting). The success of Good Will Hunting seemed to come out of nowhere and established both of them as actors—never mind that they snagged the Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1998 (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1998). Damon and Affleck have both written since, but none of their screenplays has been as successful as this one.

Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), a professor at MIT, is baffled when someone anonymously solves a wicked hahd math problem he posted on a chalkbaord in the hall as a challenge to his students—he expected it to take the entire semester. No one steps up to claim the work. He posts a second problem, one that took his colleagues two years to figure out. He’s amazed when he catches one of the school’s janitors, Will Hunting (Damon), red-handed. Will won’t have anything to do with Lambeau—until he ends up in jail for assault.

Recognizing Will’s gift, Lambeau makes a deal with him: he’ll pay for bail if Will works with him on math and sees a therapist. The problem is, Will doesn’t make it easy to connect. In fact, five different therapists fail. As a last resort, Lambeau calls former classmate Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), who has a similar Southie background as Will and stands up to his crap. Sean sees that Will is deflecting to hide his self-sabotaging tendencies.

Meanwhile, Will meets Skylar (Minnie Driver), who sweeps him off his feet. It all goes well until she tells him she’s going to medical school at Stanford—and asks him to go with her.

The script here is loaded with good ideas and gorgeous details—that story about Sean ditching a Red Sox game to be with a girl he just met in a bar (she would become his wife) is gold. So is Will’s confrontation with a grad student (Scott William Winters) at a dive. Hearing Damon sing “Afternoon Delight” while he’s faking hypnosis is hilarious. The story, though, is predictable. Good Will Hunting excels because of the acting. The casting—by Kerry Barden, Billy Hopkins, and Suzanne Smith—makes all the difference in the world.

With Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, John Mighton, Rachel Majorowski, Colleen McCauley, Cole Hauser, Rob Lyons, Steven Kozlowski, Jennifer Deathe, Philip Williams, Patrick O’Donnell, Kevin Rushton, Jimmy Flynn, Joe Cannon, Ann Matacunas, George Plimpton, Francesco Clemente

Production: Lawrence Bender Productions, Be Gentlemen Limited Partnership, Miramax Films

Distribution: Miramax Films (USA), Bac Films (France), Buena Vista International (UK), Cecchi Gori Distribuzione (Italy), Filmes Castello Lopes (Portugal), Intersonic (Czech Republic), Laurenfilm (Spain), Lider Films (Argentina), SF Norge A/S (Norway), Scanbox Entertainment (Sweden), Scotia International Filmverleih (Germany), Shochiku-Fuji Company (Japan), Svensk Filmindustri (SF) (Sweden), Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI) (Sweden), United International Pictures (UIP) (Switzerland)

126 minutes
Rated R

(Public Chicago) B

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.miramax.com/movie/good-will-hunting/