Thursday, January 26, 2006

More on Hoop-Hoop-a-Doop

Not only was yesterday Tobe Hooper's birthday, it was also Robert Burns's birthday. Much as I revere Burns, thanks in part to Eddie Campbell provoking my finally reading Burns's poetry after he and I jammed on a Bacchus comics adaptation of the Burns poem ("Tam O'Shanter," I think, off the top of me head), it's Hooper's films that had the greater impact on my existence -- life and work -- creature of the 1970s that I am.

Fond memories I harbor of my amigo Mark 'Sparky' Whitcomb and I up and bolting from our lowly (and I do mean lowly: I was in a sub-level dorm room at Johnson State College) digs at JSC to make the drive to the nearest theater, the Bijou in Morrisville, VT, where an unknown quantity entitled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was opening. All we knew about the film was that it had opened in NYC, and I'd clipped out the tiny ad from The New York Times and had it posted on my wall; the title alone had us both hoping against hope it might play close enough to Johnson to catch a peek. Sparky being from Texas (though he and his family had since moved to Chester, VT, hence his being at JSC), he had a real jones to see the film; I was just psyched at the title, one of the most blatantly exploitative in all horror film history. We were stunned at the news of its opening two towns away (one of its few VT playdates, it turned out), and we were there as quick as we could scam a car.

At that time -- 1974, natch -- the Bijou was still an old-fashioned one-screen small-town theater, a relic and a beaut, kept in pretty good condition by the family management. It was a weird time for such 'nabes' (industry term for neighborhood theaters): most were closing for good in the '70s, or hanging on by their thumbnails, surviving by succumbing to the wave of post-Deep Throat XXX fare or a mix of porn, exploitation, and the occasional third-run pickup. The Bijou never booked XXX fare to my knowledge; whoever was booking the theater actually did a remarkable job of mixing it up between exploitation and major studio curios (we saw Mean Streets, Badlands, The Devil's Rain, and the heady double-bill of The Giant Spider Invasion co-featured with Godzilla vs. Megalon there, too, among others). That The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- distributed by Bryanston, a Mafia-family owned and managed distributor responsible for circulating a plethora of key '70s fringe wonders, including the X-rated Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey one-two punch Andy Warhol's Frankenstein (in 3-D!) and Andy Warhol's Dracula -- had come to roost at the Bijou was a surprise, but not inconsistent with Bijou's eclectic pantheon of first-and-second run titles. Though the theater was clean, the floor none too sticky with spilled and calcified soft drinks, and the popcorn always fresh and hot, the seats were classically narrow and claustrophic, the pitch of the theater floor only increasing the need to fold one's knees into arcane contortions guaranteed to cut off blood flow in less than 20 minutes.

Sparky and I proudly bought our tickets from the kindly matron in the ticket booth (whom I once provoked into spitting her false teeth out laughing when stony Bissette walked full-faced into the crystal-clean glass doors before the booth), stocked up on popcorn, and took our seats. I recall Sparky buying a huge bag of popcorn -- the quantity of which, and bag-packaging of which (this was before nabes had 'tubs' of popcorn for sale), is critical to our evening festivities, as you will soon see. Now, remember, I was as I am now a die-hard horror movie buff; Sparky was a kindred soul, steeped in years of honorable Texan drive-in attendence. We'd both seen and wallowed in our share of outrageous exploitation, the bloodier the better to our 20-to-21 year old brainpans. Still, we weren't prepared at all for where ol' Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel took us: from the opening shots of barely-glimpsed rotting human extremities lit by flare-and-fade flashbulbs to the revelatory pull-back from the corpse-sculpture skewered onto a gravestone, we were stunned into silence (as if the sunflares erupting behind the credits as an ominous, cacophanous, Sun Ra-cosmic-jazz-gone-south score exploded in our ears hadn't already done us in). The first shot of armadillo roadkill relaxed Sparky a bit -- downhome stuff for a Texan -- but that comfort level was methodically peeled away as the narrative got underway and TCSM worked its black magic. After the hitchhiker's classic setpiece aboard the van, all bets were off, and we knew it.

Now, we weren't alone in the theater, but it was a small crowd that night: first show and all of a flick with little family appeal and no pre-sell beyond the baldfaced mania of its title. The audience was dead quiet for most of the unreeling, suffocating amid the audio horrors filling the auditorium, but things got real quiet after Leatherface made his appearance, concluded by the slamming of that fucking steel door after downing his first victim with sledgehammer force. By now Sparky was hunkered waaaaaaaay down in his seat, clutching his no-longer-munched popcorn like a prairie dog with a prize. I'd given up on my popcorn, too, but had the wherewithall to plunk it down into the seat next to me with my coat and hat.

As Hooper & Henkel tightened the thumbscrews, setting Sally into the woods pushing flashlight-wielding Franklin in his wheelchair in the pitch-dark night, we were holding our collective breath.

Then, it happened --

-- the roaring of a chainsaw --

-- the eruption of Leatherface from the darkness, his horrific face caught in Franklin's flashlight beam --

-- and it was suddenly snowing in the theater.

I can't adequately communicate how disorienting the moment was:

-- the horror of what was happening onscreen (barely visible, the art of Hooper & Henkel's conceit being the relative gorelessness of the film) conflated by the tactile feeling and seeing of, well, snow in the theater. It was just suddenly there, big fat kernels of --

-- popcorn.

Sparky had hammerlocked his bag of popcorn, and it was in the air the second Leatherface was into Franklin with the saw.

We stole a look at one another and let loose with something half-scream, half-donkey-braying laughter, and we were forever drunk on TCSM thereafter.

But first we had to make it through the rest of the movie, which wasn't much of a laugh-provoker. Oh, we cracked up at the now-classic, then-surprising flourishes of pitch-black comedy ("Look what your brother did to the door!"), but Hooper & Henkel had sunk their meathooks deep into our cortex, and we were physically exhausted -- an exhaustion that felt all the more overwhelming with the abrupt, end-of-nightmare brevity of the final shot: the mad dance in the sun-blasted road, the racing chainsaw sound, the blinding cut, and we were back to those fucking cosmic views of sunflares bursting from the surface of the sun, the final credits crawl as the score reasserted its percussive mania. It was only when the lights came up and we saw the enormity of the popcorn-spew circle Sparky had wrought with his bag-bursting reaction to Leatherface's attack that we recovered a bit of equilibrium and staggered to our feet, tottering up the aisle and groggy in the ropes.

As we teetered into the lobby, meaning to apologize to the management for the mess and offer to help clean up, we were caught offguard by a new and even more unexpected spectacle:

A schoolbus was visibly parked on the curb in front of the glass doors and ticket booth, and a line of uniform-jersey-wearing high school students were lined up, paying their dough to see the next show. Their spirits were high and voices loud -- reckon they'd won the game, eh? -- and we looked at one another and cracked up.

As the first players in line passed us en route to the snack bar, one of 'em said to Sparky, "Hey, how was it?"

Bet it was a lively theater that night.

A year later, I would be showing TCSM as part of an "Audience Assault" double-feature at Johnson State College. Someone started a chainsaw up in the theater during the show, and -- well, that's another story (as is the lively evening John Totleben and I enjoyed at a Newark, NJ theater seeing Hooper's followup Eaten Alive)...

Among my fave bits of TCSM trivia is the fact that the film was sneak-previewed in a San Francisco theater as a 'surprise' unannounced second feature for underrated studio director Joseph Sargeant's suspense gem The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (wherein Robert Shaw shone bright as lead villain "Mr. Blue" -- source for the color-coded names of Quentin Tarantino's celebrated Reservoir Dogs). Just as the subway passengers of Pelham 123 rallied against their murderous oppressors, the audience reportedly stormed the theater management in a rage as TCSM played, provoking more ire than terror as unsuspecting patrons assaulted by the Hooper & Henkel cinematic crime demanded their money back and still couldn't believe they'd been guinea-pigged with such an offensive exercise.

Lest you think such distributor and studio faux pas are a thing of the past, consider the November 2005 'sneak preview' booked in the Manhattan AMC Empire 25 -- where parents and chicks attending Disney CGI feature Chicken Little were greeted with the opening minutes of the new Spanish feature Andrea, in which a young man hangs himself from a tree. All the traumatized tots and furious parental units got were refunds or a coupon for a future free movie.

Back in '78, Kubert School pal Marc Vargas and I once rushed to a Manhattan theater matinee of Allegro Non Troppo, second-billed with Ralph Bakshi's maladroit Lord of the Rings animated feature. We arrived early for Allegro and resigned ourselves to sitting through the final minutes of of Bakshi's film, which we'd seen before, plunking down into the quickest two seats we could find, sitting behind a wiry black guy in an audience packed-to-the-max with parents and kids. Suddenly, amid the climactic battle, the rotoscoped Alexander Nevsky Bakshi imagery was supplanted by the most clinical balls-slapping cock-ramming-into-cunt XXX footage imaginable, washed-out morgue-flesh color and all. The footage erupted, slammed, and was gone in seconds -- and we were back into Bakshi faux-Tolkien animation in a heartbeat, but the theater went nuts. "Momma, whatwassatwhatWASSATWHATWASSAT???" screamed a kid behind us to his panicked mom as the screen suddenly went black and the lights came up and panic ensued. Vargas and I were crying with laughter -- we couldn't believe it! -- and the noise from the outraged rush to the lobby was deafening. It took some time for the hubbub to subside, but Vargas and I were helpless with laughter; every time we caught our breath, we'd look at each other and crack up anew. We finally calmed down, at which point the guy sitting in front of us -- whose face was streaming with tears, too -- stole a glance back at us, and all three of us collapsed laughing again.

Shit, was Chuck Palahniuk or "Tyler Durden" in the audience -- or in the projection booth? When I saw that sequence in Fight Club, I couldn't help but wonder.

(Yes, we did get to see the end of Lord of the Rings without further incident, and Allegro Non Troppo was a treat.)


Starving Gay Marriage While Feeding the Bears

While Massachusetts clergyman Tom Crouse persists in staging events fomenting rage against homosexual marriage under the guise of supporting 'maleness' and hetero marriage (go to
  • Out of the Inkwell,
  • check Mike's January 25th post for details), I'm relieved to report that Leonardo DiCaprio is aggressively supporting -- well, read on.

    I got an email from "Leonardo DiCaprio, NRDC Trustee" with the subject line, "A message from Leonardo DiCaprio about protecting bears." Now, Leo's dad is one of my dear friend Chas Balun's old cronies -- they did mini-comics together in their happy hippie arteest days -- and yes, Leo is appealing on behalf of bears to "stop the Bush administration from implementing a disastrous plan to revoke the bears' protection under the Endangered Species Act" ("...That's why it's so important for Americans all across the country to tell the government that we oppose this risky plan. To take action, go to the Natural Resources Defense Council's BioGems website at
  • Save the Bears,
  • ..." etc.).

    But the email arrived shortly after an exchange with local filmmaker John Scagliotti about an upcoming pair of "Bear Film Festivals" here in southern VT -- and we do mean bears, but not the bears Leo is talking about. John mentioned the great success of last summer's Guilford, VT Bear Film Festival, composed of "films that attract the gay Bear movement -- believe it, its a big group and they arrive in hordes!" The festival ("mostly shorts and one feature," check out last summer's event
  • here
  • -- no 'organ barn' jokes, please) may become an annual event, as the first was, according to John, "really a lot of fun and a little inspirational at times."

    These bears are clearly not an endangered species, however much clergymen like Crouse might carry on.

    Hmmmm, maybe we should get some bears to crash the Crouse pro-male event? Whether it's Leo's bears or the VT Bear Film Fest bears matters not a whit.