When we speak of the horror film genre, we cannot do so without talking about the critical part that women have played in its establishment. Whether we have been brutalized or survived, horror films have been one of the primary genres that feminist film theory has studied because it is so female-centric. From the very beginning, women have been active and necessary components of scary movies. As you will see, the New Beverly is keenly aware of this fact. Works like Supernatural (Victor Halperin, 1933), Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Paranoia (Umberto Lenzi, 1969) and many more films playing this month highlight women’s roles in the horror film.
It is true that there are problematic aspects to some horror films featuring women as primary characters. But we still lead the genre, underscoring a strange premise that women have the innate capacity to, depending on the film, be monstrous, feared and/or heroic and strong survivors. We can multi-task like you wouldn’t believe!
On the evening of Friday, October 7th, the New Beverly will be showing one of the most spectacular horror double features you may ever witness on the big screen. If you have not seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) or Torso (Sergio Martino, 1973), do yourself a favor: cancel your plans and get yourself to the New Beverly. It’s just not the same as watching it at home, no matter how dark your room is or how you dress the night up. Theatrical viewing is the only way to do this show.
While there are numerous reasons to attend this screening just based on the fact that it’s a damn fine film, the value of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is also one of major critical acclaim to women in the horror community and those who write about the value of horror. While the idea of the “final girl” gets mentioned in every article and conversation about slasher films, it was borne from Marilyn Burns’ portrayal of Sally Hardesty in this incredible film, shot on 16mm in burning hot Texas.
Carol J. Clover, author of the groundbreaking book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film and creator of the Final Girl theory did a lot for the idea of women in the horror genre. Texas Chain Saw’s Sally Hardesty conforms quite well to many of Clover’s defined terms. Clover writes, “The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl…She is abject terror personified. If her friends knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with the knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone also finds the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). But in either case, from 1974 on, the survivor figure has been female” Clover is, of course, talking about Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw when she mentions 1974. This was a break-out year and watershed moment for women in the horror world.
There is no argument that Sally is a helluva character! No spoilers, but the grand finale of the film is one of the most terrifyingly hell-raising OMFG is-this-really-happening-moments to watch, especially as a female viewer. And this is where some of the Final Girl theories fall apart in the modern age. Clover endows the Final Girl in most slasher films with what she calls “boyish qualities” and (smartly) analogizes her with the killer and brings up the “male-dominated audience.” Now, when the book was published the horror audience might have populated as such, but that is no longer the case. So how do we reassess The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Clover does ask, “Does the Final Girl mean ‘girl’ to her female viewers and ‘boy’ to her male viewers?”
Marilyn Burns, star of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, passed away in 2014 at the unfortunately early age of 65. Burns’ performance in the film was about as real as it gets based on the low-budget nature of the production and how independent film was made back then. When the 4K film restoration was done, the 16mm Ektachrome Commercial (ECO) camera original was scanned. ECO was commonly used for low-budget films intended for 35mm film blowups in that era. Years later, when Burns talked about her performance and experience on set, it sounds about as gruesome and graphic as the film itself.
In the film, Sally (Marilyn) goes through hell. Without ruining actual events or plot points, it is safe to say that Sally gets the crap beaten and ripped out of her trying to get to safety. Marilyn Burns’ recollection of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre shoot was that most of the “acting” during those scenes led to injuries galore. In an interview, Burns stated, “yes…that was ME jumping from a scaffolding. The scene where I look like I’m in pain? That was me with my ankle and also that darn sugar glass hit me in the head… it hurt. Especially after the dinner sequence – when my head had been hit so many times. They used that big sledgehammer. You know…a sledgehammer is just a piece of steel and then you have a hammer on it. They did a fake hammer with foam rubber… foam rubber is no protection from the arm of the real sledgehammer that’s made of steel. Foam just doesn’t cut it when they’re banging you.”
Yet Burns had nothing to say but good things about the experience and her iconic role as Sally Hardesty. While many of us recall other women in horror as Final Girls, perhaps we can reclaim Sally as the first since she truly worked to create that role. As we watch horror films this Halloween season and consider women’s roles as survivors, heroines and active fighters, let’s also celebrate the fact that films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and characters like Sally Hardesty welcomed women to the theaters more often by saying: you kick ass. No matter what you’re up against, you’re going to triumph. Horror is a very complex genre for women but the creation of Sally Hardesty opened many doors for women as horror fans and that cannot be denied.