Stained Lens: Style as Cultural Signifier in Seventies Horror Films

One thing that we always remember from childhood is the one horror film that scared us. We might not remember our second grade teacher’s name or whom we brought to our junior prom, but the image of that one scene from that one horror film still sticks in our minds. For me, it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974); my cousin and I were staying up late to watch a "scary movie," and naturally he chose the film. I will never forget the darkness in that room; the television sat on a small rollaway cart that could barely be seen because the moon had been shut out by the window shades. The film opened with a scrolling commentary reading "The film you are about to see is a true account." At this instant I was stiffened into fear; I don’t think I’ve ever sat that quietly again. The sound coming from my grandmother’s Beta Max sounded like the cold breath of devils, and my cousin seemed just as quiet as I. I am proud to say I made it through the entire film, but as soon as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ended, I wanted my mother. Every time my eyes closed, I saw Leatherface, and every time my eyes opened, I saw Leatherface. Eventually, I became enthralled with the film and many others in the horror genre. I wanted to understand why they scared me so much as a child. To this day I don’t know all of the reasons for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s effects on me, but I do believe I may have discovered why the seventies horror films are crucial to the history of the American horror genre.

The horror films of the seventies reflected the decade from which they came, but the seventies were not just a part of the story; each film was shot through the lens of a camera, and the figures and objects of the film were parts of a frame. This frame could be manipulated to achieve many narrative goals. Horror filmmakers used the frame, the camera, and the multiple possibilities of cinema to project fear. F. W. Murnau used lighting techniques to accompany his Count Orlock in Nosferatu (1922); in M (1931), Fritz Lang used sound and mise en scene to show us an enigmatic murderer; and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) gave us one of the greatest achievements in montage since Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). In the 1970s, horror films were at their peak because America was itself a horror show. The Vietnam War was in full force; police were shooting Kent State students for exercising their constitutional rights; technology was replacing factory workers, but gasoline was still running low. The American hero of World War II had vanished, and the horror directors of the seventies were compelled to comment on this disappearance. In The Last House on the Left (1972), Wes Craven uses a family of criminals symbolically and juxtaposes them with a straight-laced family that tries to escape the new, post-Vietnam America, but the straight-laced family finds that the stain of war and atrocity affects their lives as well. Tobe Hooper created a family of economic degenerates who have resorted to cannibalism in order to survive the technological encroachment into their rural homeland of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And just when Americans thought they were safe from the seventies, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) appeared with a physical form of evil that reminds us that light cannot exist without darkness. These films not only present their ideas through narrative and character developments, but their use of the elements of film style is crucial to the successful creations of these horror films.

The first decade of film indicates that two forms of style developed: formalism and realism. In his book, Understanding Movies, Louis Giannetti explains realism as "an attempt to reproduce the surface of reality with a minimum of distortion." The Lumiere Brothers’ first experiments with film are early examples of realism (Giannetti 2). Their short film, appropriately entitled The Arrival of a Train at Grand Central Station (1895), is the recorded image of a train rolling into a station and dropping off passengers who meet friends and family. The Lumieres placed their camera in one position and simply recorded reality in front of them; they used the camera just as families now use camcorders to document weddings and birthdays.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is formalism. If realists "try to preserve the illusion that their film world is unmanipulated, [then] formalists make no such pretense" (2). Reality is intentionally distorted and stylized in formalism. Giannetti also points out that "few films are exclusively formalist in style, fewer yet are completely realist" (2). Movement of camera and sequential editing are just as important as mise en scene and sound are to formalist and realist styles, but the use of point of view in narration is also a substantial element of filmmaking. We will see how film may mix formalism with realism through the use—among other attributes—of the point-of-view shot.1 In films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left, the audience becomes a part of the film as we get POV shots of disturbing and thrilling scenes, thus causing an uneasiness during viewing. At times, we know that the subjective camera is coming from a character in the film, but at other times there are no characters with whom we can identify this point-of-view; at these moments, the audience is pulled into the film and forced to become extreme voyeurs. The mixture of these formalist elements with hand-held, realist camera work creates stylistic complexity. Wes Craven uses hand-held cameras juxtaposed with mise en scene, montage, and tracking shots in The Last House on the Left, just as many of the horror films of the seventies did. With films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, the horror genre would become more effective in its creation of horror that is still able to frighten audiences decades after these films’ initial releases. These films have become important to the horror genre because of their complex use of formalism, realism, narrative, and point of view. The manipulation of style creates certain meanings embedded in these films, but the filmmakers’ use of style also employs symbolism and metaphors to convey meaning.

Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left is a perfect example of a film that still conveys timeless fear by the placement of style and metaphor. The film was shot in 1972, during the end of the Vietnam conflict. Craven purchased a 16-mm movie camera and began working on films of his own after teaching Humanities courses at Clarkson College in New York. Eventually, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in filmmaking and found a job running errands for a trailer company. His hard work paid off when he finally raised $70,000 for his first feature length film: The Last House on the Left (Barker 132).

The film is loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), but it also represents social and political changes that America was experiencing in the late sixties and early seventies. Craven uses metaphor in his characters’ actions, settings, and the meshing of formalist manipulation and realism. These two styles of film are juxtaposed between the protagonist and antagonist to distinguish between each one’s world within the plot; this use of style will also be essential in projecting the theme of the film.

As The Last House on the Left begins, a tranquil image of nature is presented, with only the sounds of woodland animals. This sequence cuts to a scene of ducks bathing in water topped with green algae. The theme of the film is contained within this simple two-shot sequence. The first frame of nature and silence suggests a pre-Vietnam America--a calm and confident America. When the editing shifts to two ducks bathing in foul water, the water suggests a modern, post-Vietnam America. The befouled state of this water is a part of nature and not the result of ecological abuse. The metaphorical dirty water in which we have to bathe may allude to the atrocities of Vietnam. Nature--or society--has changed this water, just as the post-war world has affected the America of The Last House on the Left. The image signifies the ugliness of a war that convinced many Americans that their government could no longer be trusted.

This culturally-iconographic use of water plays an important role throughout the film. Krug (David Hess) shoots Mari (Sandra Cassel) execution-style in this same mucky water in which the two ducks bathe during the opening of the film. Krug, Weasel (Fred J. Lincoln), and Sadie (Jeramie Rain) wash their victims’ blood from their bodies in the same water into which Mari’s blood has spilled. This use of constantly polluted water is crucial to The Last House on the Left. The killers wash off Mari and Phyllis’ (Lucy Grantham) blood, but the viewer knows they are just putting on more of her blood; there is no forgiveness or penance from this lake that has been polluted with violence. This natural body of water has become tainted, just as American ideals have become tainted through the disorder and uselessness of the Vietnam conflict. At the end of the film, Mari’s mother cuts Sadie’s face in the Collingwoods’ built-in swimming pool. This pool is filled with purified water as it sits in the backyard of the Collingwoods’ secluded, woodland home, and it also can represent American ideals becoming stained with violence that has come too close to home. The Collingwoods have built a life within the woods of Connecticut, far away from inner-city violence. In the beginning of the film, Mari’s parents question why Mari desires to go into the city to hear the musical group, Bloodlust; we get the impression that the Collingwoods’ world remains in their small town atmosphere. It seems that the Collingwoods have moved away from the city to get away from the harsh violence that was becoming prevalent in the seventies. When Dr. Collingwood (Gaylord St. James) reads the paper, Estelle (Cynthia Carr) asks her husband, "What’s new in the outside world?" He replies, "Same old stuff: murder and mayhem." The Collingwoods are trying to rebuild the old America in which they grew up by leaving a part of a new America that has become ugly with violence, but when Krug and company come into their part of the world, everything changes. The Collingwoods become crazed with vengeance in response to this change that is forced on them. They have no doubt they must spill the blood of their daughter’s killers, as the Collingwoods immediately and impulsively make preparations for the murderers’ slaughters. The swimming pool and its disinfected water are visual ways of presenting this idea: the moment Mrs. Collingwood slices into Sadie’s face, Sadie’s blood spills into the purified water and pollutes the Collingwoods’ world just as the lake water has been destroyed with the blood of two innocent girls. The Collingwoods’ idealized America that they have built for themselves has atavistically regressed to that from which they tried to escape.

The latter metaphors are not only presented in the content of the film; the director’s style also pulls the audience in with point-of-view and the juxtaposition between formalist and realist elements within the story. In the beginning of the film, Mari talks to her parents and soon leaves for the city with her more experienced friend, Phyllis Stone. As Mari and Phyllis frolic through the woods near Mari’s home, the editing and camera work is very formalist. The playful music score fills the background as the girls run about through a sequence that expresses their naive world. Everything begins to shift as the girls are revealed leaving town. A school bus passes in the opposite lane. This bright yellow metaphor is a visual reminder of youth being left behind, as the color yellow is a symbol of fear and caution. The camera’s shift in style follows this visual foreshadowing; the long shot of the girls’ car seems to have a POV shot, but the subjective camera doesn’t have a character with which to identify the POV shot. This shot is a use of the camera that hasn’t appeared in the film until now, and it also brings an extreme voyeuristic quality to the style. There is even an associated point of view from the back seat of the car as the radio announces the escape of Krug, Weasel, Sadie, and Junior (Marc Sheffler). With this associated shot, the viewer is forced on the trip to the city with Phyllis and Mari, since we are in the back seat of their car. The radio announcement is the harbinger of death in the film. Sadie is described as a savage who killed two police dogs with her bare hands, and Krug is a man who keeps his son under control by addicting him to heroin. This is the kind of world into which Mari and Phyllis are going, and the camera will make the transition just as unpleasant for the viewer as for the girls.

When the action cuts to the four criminals in a motel room—after Krug symbolically pops a young boy’s balloon with his cigar—the camera is hand-held. The angles don’t change as frequently as in the earlier sequences of Mari and Phyllis, and the viewer is definitely invited to be a part of this get-together. The switch is subtle, but the slow crescendo that develops is important to easing the audiences’ subconscious minds into the metaphors within the style of the film. As the escaped criminals sit in their motel hideout, the film cuts to Mari and Phyllis getting ice cream. Craven returns to the same formalist style he used before Phyllis and Mari came to town. The camera is on an axis, and it pans side to side as the girls pick their favorite flavor of ice cream. The film cuts again, but now the girls are in the streets of the city, and Mari is commenting on how filthy the city is. At this moment, the camera is hand-held again, because the girls are closer to danger. Just as music has often functioned as a foreshadowing in horror films, the camera works in the same way here. The girls are roaming the city streets to buy "grass," and Junior is looming on the steps of the motel. In order to get his fix of smack from Krug, Junior gets the girls back into the room by convincing them he has some "Columbian grass." As soon as the girls enter the room, the door is locked, and they are caught up in a world of violence and sex. The camera is still hand-held and shaky as Phyllis is violated in front of Mari. Mari’s former world is completely removed now. There are no more quick edits and tracking cameras to represent her sugar-coated teenage life, but Craven still cross cuts between Mari’s unaware parents and the gritty hand-held world of the criminals.

The Collingwoods are seen making Mari a cake for her seventeenth birthday, and the same playful music used in Mari’s sequences is repeated. This juxtaposition recurs to show the entrapment of Mari and how it will affect her parents; Krug and the Collingwoods’ worlds clash and then merge into a strictly formalist style in the climax of the film. One may wonder why Phyllis’ parents are absent from the film, but it should be noted that Phyllis did write off her parents when Mrs. Collingwood asked her what they did for a living; she replied, "they’re in the iron and steel business . . . my mother irons and my father steals." This may seem like a witty joke, of minor importance, but it is important to the narrative, just as Dr. Collingwood’s mention of "the barracks" in the film’s opening helps us understand why he knows so much about the booby traps he sets near the end of the film. The juxtaposition of Mari’s parents and the girls’ gritty entrapment is important in pulling the Collingwoods into the story.

After night passes, the kidnappers need to move on, but they will not leave Mari and Phyllis behind. At first viewing, the scene of the four kidnappers putting the girls into the trunk of their car may seem inconsistent in style, but it is not inconsistent at all. Now the light music plays during the criminals’ setting as they bring the car around back and force the girls into the trunk. The camera is steady, while multiple camera angles give us a quick montage of what’s to come. Krug, Weasel, Sadie, and Junior are going into Mari’s world, and the presentation of the Collingwoods changes also. The lighting has dimmed, and the score is melancholy or completely absent; the Collingwoods’ setting has began to mirror Mari’s horrible awakening. The next cut brings us to a quick montage that begins with soft music and imagery. We see stagnant water, and the camera cuts to a small waterfall; the camera then tracks the stream. Eventually, a faster montage of the water getting harsher builds with the music into the next scene of the four kidnappers driving down the road. The music changes into another playful song that contains lyrics about the four criminals. As long as Mari and Phyllis are in the trunk, this foreshadowing of the violence of the city heading to the secluded safety of nature is necessary in keeping balance in the narrative. When the girls are pulled from the trunk, the hand-held camera is back, and the scenes that follow emphasize the realist qualities of the film that may be its most shocking effect.

As we go into the woods with the characters, Krug’s first suggestion is to Weasel: "Weasel, take out your knife." At this point the camera has become more than an objective part of the film. The hand-held shakiness of the camera makes us feel we are watching the point-of-view of a character that doesn’t exist in the film; therefore, we seem to be in this violent world. As Phyllis is forced to urinate in her pants, we see this from three angles, but all are very voyeuristic and subjective. When Mari and Phyllis are ordered to molest each other, the camera angle is reduced to one shot that records the scene (see fig. 1). The long shot keeps everyone in the frame but Junior—who really wants to wash his hands of all that is happening. While we might think that the extreme voyeuristic point-of-view is actually coming from Junior, this POV shot is in other scenes of the film when Junior is in the closed frame or simply not in the scene at all. Sadie’s face also has a look of guilt. It is at this point that Craven takes two of the four kidnappers and visually represents their consciences. The audience is given a moral balance with which to identify. Not only are we pulled into these horrid scenes, but Craven gives us a reminder of how grotesque the occurrences in the film really are by showing us contempt in the expressions of two of the four antagonists. There are no camera angles to accompany the extreme voyeurism; we are left alone in the back of the frame and have become part of an open frame. Music is also part of this molestation scene.


FIGURE 1: The camera records from one position as Mari and Phyllis are forced to abuse each other.


The somber folk music makes the scene more painful as Mari cries out in fear and confusion. This is where the innocence of Mari is most apparent, for she is experiencing two worlds from which she has been protected: sex and violence.

When Phyllis tries to escape, Mari attempts to get free by promising Junior a "fix." Both scenes keep the first person point-of-view in mind: Phyllis runs away; both pursuer and victim are presented in long shots as branches are present in the foreground; while Mari tries to convince Junior to escape with her, a single POV shot from the woods pulls us into the scene. Ironically, Phyllis stumbles into the graveyard, and a car passes on the road about fifty feet ahead, but Krug is waiting for her with a machete. Sadie and Weasel soon follow, and all three corner the girl like wolves. Sadie’s head is bleeding because Phyllis struck her after Sadie pinned the girl to the ground and promised to set her free. This blow to the head enrages Sadie into the dog-killing beast introduced by the radio in the beginning of the film. After Weasel stabs Phyllis in the back, the girl crawls away, but she doesn’t get far. The three tormentors find Phyllis resting against a tree; they pick her up and Weasel stabs her with massive force. The montage of this sequence forces us to become its extreme voyeur, but we are not shown everything. The montage represents a viewer who can’t bear to watch. It may be the point-of-view of the killers, or the voyeur that turns its head in fear but always looks back in morbid curiosity. Sadie steps up and puts the knife into Phyllis and twists it over and over until Weasel’s knife has made a hole big enough to expose her intestine. As Sadie pulls a piece of intestine out of the hole, Mari calls Phyllis’ name in the background.

The three return to Mari and finish her off. After Krug carves his name in her chest with Weasel’s knife, he rapes Mari and completely steals her innocence. Mari gets up and walks away to vomit as she goes into the familiar children’s prayer: "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep." At this point, the guilt of what they have done flushes over the killers’ faces. The closed frame consists of all three as Mary kneels in the background coughing and vomiting. The killers look at their hands, and the camera shows close-ups of each one’s hands covered in blood (see fig. 2). We can’t help but think what is going on in these killers’ minds. This may be one of the biggest challenges of the film, for the camera asks us to sympathize with the killers as they realize what they have become. Even though their guilt has been completely exposed, they must finish the murder. Krug shoots Mari as she attempts to cleanse herself in the water she may have swum in as a child. A long shot of Mari sinking into the water is juxtaposed with the Collingwoods’ family dog barking at the gunshots coming from the woods.

At the end of the film the camera work transitions into a completely different form. The killers have washed the blood from their hands and face, and they have found shelter in the Collingwoods’ home. At this point, the film is strictly formalist. There are no attempts at realism. The editing becomes more stylized, and the use of formalist mise en scene is prevalent. In one frame, the Collingwoods and the four criminals are in a closed shot that foreshadows the end of the movie and the merging of evil with the secluded family. Dr. Collingwood is in the foreground, and he and Krug directly face each other as Krug stands in the background. Weasel has his eyes on Mrs. Collingwood, who now mirrors Sadie in dress and stance; Mrs. Collingwood will become a wild animal of rage when she discovers these visitors have killed her only child (see fig. 3). Craven frames the dinner scene hauntingly as he keeps an empty chair in the foreground while the murderers and the Collingwoods eat dinner. It is here also that Sadie sits in the chair  

FIGURE 2: Sadie, Weasel, and Krug stare at the horrific evidence of their crime.


FIGURE 3: Weasel looks up at Mrs. Collingwood while Sadie mirrors Mrs. Collingwood in dress. Mr. Collingwood and Krug are facing each other in stance, but Junior stays out of the situation by keeping his head hung low.


in which Mrs. Collingwood normally sat to eat dinner (see fig. 4). Craven emphasizes mise en scene because the killers are now completely in the Collingwoods’ world, and we soon see there is no escape for either. In his book, Hearths of Darkness, Tony Williams says that Last House’s "dark family group actually represent violent forces within the average family" (Williams 137). This may be why Craven eliminates the juxtapositions of formalist and realist style at the end of the film. Now that the Collingwoods have become enraged with violence, they have become no better than Krug and the other criminals of the inner city violence from which the Collingwoods tried to escape. Craven has visually placed both good and evil in the same world by completely eliminating any realist elements of style during the climax of the film; the Collingwoods and the criminal world of Krug have joined through the use of formalist style. The final section of Last House on the Left may be a visual attempt at showing us that evil is now a part of the American family, and because evil will follow, there is nowhere to run.

Just as Wes Craven uses elements of style to juxtapose and join the worlds of good and evil, Tobe Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl use elements of style to present the antagonists and protagonists of the 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In Understanding Movies, Louis Giannetti states that low angle camera work portrays power in the subject being recorded. In these low angle shots, the ceilings or the sky are in the background as the actors are in the foreground and midground (Giannetti 15). Horror movies use this tactic to make dangerous pursuers seem more horrifying and threatening, but what happens when this camera maneuver is used on the supposed protagonists of a horror film? The young adults of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are photographed with low angles to coincide with the ideas of a horror film that is about "the old" vs. "the new."


FIGURE 4: Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood dine with Krug, Weasel, and Sadie. The empty chair in the foreground is a haunting reminder of Mari’s murder.


The young adults are "the new" that may represent technology and the growing abuses of capitalism, and the cannibal family of rural Texas represent "the old" that has become redundant, useless, and simply out of work. The Collingwoods of The Last House on the Left have left the big city world of violence and sex; their haven that they attempt to rebuild is similar to the rural area of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Krug and company invade the Collingwoods’ peaceful area just as the youth of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre invade the rural area of the cannibal family. Krug and company have much in common with the youth of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for both are the future of America. Where Krug represents the rampant spread of violence that seems to be an aftershock of an abhorred war, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre youth may be the rampant spread of corporate capitalism and technological advancement. Companies like Wal-Mart open in small towns and hurt much more than they help. Small businesses are destroyed, and unemployment rates rise in small towns. As of today, over one hundred communities have successfully fought against the plans of Wal-Mart store constructions in their towns; unfortunately, more than five hundred have lost the same battle (East Mountain Citizens Against Wal-Mart website 2000). This is the economic commentary on America laid out in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins with the journey of five young adults—two of whom grew up in their destination of Texas—into a world that can be considered "the old." We are introduced to rural Texas as the youth stop near a cemetery to visit Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin’s (Paul A. Partain) grandfather’s grave. Older men are gathering near the cemetery, and a drunk man (John Henry Faulk) holds his head up, as if fighting gravity, while he lies in the grass; in a drunken stupor the man says, "You laugh at an old man, it’s them that laughs last that know better." This statement is the first clash of old vs. new in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The drunk is mocking the young by commenting on their arrogance and ability to change "the old." The young adults smell the stench of a slaughterhouse on the highway after they get back on the road. Franklin quickly goes into a rhapsody on the facts of how they now kill cattle with an air gun instead of the trusty "sledge." As Franklin goes more in depth about the slaughtering of cattle, Pam (Teri McMinn) lifts her head from her horoscope book and claims her contempt for the killing of animals, but Marilyn simply says, "Franklin, stop it; I like meat." The fact that Pam dislikes the killing of animals is an idea that puts this group into the category of "the new," but the fact that Marilyn likes meat and her relatives worked for the slaughterhouse keeps her and Franklin somewhat distanced from "the new." Marilyn is still "the new" because she is the youthful future, but a part of her is still holding on to the rural Texas in which she grew up.

The problems of "the new" are basically laid out for us when the young travelers pick up the first member of the cannibal family, the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal). After he mentions that he was coming from the slaughterhouse, Franklin asks the Hitchhiker questions about the new methods of cattle slaughtering and mentions that his uncle used to work for the slaughterhouse; Franklin had also mentioned earlier in the film that he and Sally’s grandfather used to sell cattle to the slaughterhouse. The Hitchhiker says he doesn’t work at the slaughterhouse, but his whole family once worked there; he states, "My family has always been in meat." The Hitchhiker then comments about the new, inefficient method of killing cattle; he asserts that the cows die faster the old way, and the new way puts people—like the cannibal family—out of work. The Hitchhiker inexplicably grabs Franklin’s knife and begins to slowly slice into his own left palm. The group of young people are horrified. One cannot blame them for rejecting the Hitchhiker's invitation to eat dinner with his family; the Hitchhiker does bring this up again when Marilyn is caught by his brother. The Hitchhiker pulls the bag over her head and begins to laugh and poke at her as he yells, "I thought you were in a hurry?" Not accepting the Hitchhiker's invitation is an unhealthy addition to his family’s history of rejection. This is where Franklin becomes closer to the family because he has apparently also felt rejection because of his disability, for Franklin is very envious and angry when everyone giggles with excitement on the second floor of his grandfather’s abandoned house because no one offered to help him up the stairs. In observing this rejection of the cannibal family, one cannot help but wonder if all five of the young adults would have survived if they had simply agreed to dine with the Hitchhiker and his family.

Like the radio announcement in Craven’s The Last House on the Left, the radio announcement in the beginning of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre becomes the harbinger of death when it is revealed that the young adults are listening to the same broadcast. Chainsaw’s radio announcement is a way of explaining the cannibal family’s economic dilemma. It begins with the report of grave robbery in a local cemetery; the corpses were oddly displayed, with one holding the other while being impaled on a phallic head stone. Before this announcement, the film opens with a POV shot of a character, whom we later find out is the Hitchhiker, taking pictures of dead bodies. The sequence is beautifully shot, as darkness is juxtaposed with the flashbulb’s illumination of grotesque, decomposing body parts. The radio announcement continues over the opening credits and is overpowered by Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s electronic score. Once the five young adults are introduced, the radio announcement becomes audible again, but it now references atrocities of much greater concern: a man’s dead body was found without genitals, and a young couple were charged for chaining their infant in the attic. After learning that the chainsaw family is responsible for the grave robbing, we come to understand that their offenses seem milder than the other cruelties by and toward living humans. This announcement creates a sense of sympathy for the cannibal family; the family never seems to go after living humans unless they feel threatened. The first two victims of the family, Pam and Kirk (William Vail), find a small graveyard of abandoned cars covered by a tent. The cars—a Chevy Impala, two Volkswagen Bugs, and a pick-up truck—seem to represent the younger generation and its cars. These abandoned cars may show how the family is only defensive in their killing. Tony Williams, in Hearths of Darkness, argues that "the slaughterhouse family are getting revenge on the twentieth century for the upgrading of society" (Williams 187). Hooper suggests that the cannibal family is defending itself against further economic disaster caused by "the new." The family may be a peaceful force that only robs graves for food, clothing, and furniture. Once the camera gets more into the cannibal family’s house, we begin to see furniture made of bones, flesh, and human appendages. Sally is tied down to a chair that uses actual decomposing arms as the arms of the chair, and she sits beside an appalling sculpture that is a mixture of bones and cartilage. It is possible that the family only kill humans when it is invaded. Annallee Lewitz discusses Juliet Schor’s theory of the "treadmill effect" of consumer capitalism in her article, "Consuming Images of Death and Serial Killers." She states that "the American dream is dominated by a frantic desire to work hard enough to maintain it." Lewitz further suggests that serial killers fit in with the "treadmill effect" category because they "kill after reaching a point where they begin to confuse living people with the inanimate objects they produce and consume as workers" (Lewitz 3). The cannibal family’s work was never with inanimate objects, but when the work was taken from them, this loss could have affected their minds as they still attempt to work in their medium: meat. Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) definitely fits this "treadmill effect" very well: when the young adults keep coming into the house, he kills each one, but once the third intruder is knocked down with a sledgehammer, he becomes increasingly concerned about where the young adults could be coming from. He seems frantic, runs towards the window and sits down; a close-up captures the puzzled look on his face as he rolls his tongue over his lips. The young adults are like rodents or cattle that keep getting into the house, and Leatherface squashes each one with his slaughterhouse reflexes. In the third installment of the series, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1989), Leatherface (R. A. Mihailof) plays with an electronic game called Alphabet Soup; the small machine shows a pixilated picture of a clown and asks its participant to type in the letters that spell out what the image is; Leatherface types in F-O-O-D and gets the question wrong, but he persistently keeps typing in F-O-O-D with frustration and confusion. Thus, Leatherface may be a product of this "treadmill effect" because he sees no difference between steer and human. The Hitchhiker may also suffer from the "treadmill effect" because he does pass his gruesome slaughterhouse pictures around the van, but we don’t know whether the pictures are a mixture of slain cattle and the decomposing bodies the Hitchhiker photographed the night before he met the young adults. It is interesting to notice that we do get a POV shot of Franklin looking at the first two pictures, but the sequence cuts to the next shot before he gets to the third. The expression on his face as he looks at the third picture is a look of confusion and perhaps even disgust; Franklin then hands the picture to Sally and in a concerned tone says, "Hey, look at this one."

The third character in the film who seems to show us that the family may be minding its own business and trying to survive economic disability is the Old Man (Jim Stedow). The Old Man is the father figure of the cannibal family. He tries to warn the young adults away from the abandoned Hardesty home, but the naïve teens ignore his warning. It might seem that the father figure of a family that hunts for fresh human flesh would lead prey into his family’s lair, but the Old Man does no such thing because he knows his mentally ill brothers will kill anything that invades their world. Once Sally is chased by Leatherface back to the filling station, the Old Man has no choice but to capture her because he worries that the town will become aware of the family’s lifestyle if she should escape. He does scold the Hitchhiker for leaving Leatherface alone; the Old Man knows that the mentally unstable Leatherface cannot tell the difference between animals and humans.

The main point to notice about the cannibal family is that they are marginal survivors of the new economic forces that mentally and economically disabled "the old." The family members are not the murderers of The Last House on the Left; we can actually sympathize with these characters, and Hooper appears to be asking us to sympathize through his use of the elements of style that coincides with the metaphors of the film. Hooper uses low angles to show the young adults as possible antagonists of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but they do not stay in the sight of the low angle; Hooper switches angles to show the cannibal family as antagonists also. When the teens stop to get gas, with no luck at all, Sally and Pam try to get a drink from an old soda machine. They are shot from a low angle that causes the two girls to become part of the foreground; the old soda machine is in the mid-ground, and the overhang of the filling station is in the background (see fig. 5). We see a symbolic hierarchy in the shot; since the girls are at the bottom, they suggest a threat through the use of mise en scene and camera angles. This shot may attempt to show that the young travelers are antagonists, but they are not as twisted and threatening as the cannibal family. In another instance, Kirk and Pam look for a swimming hole after they get to the Hardesty property, but the hole has dried up. The young adults are very low on gas by this time; the sound of a generator catches Kirk’s attention. He spots a windmill over the tree line and decides to lead Pam towards the house in hopes of getting gas for the trip home. The camera captures them from a low angle as they walk; the natural lumination of the sun causes a backlighting effect that silhouettes Kirk and Pam. This juxtaposition of light and dark in the frame is an additional possible proof of the young adults as antagonists (see fig. 6). Jerry (Allen Danzinger) is shot in the exact same way when he heads towards the house in search of Pam and Kirk. Once Pam and Kirk reach the house, Kirk disgusts Pam by giving her a tooth he finds on the porch; she runs away to sit on a swing in the yard. Kirk goes into the house and becomes the first kill of the movie. Leatherface now makes his first appearance. Pam hears a noise and calls Kirk but gets no response. The low camera angle tracks from under the swing as Pam gets up and walks towards the house; the house gets larger as she gets closer to the porch (see fig. 7). The shot is beautifully constructed because the house becomes a character that is reminiscent of the horror tales from such


FIGURE 5: Pam and Sally become part of the foreground as a low camera angle captures the images.


FIGURE 6: Pam and Kirk head towards the cannibal family’s home.


FIGURE 7: Pam heads towards the house in search of Kirk.


authors as Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft; these stories revolve around mysterious homes that children would never walk by at night because of the horrible stories woven about them through the years. Pam is the dominant figure of the shot because of her red shorts, but the house remains at the top in the mise en scene’s hierarchy of the shot.

It is important to remember that Sally and Franklin are closer to the cannibal family because their uncle and grandfather worked for the slaughterhouse. Sally and Franklin head into the woods to search for Jerry, Kirk, and Pam; the sun has set, and darkness is all around them. Franklin’s flashlight leads the way while Sally pushes Franklin in his wheelchair. There are no low or high angle shots of Sally and Franklin, but soon Leatherface is the subject of the low angle camera as he butchers Franklin with a roaring chainsaw. The low angle shots capture Leatherface and Franklin, but Franklin is part of an associated POV shot; therefore, he is only in a portion of the open frame (see fig. 8). In the first half of the film, the other characters had always been in closed frames and never part of an associated POV shot. This use of mise en scene may prove that Franklin is to be read as less of an antagonist than the others. Sally is also part of an associated POV shot at the dinner party scene that is later in the film. In this scene, the family has tied her to a chair and set her at the head of the table. The camera captures a beautifully composed deep focus shot of the very top of Sally’s head, as the family sits on the edge of the table with Grandpa (John Dugan) at the other head of the table (see fig. 9). There is neither a low or high angle, but Sally is at the top of the hierarchy because of her position at the table; the family is in the midground as the decomposing grandpa is in the background. Even though Sally is captured, she still prevails as the ruling force of the world from which the family has been excluded, and the decomposing Grandpa is their sad future. This is a


FIGURE 8: Franklin’s head and shoulder become part of an associated POV.


FIGURE 9: Sally becomes part of the foreground in this dynamic use of mise en scene.


foreshadowing of the fact that Sally will escape because she is closer to the family, for Franklin was killed because he was a weak side of the family, but Sally is powerful and may represent the family’s hope for survival. Because there is still sympathy to be felt for the cannibal family, Sally escapes. She is also part of an associated POV shot when the Old Man beats her to the ground with a broomstick, and they are shot from a low angle. The camera captures the same low angle shot when the Hitchhiker holds Sally down while Grandpa tries to split her head open with a mallet (see fig. 10). Hooper definitely switches the main antagonist through the low angle shot, but he makes sure the other antagonists, the young adults, are remembered as antagonists by making them part of the associated POV shot in an open frame.

The looming camera in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is similar to the POV camera of The Last House on the Left; however, where The Last House on the Left brings in the audience as an extreme voyeur, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gives us a POV shot that is much more enigmatic. The first shot of this kind is during the opening of the film; Franklin is wheeled to the side of the road to urinate into a coffee tin. Franklin is watched by a camera that slowly tracks left to right as he is wheeled towards the side of the road; the tall grass is in the foreground of the shot. The interesting part of this use of the camera is that it creates a sense of fear that may be coming from the unidentified subject of the POV camera. The camera always moves slowly, and it watches the young adults as they get in and out of the van. This looming camera may represent the town as they fearfully watch "the new" arrive into their homeland of rural Texas. Just as the low angle shots are directed towards the young adults for the first half of the film, the looming POV camera is only present in the first half of the film and is only projected towards the young adults.



FIGURE 10: The Hitchhiker’s head hovers over Sally as he holds her down in a low camera angle shot.


The looming camera of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would be used in stalker films such as Maniac (1980) and Friday the 13th (1980) to put audiences behind the eyes of a killer, but no stalker film would receive as much acclaim as John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). By 1978, the America of The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was settling into a less conflicted view of itself. Disco was the rage, and the sexual revolution was at its peak. The nation seemed to wash away the bad memory of Vietnam; thus, Halloween’s Haddonfield, Illinois may be the perfect allegory for America during the late seventies. This is the rational and realistic world that is invaded by an irrational antagonist: Michael Myers (Nick Castle/ Tony Moran1). Myers is an example of pure evil with no explanation (Muir 78). The tools that society typically uses to explain evil are useless in Halloween; Dr. Sam Loomis’ (Donald Pleasance) psychological training and licensed handgun fail to stop Myers. In his book, The Films of John Carpenter, John Kenneth Muir states that Halloween brings Haddonfield, and the audience, back to "our primitive beginning as creatures of the cave who once huddled in darkness and feared everything in the world that we could not understand" (76). Michael Myers is pure evil according to Dr. Loomis; therefore, he represents an evil that we have forgotten exists. Muir references an interesting example in his book when he discusses society’s diagnosis of murderers and criminals today. Muir uses the 1999 Columbine Massacre as a prime example of how our society still forgets that evil exists as a natural force. The author discusses how the shooters involved were written off as "products of their environment" or "disturbed." These teenagers were never simply diagnosed as evil; instead, the blame was put on the motion picture industry, rock music, and violent video games. Muir discusses how convicted killers have been scientifically proven to be results of "genetic predispositions to alcoholism, drug addiction, and child abuse" (76-7). Myers, as a supernatural force, defies science that is present in the realistic town of Haddonfield. In contrast, the cannibal family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are invaded by science, but science is neither a threat nor a weapon against the evil entity of Halloween. Just as the town--an allegory for America--puts its defenses down, Myers comes in to point out the fact of evil as a never-ending force.

The story and metaphor of Halloween are simple in their meaning, but the style of the film makes Halloween one of the most beautifully shot horror films to date. Carpenter uses the camera to record remarkable compositions. The POV shots are prevalent and essential to Halloween, as every character seems to be the subject of one, including the audience. Carpenter also uses the movement of the camera and the proxemics between antagonists and the camera to bring the viewer closer to evil.

Halloween begins with a POV shot that is reminiscent of Touch of Evil (1958) and Black Christmas (1974) . The continuous tracking shot is shown through the eyes of the young six year old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) while he stalks his sister, picks out a knife from the kitchen drawer, and murders his older sister—the latter we see through the eye holes of a clown mask that Michael picks up from the floor (see fig. 11). In this opening scene, the audience is one with the unknown killer, and it is even more horrifying when the killer is revealed as a young boy with emotionless eyes. When Myers grows up and sets out to kill again, the audience is not one with him, but we are accomplices of Myers through associated POV shots (Telotte 120). This first occurs when Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) walks up to the Myers’ porch to place a key under the doormat—Tommy Doyle warns her that the house is forbidden because "awful things happened there." As Laurie walks up to the porch, a POV shot watches her through the screen door, and Myers’ heavy breathing is present through the audio. The sequence cuts to Laurie walking away and then cuts back to the POV shot through the screen door, but Myers soon comes into the shot and becomes a part of an associated POV shot. As Laurie parts with Tommy and walks away from the house, Myers comes into the frame once again and creates another associated POV shot (see fig. 12). These shots pull in the audience as accomplices; the subject of the POV shot could be the natural force of evil that Myers represents. When contrasting the protagonists’ POV shots within the film, we see that they are never part of an associated POV shot; the audience is explicitly watching through the eyes of the protagonist. When Laurie sees Myers during class, we watch through the window with her, and the blinds are a part of the foreground. Laurie sees Myers twice on her way home from school and once when she finally gets home; both times we see Myers through Laurie's eyes. Young Tommy Doyle sees Myers across the street at Lindsey Wallace’s (Kyle Richards) house; here we are watching the "bogeyman" through Tommy’s eyes. After Myers kills Lynda's (P. J. Soles) boyfriend, Bob (John Mitchell Graham)


FIGURE 11: The audience becomes one with the young Michael Myers as he looks through the eye holes of a mask.


FIGURE 12: Myers watches Laurie walk away and becomes part of an associated POV shot.


, the killer suddenly gets a sense of humor and puts on a white sheet and his last victim’s eyeglasses. As the door opens, we see Lynda's perspective through a POV shot, because the foot of the bed she lies in is a part of the foreground. Again, Halloween does not supply explicit POV shots with its antagonist; Myers is always accompanied and associated during his stalking. His first victim is Annie (Nancy Loomis), and he lurks outside of her house in an associated POV shot, but the camera watches when he kills Annie. It is almost as if Myers displays his murders to the evil force of which he is a part. As he kills Annie in the front seat of her car, the camera watches through the fogged up side window; the victim and killer are positioned in a close up (see fig. 13). Myers’ fourth victim, Lynda, is displayed the same way for the camera, except the camera is positioned in a medium shot so Myers can display the young female protagonist’s breasts as he strangles her with a phone cord. One cannot resist the idea of primal human sacrifices when watching these two murders and Myers’ displays of the bodies. The murders are being displayed for the audience, but when thinking of Myers as an evil, natural force, we should notice that we are a part of that force as we watch the massacre. In Halloween, Carpenter may be suggesting that evil is a natural part of everything and everyone. This may be why he also pulls us into the protagonist’s perspective because good is also a natural part, and one cannot exist without the other. Just as Wes Craven shows us the two worlds of good and evil through manipulations in formalism and realism, and Tobe Hooper uses low camera angles to present his antagonists and protagonists, John Carpenter uses POV shots to pull the viewer into the worlds of the antagonist, protagonist, and evil itself.


FIGURE 13: Myers murders Annie as we watch through the fogged up windows of a car.


The natural force of evil that accompanies Myers does stand alone through the looming cameras of Halloween. Carpenter used steady-cam technology to achieve smooth tracking shots that present Haddonfield in an eerie frame. The proxemics between protagonists and the camera are distanced to make the viewers feel they are a part of the stalking that is being projected. As Laurie walks towards the abandoned Myers’ home, the looming camera watches her in a long shot and follows the teenage girl with a slow panning motion, but Laurie walks towards the camera, and the long shot tracks into a medium shot as Laurie meets young Tommy Doyle (Brian Andrews) on the corner. There are times when the camera watches Laurie and her friends, but Myers is clearly not a part of an associated shot or an open frame. In one scene Annie, Laurie, and Lynda walk home from school, and the camera is positioned in front of them as it records their walk home in a continuous tracking shot. At one point, the camera circles around the girls into a 180 degree turn and watches them walk away. The most important thing to notice about the camera is its stalking personality; it moves very slowly towards its subject, and the tranquil movement makes us uncomfortable as Carpenter’s musical score aurally warns us of what is to come. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used a camera with a looming personality, but the camera portrayed a sense of fear, and Craven’s The Last House on the Left pulled audiences into the film by making them an extreme voyeur to brutality. The looming camera of Halloween is very similar to both films because the audience is pulled into the camera and is forced to become stalkers as they subconsciously reflect on the evil within themselves.

One of the most terrifying parts of Halloween is the enigmatic Michael Myers. Whether implicit or explicit, we have ideas about where Leatherface and Krug Stillo come from; in contrast, Carpenter and co-writer/ producer Debra Hill created an antagonist who is a mysterious supernatural force, although there are moments in the film that Carpenter does give us a visual proof of human emotion in Myers. It should be noted that Myers never goes after children. This may be because he still has the mentality of a child and relates to them. Carpenter shows us this possibility when bullies are harassing Tommy Doyle. The young kids constantly mock the "bogeyman" and tell Tommy that it is coming for him. As one of the kids runs away, Myers is there and grabs him. The camera cuts away from Myers’ emotionless mask and only gives us the terrified face of the young boy. After the scared child runs away, Myers follows Tommy, and Carpenter sets up a nice shot that exemplifies a visual parallelism between Tommy and Myers. Myers is part of the foreground; the schoolyard fence is in the midground, and Tommy is in the background (see fig. 14). Myers gets into his stolen car and follows Tommy as the young boy walks home with his head hung low; the POV shot is positioned in the back seat of the car as it watches with Myers. Myers never goes after Tommy, but in this instance we are given a small hint to the human past of Michael Myers; he could have been teased and bullied when he was Tommy’s age—the same age Myers was when he butchered his sister. It may be safe to state that Myers is simply identifying with the young boy and feeding his reason behind being the evil he has become. Carpenter uses montage to wrap up his film as single shots of every place Myers has waited and struck are presented. During the montage, Myers’ heavy breathing can be heard over Carpenter’s score. In the documentary Halloween Unmasked (1999), Carpenter talks about this montage and states that it presents one of his ideas of the film; he simply says, "Evil never dies."


FIGURE 14: Myers watches Tommy through the schoolyard fence.


With the rising popularity of gore in the eighties, the horror genre declined into a capitalist pool party of big breasts and syrup-filled intestines. Horror films were being made to make people sick, and it was working. Herschell Gordon Lewis had been making films, such as The Wizard of Gore (1970) and Gore Gore Girls (1972), with the sole intent of making money. In the short-lived documentary television series, The Incredibly Strange Film Show (1988), Lewis proclaimed he knew he could make films that would get wide distribution and make him a great deal of money if he simply put girls and blood together, but little did he know that the gore genre would eventually seep into and infect the horror of the eighties and nineties. Slasher pictures, such as Friday the 13th (1980) and Scream (1996), were filled with nothing but sex and gore, and the audiences craved more. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had hardly any blood in its special effects cart, and Halloween used even less, yet these films are still effective in their ability to frighten the audience. It may have something to do with the murderers’ appearances. The fear that Krug Stillo, Leatherface, and Michael Myers project comes from the way the directors use the cameras to record the killers’ profoundly disturbed relationships to their various cultural environments.

Written by: Bradley P. Guillory


Works Cited


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Mcfarland and Company, Inc., 2000.


Newitz, Annalee. When We Pretend That We’re Dead: Monsters, Psychopaths, and the

Economy In American Popular Culture. Berkeley, California: UC Berkeley University Press, 1996.


Telotte, J.P. "Through a Pumpkin’s Eye: The Reflexive Nature of Horror." American

Horrors. Ed. Waller, Gregory A. Urbana: University of Illinois Press,1987.


Williams, Tony. Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film.

Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.