THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper

Director: Tobe Hooper
Producer: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Stars: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hanson, Paul A. Partain

. . . had they lived very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day . . .

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)

In 1974, there was no slasher. No Michael Myers, no Jason Voorhees, and certainly no Freddy Krueger. There was no monster-plagued suburbia, no broken closet doors. No “Do you like scary movies?” None of the telltale sh sh k k, the quiet orchestral reckoning that signals Jason’s approach. However, when October of 1974 rolled around, there was an onscreen monster who finally slayed more than just one victim. There was desert. And there was, emblazoned on billboards across real-life America, another question: “Who will survive . . . and what will be left of them?”

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) begins in Muerto County, Texas in the August of 1973: five young adults drive through the desolation. Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) Hardesty have decided, on this plain August afternoon, to drive out to visit their grandfather’s grave and poke around the old family estate. They’ve enlisted their friends, Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail), as well as Sally’s beau, Jerry (Allen Danziger), to join them, and the gang readily takes advantage of the opportunity for adventure, smoking joint after joint, pondering astrology, and making surprisingly interesting conversation. (Although, perhaps my surprise reveals a bias of my own . . . a giant fan of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise, I’m well-accustomed to the shallow talk of Camp Crystal Lake’s counselors.) As they drive, discussing fate and the stars—as, of course, Pam pages through her astrology magazine—the news blares over the radio. Trouble is afoot.

SPOILER ALERT: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPHS DESCRIBE SPECIFIC SCENES IN THE FILM AND REVEALS THE ULTIMATE FATE OF THE CHARACTERS.

wilderness & desolation

As the gang progresses through the Texan wilderness, they find, buried in the desolation of the desert they cross and, eventually, the site of the overgrown, decrepit Hardesty house, ample evidence of the grotesque that hides in the rogue, ungoverned territory they navigate. From a visual perspective, their discoveries are earthy and abject, real and utterly disgusting. The film’s opening sequence—a series of quick cuts between fragmented shots of the body parts of what appear to be human corpses, prefiguring the implied gore to come—sets us up for body horror of this nature. In a scene that will likely cause an empathetic gut-wrench even in the spectator, Pam stumbles into a room in the Sawyer house packed with chickens screaming in distress, discarded feathers and bones littered everywhere. One can only imagine the smell. She vomits. The body is everywhere—in her, outside her, in the chickens and their scattered remains.

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 1

A fragmented shot from the opening sequence: a hand decays. (Photo courtesy of Tobe Hooper and Daniel Pearl.)

blue collar creeps

The Sawyer family, of course, is the true source of horror, beyond even the hellhole where they live, which retains the same hopeless, claustrophobic air that the lairs of the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein (purportedly the inspiration for the villains in TEXAS CHAIN SAW, as in Hitchcock’s PSYCHO [1960]) must have once shared. On an obvious level, they’re deranged: cannibals who preserve the corpse of their grandmother and wear human skin (again, like Gein).

TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 3

“Hit her! Hit that bitch!” (The Sawyer men [minus Old Man Sawyer, who is busy in the kitchen as the resident chef] with Sally [Marilyn Burns].) (Photo courtesy of Tobe Hooper and Daniel Pearl.)

On a subtler level, the Sawyer family is a representation of a societal fear: the lower class, rural blue-collar folk who deal with all of the shit that wealthy urbanites dare not even approach—represented in this case by the family’s history in meat production at the local slaughterhouse. “My family’s always been in meat,” the unnamed hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who the gang picks up (and is later revealed to be one of the latest generation of the Sawyer men) proclaims with a toothy smile. His admission is nearly as repulsive as the photographs he pulls from a pocket to show the unlucky passengers in the Hardesty van. The Hardestys and friends are singularly grossed out, though the implied irony is that they all likely eat meat, but, like so many of us, would rather forget the truth of its production.

TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 2

The hitchhiker pulls (from a bag that may or may not be constructed of skin) photographs of the kills his kin have made at the slaughterhouse–forcing the van’s reluctant occupants to face what they consume, just as the hitchhiker is facing what he and his family consume (young travelers). (Photo courtesy of Tobe Hooper and Daniel Pearl.)

Against our expectations, the (clearly unbalanced) hitchhiker is the voice of reason here, and behind all the horror is a subtle acknowledgement of class difference, a lapse between Franklin’s (and the rest of the gang’s) perception of what goes on and the reality that the hitchhiker articulates:

 FRANKLIN: Hey, man, you ever go in that “slaughter room” . . . the place where they shoot cattle in the head with that big air gun?

HITCHHIKER: Oh, that gun’s no good. [. . .] The old way—with a sledge!—you see, that way’s better. They die better that way.

FRANKLIN: Well, how come? I thought the gun was better.

HITCHHIKER: Oh, no. With the new way, people were put out of jobs.

The hitchhiker’s economic understanding of meat production, seemingly cold, is a stark depiction of class difference, particularly in Texas, where farmers and oil barons historically mingled. Still, despite the distinction between their worldviews, Franklin and the hitchhiker are undeniably much the same: young, male Americans, who should be in the prime of their lives but are instead presented as profoundly limited (the hitchhiker in his ignorance and poverty, Franklin in his wheelchair, in which he stumbles and falls frequently). This similarity may be more frightening to viewers: as Wheeler Winston Dixon, author of A History of Horror, writes:

“The monsters in [THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE] are all too human people who look like us, act like us, and for all intents and purposes could be us, bereft of hope or conscience or any sense of respect for human life” (122).

The “urban” (probably suburban) inhabitants of the Hardesty van, looking on in clear distaste as the hitchhiker, splattered with blood, offers bloody photographs. (Left from right: Franklin, Jerry [Allen Danziger], Pam [Teri McMinn], Sally, and Kirk [William Vail].)

The fear of becoming the hitchhiker—or one of his ilk—is dubbed “urbanoia” by Carol J. Clover in, of course, her classic and much-beloved text based on this very film, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Clover acknowledges that suburbanites venturing into the wild of a rural space is a common start to horror films. She writes:

When we . . . see country families, something is always terribly wrong with them . . . commonly . . . the problem is patriarchy run amok. Such is Old Man Sawyer’s (the hitchhiker and Leatherface’s father) tyranny in the womanless family of the Texas Chain Saw films that his grown sons are cowering boys.

patriarchy, amok

CONTENT WARNING: THIS SECTION ALLUDES TO RAPE AND EXPLORES TO RAPE IN THE FILM.

Indeed, the patriarchy has clearly become monstrous in the case of the Sawyers. After Sally’s capture, she is forced to watch as the boys (the hitchhiker and brother Leatherface [Gunnar Hanson], who is the central executioner) carry what appears to be a wheelchaired corpse down the stairs. What first appears dead is revealed to be alive: Grandpa Sawyer (John Dugan), the wheelchaired figure, is still breathing—barely, mind you, but a faint wheezing can be heard. Still, they idolize him. When they gleefully capture and present Sally—the TEXAS CHAIN SAW’s famous Final Girl—they try to offer Grandpa the honor of beating the shit out of her first. They hand him a hammer. “Get her, Grandpa! Hit her! Hit that bitch!”

TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 3

“Hit her! Hit that bitch!” (The Sawyer men [minus Old Man Sawyer, who is busy in the kitchen as the resident chef] with Sally [Marilyn Burns].) (Photo courtesy of Tobe Hooper and Daniel Pearl.)

The disturbing dynamic of this scene (and a couple more near the film’s end) calls to mind the patriarchy’s greatest horror: rape. The boys and Old Man Sawyer (Jim Siedow), jeering around Grandpa (who, by the way, is too weak to hold a hammer and drops it multiple times before the boys are forced to give up and wield it themselves) give off the uncomfortable aesthetic of gang rape. They crowd around her, grinning hideously. (Clover notes: “The typical country rapist is a toothless or rotten-toothed single man with a four-day growth,” suggesting that the aesthetic of the Sawyer men is meant to imply sexual predation [125].) They force her hand out, cut her finger–and force it, bleeding, into Grandpa’s mouth, where they slide it in and out. The reversal of penetration notwithstanding, it is a straightforward allusion to rape and, to me, the most difficult part of TEXAS CHAIN SAW to watch (which is saying something, considering what this film is).

Earlier, too, when Sally finds Old Man Sawyer in the roadside barbeque joint he runs at his gas station and begs his help (his identity still unbeknownst to her), he hovers an inch before her face, beaming and cupping her face and otherwise petting her—an intimacy that is unwarranted and unsettling. Meat sizzles audibly. Displaced by mechanization in the meat industry, Old Man Sawyer is deranged and desperate: Sally is, in his eyes, a replacement for the animal meat that he and his sons have previously slaughtered and consumed (thus a way of living in two different ways). And so they must consume her.

generic considerations

Even by today’s standards, TEXAS CHAIN SAW is grim. Director Tobe Hooper, hoping to evade an ‘X’ rating, ironically exacerbated the horror of the film by implying most of the violence offscreen. Though not violent gore, as one might expect from the film’s title, the gore is still present and plenty gruesome, and I see TEXAS CHAIN SAW falling here generically more than in the category of “slasher.” In slashers, victims are targeted and stalked. In TEXAS CHAIN SAW, on the other hand, characters accidentally venture into the territory of derangement—Hooper uses their “wrong turn” as a device to deliver the terror we feel.

Sally Hardesty’s eye, tearful, looking left and right, blinking rapidly: much like Heather Donahue’s eyes in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. (Photo courtesy of JD and Orchid’s Domain.)

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is frequently compared to John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) and Sean Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) and, indeed, it did introduce themes and motifs which are later echoed in these two films: the prophetic drunk who warns teens away from evil, the idyll of youth contrasted with the horror of death, ambient crickets and cornfields; however, TEXAS CHAIN SAW seems to me to most powerfully prefigure Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999), which is perhaps surprising given that the latter is more an occult film than a gore flick or even a slasher. BLAIR WITCH PROJECT shares with TEXAS CHAIN SAW its “wrong turn”—the three filmmakers, too, wander into danger blithely, even after being warned (as are the Hardestys and friends) of the risk to their lives—and the increasing hysterics of the characters, as fear warps logic in the thick of this madness. (Sally and Franklin quickly begin to unravel after their friends are picked off one by one, even not knowing the grisly ends they came to.) Certain shots, too, are strikingly similar to those in BLAIR WITCH PROJECT: at the Sawyer house, Franklin finds bones and animal remains hanging in an eerie juxtaposition which hearkens the bundles of teeth and organs that the Blair Witch leaves, the crude stick figures she hangs from trees. During the Sawyers’ prolonged attack on Sally, there is an extreme close-up of one eye that, reddened, darts back and forth as she blinks rapidly. Of course, this shot closely resembles the iconic image of Heather Donahue’s eyes, fearfully swiveling left and right, as she tearfully films her last apology.

TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 4

The bundle of bones that Franklin stumbles upon in the Hardesty estate, which looks uncannily like the bundle of bones and organs that the documentary film crew in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT finds outside their tent after a chilling night in the woods. (Image courtesy of Tobe Hooper and Daniel Pearl.)

legacy

In comparison to HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH, and especially the stylized glitz of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) ten years later, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is powerfully raw. There is a grit, a filth to TEXAS CHAIN SAW that these other contemporaries substantially lack. Its legacy today cannot be understated; it is now one of hundreds of other films made in homage to it. Still, TEXAS CHAIN SAW stands out for its remarkable originality and artful brilliance.

CONTENT WARNINGS:

  • Animal abuse
  • Blood
  • Drug use (marijuana)
  • Gore
  • Self-harm

Gore: ★★★★★

Horror: ★★★★★

Suspense: ★★★★

Terror: ★★★★★

Quality: ★★★★★

Overall: ★★★★★

 

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