What’s So Interesting About Serial Killers Anyways?

A look at Tobe Hopper’s 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and why we are so intrigued by serial killers, blood, and gore.

5223249-posterWhy is blood and gore so intriguing? It’s a question that plagues me whenever I am confronted with blood, guts, and the visceral on-screen. Even more so during this time of the year because this is time when The Walking Dead comes back into my life. Why do I let it come back though? Why do I want to see how many different ways a zombie’s brains can be splattered over Rick and the gang?

I’m going to attempt to answer this question by looking at the classic film Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I will, of course, focus on the original released in 1974. This is perhaps THE most gruesome film I have seen and hopefully this post will reveal why.

Carol Clover has observed, “…the emotional terrain of slasher films is pre-technological.” With this statement, I believe she is referring to weapons of choice in slasher films. For instance, we are more likely to see someone pick up a knife, or a hammer, or even use their bare hands to enact and satisfy their killer craving. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface chooses the chainsaw as his weapon of choice. However, the only appearance the weapon makes is a short scene in which Franklin is chopped in half. But in this short instance, we don’t get the blood and gore we expect (or want). Instead, we get our satisfaction earlier on in the film from the Hitchhiker picked up on the side of the highway (never a good idea, especially if you’re in a horror movie, but that’s another topic for another time). We get to see the Hitchhiker violate the body by slicing open his hand, letting blood flow past that invisible barrier. I believe the killer in a slasher film, in this case the Hitchhiker along with Leatherface, serves the role of breaking the barrier between the visible and the unseen for the audience. In the role of mediator, the killer breaks that taboo fascination humans have with what is hidden beneath our skin. 

Franklin is awestruck, showing a lingering intrigue about the Hitchhiker’s act of violence. Clover remarks that Franklin is, “fascinated by the realization that all that lies between the visible, knowable outside of the body and its secret insides is one thin membrane, protected only by a collective taboo against its violation.” This shared fascination serves as a sort of link between the killer and victim in this film. Although deemed an outsider from the very beginning, Franklin is not the typical victim the audience would sympathize with. But the focus remains on Franklin, the audience relies on him to confirm their fears or revulsions towards the killer. But as Franklin is not so different from Hitchhiker, the definition of who is the killer and victim in this film to come into question.

The comparison between Franklin and Hitchhiker allows the line between killer and victim in Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be blurred. If Franklin represents “normal” society in this comparison, their similarities would suggest that both sides could take on the role of the victim, with Franklin as the victim of the cannibalistic Leatherface clan and Hitchhiker as the victim of the slaughterhouse industry (again, there is a lot more to be said here, but let’s save it for another post).

The State of Modern Day Hollywood Cinema: It (2017)


This new iteration of a cult classic horror film is certainly representative of the overall dilemma of Hollywood films these days: a decent concept, great talent, and a terrible plot.

However solid your cast is, there’s still a lot of moving parts that don’t seem to be prioritized the way they really need to be. A story is what carries a film along and keeps audiences involved and interested. But it seems as though a plague has swept over Hollywood that is causing films to be nothing more than mediocre at best.

To illustrate this claim, I want to turn to the recently released reboot of It.

First of all, this film is in the same vein of many films these days, a reboot or sequel to a predecessor removed by a decades. I do think reboots and long forgotten sequels are decent concepts to follow, there is a disconnect in rebooting films to appeal to a modern audience. In It, the film is set in the 1980’s, something which I believe holds back the entire story. Each of the kid actors lives up to stereotypical representation prevalent in 1980’s films, even calling out this fact with a “Molly Ringwald” reference to the only girl in the group who is in fact an homage to the Pretty in Pink star. Setting the reboot in the same decade the original Stephen King novel was released limits the potential of diversity of representation or anything really “new” that could be adapted into the reboot. Why are we seemingly stuck in a 1980’s plot line?

Second, if Pennywise the Dancing Clown is supposed to represent and feed off of fear, then why limit the story to only focus on this group of pre-defined, stereotypical nerds and outcasts (or “Losers” as they lovingly refer to themselves as)? The fears of these kids are so limited to this very specific group of kids, who are great representations of 80’s kids (according to audience reaction and some jokes being lost on the younger audience). Why not branch out to explore characters who have not been given a voice yet? The original novel has already been adapted into a film once before in the 90’s, so let’s modernize the story and setting to allow for more potential and maybe even a better story for new audiences.

With all this said, It still has some strengths. The talent, for instance, is very solid. All of the kid actors did a great job, in my opinion, with pulling off each of the personalities of their characters. I’m not sure if it was just great casting choices or if this young talent is actually just that impressive, but their performances were quite believable, something I don’t usually find myself saying about kid actors. And we can’t forget Bill Skarsgard’s terrifying performance as Pennywise. Honestly, my favorite parts of the film were any scenes where Pennywise makes an appearance in because of the way the kid characters are written and how their side plot lines are quite boring in comparison. I would rather explore what each of their fears are and how Pennywise pulls from their more personal experiences, making the manifestation of their fear all the more real.

Since these are just a few initial thoughts I had, I would be interested to hear what others have to say about this new reboot. How do you feel about the very idea of reboots these days? Does It pull off the reboot concept well? Were you just as annoyed with the incessant penis jokes pervading the entire film as I was?

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: Part 1

I recently stumbled upon an awesome documentary series about the tumultuous and exciting 20th century. Dr. James Fox’s narration takes you on a journey through the century, stopping at three different cities that exemplify the radical changes taking place.


I will be posting some brief summaries of each of the three episodes. There’s not really any “spoilers” warning I can give because this is history, but I highly recommend watching these 50 minute episodes for yourself. The show provides some great film and imagery of what each city looked like during the specific year. You really get a sense of what life was like throughout the 20th century. With shots from modern day as well as recovered historical footage, you are able to be swept away into the world of Vienna in 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.

Vienna, 1908

  • Hitler attempted to pursue a career as an artist, got cold feet, applied for art school, got shot down, turned to politics (influence by Karl Lueger’s antisemitism; “I decide who is a jew”); & the rest is history
  • Hapsburg Empire: the largest and oldest empire in Europe; everyone thought it would last forever (pre-WW1); 1908 was the Emperor’s Diamond Jubilee
  • Gustav Klimt premiered his world-famous painting The Kiss, Dr. Fox claims that the doubt surrounding the optimism of the era is evident in this painting because of the “ambiguous embrace”Gustav Klimt - The Kiss - 1907-8
  • Adolf Loos’s Ornament and Crime manifesto was published this year; theories and ideas from the manifesto culminated in the Raiffeisenbank/Looshaus commission, which was marked as the first modern building
  • Vienna is seemingly trapped between the past and the future, transitioning from the world of empires and monarchies to a modern society; 1908 had the highest recorded suicide rates
  • Fabulous Freud introduced his Oedipus Complex Theory, and the world went crazy over it; although, in 1908 Vienna, this wasn’t the craziest idea to be suggested
  • Artist Egon Schiele was developing a new expressionistic figural style, evident in a self portrait

    Self-Portrait by Egon Schiele
  • Arnold Schoenberg joined the expressionist art movement as a composer; his most well-known work is the Second String Quartet, which experiments with atonality

    Portrait of Schoenberg by Egon Schiele
  • Social issues were prevalent to say the least; prostitution (the dark underbelly of middle class men was called out by author Else Jerusalem in her novel Red House), poverty and homelessness was so severe people started taking up shelter in Vienna’s sewer system (documented byEmil Kläger & Hermann Drawe)
  • October 6, 1908: Bosnia Herzogovnia/Balkans were annexed, which would lead to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914

National Cinema: The Blue Angel


Two methods for establishing a specific national cinema includes a comparison to other films and looking at a film in relation to what defines a pre-existing cultural identity of a nation. A nation’s identity can be seen as a set of ideologies and values, and, as scholar Andrew Higson claims, cinema acts as a sort of advertisement for the cultural standing of a nation. Cinema acts as a business, using a nation’s identity as a marketing strategy to set up expectations of a film. In this way, a nation’s film can then be defined by a comparison to other nation’s films. To paraphrase Higson, national cinema can be defined by what it is not. But this does not take into account a nation’s identity based on existing economics and cultures of that nation state. National cinema must then be considered in relation to the prevailing political, economic, and cultural identity and traditions.

Another way to define national cinema is to look at the consumption and production of a film. For instance, to look at where the film was made and who made it might give us insight into how the idea of a nation’s identity might be explored in a film. We can see this in Josef von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel. Sternberg was an American director brought over to Germany to work on The Blue Angel under the German production company Ufa. The director’s background as a professional from Hollywood can perhaps be seen as an influence on the highly narrative structure of the film, focusing on the love story between Professor Rath and Lola. The film also draws on German film history, particularly Emil Jannings previous films, and Weimar culture. But the focus on the exploration of sexuality encompasses both American and German concerns during the 1930s.


Modernity, beginning in the 1920s, was marked by the increasing power of middle-class women, among other things. In her chapter on The Blue Angel, Patrice Petro claims that female sexuality became a prevalent marker of what was deemed the “new woman,” which was aggressively publicized by radical new fashions that drew attention to the female form. Marlene Dietrich’s character Lola exemplifies the “new woman” very clearly in the film. She is first introduced through the use of a postcard that the Professor’s students are crowded around. These young men are continuously drawn back to the cabaret club where Lola performs and flaunts her sexuality, which is made explicitly clear through the lyrics in her songs. Lola is often seen surrounded by her admirers, but she is always in the position of authority. She controls their movements, clearly shown when she takes the Professor’s coat and places him the seat next to her, and has the ability to dispel them from her dressing room. Lola is aware of her effect on the Professor in particular and seems to enjoy his discomfort by her sexuality. Lola as the “new woman” type places The Blue Angel in the context and history of urban entertainment and the increasingly non-traditional expressions of sexuality that was prevalent in both America and Germany.

The film also reflects on the issue of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Lola is able to exert her power over her male audience even when she is not present. The postcard that the Professor’s students admire draws them in to the cabaret club to seek out the authentic source. However, the source of the original is questioned when Lola is constantly confronted with her own image. The walls of her dressing room are covered with these postcards and posters, leading to the question of which one determines the other.

Encounters With Herzog: Finding “Truth” At the End of the World


Werner Herzog’s impressive oeuvre includes a mixture of both fictional feature films as well as documentaries. There is no easy way to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction is his films because a mixture of both forms is always prevalent. Herzog works both within and against the context of documentary cinema in order to reach what he calls the “poetic, ecstatic truth” (Ames, ix). And this Herzogian truth is only attainable through the use of “fabrication and imagination and stylization” (Ames, 2). Encounters at the End of the World serves as a specific example of Herzog’s style in which he documents his experiences at the McMurdo Research Station on Antarctica. Here he chronicles the everyday lives of eccentric people who have chosen to live there as well as the beauty of a place far removed from any other people on the planet. The long, uninterrupted takes of life both above and below the ice, asynchronous music, and voice over narration characterize Herzog’s style and also sets the stage for a performance in which he sets out on a philosophical exploration of “truth” at the end of the world.

The characteristic long takes can be found throughout Encounters. The seemingly never-ending takes show life above, below, and inside of the ice that makes up Antarctica. Herzog employs long takes in order to establish the authenticity of his story. The camera remains a passive observer, letting the events unfold in real time. For example, the opening scene shows a diver under the ice of Antarctica (Encounters). The surreal underwater landscape is seen in only three different shots. There is no action occurring in these shots other than observation, either by the camera or by another diver seen on screen. Herzog’s narration is even kept to a minimum by providing the audience with simply the location and the source from which the images were captured. The long takes and objective source of scientists reinforce these images as being accurate depictions of Antarctica that were not constructed or reproduced on a studio set. Because there is minimal interference with events and long uninterrupted takes, the authenticity is established by just letting things progress naturally in a scene. It is a common element utilized in documentary films that set out to objectively observe. However, Herzog also uses long takes to establish a different sort of authenticity, especially in the interviews with the inhabitants of McMurdo. In interviews such as those with Scott Rowland, driver of Ivan the Terra Bus, or Douglas MacAyeal, a glaciologist and professional dreamer, Herzog’s presence is rarely ever invasive. He allows the social actors to talk about their experiences both past and present, thoughts, or observations, without directing the conversation in any direction. The camera tends to linger on them much longer than seems necessary sometimes, which leads to improvisation on the part of the social actor. A specific interview that stands out is with David Pacheco, who Herzog gives the title of “Journeyman Plumber” (Encounters). Pacheco talks about his supposed ancestral link to Aztec kings based on the way his fingers match up. Once Pacheco has finished talking, Herzog does not ask any more questions and simply lets the camera linger on him. This produces quite an awkward experience for the audience and presumably for Pacheco as well, who just picks up his tools and continues to work after a few awkward silent moments (Encounters). For Herzog, the awkwardness and improvisation on the part of the social actor produces a sense of authenticity, which allows the audience to connect with the character.

There is a focus on the audience that permeates throughout most of Herzog’s films, which is achieved through a variety of techniques. A subtle yet intrinsically important technique used is non-diegetic music. For Herzog, a documentary is a performance, and therefore moments of it are often staged (Ames, 4). Music helps to call attention to this staging by focusing on affecting the audience’s experience emotionally or sensationally with the images on the screen. In terms of Herzog’s attempt to portray “truth,” using music to create on affect adds to the stylization of a film. The music used in Encounters calls attention to the documentary as a construct produced by Herzog by highlighting his involvement in the creation of a specific meaning that accompanies an image. The opening scene, again, is a good example that illustrates this. By indicating that the footage seen on screen was taken by a professional diver working at a research station in Antarctica assumes that this footage is meant to be objective and factual like something from an observational documentary. However, Herzog adds in the soundtrack what sounds like a choir singing in church (Encounters). This immediately evokes a feeling of spirituality, making the experience seen on screen have a more emotionally affective impact on the audience. This technique is utilized again later in the film on the second dive (Encounters). The chanting choir of voices is not the same that is heard in the beginning of the film but undeniably evokes the same feeling. The dive becomes analogous to the spiritual or religious experience that one might encounter while in prayer. Another example of music used to add or evoke a specific meaning to an image occurs after Herzog interviews the cell biologist and professional diver Samuel Bowser (Encounters). Bowser has a personal affinity for science fiction doomsday films and sees aspects of these stories in the microscopic world of the single celled organisms he collects on his dives. He begins to compare the creatures to man-eating creatures from science fiction films, and even mentions that they are the reason life evolved and fled from water to seek escape on land after prompted by Herzog. This point coincides directly with the twelfth point in Herzog’s “Minnesota Declaration” that states:

Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue. (Ames, x).

This shared view of the world beneath the layers of ice in Antarctica is immediately evoked as the camera follows Bowser into the water to explore the horrible world of these microscopic monsters. The music Herzog chooses for this scene sounds like someone is playing the violin off-key. It is loud and jarring and makes the images feel somewhat terrifying. For a moment this is no longer the surreal experience in the opening scene, but the underwater world as seen through Bowser and Herzog’s vision of it as “sheer hell.” The use of music lends itself to the ecstatic truth that Herzog is intent on portraying by revealing Herzog’s interpretation of the images for the audience.

Another technique characteristic of Herzog’s filmmaking style is the use of voice over narration. In his documentaries, Herzog often provides the narration to accompany the images, which implies his films come from a more personal point of view. More often than not, Herzog inserts opinions, thoughts, and personal observations into his narration to create a vocal presence (Ames, 33). Herzog’s experience becomes the experience of the audience. An explicit example of Herzog’s vocal presence through voice over narration appears just before the second dive takes place. Immediately prior to the dive, people were shown creating the hole that the divers would enter the water through, which gives a sense of simple observation. Next, the divers are shown preparing for the dive by putting on various layers of neoprene wetsuits, gloves, and hand warmers. During this moment Herzog’s narration picks up again, drawing comparisons between the silent preparations of the divers with priests preparing for mass. This personal insight from Herzog reshapes and contrasts with the simple observational technique used just before. It forces the audience to reconsider the importance or meaning of the role of the divers, McMurdo, and Antarctica. To reinforce his observation, Herzog continues to assert his presence and opinions through the use of the music that was previously mentioned. Herzog in a way forces his presence on the documentary. Encounters is as much about Herzog’s personal views and experiences as much as it is about life at the McMurdo Research Station, global warming, or Antarctica.

Encounters serves as a clear and concise summation of Herzog’s stylization techniques utilized in his documentaries. The long takes, asynchronous yet affective music, and voice over narration are undeniably characteristic of Herzog’s films, and all of these techniques assert his presence within the film. Even though long takes are meant to be objective and observational, Herzog uses this to create authenticity in the people he films by pushing them out of their comfort zone. The music is specifically chosen to evoke certain emotions or meanings to accompany an image. And the most explicit assertion of his presence is in the voice over narration where he freely provides his views, sometimes corresponding to the music and image. Herzog is able to use these elements in his documentary films to put on a performance for his audience. He stages scenes for the purpose of creating an emotional connection to the audience, to shock or irritate them into a new way of thought.