Friday, 6 December 2013

How is the family represented in American horror films of the 1970s? Part 2

Part 1 of my dissertation on the representation of the family in American horror films of the 1970s is here. Now for part 2 on the monstrous families of films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes.

Part 2: Monstrous Families

‘The monster is the family’ (Wood, 1984, p.187)

Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) has a clear link with Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in that they are both situated in rural areas and feature monstrous nuclear families.  In the former, a bourgeois family become stuck in the desert and are attacked by a family of cannibals living in the hills.  In the latter, a group of youths are killed one by one by another family of cannibals who live in a rural farmhouse.  These films are generally quite progressive in their representations of the family as many critics argue.

Charles Derry (1987, p.168) writes of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), ‘the values of the American family […] were inordinately disturbing: the father is a rascist, clear and simple; the mother, a simpering housewife with virtually no personality […] so little […] respected that her dead body is set afire and used by her son as a weapon…’.  The father, Big Bob, refers to ‘niggers and hillbillies’ and tells his family that ‘these bastards never came as close to killing me as my own goddamn wife… and her goddamn hysterical screaming.’  The two adult men, the fathers, are the active members of the family that go for help.  The youngest male, Bobby, is left in charge of the women, even his own mother, and is given the gun to protect and assert his phallic power over them.  Ironically, Big Bob, the family patriarch, is the first to be killed and is then crucified in a mockery of Christianity and its legacy of patriarchy.  The young son seems to show no emotion over the death of his parents and is keen to use his mothers’ corpse to survive.  The children, Bobby and Brenda only become active in the fight after their parents are killed showing them to be oppressed by the family unit.

Muir (2002, p.480) argues ‘the Carters are shown to be completely dysfunctional and deluded.’  This is in evidence clearly for the majority of the film until the Carter family finally realise the danger they are in and fight back.  Brenda, the young girl in the family, is most guilty of being delusional as she asks ‘wonder how far it is to the nearest cheeseburger?’ and when asked where they are going, she responds ‘California, L.A., movie stars and fancy cars’.  Again when the heat begins to get to the family, Brenda declares ‘we’re going to be French fries’ and ‘I hate it out here’.  The other members of the family are almost equally deluded however as they pull out their table and chairs to eat, and pine for ‘showers, gin and tonics, a beach’.  The old man even warns them to ‘forget that foolishness’ when they tell him where they are headed.  The family are shown as dysfunctional as they argue continually, the father is clearly sick of his wife, the bother teases his sister and they fail to communicate at necessary times.  For example when Bobby finds the dead dog, he neglects to tell anyone else because of his pride and therefore the rest of the family are not alerted to the danger they are in.

Rodowick (1984, p.322) states in the essay ‘The Enemy Within: The Economy of Violence in The Hills Have Eyes’ that ‘an “ideology” of violence is an essential, if repressed, component in the figuration of the bourgeois family’.  Craven continues the theme he explored in his earlier film The Last House on the Left (1972) and represents the bourgeois family as being capable of violence just as much as the ‘monster’ family.  There is a reference in the film to the killing of a poodle by the family’s dog in Miami and the family find this amusing, demonstrating their repressed view of violence.  When one of the family swears, the mother chastises her, saying ‘you never used language like that before you moved to N.Y.C.’ suggesting the parents are out of touch with their children, who are in turn out of touch with their parent’s traditional and religious moral codes.   Even the old man who is revealed to be the father of Jupiter, the patriarch of the ‘monster’ family, is capable of brutal violence as he split his own son’s face open with a tire-iron.

Muir (2002, p.480) concludes that ‘there is really no difference between civilized people who supposedly have morals and the wild sociopaths who roam the hills.  Both will fight, and both will kill, to protect the family.  Once technology and society are removed from the equation, the Carters and the Jupiter family are identical.’  The film suggests that anyone can make a family, all Jupiter had to do was ‘steal a whore’ and then raise his wild children in the desert.  Both families show their animal instincts in protecting themselves.  The father of the baby that the ‘monster’ family steals, ends up consumed with rage and savagely beats to death one of the members of the other family with a rock.  This closes the film, as the screen turns red to indicate that violence is a repressed part of all people.  The ‘monster’ family are simply trying to survive because they are starving and therefore have to use violence to get food.  The Carter family use violence for survival also.  Jupiter blames the Carter family because they ‘come out here and stick your life in my face’ as he tells them.  Their life is the life he has been denied.

Similarly in Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Muir (2002, p.338) states ‘the family possesses values different from most, but the Sawyers also reveal universal elements of family life’ suggesting that the monstrous family are not so different to ‘normality’ and the bourgeois family. The Sawyers are a slaughterhouse family of three brothers, a half-dead father and a dead, but preserved mother. They sit down to eat meals at the table together, the older brother chastises his younger sibling for destroying the door of the family home, and the younger members of the family look after their elderly parents. Leatherface even dons a mask with make-up on it to signify he is taking the traditional female role of preparing the food.

Wood (1978, p.31) comments that ‘The absence of Woman (conceived of as a civilizing, humanizing influence) deprives the family of its social sense and social meaning while leaving its strength of primitive loyalties largely untouched.’ The Mother of the family is dead upstairs in a chair, next to the half-dead father in a grim parody of monogamous family values, much like the opening shot of the two corpses in the graveyard. The younger members of the family still look up to their father despite his incapacity to even knock someone over the head with a hammer, his old job that he was supposedly the best at. Sally enters this world but does not become the object of sexual desire, but rather the next meal. She even begs ‘I’ll do anything you want’, signifying she is prepared to give up her status as a modern independent woman in the face of these cannibals who have no interest in her sexually.

The teenagers refer to them as a ‘whole family of Draculas’ at the beginning of the film, but are linked to the slaughterhouse family mainly through the character of Franklin. ‘Both Franklin and Leatherface are obese, unwholesome, dependent children within their families.’ (Williams, 1996, p.192) Leatherface is seen as childlike as he seems to get in a panic after having killed two of the teenagers and sits down with his head in his hands after looking out of the window of the house for any more intruders. Franklin is also linked to the hitchhiker, Leatherface’s brother, as they both spit in a similar way at the other teenagers and even become ‘blood brothers’ when the hitchhiker uses the same knife to cut his hand and then Franklin’s arm. The teenager’s ridicule Franklin, saying at one point, ‘you’re crazier than he was’ and Franklin’s sister Sally is clearly sick of having Franklin depend on her, in the same way the oldest brother of the Sawyer family, the Cook, is sick of his younger siblings as demonstrated when he shouts at Leatherface for breaking the door.

Williams (1996, p.185) calls the slaughterhouse family ‘a dark embodiment of the American dream, losers within American ideology’. The father of the family and Leatherface have been put out of work by mechanisation, namely the air gun which allows cattle to be killed in a quicker and more efficient way. This is noted by the hitchhiker who comments that, ‘the new way puts people out of jobs’. Franklin on the other hand takes great pleasure in detailing how the cows used to be killed by a hammer and they would be ‘squealing and freaking out’ until the workers ‘bash ‘em three or four times’, a fate that nearly befalls his sister Sally. This shows Franklin’s lack of compassion for both animals and other people, a distinction the slaughterhouse family also fail to make.

Wood’s argument in ‘Return of the Repressed’ is that ‘The family […] only carry to its logical conclusion the basic […] tenet of capitalism, that people have the right to live off other people.’ (Wood, 1978, p.32) Like the Jupiter family in Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the slaughterhouse family are cannibals because they cannot afford to eat anything else. The furniture in their home is made from the bones of all sorts of bodies, as one character points out ‘they don’t throw nothing away’. A Marxist reading of the film suggests that the slaughterhouse family are ‘material embodiments of capitalist repression’ (Williams, 1996, p.193); they do not take part in the culture of waste favoured by the bourgeois class. They have been forced out of work by capitalism and therefore have brought the skills they have home with them to keep them alive. They survive by any means necessary, and look out for their individual family’s needs only.

The films can both be read from a Marxist perspective, which reveals them to be about the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, ‘the bourgeois obsession with cleanliness… and bourgeois sexual repression itself, find their inverse reflections in the myths of working-class squalor and sexuality’ (Wood, 1984, p.169). In The Hills Have Eyes (1977) the family dress in Native American style dress, including bones for jewellery, and live in a cave. The mother is a prostitute and the son, a rapist. They are seen to be the opposite of the bourgeois family and their tidy, comfortable motor home until the violent tendencies of the bourgeoisie are unleashed. The family of the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) are similarly unclean and unrepressed with a filthy house full of old bones, chicken feathers, and furniture made from bones.

The families in both Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) are what Wood (1984, p.171) suggests is the focus of all horror, ‘the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses’. The repression of the violence in the bourgeois family is the main theme of Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), showing that this ‘normal’ family are capable of becoming the ‘monsters’ themselves. The ‘monster’ families in both films are oppressed by bourgeois society and capitalism in general. They are seen as ‘dangerous or obsolete to society’ (Sharrett, 1984, p.270) and are therefore kept in the margins of society, a rural farmhouse or the hills of the desert, where they can continue to practice their now useless skills in order to survive. These families display the qualities that bourgeois society have tried to repress, sexual and violent impulses that lead to rape, murder and cannibalism.

What makes these two films so interesting is that ‘the threat retains a human form, however demented; the berserk butchers even make up a nuclear family’ (Dickstein, 1984, p.66). Both films have a progressive view of the family in that they represent the bourgeois families as repressed and capable of becoming monsters themselves. They also show the ‘monstrous’ families as being products of capitalism and therefore a repressed result of bourgeois society.

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