The result of a day spent thinking about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
March 27 2020
A huge, hulking figure with a mask made of human skin, tanned like leather, waves a running chainsaw angrily around in the air in the middle of a Texas country road as the sun rises. A young woman named Sally looks back to him from the bed of a speeding sky blue pickup truck; she is covered in blood and laughing maniacally, as though she has been through hell and back, and made it out alive. The friends she came here with, along with her brother, are dead.
It is 1974. The Vietnam War continues, with the US Government continuing to mislead the people about its involvement. There is an oil crisis brought on by an embargo applied for supporting Israel in the October War. News broadcasts tend toward detailed coverage of violent crime, and, locally, has focused on a series of grave robberies resulting in bizarre graveyard corpse artworks. Things are not like how they were in the previous decade, the hope and progress brought by progressive movements has stalled. This is the context in which The Texas Chain Saw Massacre occurs, according to Tobe Hooper (1). There is also the apparent additional inspiration from the real life murderer Ed Gein, who, in the 1950s, fashioned furniture and trophies from human remains of victims and robbed from graves. As global economic and political proclivity trended toward instability, a hegemonic violence-obsessed culture that America has ignored writ-large since its post-colonial “founding” has come to the forefront. The sort of suburban nuclear family that 50s media centered as the American ideal seems like a distant past that never came true, as it is a dream of the wealthy and white imagination, and family dynamics are rarely Leave It To Beaver-perfect.
The young people this film introduces in its first act are not given much to characterize them, save for their hippie-ish dress, implicit trust of strangers, and disregard for the personal boundaries of someone else’s home. Siblings Sally and Franklin feature most prominently of the group, having familial ties to the area, they end up lasting the longest, though Franklin’s paralysis disadvantages him when being chased by a running killer. We see Sally run what feels like miles from the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, only to be captured by his father and taken back to the house, tied to a chair, gagged, and tormented before they try to kill her. The villains get the bulk of the characterization, though it is relegated mostly to the third act, save for the hitchhiker’s introduction as an eerily grinning slaughterhouse worker who relishes the sight of blood and gore, so much so that he’ll inflict it on anyone, even himself. This characterization establishes a sinister atmosphere you can feel will define the rest of the film. Even if you don’t expect the hitchhiker to return after being kicked out of the van, that sinister feeling lingers.
Franklin and Sally’s friends come off as exceedingly naïve. Kirk walks into a foreboding-looking house because the van needs gas and the door opens after repeated knocks. He gets killed with a hammer. His girlfriend Pam goes in after him and discovers a room covered in animal bones and feathers, including a couch made of human bones! The camera panning and cuts around the room are pretty funny here, done as though it was important to show the live chicken in the hanging cage twice! Jerry meets the same fate as Kirk. Night falls, Franklin and Sally go to look for everyone. Sally makes it to the gas station, only to be capture when the film’s priorities seem to shift. As it turns out, The gas station proprietor and the hitchhiker live with Leatherface as a twisted family unit. They keep their grandfather, a greenish corpse-like man who is miraculously alive, in a rocking chair in the attic. They want him to have the kill of this surviving girl they’ve captured. He is far too weak to grasp a hammer, let alone swing it with lethal force. So, Sally escapes, there is one more chase scene with Leatherface, and a semi-truck driver and a passing pickup allow her to make it out alive.
This film is often cited as an early example of the “final girl” trope in horror: the triumph of a girl who exhibits resourcefulness, perseverance or typically masculine strength and makes it to the end of the film to confront and sometimes defeat the killer. Sally as a “final girl” felt pretty inevitable, given her ties to the area and the unfortunate fact that Franklin is disadvantaged in a chase scenario. Does this make the film misogynistic? Perhaps, but it’s hardly the sole issue in this film’s depiction of women. Some low camera angles seem to center female characters’s butts, and a lot more time is spent watching Sally run screaming or being tormented by men than we do getting to know her backstory. More than anyone else, tt is the female characters who endure the most pain and suffering in this movie; Pam is hung on a butcher’s hook, forced to watch her dead boyfriend get chopped up, and Sally gets kidnapped and beaten before they try to kill her. The men die rather quickly by comparison. The family of villains all delight in the torture of this young woman preceding the kill and the butchering of her friends. Another problem with the film is the fact that interviews with the cast reveal some of the violence to be pretty realistic; many sustained injuries from doing multiple takes of these scenes (2). What can be effectively said by Hooper and Henkel about America’s culture of violence while making a film that inflicts real pain on its actors? The film cannot--and does not attempt to--communicate anything effectively about our culture’s violence against women when it occurred during the production.
Texas Chain Saw caused a huge controversy upon release. The original cut got an “X” rating from the MPAA, a slightly trimmed second version received an “R” signifier (3). It was banned in many countries for years. Critics derided it as a senseless gorefest. Still, this movie did incredibly well in the theaters, making back its small budget many times over; faring even better on the home video market (4). Brutal and shocking though it was, even at the time, people really wanted to see this movie. Does it hold up to modern scrutiny? Sort of. It’s an effective and enjoyable horror film, but its subtext does not come through often. However, there lies a clever critique of this culture of violence in what is suggested, and what the viewer imagines may say a lot about their sensitivity to violence. This is where the film’s power comes from: what is not shown on screen.