Is there anything better than sneaking some beer into a movie and getting after it? But what if your theater actually served beer? Say 40 rotating taps-worth, which you could order to your seat during screenings?
Such is the case at Alamo Drafthouse, a wonderful theater chain with 22 locations across the country, one by my apartment in Brooklyn. With Halloween horror movie season in full effect, I thought it was time to revisit an old childhood classic... this time, aided by beer.
We hear John Larroquette’s voice intoning, “The film you are about to see is an account of the tragedy…” The first shot is of a badly-decomposing body. The next, a dead armadillo on the dusty highway. Then, a handicap man urinating into a coffee can on the side of the road. It’s jarring, it’s unsettling, it’s fucking disgusting.
There might not be a worse movie to pound beers during than Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Schindler’s List would surely be more disrespectful, a kids-only screening of some Pixar flick more inappropriate, but neither would be as bad for your belly. This grotesque, ultra-realistic 1974 classic is nothing if not nauseating. Alas, when you’re watching a horror movie late at night, beers are always in order.
That plot point is pointless & hardly even worth remembering for later – it’s just the reason this story starts.”
SingleCut 19-33 Queens Lagrrr!
As someone who has watched this movie plenty of times, I know a “single cut” is about to arrive soon. This brewery named after a style of guitar is today most famous for their juicy IPAs – who isn’t? – but they originally started as a lager brewery. Revisiting their early flagship for the first time in years, I was impressed by what they claim is a Czech/German pilsner hybrid. Spicy and lemony on the nose, a malty body, yet crisp and clean on the finish, it’s masterfully made and a good way to limber up.
Even when horror isn’t happening in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you can’t help but feel ill at ease. It’s so non-slick it almost feels like a snuff film; certainly scarier than the glossy horror franchises that come out these days.
The actors aren’t pretty people, either, so much so that they don’t even seem like actors. There’s Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain) – yes, it seems possible that actor is truly a paraplegic. They travel in a Mystery Machine-like van with their friends Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn), and Jerry (Allen Danziger), who looks like a young David Letterman.
We have no idea where they came from, how they became friends, even really what they’re doing together on this fateful day. Are they in college? Hippies on the lam? Who knows. They have set off from god-knows-where to go to the middle-of-nowhere to check in on the gravesite of the Hardestys’ grandfather, to see if it too was vandalized by the person mentioned in Larroquette’s opening voiceover. But that plot point is pointless and hardly even worth remembering for later – it’s just the reason this story starts.
As many critics said at the time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has no point. “It’s also without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose,” wrote Roger Ebert at the time, in a pan of the film that is actually quite incisive in its praise.
We move from scene to scene, location to location, simply so people can be massacred by that titular chainsaw and other items from the Black & Decker catalog. And, if that was considered a weakness for most critics when the film first came out, it certainly wasn’t for fans. It made over ten times its budget at the box office and redefined the horror genre almost immediately. Today, the total lack of a textbook Robert McKee three-act structure makes the film even more haunting.
In fact, when it comes to drinking at the movies, I will always prefer a movie that is visceral over one intellectual. Try pounding a few beers while following the pure confusion that is a David Lynch work, the quick repartee of a Billy Wilder comedy, or the insane amount of characters in a Robert Altman film. No, for me, drinking at the movies is for movies that don’t make you think—but only make you feel. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Singin’ in the Rain, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Pound a few beers, tilt your head back at the screen, and get further intoxicated by the awesome sights and sounds.
On screen, we see our first beer, and by my reckoning, only beer of the entire movie, when the characters finally arrive at the graveyard. There, a drunk lays supine in the grass drinking a bottle of Pearl, an iconically shitty beer with Texas roots, long lionized in country music (“He drank Pearl in a can, Jack Daniels black…”)
Rushing Duck Dad Breath
You ain’t finding Pearl in NYC and while I’d like to drink all Texas beers during the movie – maybe, say, Live Oak’s killer Pilz or Saint Arnold’s Fancy Lawnmower Beer – my Alamo only serves New York State brews. The tasting notes for this Helles lager are described thusly: “Reminds you of what your dad drank when you were a kid. Pairs well with yelling at umpires at little league games.”
Or, perhaps yelling at the screen for characters to watch behind them for God’s sake! The German-style beer is as drinkable as a macro “lite” beer, but with more underlying flavor. Quite floral on the nose, with a grassy flavor profile – it’s like chewing on some hay.
We won’t ever learn who Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) is or what his motivations are. Here, evil just arrives and the characters have to deal with it. Constantly. It’s enough to make you even wonder why they decided to go to this Texas shithole in the first place. We don’t really get to know these characters, these victims, however. They aren’t particularly likeable. We don’t even have much sympathy for the paralyzed Franklin, who is kind of an ass. They also aren’t even celebrities we have a built-in rapport with, which many directors have used as a shortcut for our affections. You look these actors up on IMDB, wondering, “Did anything ever happen to any of them?” No, nothing ever did. In a beautiful way they exist strictly in the prison of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre universe. Tormented by Leatherface forever.
Our lead characters pick up a crazy hitchhiker, they go to a gas station, they eventually end up at the old, deserted Hardesty house. You can almost smell the filth wafting through the screen. It doesn’t look like phony Hollywood set decoration; it looks like a truly abandoned house in desperate need of a wrecking ball. Looking for gas, Kirk will go to a nearby house where he finds a rotted tooth on the ground that hardly looks like a mere prop. He nevertheless goes into the house.
Enter the first appearance of Leatherface... and one of his tools of the trade.
Industrial Arts Tools of the Trade
Jeff O’Neill is a master of his craft, having previously plied his trade at Ithaca and Peekskill Brewing. He’s been at his own Hudson Valley outfit, Industrial Arts, for just about a year. Tools of the Trade is one of his flagships beers, a bright, grapefruity pale ale. It’s refreshing and drinkable like a session beer, but with the heft and body of an IPA. O’Neill gets an impressive amount of flavor into the mere 4.8% alcohol by volume offering.
What I really like about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is how brief it is. That seems like faint praise, but it’s not. These two-and-a-half hour horror movies of today are so relentless you grow bored by their repetitiveness. You get desensitized by the violence. (“Oh gee, another decapitation. Wow.”) There’s a reason no one watches porn for hours on end; torture porn or otherwise. You get what you came for and then leave. At a mere eighty-three minutes, this movie feels like real life going off the rails at the drop of a hat. It starts, it immediately begins building toward its climax, and just when you can’t take it any long, it’s over.
The final portion of the film becomes even more of a nightmare, with Sally the only “good” character left, sprinting for her life. Leatherface is a helluva lot speeder than you’d think. As she looks for help, I’m not sure if there’s any dialogue for twenty minutes aside from her guttural screams, Hooper’s own experimental score screeching behind her. We are with her the whole way, wanting to escape Leatherface ourselves. If we’ve never cared about Sally for this entire movie, the mere fact that Leatherface is chasing her makes us finally sympathize with this one character in the movie.
Eventually, Sally will escape after having jumped through her second window of the evening. After she’s run down the highway looking for help, stopping one trucker, then jumping into the bed of a second truck, just out of Leatherface’s grasp...the terror will finally be over. Thankfully, there’s no needless post-mortem, no knowledge revealed of what actually happens after this, no epilogue taking place in the present day, not even any hints at a sequel, there are just the end credits. For the first time in an hour or so, there’s actually silence. It’s only then you realize you’ve just listened to non-stop screaming this whole time.
I’m unable to move as the credits roll, and finally escape the trance when the house lights come up. I’ll walk home through Brooklyn that night a little buzzed, constantly turning my back to see if anyone is chasing me with a chainsaw. No, that’s just a couple on a date. No, that’s just a guy selling churros. But I keep turning around. The movie has made it reflexive. Once home safely, I’ll realize I’m going to need a few more beers if I’m going to ever get to sleep.
If viewed while drinking beers - A+
If viewed sober - B