The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The film that changed American horror forever
Sense of humour10
Score and sound design10
Martyn Conterio | On 03, Sep 2017
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Gunnar Hansen, Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Pertain, Allen Danziger
Like George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie nightmare, Night of the Living Dead, Tobe Hooper’s demented tale of a cannibal family in rural Texas spearheaded a wave of American horror movies reflecting the anxieties and social concerns of the times. It cannot be overestimated what these two low budget indie flicks, made far away from Hollywood, did for the genre.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was shot on 16mm film stock and blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution. The stock and film grain helped provide the grungy, scuzzy, sweaty look of the movie, so crucial to its mood and feel, as if Hooper ordered the lab to bake the negative in the sun, allowing it bleach the celluloid like the human bones used to make the Sawyer family’s macabre furniture. The photo-chemical processing which produced those richly putrid colour tones is married to Daniel Pearl’s sleek, prowling camera movements. The film uses everything from crash-zooms to extreme close-ups of eyeballs, veins throbbing alive in terror; the perfectly choreographed and timed camera movements are equally part of what makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre such an aesthetic tour de force. Even when critics back in 1974 found the film morbid, sickening and morally outrageous, many conceded it was stylish and very well put together.
One of the most famous and celebrated shots is a low-angle dolly manoeuvre. Pam doesn’t realise Kirk has been dispatched by Leatherface (a recreation of cattle meeting the slaughterhouse worker’s hammer) and is sat on a swing in the Sawyer farmhouse front yard. She walks towards the house, the camera tracking her from behind, moving under the swing’s seat, and the building itself seems to grow in dimension, looming over her with incredible menace. The film is dotted throughout with such bravura sequences, showcasing Hooper’s imaginative approach to direction and set-pieces. Other shots, such as doomed Jerry walking down a country lane with the setting sun blazing in front of him, are just extraordinarily pretty. The same goes for the mad finale, where Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) swings his chainsaw in frustration, performing a mad dance as the sun rises, the amber light reflecting in the lens and flaring up, streaks and smears of the coming day imbued with a powerful sense of luck and escape, after Sally Hardesty’s night of horrors.
Hooper’s 1986 sequel was all-out satire and silly comedy, but there is plenty of humour to be found in the original. It’s a humour so bizarre and desert-dry, however, it’s hard to miss on first or even second viewing. One of Hooper’s best gags is when the hippie kids drive to the gas station. Above the door is a sign reading ‘We Slaughter and Barbecue’ (the gas station, it turns out, is owned by the Sawyer family). Another portent of doom is Pam reading from her astrology guide, informing everybody there’s a terrible day ahead with events so crazed “there are moments when you cannot believe what is happening is really true”. And what to make of a shot of a dead armadillo, which clocks in at 17 seconds? Or the chicken in a bird cage and the fact Franklin unknowingly sends Jerry, Pam and Kirk to their deaths? The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is often very funny, but it’s also absolutely terrifying (the sound design and mixing, its clanking score, just as potent as the imagery).
Another unique aspect of the film is the complete lack of sexualised violence. Pam is thrown on a meat hook and into the freezer. Sally is tormented as a guest of honour at the family table, and soon to be chopped up and served for dinner another night. There is definitely phallic symbolism at work with Leatherface and his chainsaw – especially when Kirk is carved up in the kitchen, the way its placed at groin-level, Pam forced to watch and squirm, the hook digging into her back – but the Sawyers do not appear at all interested in Pam or Sally (or the fellas) as sexual opportunities. In horror movies, that is extremely rare. It must be said, too, despite the promise of a good ol’ chainsaw massacre, the instances of flying claret are minimal, and there is little in the way of gore (save for Leatherface’s cut leg, at the very end). It’s the overall power of the experience and the clever editing which makes the viewer believe they’ve seen far more than they actually did.
Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel were inspired by the ghoulish crimes of gravedigger and necrophile Ed Gein, whose mother-fixation famously inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (based on the book by Robert Bloch). Opening with on-screen titles and a statement read out by the narrator (voiced by John Larroquette), informing us the events we’re about to see actually happened, Hooper furthered the sense of unease with his use of sound montage. The film is a symphony of aural dissonance, of industrial droning and eerie noises (the flashbulb screech will haunt you forever). This pioneering soundscape and mixing enveloped the film with the feeling of bad vibes. To add to this, a radio news reporter reads out a series of depressing stories involving everything from grave-robbing to murder. The litany of grim reports was partly inspired by daily broadcasts about the Vietnam War, but also reflecting upon a fractured American society and its tragic propensity for violence. Much has indeed been made in the years since, how The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a coded Nam movie, or specifically a reaction to it, but it’s not entirely true. Hooper admitted he came up with the angle when talking up the picture in interviews, in order to make it sound current and to attract the college crowd.
The film’s sociological and economic backdrop rarely gets a hearing, but its implications are fascinating, when examining the subtext. As the urbanised kids drive through Texas on their tour to seek out the farm where Sally and Franklin spent their summers, the area looks poverty stricken and social malaise has taken grip (the town sheriff at the cemetery is drunk as a skunk). The hitchhiker (Ed Neil) specifically mentions how mechanised slaughter of cattle dwindled the workforce leaving locals unemployed. The working man is always the first to suffer economic upheaval or decline. The gas station is ramshackle and there’s no gas (delivery isn’t until later in the day). It suggests demand isn’t so great, but there’s plenty of barbecue. The Sawyer family’s response to the kids, who keep turning up unannounced at their home, presents a staging for class conflict and rural folks’ retribution. Is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre about the death of the working man? It’s equally valid a reading as the Vietnam death machine allegory or a demonstration of what happens to ordinary folk when confronted by their primal fears. There’s more than one way for Leatherface to skin a victim, as there is more than one way to read into a movie’s subtext. Which ever way you fancy it, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains a masterpiece as important to American movies as Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Once seen, it’s never – ever – forgotten.