The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)


*. This is another one of those movies that has had so much said about it and is so well known that commentary is almost pointless. And the fact that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre should be such a movie is itself remarkable. I mean, we’re not talking about Citizen Kane or Vertigo here.
*. The title is sometimes spelled “Chainsaw,” as it is in all of the other instalments and the 2003 remake, but this is not correct. Or rather, it is correct, but it’s not the way it’s spelled in the title here. Original working titles included Leatherface, Saturn in Retrograde, and Head Cheese. What they ended up with, however, was perfect.
*. Tobe Hooper improbably wanted a PG(!) rating. Instead he initially got an X, which he cut to an R (the cut material was later restored).
*. The titles appear against shots of solar flares. What do they mean? Hooper: “a lot of scholars get excited by this.” Well, OK, but is their excitement grounded in anything? I can only point to the matter of astrology that is raised later, and see it as implying that the stars are not in their proper alignment (recall that discarded title, Saturn in Retrograde). Though any connection between what the backwoods family of cannibals are up to and the movement of celestial bodies is hard to see except as an example of cosmic irony.
*. John Laroquette did the narration. Hooper wanted him to try and sound like Orson Welles. Make of that what you will.


*. For what it’s worth, the opening scroll never says that this is a “true story,” but just an “account” of “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history.” That crime was the Ed Gein case, which was also the basis for Psycho (which tells you something about how loose an “account” this is). A movie that stuck closer to the Gein story was the cheap but effective Canadian production Deranged, which was released a few months earlier. It’s interesting to watch Deranged alongside Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as some of their most notable elements are very similar, without there being any question of influence, at least that I’m aware of.
*. Just to stick with that opening scroll for a second, here’s how it gets started: “The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin.” Why Sally and Franklin “in particular”? Sally survived! Jerry, Kirk, and Pam all die tragic and pretty horrible deaths.


*. No, it’s not as gory as you might think. But contrary to a lot of what is said today it is pretty explicit and they do show a fair bit of blood. That we just imagine all the blood and gore has become a cliché now, but it’s not entirely true. The meathook scene is as explicit as you’d expect, and Franklin’s demise sprays out lots of blood. I’d also add that despite the low budget most of the gore is very well handled. Leatherface carving into his own leg, for example, or the Hitchhiker being run over.
*. Tobe Hooper. What an odd, unfulfilled career. Showed real talent in this film, and I rather liked Lifeforce. Poltergeist was a silly mess, but I don’t know whose fault that was. Still, nothing that came after this movie lived up to its initial promise.
*. I say Hooper shows real talent here because I think it’s a movie that’s really quite well directed and not just a happy accident. Let’s take a couple of examples.


*. (1) the short dolly shot of Pam getting up from the swing and walking toward the house. On the DVD commentary track this is referred to as “the best shot in the film,” so it’s worth analyzing. In the first place, there’s the sugar: this is an ass-cam shot, an echo of the earlier shot of the two girls standing in front of the Coke machine. We see a shot like this and it’s disarming in its frank vulgarity, typical of bargain-basement exploitation films of the ’60s. But it was a difficult shot technically, passing under the swing and keeping the proportions right, and it does a lot of work. Note the way it highlights Pam’s bare back, which foreshadows her imminent hanging on the meathook (the meathooks, I also think, are hinted at in the railway-tie swing). And finally there’s the way the house seems to swallow her up, swelling over top of her as she approaches it.
*. (2) The scene where Jerry enters the kitchen and discovers Pam in the freezer before being cut down by Leatherface. How many cuts are there in thirty seconds of film here? In all the excitement I kind of lost count. They’re so fast I even lost count on a re-watch. They also come at all different angles and perspectives, adding to the effect of making us feel Jerry’s confusion, as well as disorienting us completely so that we can’t be sure what direction a threat is going to come from. We can’t get settled in any one point of view.
*. I could give other examples, but I think this is enough to make the point that Hooper knew what he was doing. And given how much of a natural sense he had for such things it makes his subsequent career all the harder to understand.


*. A family of men without women. But does this mean they are repressed? I don’t think so, and I have trouble with any Freudian reading of the film. The women are obvious sexual attractions: young, good-looking, bra-less, and (as noted above) shot from a low angle so we can leer at all the booty on display. But they aren’t promiscuous and (because of this) fated to die, as would later become a slasher staple. In addition, there’s little sense that the cannibal family want to eat them in any kind of a sexual way. The women are just meat, like the men. When Sally says at the end that she’ll “do anything” if they’ll let her go it gets her absolutely nowhere. They’re just not interested. None of the family members seems remotely sexual. The closest thing to sexual innuendo I can see is grampa sucking on Sally’s finger and the cook poking Sally with the broom handle.
*. If it isn’t a movie with a gender angle to play up, it also strikes me as pretty much apolitical. Is it a vegetarian manifesto? Please. Jason Zinoman’s excellent survey of modern horror, Shock Value, mentions some of the other ways it has been politicized, including Hooper’s own remark that it was inspired by Watergate. This strikes me as another non-starter. Yes, the family are the usual back-roads hillbillies, and we hear that at least one of them has been laid off from the slaughterhouse. As Zinoman puts it, “they are casualties of technological innovation. They are the country folk left behind in a modern world.” But really: so what? I think it’s just as significant that they’re a weirdly arts-and-crafts family, but I don’t think that has much of a political message.
*. Another possible political angle is that of the anti-hippie backlash. The van is a groovy set of wheels, and Pam is reading New Age astrology. The documentary included with the DVD begins by pointing out that this was a post-Manson movie, set after the end of the summer of love. And yet, as I just noted, the family are sort of like hippies themselves. They live on a kind of commune and are into the arts. They make their own food and design their own clothes and furniture. Perhaps you are what you eat.


*. So I don’t buy the political readings. Just like I don’t see Dracula as a metaphor for the Depression. That some see a political message even in the fact that the gas station is out of gas (which was happening a lot at the time) strikes me as stretching for a meaning that is available, but mostly speculative and unnecessary.
*. It is a landmark work in modern American horror, with a place in that tradition only rivalled by a handful of other films (Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, and The Exorcist). What strikes me the most about it, even today, is how disturbing a movie it remains.


*. When I say disturbing I’m mainly talking about its frank sadism. Not just the unaffected, matter-of-fact way the people are presented as meat (Danny Peary: “Too realistic for its own good”), but the unaffected, matter-of-fact way that the demented family enjoy inflicting pain and suffering. God knows we’ve gone further, much further, down the road of a cinema of cruelty since 1974, but I can think of few films that present such cruelty as something the perpetrators find fun.
*. Yes, Leatherface is a somewhat sympathetic case who only kills those he considers to be a threat to the house or the family, but the gas station owner is really creepy. I’ve always found the most disturbing scene in the film to be the one where he chuckles and grins as he pokes Sally with the broomstick in the cab of his truck. That’s even worse than the business where they try and get Gramps to kill her with the hammer.


*. Getting back to Leatherface as a sympathetic figure, it’s interesting to note his cultural “cooling” over time. In this movie he’s alternatively feminine and comic, lumbering through the woods like a bear and acting like an old woman or “big baby” (Hooper) bustling about the house. He seems to be a retarded, pathetic figure, and we feel for him after he kills Jerry and when his brother beats him around the kitchen. There’s something pathetic about him. But in later versions of the story he would become a darker, more dangerous figure, more in keeping with his bad-ass nickname.
*. It’s interesting how often amazing results arise from the very restraints to production enforced by a low budget. Some directors seem to thrive under such circumstances (Mario Bava is a name I think of here). Robert Burns, the art director, said he didn’t want the movie to look like it was designed by an art director, and the movie is so much better for it. The crude, cheap quality of the clothes and the house make them seem more realistic, more threatening, less glossy. And things like the pale scalp of Jim Siedow (the Old Man, or Cook) is a nice grunge touch that you can’t really duplicate in a big budget production. Nor can you duplicate the very real discomfort of the actors in what was, by all accounts, a painful and grueling shoot. Hardship is its own horror.
*. Sound plays a role throughout, beginning with the irritating whine of the cameras in the opening graveyard montage. Some of the most memorable things about the movie are sounds: the steel door slamming shut, Leatherface squealing like a pig, the fat dripping into the fire, the humming of the house’s generator, Franklin blowing raspberries. Meanwhile, the score strikes me as just a sort of racket, but it fits in much the same way as the discordant editing. As Peary points out, this is a movie that isn’t trying to build suspense but to shock. The music has to have the same end.


*. Poor Franklin. He’s so awful that negative criticism has engendered its own revisionism, with lots of people now saying he’s not so bad. To hell with that. It’s a treat to see him die. When before this had we seen such a dislikeable disabled or handicapped character in a movie? Aside from the stereotyped deformed villain or madman, that is.
*. I love the anger with which Leatherface slams the metal sliding door shut. It’s such am emphatic period on the scene. Was it being consciously echoed at the end of the first Saw movie? It’s too bad though that we lost the shot of the grate on the floor just inside the sliding door in that scene. It would have been nice to keep that, with all its implications.
*. This is a great horror movie, and like a lot of great horror movies it has its comic moments as well. I’m just not sure how intentional all of these were. The Old Man raging at what Leatherface did to the front door seems scripted, and it’s very funny. But the physical humour of Leatherface (jumping away from Sally when he’s chasing her in the house, or overrunning her outside) was accidental.


*. I wonder what happened to the truck driver at the end. Maybe he’s still running. Leatherface should have gone after him right away. He seems to run even slower than Sally and looks like he has lots of good eating on him.
*. Leatherface’s dance is the perfect send off. It’s odd, but is prefigured by the zany dance of the hitchhiker as he is left behind by the van. Note that the hitchhiker also blows raspberries in that scene.
*. Stephen King: “There are films which skate right up to the border where ‘art’ ceases to exist in any form and exploitation begins, and these films are often the field’s most striking successes. The Texas Chainsaw [sic] Massacre is one of these.” I wonder if this is a judgment that lasts, or if it just means that Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a watershed film, marking a new border. I kind of think it’s more than that, and I think King does too. In part because it’s just as shocking and disturbing today as it was when it was released. Just compare it to the lame 2003 remake.
*. I’ve said that the success of this movie isn’t just a happy accident. There’s too much talent involved, and I would single out for praise the contributions of Hooper, Burns, and Siedow (really the only good actor in the cast). That said, it was, as all great movies are, an accident to some degree. Saturn was in retrograde. Demons were raised. They still haven’t been laid to rest.


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