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“There’s some things you just have to do”: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

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(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 10

4. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, dir. Tobe Hooper

Back in college I lived with the same six other guys for three years. All of us had different interests, almost all of us had different majors (I think there were two history guys, but one of those was also a musician, and the rest of us were involved in film studies, architecture, art, economics, and pre-med stuff), but one thing we all had in common is that any time I brought home a movie, everyone was up for watching it. It pretty much didn’t matter what it was, whether it was rented for pleasure or for an assignment, whether it was something they’d been meaning to see or something they’d never heard of–next to playing Mario Kart, watching movies and then bullshitting about them was our favorite pastime. (Beer, pot, and sex were up there too, I think.) It was always fascinating to hear the different reactions and interpretations that would come from this disparate group of people.

Except in the case of this film. With this film, everyone reacted exactly the same: like they’d just been involved in a car wreck.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the most thoroughly disturbing movie on this list–hands down, I would say. After seeing it for the first time I could not for the life of me understand how it had come to be lumped into the same slasher category with the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels, to say nothing of the Slumber Party Massacres and Prom Nights and what have you. Yes, there are slashers involved in both, but then again there are car accidents involved in both Crash and The Cannonball Run. This movie is simply in a class by itself. If there is a more intense, more brutal movie about murder out there, I’m not sure I want to see it.

This is another one of those dark fairy-tale movies, the kind with a house of horrors and a dark forest, the kind where plot is first simply pragmatic and second disposed of entirely. It concerns a group of five young people–two couples and the parapalegic brother of one of the girls–who take a trip to the grave site of the siblings’ grandfather, which they’ve heard on the news has fallen victim to a sudden outbreak of grave desecration. While out there, they decide to take a trip to the old family house, now abandoned. Upon exploring another house nearby, they encounter another family–one of deranged cannibalistic killers. The primary engine of murder for this clan is a huge idiot killing machine named Leatherface, so called for the masks he wears, which are fashioned from human skin. It seems unnecessary to detail the plot any further.

Superficially, the movie has much in common with its neverending horde of imitators: a blade-wielding killer in a mask, a group of silly and attractive teenagers who are slaughtered one by one, a “final girl” who outlives her friends. But similarities end there. Take the masked killer–this isn’t some mute cipher gussied up in weakly supernatural trappings to make him some sort of dark-side Superman with a machete, like Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers; this is a lunatic with roots. He seems to be mentally retarded, and given what we see of his environment he may well be the product of inbreeding. He gibbers like a baby, squeals like a pig, reacts with grotesque obesiance when scolded and capers like a dervish when thwarted. He even sports different skin masks for different occasions–a motherly one when cooking, a made-up glamour-face when entertaining a guest–in a horrific parody of normal human etiquette. Gunnar Hansen, the actor who plays him, didn’t just conjure some bogeyman out of the ether to guide his performance–he studied mental patients and the severely retarded. There’s a there there in Leatherface–and that the there is this disgusting abscess of humanity is what makes him so frightening a figure.

Then there are the kids who get killed. First of all, they’re vaguely hippie-ish; what with the fact that they get torn to pieces in an all-American state like Texas, the Vietnam metaphor is inescapable, and in this case actually appropriate. (The spectre of Vietnam loomed large over the horror films of the late 60s and early 70s, and was, I think, much more interestingly explored there than in many films explicitly about the subject. I suppose this goes without saying, but I for one feel I learned a lot more about the era from Night of the Living Dead than I did from Forrest Gump.) Moreover, they’re not dead-obvious targets–there’s no pot-smoking, no sex, no drinking going on. Hell, they went to go make sure their grandpa’s grave was okay, and then went on to revisit the place they spent many happy childhood hours. You can’t get more innocuous than that; you can’t find less of a reason to be killed than that either.

And yes, 4 out of the 5 kids are attractive, the girls in particular–but even what appear to be T&A shots end up being little more than set-ups for later horrors. Take, for example, the memorable low-angle tracking shot that follows Pam as she walks toward Leatherface’s house: At first we think this is just an excuse to gaze longingly at the seeming miles of skin on display outside the almost nonexistent confines of her skimpy clothing, but we learn within minutes that this was really intended to impress upon us the fact that her shirt has no back. (How we learn this I’ll just leave to the movie, but it may be the most shocking scene in a film that’s full of them.) And Sally, our “final girl,” is undoubtedly beautiful, but those secondary sex characteristics filmmakers seem so enamored so often of are of no avail to her: Her long, lovely blonde hair catches in the brambles and branches of the woods she flees through; her wretched, unmistakably and pathetically sexual pleas for mercy to Leatherface’s family–“I’ll do anything you want”–fall on deaf ears. Sexuality isn’t being punished here, because sexuality is a non-issue. These kids are nothing but meat.

It’s that angle that makes this film so difficult to watch. You’re watching a group of kids be dehumanized by sub-humans. If that makes it sound unpleasant, then I’m failing, because it’s so far beyond that. Watching it today–and I’ve watched this movie a lot–I was still stunned by how barbarically savage and disgusting it is. As many critics have noted, what disturbs us isn’t gore, since there’s very little actual gore on display. Rather, it’s the unremitting cruelty of it, a cruelty devoid of style, slickness, and attractiveness. The movie looks and feels like a snuff film, or perhaps an animal-rights activist’s hidden-camera footage of a slaughterhouse, seen on a copy of a copy of a copy. It begins with grainy, underexposed flashes of a dead body, segues into a long, lingering shot on a monument made of corpses to a soundtrack of news-report atrocities. Then you’re treated to the constant spiteful whining of the lonely, unlikeable crippled brother; the addle-brained self-abuse of the greasy-haired, facially disfigured hitchhiker; and from there, total madness that does not let up until the final frame. In there somewhere–you’ll want to forget exactly where–is the debut of the sledge, Pam’s discovery of the bone room and subsequent placement for later disposal, Sally’s discovery of Grandpa and Grandma, the cook’s sadistic and cackling use of his broomstick, Grandpa’s snack, and of course the dinner sequence, possibly the most excruciatingly awful scene I’ve ever seen. It’s just awfulness from beginning to end. That it ends with laughter and dancing is the cruelest part of all.

If you insist, I’ll come up with a film to compare this one to: John Boorman’s Deliverance. They’re both fables of a sick frontier, one that was never the heroic homestead of free men it was made out to be. Everything’s twisted inward and collapsed on itself: the cars are rusted and stand where they stopped, the children are inbred and idiot, the adults are depraved and pointlessly murderous, modernity passed through only to destroy the small remaining possiblity of normal life, graves are upended and emptied, and nature is mute and hostile. Back in school I wrote a paper comparing the two films, and even though I had the idea to begin with I was amazed how similar they really are. You can download the essay here. Next to my senior essay, it’s the academic writing I’m most proud of–it’s concrete close-reading where this little post is kind of vague in an attempt to capture the ineffable, blah blah blah. You’re welcome to view these two brilliant horror films as a double feature, if you think you stand a chance of stomaching them. It’s difficult even for me.

There have been many gratuitously cruel movies, of course–slick little productions where the girls get blood on their tits and the men behind the camera gaze greedily at the bottom line. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a necessarily cruel movie, which is a very different animal indeed. I think there’s a value in seeing the worst, the absolute worst, and that’s what Hooper shows us–as clearly and as unrelentingly as if his life depended on it. There’s no exit, no escape hatch, no levity or joy or beauty in this world at all. It’s a total vision; indeed, a totalitarian vision. Watching this film is like being inocculated against some nightmare virus. It really is like a car crash; the closing credits may be an airbag, but you’ll never forget what you’ve been through.

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About Sean T. Collins

  • Toby

    I’m glad to see this film is getting the respect it deserves. It truly improves with each viewing. To watch it now is to despair at how poorly made films are today. The contrast was made clear to me when the Texas Chainsaw Massacre was rereleased maybe four years ago in the U.K.. Reading the reviews of film critics at the time, it was evident that many, now living on a diet of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, had forgotten the viciousness and brutality of this film, had forgotten what true horror was. But to classify the TCM simply as a horror film is to do it a disservice, in the same way as labelling Apocalypse Now as merely a war film.