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Vol. 2, Issue 10
February 1, 2000

Pixel Obscura:

Saturn's in Retrograde

by Josh Vasquez


“Sometimes we cannot believe that what is happening is real...pinch yourself and you may find out that it is" - Texas Chainsaw Massacre

ne of the major obsessions of horror cinema is its placement of individuals within the collapsing roar of a landscape gone mad. The once familiar world is rendered alien and unknowable, a dark universe rearing its head late in the day to cast everything into a twilight chaos. Characters are left running through the ruins of what they originally perceived as an ordered existence. Horror cinema destabilizes the boundaries between what can and cannot happen and, as a result, the world is pushed out of joint.

Those who survive can never be the same.

The transformation is a savagely swift one. The finest horror films move with a kind of red velocity, a terrible and bloody speed at which space is rapidly complicated. This environmental unraveling, however, tends to fall into two basic categories: expressionistic and realistic. Expressionist horror cinema, beginning in Germany with works like Robert Weine's Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Paul Wagner's The Golem (1920) and continuing on into the early sound period in such films as Dreyer's Vampyre (1932), created landscapes based on the principle that the exterior world was a reflection of the tortured interior of the individuals populating it.

Realist horror cinema, however, builds its terrible momentum from an eruption of nightmares into the daylight.

In this context, realist refers to the treatment of the landscape as something existing independent of the individuals who dwell within it, an objective space which is infected by the darkness rather than being directly shaped by it. Films as wildly different as Seven, Night of the Living Dead and Let's Scare Jessica to Death are brought together by their depiction of the universe's sudden decision to pull back the curtain, turning itself upside down and inside out, only to embrace the individuals caught up in its revolution with a glacial indifference. There is an implicit statement being made that the darkness has always been present, waiting in the angles and hidden folds. Psycho took the first significant steps towards giving a nasty bite to this realist bent. George Romero's late sixties zombie plague reached even further than Hitchcock's tale of a lonely, psychotic boy in trying to pierce the "real" with the nightmarish. Both Psycho and Night of the Living Dead could be seen as the first steps in a new evolution of horror cinema, a terrible realism which would result in the creation of a film so ahead of its time, so profound in its implications, that it still stands as a cinematic landmark.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be one of the most beautiful realist horror works ever made. Tobe Hooper's film is an apocalyptic masterpiece, a dark fairy tale about the ultimate impossibility of understanding the universe. Chainsaw's greatest effect is found in its depiction of the most terrible violations taking place in the most seemingly ordinary of worlds.

Hooper's direction emphasizes both odd angles and distorted perspectives as well as unusually smooth camera movement for such a low budget feature. Frantic cuts and sudden zooms struggle alongside graceful tracking movement and still long shots as if he's trying to find a way to portray the interlocking levels of this dying, schizophrenic reality.

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Credits: Illustration © 2000 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 2000 Josh Vasequez. All other content is © 2000 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, so don't do it, or we'll cut you in twain.