The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: when you’re wrong, you’re wrong

, | Movie reviews

I’ve spent decades denigrating the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre as artless trash.  I’m not sure when I first saw it.  Probably in college, sometime around 1990.  That was also the last time I saw it.  Since then, I’ve seen Tobe Hooper’s other movies.  I’ve rewatched Invaders from Mars, Lifeforce, Eaten Alive, Funhouse, and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel in the last few years, and they’re all varying degrees of horrible (the conventional wisdom about Poltergeist, which is still great, is that Spielberg actually directed it).  It’s been my assertion all along that Tobe Hooper is a terrible director, and although there might be something raw and effective in his first movie, it’s artless trash.  

I was wrong.  So egregiously wrong.

I just watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre again.  My overwhelming takeaway is that it’s of a piece with Australian apocalyptic horror from the 70s and 80s, like Wake in Fright, Mad Max, Razorback, The Last Wave, The Long Weekend, Incident at Raven’s Gate, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, all movies that had a profound influence on me growing up.  It furthermore has very little in common with the American movies it’s often associated with, like Halloween, Last House on the Left, and Friday the 13th.  On its face, it’s just a movie about teenagers getting killed.  But there’s something else at work here.  It’s not trash.  And it’s definitely not artless.  

Unlike most trashy horror movies, Texas Chain Saw Massacre opens with canny worldbuilding, which is partly why it reminds me of Australia’s apocalypse movies.  The opening shots are the hitchhiker’s latest grave robbery.  The flash of his photographs and then a harrowing close-up of his handiwork.  This segues into a radio news broadcast, and here’s where Hooper and Kim Henkel, his co-writer, introduce you to their version of 1973.  It’s almost like an alternate history.  At the top of the hour, there’s nothing in the news about Watergate, the ongoing war in Vietnam after the US withdrawal, or the crises in the Middle East that will lead to an oil shortage.

Instead, the news is about civilization falling apart.  Refineries along the Gulf Coast are burning out of control, a cholera epidemic is spreading in San Francisco, and war is breaking out in South America’s oil rich countries.  On a smaller scale, 29 people have been buried under a collapsed building in Atlanta.  There are unexplained suicides in Houston, murder and mutilation in Indiana, and a baby chained in an attic in Dallas.

Is all of this because things are also horribly wrong on a cosmic scale?  The radio broadcast is played over footage of the sun, dark, splotchy, angry, throwing flares at the earth.  The first dialogue in the movie is Pam’s astrological explanation that the universe is taking a malevolent tilt.  She will later discover Franklin’s attack was anticipated in his horoscope, which pointed out, “The events in the world are not doing much either to cheer one up.”  The central tenet of cosmic horror is that the universe is indifferent to you; but the universe in Texas Chain Saw Massacre is actually “malefic,” as Pam reads.  It’s as if the very sun hates the earth.  It seethes at youth, greenery, frolicking.  It wants to beat everything into listlessness.  It will even do its part after dark, though moonlight.  When Sally takes refuge in the gas station after dark, the radio says it’s 96 degrees.  Those are 96 Texas degrees.

This is the context in which four teenagers will be murdered.  Although the opening crawl luridly claims it will be “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history”, it’s just another day in the world Hooper and Henkel have established.  Remember that they’re making this movie right after the US has thrown in the towel in Vietnam, 58,000 American lives later (two of the actors actually served in Vietnam).  If ever young people as muder fodder was part of the zeitgeist, it was the year of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  This murder isn’t just an isolated incident.  It’s the way the world — the very cosmos — works.

The almost frontier setting also reminds me of Australian apocalypses with their sere orange under vast blue skies.  There’s no gas at the gas station.  The proprietor isn’t sure when the transport will bring more.  When Kirk and Pam discover the windmill house, there’s a generator running.  Why is there a generator running?  Are there power shortages?  The proprietor will later make a great show of turning off the lights at the gas station — one of many bits of smart camerawork in Texas Chain Saw Massacre — and commenting on the price of electricity.  Why is he using gas, which is apparently in short supply, to power his home?  The Texas electrical grid will fail spectacularly in the winter of 2020, but I get the sense it’s already on precarious footing in this movie’s version of 1973.

There’s also the production design. Any one of these shots would feel right at home in the Australian outback of Wake in Fright, Mad Max, Incident at Raven’s Gate, or Razorback, which might say more about Texas than Australia.  This:

And this:

And this:

Not to mention shots like this:

And this:

I’ve spent over thirty years calling this “artless trash”?  My real wake-up moment was seeing for the first time the famous tracking shot of Pam walking up to the house.  I say “seeing for the first time”, because although I’d seen it before, I’d obviously never really seen it.  Not with the context to appreciate it.  But it was the precise moment when I realized how utterly wrong I’ve been.  It was the precise moment I came around on this movie.  And it was the precise moment I realized the real tragedy of Tobe Hooper’s career is that he should have been another Peter Weir or George Miller.

The tracking shot is a perfect example of how much of Texas Chain Saw Massacre is carefully set up and then executed.  For instance, what gets Pam to the swing in the first place?  Kirk finds a tooth — presumably human because I can’t imagine cows get fillings — under his shoe and plays an innocent trick on Pam, dropping it into her hand.  The way Hooper shoots Kirk dropping the tooth into Pam’s hand and how she reacts is brilliant.  It’s deliberately disorienting, carrying the viewer from Kirk’s prankishness to Pam’s disgust in one quick edit. This is the precise opposite of artless.  It’s part of the careful set up, to separate the two of them.  This drives Pam off the front porch and to the swing out in the yard, where she won’t be able to see what’s about to happen to Kirk.  This also gets Kirk to lay his towel over the porch railing, which will later lure Jerry into the house.

Part of what’s remarkable about all this careful set-up and execution is how it establishes that these first three murders are strictly reactions.  Leatherface — I’m reluctant to call him this, because it’s a dumb name and the movie only mentions it once, and even then you can barely make it out — isn’t a killer on the prowl.  He certainly isn’t the indestructible and omniscient monster in a typical slasher movie, magically aware of where his victims will run, lurking just outside the frame for a convenient jump scare.  He’s just a freak in his own house, out of work now that cattle are killed with bolt guns instead of hammers, minding his own business.  He’s as confused as his victims as they wander in, one by one.  After a third teenager wanders under his hammer, he freaks out.  He has no idea what’s going on.  He seems to think he’s under siege.  Sure, he started it by murdering Kirk when they surprised each other in the doorway.  But would that have happened if his brother had been there watching him, like he was supposed to do?  The younger brother would have answered the door, sold them the gasoline or not, and then everyone would have gone their own way.  If only the younger brother had gotten home in time instead of getting himself kicked out of the van that was giving him a ride.  It’s very nearly a comedy of errors except for the horror part.  Horror of errors.

And here’s where I want to point out what I think is a deeply misguided takeaway about Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  The family living in the windmill house are not murderers when the movie opens.  They’re certainly not cannibals.  There’s no evidence that they’re inbred.  The whole skeezy genre of inbred cannibal hillbillies has been wrongly laid at the feet of this movie, which is about no such thing.  The family who lives in the windmill house are mostly just weird.  Okay, sure, one of them robs graves and uses his ill-gotten gains for some sort of ritualistic nonsense, which seems to include building furniture and putting totems in nearby abandoned houses.  

But I see no textual evidence of previous murders.  And I certainly see no evidence that they’re eating people.  When Sally takes shelter in the gas station, before she realizes the proprietor is part of the family, she sees the meat being cooked and hears the news on the radio about a grave robber stealing pieces of dead bodies.  The audience might be invited to consider a connection.  But it’s sheer inference, without evidence.  There are no shots of human limbs being cooked.  If Tobe Hooper wanted to establish that this was a family of career cannibals — which he will retroactively do when he makes a sequel in 1986 — there was no reason for him to be coy about it.  He shows us plenty of human remains crafted into furniture.  He could have easily shown us human remains in the kitchen where Kirk and Pam are killed.  He could have shown us human remains in the food Sally will be served at the dinner table.  There could have been some dialogue to that effect.

But there is nothing of the sort in Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  This is not a movie about cannibals, and therefore it’s not a movie about a family with a habit of eating, much less killing, people.  It’s about a family who used to work at a slaughterhouse who tries to cover for their mentally disabled son’s kneejerk murders.  It’s more Of Mice and Men than Sweeney Todd.  And, sure, they tolerate the youngest son’s grave robberies and macabre arts and crafts.  Sure, they would rather murder five people than answer for one murder.  Sure, they’re sadistic.

In fact, one of the cruelest moments is after the gas station proprietor has tied Sally into a bag to drive her back to the windmill house.  As he reassures her, he persistently jabs her with the broken broomstick handle he used to subdue her.  After all the over-the-top brutality, this sadistic little man who looks like a caricature of Johnny Carson takes secret delight in viciously poking a young woman with a stick while she can’t see him do it.  Later, when he has to confront the reality of looking at her, he will soothe her and make sure she understands that he can’t abide killing.  He knows enough to be ashamed of his sadism.  He’s a fascinating character who will be reduced to a burlesque ringmaster trying to shout over Bill Moseley’s frantic overacting in the 1986 sequel.  But I maintain that at this point, they’re not cannibals, they haven’t murdered anyone before today, and there’s no reason to assume they’re inbred.

On a similar note, this isn’t a movie about demonizing “the other.”  It doesn’t play on our natural fear of strangers.  It doesn’t play to a feeling of superiority over the uneducated and impoverished.  So many Texas Chain Saw Massacre wanna-bes are about young people driving into some backwoods, encountering people who aren’t like them, and being murdered for it.  But the young people in this van are basically locals.  They live close enough for a day trip to the family graveyard.  Sally and Franklin’s grandfather sold his cattle to the slaughterhouse where Leatherface and his grandfather worked.  Sally talks about having been here when she was eight and having her own room.  The men who will torment her and kill her friends were literally their neighbors.  In fact, she seems to be roughly the same age as the hitchhiker.  It’s not unlikely that she and Franklin met him and maybe even played together as children.  So many of the movies inspired by Texas Chain Saw Massacre brought into play their own baggage about strangers, cannibals, inbreeding, and Southerners.

But let’s back up to Pam sitting on the swing, because I also think a lot of movies supposedly inspired by Texas Chainsaw Massacre brought into play their own baggage about sexuality.  When Pam and Kirk arrive at the windmill house, Hooper carefully positions the camera with the swing in the center.  We know there’s something wrong with the world, with the local graveyard, with the hitchhiker.  Now we’ve come to this house, perfectly framed in the shot, with the swing in the foreground even more perfectly framed.  The movie has drilled down to this one specific location and with Kirk’s death, it drills down even more specifically to whatever is behind that metal door.  From the malevolent cosmos to this doorway concealing some random freak who just killed Kirk with a hammer.  The music, which is really just a reverberating throb, tells us this is where it all comes to a point.

Meanwhile, there’s a young woman sitting outside on the porch swing.  At this point, she can walk back to her friends and presumably live a long life.  Instead, she stands up and slowly walks to the house.  The thirty second tracking shot is a classic example of Hitchcock’s maxim about the difference between surprise and suspense.  Surprise is when a bomb explodes.  Or when Kirk is suddenly murdered in the doorway.  Suspense is when two characters are talking and the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table.  Now we know there’s something horrific behind that metal door.  As Pam gets up from the swing and walks towards the house, Hooper slides the camera low along the ground, snake-like, under the swing and angled up — you can see the careers of Sam Raimi and Barry Sonnenfeld born in this shot — perfectly framing the house, the swing, the sky, the gentle breeze, Pam’s sun-bronzed body, her naked back, the red short shorts.  

I don’t think it’s lascivious.  It’s worse.  For all the sexuality on display in Texas Chain Saw Massacre — Pam’s short shorts, Sally’s unfettered nipples — the characters aren’t treated by anyone in the movie as sexual objects.  In fact, the van doesn’t feel like a pair of couples.  If you pay attention, the obvious implication is that Pam is with Kirk, Sally is with Jerry, and Franklin is the fifth wheel.  But it’s only an implication.  No one kisses or fondles anyone.  No one has a sex scene.  The only display of affection is Kirk and Pam holding hands, but even that could be him helping her down the stairs or pulling her along to go swimming.  Like its approach to gore — there isn’t much, relative to the horror movies that will imitate Texas Chain Saw Massacre — the sexuality is left to the audience to account for.  If Sally’s nipples catch your eye, well, who could blame you?  But that’s not the point of her character.  No one in the movie will objectify her sexually.  That’s for the audience to do.  In 1973, this kind of sexuality was an expression of women’s liberation.  It will morph into exploitation in later movies, but I would argue that Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t there yet.

Later slasher films will incorporate a formula in which teenagers are punished for their sexuality or drug use.  An implied cause-and-effect in which the joys of youth lead to horrifically violent deaths.  Which is odd, but at least it’s a cause and effect, a moral code, an orderly universe.  If she hadn’t taken her top off, if they hadn’t gotten drunk, if everyone had stayed home to do homework instead of going to the prom/vacation/summer camp, then all would be well.  But there’s no moral cause and effect in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, because there’s no sex or partying.  No one so much as sips a beer.  They’re not even on vacation.  They’re checking up on Sally and Franklin’s grandfather’s grave.

So that thirty-second tracking shot with Pam’s ass as the centerpiece is all about context.  A transition from light to dark, from perfectly ordered to chaotic, from alive to meat.  The swing, the sky, the house, the lugubrious purr of the generator, her slow and uncertain approach as she moves toward the house.  The sky is shut out.  The shadow of the house swallows her.  It’s at once lovely, tragic, and horrific.  You want sexuality?  Here.  It’s on you.  No one in the movie cares.

That she’s hung from a meat hook has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with meat.  Her sexuality is ignored.  What Sally will go through isn’t at all about objectifying her sexually.  It’s about objectifying her as meat.  No one comments on her being young and pretty, no one leers at her body, no one threatens to rape her.  When the hitchhiker brings his camera and then his voodoo ritual to bear, he focuses on the least attractive character in the van.  Texas Chain Saw Massacre might be one of the least rapey horror movies I’ve ever seen.

There’s also the matter of gore.  Texas Chain Saw Massacre has very little explicit gore, and Hooper has said he was hoping for a PG rating.  You won’t see any of the elaborate special effects that characterize later horror films.  You won’t see anything as gruesome as Night of the Living Dead’s flesh-eating scenes that shocked audiences six years earlier.  There’s no shortage of brutality, to be sure.  But the gore is almost entirely in your imagination.  There’s some fake blood, and one half-hearted special effect when Leatherface drops the chainsaw on his own leg.  But that’s it.  Unlike the later imitators, Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t celebrate grievous personal injury.  Its violence is starkly dispassionate, relying on sound effects and twitching limbs.  One sign the 1986 sequel will go off the rails is goremeister Tom Savini’s name in the opening credits.

Another sign that the 1986 sequel will go off the rails is the title.  The 1974 movie is called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  You can even tell from John Larroquette’s reading of the opening crawl that “chain saw” is two words.  Back then, a chain saw was something lumberjacks would use.  It hadn’t yet become a staple of horror.  Killers still used knives and guns instead of power tools.  It wasn’t a fixture in zombie movies and apocalypses.  It wasn’t something stuck on the front of your gun in Gears of War.  Your Space Marine in Warhammer didn’t have one.  It was just a different kind of saw to cut wood.  When Leatherface picks it up to dismember Kirk’s body, he seems to do so out of frustration, throwing away a barbecue fork.  Like the movie, he seems to be discovering it for the first time.

But the 1986 sequel is called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The words chain and saw have been jammed together, shorthand for an implement of murder and violence.  The tool became the real star.  In fact, the sequel has Dennis Hopper as the good guy using a whole set of chainsaws to demolish the killers’ lair.  Chainsaws had become so commonplace in horror that they got their own neologism.  What had been subversive became pop culture.

I don’t know if it was intentional, but the original movie plays like a deconstruction of popular media about teenagers, specifically Scooby Doo.  It was as if Archie and the gang had been ripped from the pages of orderly colorful panels, raised on post-World War II Eisenhower optimism, and dropped into the grainy film stock of 70s cinema brutality.  A plucky band of teenage stereotypes driving around in a van solving macabre mysteries.  The smart girl, the pretty girl, the jock, the cool guy, the slacker.  Sally is called to her family home because someone has been monkeying around in the graveyard where her grandfather is buried.  Everyone to the Mystery Machine!  Scooby — I mean, Franklin — you can come, too!  Tobe Hooper and Kim Kenkel put the cast of Scooby Doo, at that point a popular Saturday morning cartoon, into the same world as Vietnam, where kids like these were thrown into a meat grinder.  They will die violently.  The one survivor will be driven mad.  They won’t unmask the villain.

In the internal fiction of the movie, presumably Sally is rescued and brought to the authorities, covered in blood and hysterical.  The police will investigate and arrest the proprietor of the gas station, his two sons, and his elderly father.  The murders and grave robberies will be easily solved.  There’s no implication that this family is guilty of additional murders, either before or after the movie’s time frame.  In fact, the opening crawl clearly designates the events of the movie as singular:

“The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarres crimes in the annals of American history.”

The bizarre crime being the murders of Kirk, Pam, Jerry, and Franklin, as well as the kidnapping of Sally.  With a bit of grave robbery on the side.  Later filmmakers, including Tobe Hooper himself in three short years with a dismal little movie called Eaten Alive, will learn all the wrong lessons from Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  From carefully deconstructing a specific set of teenagers to wholesale slaughter for the fun of it.  From worldbuilding to lazy genre conventions.  From incidental bra-lessness to deliberately exploitative sexuality.  Leatherface will go from hanging Pam on a meathook in 1974 because he just doesn’t care to getting turned on while he fucks his chainsaw between Caroline Williams’ wet spread legs in 1986.  From his frenzied frustrated ecstasy at the end of the first movie to a cute little head-waggling jig throughout the sequel.  From a family covering for their disabled son’s murderous panic to cunning hillbilly career cannibals.  From Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  In 1974, imitators had a long way to fall.  They will almost never miss an opportunity. The artless trash isn’t The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; it’s the films of people who misunderstood it. I’m glad to no longer be among them.