The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Oct 18, 2016
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Director: Tobe Hooper
Summary: One of the films that reset the horror genre, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an unrelenting, realistic voyage into a nightmare.
Night of the Living Dead said that horror films could be serious. Texas Chain Saw Massacre agreed, but rather than use horror as a metaphorical staging area to talk about other issues, TCSM seriously addressed society’s fascination with violence, making the horror itself the subject of criticism. Director Tobe Hooper felt that the government and news sources lied to the public about many horrors, from the politics behind Watergate to the financial fallout of the oil crisis to the atrocities of the Vietnam War, while showing graphic coverage of car accidents and other, smaller horrors. This cultural hypocrisy – using personal, physical violence to sell while ignoring political, military, and financial violence - forms the thematic core of the film.
And, so, TCSM starts with a lie – “The film you are about to see is true.” While some elements of the Leatherface character were based on serial killer Ed Gein, no aspect of the film is connected to any real-life crime. The claim, however, stirred up publicity for the film – which was the partial intent. The remainder was to engage the audience immediately.
After this opening, the film is a montage of now familiar horror tropes. A group of friends are traveling together; Kirk and Pam – an amorous couple, Jerry – a noble friend, Sally – a well-intentioned girl, and the annoying-but-sympathetic brother, Franklin – who, in this case, is a paraplegic. A creepy hitchhiker commits a relatively minor act of violence against them. Kirk and Pam die while trying to find privacy. Jerry dies trying to find his friends. Franklin dies due to an error by Sally, who survives. The killer is a masked, silent monster wielding weapons you could find around your house. These ideas, now familiar to the point of parody, were groundbreaking at the time. No one in the movie deserved to die, and unlike in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the violence was personal. Leatherface is not an unthinking member of the living dead, or a supernatural monster, but a human being committing violence against other human beings on a level that had not been seen before, performed with hammers, meathooks, switchblades, and the eponymous chainsaw.
Adding to the realism of the film was the grueling schedule the crew maintained, filming seven days a week for up to eighteen hours a day. By the time the climactic scenes were filmed the actors were suffering from exhaustion exacerbated by a marathon shoot that lasted over twenty-four hours. When the Sally is running from Leatherface, her look of trauma is real – a tube that was supposed to feed fake blood to her hand had failed, and in order to get the necessary shot her palm was cut with a real knife. In addition, at that point, the actor playing Leatherface was actually chasing her out of his own sleep-deprived delirium, believing that catching her would bring the filming for the day to an end.
Through it all Hooper’s themes lay beneath the surface. The Sawyer family – Leatherface’s brothers and grandfather – are out-of-work slaughterhouse workers, displaced by increased industrialization and automation in their industry. Franklin displays an obsessive fascination with violence while being unable to participate in it directly. The Hitchhiker carries a camera with him everywhere, recording violence which he tries to sell, and responds with violence when the youth refuse to buy a picture from him.
Amazingly, Hooper believed the film would get a PG rating due to the overall lack of blood or graphic violence – which, for its reputation, the film contains very little of. Instead, TCSM first received an X rating which was reduced to an R after extensive editing. Even then, many theaters refused to screen the film due to the shocking content. This, in turn, increased audience interest and guaranteed full houses where the film was being shown – in many ways showing that Hooper’s initial premise concerning the cultural hypocrisy on violence and atrocity was completely valid.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has spawned four sequels, a remake, a sequel to the remake, and a reimagined sequel to the original. Horror icon Bill Moseley’s career was launched by the first sequel, in which he played Leatherface’s brother Chop Top. It inspired the slasher movies of the late 1970s and early 80s – neither Halloween nor Friday the 13th would exist without TCSM. None, however, matched the visceral power of the original. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre looks unpolished to the modern eye – even in the era of “found footage” horror (which, somehow, is always well-lit, but I digress) – but it remains essential viewing for any fan of the genre.