Like Music with Film: Puerto Muerto with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Courtney Kennedy
11/5/2005 11:54:43 AM

College movie nights are not unheard of. In fact, they’ve become a regular happening in America’s institutions of higher learning. America’s youth gather together to relieve midterm stress in meeting halls and dorm rooms across college land, crowded around blue televisions screens to watch your usual midnight movie cult favorites, an essential side dish to any college education. You read Atlas Shrugged; you watch Animal House with your friends. It’s part of growing up. Some colleges have taken this common occurrence and made it a program unto itself, something accessible not only by members of its film society, but to anyone who happens to drop by for a schedule.

The University of Chicago has a rather well-known rotation of this sort of fare: a diverse menu of art films, new releases, and rock and roll classics. St. Louis’s Webster University has started to do the same thing, with a great degree of success. Directors like John Waters (Hairspray, Pecker) stay afterwards for discussions and workshops. Student work shows alongside major releases. If you’re tired of the usual darkened movie theater, Webster screens cult films at one of our local breweries – the Schafly Tap Room on Manchester. It had managed to turn something that could have become banal or inaccessible into something rather special, and decidedly uncommon in the college movie night category.

One of the more amazing turns of events to occur recently at Webster’s film series is the appearance of live musical accompaniment. Alt Rockers Yo La Tengo played along to hypnotically beautiful French documentaries on aquatic life. Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth and his solo project showed up in Webster’s Winifred Moore Auditorium to delight us with ambient noise and a very art house visual show by deceased filmmaker, Stan Brakhage. And on October 29th, St. Louis natives, Puerto Muerto appeared to play their all-original and very new ‘lost’ soundtrack to one of America’s most famous horror movies – Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low-budget, B-movie based loosely on the life of Ed Gein. He was a Texan, and a mass murderer whose life story not only inspired this movie, but Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as well. It is a film that walks a fine line between the truly bizarre and the totally insane. It disturbs its viewer, not only with its bloody representations of murder and cannibalism, but with its off-kilter cinematography, and a soundtrack featuring almost nothing you could call music. The viewer hears only tweaked screams, cymbal crashes, and sounds like fingernails on chalkboards in a million haunted classrooms interspersed with the predictable dialogue of a group of teenagers in search of a swimming hole.

It is this minimal amount of discernable music that inspired the band Puerto Muerto to create something really spectacular – a soundtrack, simple songs inspired by Latin ballads and country tunes that make the horrific images displayed before you something more than just a horror flick. They force the audience to enter into the character’s space, and the drama of their music mixed with the terribly macabre imagery causes the viewer to consider one of the most terrifying films in history, not just as a horror movie or a cult favorite, but as a work of art, to be dissected and discussed and appreciated for what it really is.

So with Puerto Muerto’s help, the sad story of Sally, her brother Francis, and their friends, becomes almost operatic in its tragedy. While it was hard to discern the lyrics to some of the pieces performed due to the loudness of some moments in the sound of the projected film, what came across later needed no explanation. The married duo of Christina Meyer and Tim Kelley has composed songs that evoke more mood than a dark side of the moon synch up. The songs provide a counterpoint, a bit of relief from the garish imagery, a peek into the melancholy instead of pure fear. They are short, sweet, and simple. They are everything from the score of a spaghetti western to a love ballad performed at a burlesque show. We hear a woman’s voice wonder aloud, “what have I done wrong?” as dear Sally is chased mercilessly through a field of corner by a chainsaw wielding maniac. A ballad to a lover named Josephine floats dreamily in the air as one of our hapless teenage stars wanders innocently into the home of Leatherface himself, only to meet his doom. In this dissonance, there lies a bit of poetry, I think. The out of step atmosphere is finally complete.

The Songs of Muerto County only add a completely new angle to Tobe Hooper’s creation – one that digs the desperation each character must feel out from underneath layers of bizarre blood lust and spreads it all over the screen. While it would be hard to match up each song to the scenes in the movie it is intended to accentuate, Puerto Muerto has created a DVD which does just that – the only problem is, they aren’t sure they will ever be able to release it. Until that time, persons starving for a brilliant juxtaposition between art, music, and atmosphere will have to wait until traveling road shows such as the one at Webster that Saturday evening grace their own sleepy towns.

Pictured: Puerto Muerto, from their website


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