The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Godless Universe & A Chainsaw Ballet
“Exploitation films are no different from any other kind of movie. All appeal to some desire or fear that the audience may have. Only because they do it more directly, with perhaps a bit less finesse, than a Hollywood product, they are branded as exploitation.” Mike Quarles, Down and Dirty: exploitation filmmakers and their movies (xiii)
Around the same year that The Last House on the Left was released another young documentary filmmaker was contemplating his own horror film. He got the idea for his film while he was Christmas shopping. He was in the middle of a large crowd of consumers all rushing to get their last minute gifts. He couldn’t make his way down the main isles, so he went down a side isle and found himself in the power tools section. He stared at a display of tools and thought about how easy it would be to clear the people out of his way if he only had a chainsaw. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre completely changed the face of horror. The low budget 16mm film quickly became the forbidden fruit of cinema. With its taglines that read: “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” Everyone’s curiosity was sparked. Hooper received free publicity during a preview of the film, where a riot had started. No one knew what they were about to see. The first showing of the film was a second feature of the night. The first film was a tame rated R film, and then what followed caused people to walk out, vomit, and demand their money back. When the theater owners told them they paid for the first film and not for Chainsaw, fist fights broke out. Police were called to the scene and reporters followed, people were ready to sue. The story of the preview became a part of the film’s promotion. “What is so bad about this movie to cause people to riot?” This was the best reaction a film like Chainsaw could have had.
“The film you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five young people. In particular, Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, 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 events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
John Laroquete’s deep and matter-of-fact tone begins Texas Chainsaw Massacre, telling us what is to follow is a true story. This narration leaves the audience even more curious as to what they are about to witness. As Robin Wood points out in The American Nightmare, “...annihilation is inevitable, humanity is now completely powerless, there is nothing that anyone can do to arrest the process (20).” From the opening narration we know that this film cannot end well, we know that we are about to see the death of five young people. At the end of the film when it is only Sally left, we remember that we were told that all five befell the tragedy, so when Sally finally does escape it is something we wished for but did not expect. To me the film is as close to a nihilistic philosophy that I’ve seen portrayed in cinema. Hooper has a complete disregard for humanity. To others there is an existential element occurring through the film. Vegetarians also hold this film in high regard, because Hooper shows the parallels between humans and animals. Sally’s friends are beaten with a sledgehammer, bled and cooked. Whichever theory works for you is inconsequential; the film shows the utter depravity within humankind. The film began as an impulse that Hooper repressed, the idea to slaughter everyone to get to the checkout line. The Sawyer family acts upon Hooper’s repressed thought. Showing once again that we all have dark desires that are socially unacceptable.
Chainsaw cannot be discussed without Ed Gein, the Wisconsin bred ‘mommas boy’ who wore a skin suit within the comforts of his home. In 1958 Gein’s house of horrors was finally found out, when his nights of digging up the dead became unsatisfactory and he lusted the act of killing. Throughout history the murder of one individual has never been enough to spark the public’s curiosity, but in Gein’s case it wasn’t the act of murder it was what he did after that was so shocking. Like Chainsaw’s room of bone furniture, Gein made sculptures from the corpses he pulled from the cemetery. He sewed together masks of human flesh. He cut into skulls to create bowls, and he ate the flesh of the dead. Gein yearned to have a sex change, so he sewed together a complete female suit. Some say he wanted to become his mother, while others believe he just wanted to be a woman. Either way Gein saw humanity as animals, he would wear their coats and eat the meat of their flesh. Hooper like many other filmmakers became inspired by this misanthropic view on life.
Hooper’s Christmas shopping and news reports from Wisconsin sixteen years ago gave him enough to ideas to write the screenplay - with the help of Kim Henkel. The budget Hooper was able to raise varies in different reports but it averages between $90,000 and $110,000. He found his cast at the University of Austin Texas, including Gunner Hanson. Hanson played Leatherface during the shoot, but ultimately he was an English professor, that also edited a poetry magazine. Hanson had the most difficult role to fulfill; he had to be the implementer of terror. He wielded a live chainsaw while wearing a mask that made it hard for him to see. One mistake could have caused him his life. The other actors had to perform in the Texas sun, which would cause temperatures to rise over a hundred degrees during the day. Their faces aren’t flushed because of makeup, they were all miserable. Edwin Neal who played the hitchhiker had to lie on the pavement for a scene that fried the side of his face. They all had to endure conditions that gave the film its overall effect. During the dinner scene James Siedow who plays the ‘father’ figure of the family, told Hooper that he had another engagement, so they had to film the entire dinner within a day. The shooting of the dinner took 26 hours, no one was able to sleep and it caused each of them to go a little insane. Within the sequence Hooper was using real meat as a prop, which began to rot under the harsh overhead lights. All the actors and Sally played by Marilyn Burns became sick. They ran to the window, threw up, and returned to their places dizzy with their heads throbbing. Without the endurance of the cast and crew and without those conditions the scene may not have been effective as it was. Finally Hooper had his film, a film that no one wanted. All the distributors believed the film to be too intense. Bryanston Pictures a low budget company took on Chainsaw, they didn’t care about content. Bryanston Pictures made a lot of money off of Deep Throat and Andy Warhol’s Dracula; they wanted to see what Chainsaw could do.
The San Francisco preview story got everyone’s attention; people came out in droves to see what was so bad about this film. They saw the reinvention of horror. The film made $20 million in it’s first run, which Hooper hardly saw any of. The sleazy distribution company simply took off with the money. They shut the doors and ran away. To this day Hooper hasn’t seen any of the original profits. A lot of the actors took a differed payment and believed that Hooper was stealing from them, a lawsuit ensued and the truth of the matter was Bryanston simply stole from them all. Since then they have all been repaid and now The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has been recognized in the Museum of Modern Art. Everyone has a critique for Chainsaw; one man expressed his rage toward the film by calling in a bomb threat at the Cannes film festival. He believed the film to be propaganda for fascism. France banned the film for being an incitement to violence, which made other European countries want it more. According to Mike Quarles in his book Down and Dirty, he writes, “...critics sought it out, looking for something to lambaste in their columns. Many of them had their minds changed. They went in expecting to see a crude gore movie and found something that was a nightmare brought to life. This waking nightmare, this dip into total insanity, was by no means crude. It was a perfectly crafted film that achieved its aims 100 percent (108).” With these critics Chainsaw far surpassed its ‘exploitation’ criticisms. Today with the terrible remake of the film there is a whole new generation finding the beauty within Hooper’s universe he created in 1974.
The film takes place on a hot August day of 1973 with five friends heading out to a cemetery. Sally and her wheel chair bound brother Franklin have heard the reports of grave robbing and want to make sure their grandfather’s grave is still intact. Franklin tells the group how their grandfather used to send cattle to the slaughterhouse and how they went about killing them. This becomes a reoccurring theme throughout the film.
Hooper’s opening sequence, after the narration, is a sequence of flashbulbs and shots of skeletons till finally zooming out to show a corpse tied to a monument in a disturbing but artistic way. From these shots we realize that this film will be different than anything we had seen before. John Kenneth Muir in his book Horror Films of the 1970’s writes, “Audiences may flock to see horror films, but they never expect to see truly unpleasant, unappetizing things. We have our lovely hero’s and our hissable villains, our resolution and closure, and the defeat of evil. That is what is expected. Yet Hooper immediately undercuts that sense of decorum, and film structure too (336).” Every decision Hooper made was to show that there is no order within the universe, within the film’s world, and within ours. The first time we see Franklin, he is urinating on the side of the road. A semi-truck passes and Franklin falls in his own waste. Now we realize that anything goes in this film. Hooper was not going to cater to the handicapped, why would he for the rest of the characters. Hooper also characterizes Franklin by being obnoxious, not a true member of the group, just Sally’s brother. Franklin, played by Paul A. Partain, gives us nothing but his physical handicap to sympathize with. Hooper does this with the rest of the characters too; we don’t really care about them. The only thing we do care about is what is going to happen to them, we know it and they don’t. He builds this relationship with the characters around their future demise.
Muir also says, “Hooper takes special pains to accentuate the vastness of the universe at large (336).” The wide-angle shots show the characters to be ants, insignificant against the large blue sky above them. These people mean nothing to the universe, they are but animals. One of the most beautiful shots in the beginning of the film is a long shot of the van traveling through the country. The blue sky filled with white puffy clouds is overbearing; it fills the entire screen except for a little section at the bottom of the screen that shows the highway. The van flies through the country, from this shot they look like ants. This was Hooper’s clever ploy to show from the beginning that his characters are meaningless in the vast world.
There is no order in the world, both the world that Hooper has created and the world in which we the viewer know to be true. Even Hooper’s score to the film reflects this, since the music lacks melody it is sounds mixed together in an almost cacophonous manner. It is a jumbling of ugly sounds to represent the chaos that these characters have to endure. The characters exist in a world where terrible and horrific things can and will happen, just as they do in real life - for no reason. When we are at our most depressed we begin to rationalize the random events within our existence; we give the world our own sense of order. Hooper takes this away and says that nothing separates us from lower life forms. Usually within a film, low angle shots are used to make the characters larger than life. In Chainsaw the low angle shots seem to represent the foreboding sky, or heaven. When these atrocities happen there is no divine intervention, the sky remains unscathed by the horrors that befall us. Muir writes, “high above his oblivious characters stands the vast unknown, which could care less that five teenagers are about to meet their demise (337).” Some say that Tobe Hooper hated the characters in which he created, simply because nothing is glorified about them. Usually in horror films we feel for people that are being brutalized, for instance we know and care about Mari and Phyllis and that is why when we see them die it has more of a powerful impact. William Vail who plays Kirk, the first one to be killed, doesn’t have a glorified death in which he almost gets away but at the last moment is attacked. Instead a metal door slides open and Leatherface plows a sledgehammer into his head, Kirk falls to the ground twitching, and Leatherface hits him again. Kirk is only a victim of a cook; he is just an ingredient in a stew. Kirk is an animal being slaughtered by a cook, nothing more. This film is also different because three of the characters are all killed in the same fashion: they enter a house they have no business in and are murdered by Leatherface. Pam, played by Teri Mcminn, is placed on a meat hook to bleed her. She watches as Kirk is cut apart, something we would see if we walked into a slaughterhouse. This makes Chainsaw a vegetarian anthem. Through Pam’s eyes we see a lovely animal being tortured and chopped up for meat. In a sense we see through the cow’s eyes. Muir says, “we see the world through our eyes, no one else’s we have an ego, the universe revolves around us, but by seeing their fellow man as ingredients for a barbecue, reminds us that our perception isn’t accurate.”
Later when Sally is the guest of honor at a traditional family dinner we realize that the people committing these crimes against humanity are just like us. Despite the family’s strange cannibalistic appetites they sit down and talk about their day, and eat a meal together. This family could be ours. This scene acts as a parallel between our two worlds, we don’t understand them because of their eating habits but we understand them as a symbol of the American family.
Without seeing the film, people protested Chainsaw as a gory work, yet the film leaves almost everything to the imagination. All the murders take place with a wide-angle third-person-omniscient viewpoint. Yes, there are scenes of blood but it is moderate. What makes this film feel so gory is the insane pursuit of its victims. Hooper uses the first half of the film to build up a feeling of boredom within the viewer. We watch these characters we could really care less about walking around checking out a graveyard and going back to the old family home, yet the whole time we’re thinking, “when will they die?” The story moves slowly giving a build up of suspense. We await the grisly deaths we were promised in the opening narration. Finally after forty-five minutes Kirk is pounded in the head and the film takes off at an unrelenting speed. When we sit, waiting for the death to take place, this causes a conflict within ourselves. Death and violence shouldn’t be something we anticipate, yet within the construct of this film we do. When we get what we wanted and see the first blow to the head, we realize that we might not have wanted the death so badly. Each of them die, one by one, and after Franklin’s stomach gets cut open by Leatherface’s chainsaw, Sally becomes an animal of instinct. Sally is chased not as a female, but as an animal that has gotten away. A farmer has invested time with his cattle and when one gets away he has to chase it down, he usually will not stop until the animal is found. Leatherface has lost one of his animals and he stops at nothing to get her back. The film builds in suspense and never lets the viewer go. There is no climax, there is no resolution, and in the end there is only an animal escaping from the butcher. The most interesting facet of this film is that in Texas the law allows you to kill trespassers, so Leatherface’s murder spree barely breaks any laws. As in most horror films, especially slasher films the teenagers are told in the beginning, “don’t go messing around in old houses.” The gas station attendant is also the ‘father’ figure of the cannibal family, he tells them not to and when they do he reinforces why he made the statement in the first place. Chainsaw is a complex film that has no real plot; it has no morality lessons, and no conclusion. Leatherface’s animal gets away and he swings his chainsaw in the air, a sequence that will forever be known as ‘the chainsaw ballet.’
This film works as Quarrels says, as a perfect nightmare. Teenagers are stalked and slaughtered without any reason. Its the dream you have when you feel that someone is behind you, so you start walking faster, then you start jogging, then finally run at full pace. You’re too scared to look behind you, so you just run and keep running. You feel the presence behind you, but you’re too terrified to do anything but try to get away. Texas Chainsaw Massacre changed the face of horror films. As most theorists say, before Chainsaw horror films were shot according to Hitchcock but this gave a whole new perspective to the ‘art of horror.’ It plays on the random events of the universe, and how sometimes things happen for no reason.