The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
“We were all pretty disillusioned and angry. The 1960s really didn't turn out the way we thought they would.”--George A. Romero
More than any other film of its era, Tobe Hooper's gritty and absolutely terrifying The Texas Chain Saw Massacre emerges definitively as the blinding, infuriating cry of despair from young filmmakers of the counterculture revolution who saw the decade that they believed would issue in a new era of peace, love, and reason instead reach its climax with a bloody, unpopular war, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the Manson family's brutal murders and trial. The world had changed, and the American Dream was no longer one that told traditional tales of old-fashioned good will and prosperity. The narrative was completely rewriting itself, and so were the conventions of artistic expression.
It is no coincidence that the renaissance of American cinema arguably took place in the 1970s, which saw the rise of now-legendary giants Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Paul Schrader. These men were all born of the hippy era, and their earliest films reflected disenchantment with the way their revolution failed. Among these then-mavericks were a very specific group of low-budget visionaries who accurately recognized that the horror canvas was an appropriate platform to communicate the rage and the war-fatigue that informed the entire country. Veteran genre regulars like Roman Polanski and Terence Fisher might have brilliantly foretold the coming wave of nihilistic distrust and paranoia that was destroying America's innocence with their respective Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), but these important transitional films still relied on conventional horror motifs and imagery (utilized with superior skill) to introduce their more pessimistic outlooks. It had to be the young, devastated voices unique to a failed social uprising to reflect upon the stakes that they had raised and eventually lost.
With George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1969), the public was blindsided with this new kind of horror film. A stark, documentary-style time capsule of a failed American Dream literally feasting on itself, it was the beginning of a new era of American horror that blurred the traditional ideas of good vs. evil once and for all. In Romero's film, the rules were instantly changed: Anyone could become a zombie, as even a child is shown feasting ravenously on her parents' remains; there are no heroes and no happy endings, and the violence burst forth with unremitting and unforgiving power. Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972) took this idea a step farther by removing supernatural creatures from the equation altogether and revealing the indistinguishable nature of violence committed either in the name of evil or justified revenge. If Romero's film was a meditation on the instability of Vietnam and the uphill battle to end the Jim Crow laws (the film was released in the wake of the King murder), Craven explored the type of sociopathic hatred toward the establishment that informed the Manson Cult and used this observation as a springboard to show how easily anyone can slip into this sort of madness under the right (or wrong?) conditions.
Still, these films were foremost social commentaries, utilizing allegory to signpost the changing American template. On the other hand, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) positions itself not as a morality tale, but as a series of brutal images that manifests the trauma poisoning the country's perceived ethical foundations. Hooper removes any metaphorical implications of his violence and instead tells a straight-up, almost superficial, tale of raw terror and violence. The film does not ask us to understand or interpret the carnage that we witness; it is merely a snapshot of repressed acerbity, a bloodthirsty assault that aims to provide catharsis for an era in which the films of Romero and Craven were necessary at all.
Hooper’s film, as most are now aware by the dreadful franchise and rip-offs that followed, concerns five teenagers on a road trip being captured, tortured, systematically murdered, and eaten by a family of cannibals. By now, even those who have never seen this picture are familiar with the image of the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), the portly, mute member of the cannibal family who wears the skin of his victims as masks to cover an unseen deformity. Like Freddy and Jason, Leatherface has had his own series of films, all increasingly mediocre exercises in fake-looking violence that could replace their iconic antagonist with any of the other, indistinguishable villains that ripped him off in the first place. But even in light of the many motifs that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre introduced—it singlehandedly issued in the “slasher” era that reached its intolerable boiling point with the Ebert-labeled “Dead Teenager Movies” of the 80s—it is uncanny how fresh and terrifying Hooper's vision remains: how, when Leatherface first appears to crush a teen's head with a mallet, we remain completely rattled by his unexpected entrance. Thirty-five years later, Leatherface here still manages to transcend the conventions that he created.
Hooper achieves his film's power by utilizing a grainy, home-video quality that saturates the proceedings with a visual sense that most Western viewers would have found all too familiar from the evening news. There is no musical soundtrack, no recognizable actors, and no pauses for the dark humor that even found its way into Romero and Craven's films with their sardonic depictions of incompetent law enforcement and unhelpful newscasters. It is said, remember, that the Vietnam War was lost by the television. Propaganda films and newsreels provided a filter for the American public during World War II, when the true horrors of battle could be cushioned by the appeal that it was a “righteous war” and that Allied troops were fighting the forces of evil. Such propaganda was also utilized by politicians for Vietnam with terms like “Communist takeover” and “the domino effect,” but television told a much different story—senseless killing, suffering soldiers, and an unforeseeable ending brutalized American's idealist philosophies about justified killing. The infallibility of our moral dominance over the rest of the world had been challenged, and Hooper adjusts his narrative to fit this emerging rewrite. He thus provides no warning signs for scenes of violence, no musical cues or ominous hints of an incoming attack with shadows lurking in the background: The teenagers walk into the frame, Leatherface suddenly strikes, and the violence ends just as quickly as it began, leaving the audience scrambling to make sense of what they have just seen. It is the horror genre replicating the same visual language that lost the war—no more and no less, but it is certainly more than enough.
The infamous opening sequence—grainy footage of a rotting corpse propped up in a macabre fashion in a cemetery while a voice-over newscaster provides a list of brutal crimes being committed in the area—works to set the stage for Hooper's naturalistic approach to horror by jolting us instantly with unnervingly grotesque images, as does the initial narration and scroll informing us (falsely) that the movie we are about to watch is true. This is a lie—the film is vaguely based on the exploits of serial killer Ed Gein, but only as a rough template—but for viewers used to bloody images from Vietnam and Cambodia, this disclaimer isn't difficult to believe, and it certainly doesn’t mark the first time the audience has been lied to by the media. In a way, these moments work in a similar fashion to Werner Herzog's haunting opening of his 1979 Nosferatu remake, which set its tone with a pre-credit sequence featuring mummified corpses forever trapped in terrified, contorted screams. There is nothing in the subsequent narratives of either film connecting these grotesque images to what happens next; they serve to merely craft tone and mood. And do they ever.
Come to think of it, much of the first act of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre plays like a modern variation of Bram Stoker's Dracula—one of the teenagers even likens a member of the cannibal family to the Count. The film opens, after the pre-credit corpse, with the five teens driving through a bleak Texas country road, where they make a few stops and encounter locals who first welcome them to their country; the same locals quickly warn the teens to stay away once they learn that the young travelers are looking for an old house that once belonged to two of the teens’ family. Like Jonathan Harker's journey to Dracula's castle, these moments serve to subtly cross over from civilization into a mystical land of nightmares and unease, and they also provide glimpses into a simpler culture that seems foreign to both the hippy teens and the viewers. Of course, it actually was a foreign land in Stoker's novel; in Hooper's film, this place literally exists within the comfortable, seemingly safe confines of the United States. If Transylvania is ravaged by vampires, Hooper shows us a sun-baked terrain laid waste by mills and slaughter houses shutting down, leaving locals unemployed, bitter, and drinking themselves into oblivion. It is a very different form of vampirism, and Hooper unflinchingly shows us this domestic devastation through the eyes of naive teenagers who will quickly learn how far over their heads they really are when they find themselves trapped in an elaborate house full of inbred savages who make their cannibalistic intentions very unambiguous. At least Dracula was kind enough to be subtle and just a little bit seductive.
Once parked at what they believe is their destination, the teens split up and wander from their own ruined familial shack into another seemingly abandoned house just up the hill. This is, of course, the cannibal family's home, which the teens enter one at a time in typical haunted-house fashion. This house increasingly displays, a little bit more with each of the character's investigations, a bizarre and inexplicable setting in which human bones and skin serve as both decorations and furniture, and the floor is littered with plucked chicken feathers. Here, Hooper superbly fulfills and transcends the grand horror tradition of superior set design, subverting the clichés of a Gothic mansion by revealing a unique, poverty-level American variation. Much of what we know of this demented family remains unspoken in the narrative, and the sort of, erm, renovating in which they engaged fills in those gaps and paves the way for the final act, when the sole surviving teen, Sally (Marilyn Burns), is trapped at the dinner table with Leatherface and his family; she finds herself tied to a chair made of human remains while they eat sausage made of her friends and torment her with promises that make absolutely clear that she is next on the menu. This scene could have lent itself to parody (as it certainly did in Hooper's dreadful sequel), as it allows this deranged family to gripe over how to best kill their guest with the passive disinterest that a regular family might utilize to argue about who gets the last helping of peas; however, Hooper overcomes the temptation to cross over into the comic by masterfully presenting the family’s dinner conversation from Sally's point of view, splicing long shots of the cannibals at the table with increasingly tight and frantic close-ups of first her face, then her bloodshot, terrified eyes. By the time the ordeal is over, it doesn’t matter what the family is talking about, or how; we've already long past the boiling point—Hooper's kettle has been hissing frantically and shows no signs of letting up, and it is everything we can do not to cover our ears and flee the room ourselves.
While watching Sally’s ultimate escape and flight, we do not find ourselves rooting for her to altogether survive this film—we've definitely no hope that she could be so fortunate; rather, Hooper gruelingly shoots her plight so that we are just happy to see her get from point A to point B—she runs from the dining room, bolts down the stairs, leaps through a window, is chased down the driveway... the process works like scientists studying a rat trapped in a maze and taking notes on which way it might go next. The film ends in mid-sentence, with an angry Leatherface dancing on a road with his chainsaw in hand, and the effect is akin to slamming into a brick wall—Hooper provides all momentum, only to assault us with an abrasively sudden finale in which Sally might get a reprieve but not necessarily a clean getaway. Whether or not we accept that she will stay alive is up to how we want to interpret a film responding to ostensibly endless footage of a grueling war that, well into the year that this film was made, seemed to only have started even as it wound to a frenzied close. If Hooper is unforgiving, it is because he has accurately adjusted horror conventions to fit the times in which he lived.
It cannot be stressed enough how much The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a response to the Vietnam War. From its misleading insistence that it is based on true events to its depiction of bitter and unemployed veterans rotting away in the Texas heat, it is a film saturated in war-fatigue. It is unspoken but implied that one of the teens, the wheelchair-bound Franklin (Paul Partain), was not always an invalid, and his alienation from the rest of the group suggests a mental disconnect that is grounded in a far-more disturbing psychology than his physical handicap. Obviously, this is not the first war zone he has encountered. That he relates the most to a demented hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) whom the teens pick up in the film's first act (he ends up being a member of Leatherface's family) reveals additional layers to the picture's psychosis—this Hitchhiker is clearly a veteran like so many of the other locals encountered by the teens, and he has returned from the battlefield to unemployment, disenchantment, and no clear outlet to deal with his rage, except to antagonize his own invalid, subservient brother Leatherface, and to become the family's hunter who personally selects the targets of their next slaughter. Thus is the way that monsters are created. It is certainly no coincidence that a vastly inferior remake of this film led the charge of new horror films to emerge after the Iraq War began: Hooper has created with this nightmare a template to manifest our collective, ashamed demons.
With The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper instantly placed himself on the short list of first-class masters of horror; it is a film so brutal, so subversively stylized, and so manic in its carnage, that even all these years after its 1974 release, it has only been copied without being topped—not least of all by Hooper himself, whose uneven career was never able to realize the full promise displayed here (though his immediate follow-up, 1977’s Eaten Alive, comes the closest; his only other genuine genre hit, 1982’s Poltergeist, has always been considered yes-work for producer Steven Spielberg’s vision, although I personally see Hooper’s sly touches all over it). Still, for this picture alone, Hooper deserves his rank in the contemporary pantheon of innovate horror pioneers, alongside George A. Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven. He has fashioned the purest document of his age, a film that angrily and boldly shrugs off any clear-cut, allegorical reading beyond its utterly sublime, Kantian example of the purposive without purpose. Sometimes, metaphors won’t do to convey the frenzy of a country still nursing its wounds from its darkest hour—only providing images to physically embody the frenzy itself seems sufficient.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course: The hippy revolution was expected to win the day, but its movement instead issued in seemingly meaningless violence and destruction. Above all else, above all other films of its era, Hooper captures the frustration born of this social contradiction by documenting brutality from the point of view of an idealist as flabbergasted at this violence as his viewers. To point: Sandwiched in between all the horrors of this film, there is a haunting little scene in which Leatherface, shaken and terrified, finally succumbs to a panic attack after three teens have wandered individually into his house. He has already killed them, one at a time, as punishment for their incursion. Leatherface is clearly mentally handicapped, utterly afraid, and he doesn’t understand why people keep invading his home; he frantically looks out the window, paces back and forth, and clutches his mallet—are more coming, and will he have to kill them too? He is completely incapable of comprehending the weight of his actions, even though he alone is responsible for them. There's only one question in his troubled eyes, which he knows he cannot answer: When will all of this madness end?
Okay: Maybe there’s a ghost of a metaphor in there after all.
Marilyn Burns: Sally
Edwin Neal: Hitchhiker
Gunnar Hansen: Leatherface
Jim Siedow: Old Man
A Vortex production. Written by Tobe Hooper and Kim Heinkel. Directed by Hooper. Rated R, for graphic violence and terror. Running time: 88 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: October 1, 1974.