In 1974, a horror movie came out that forged a divergent path for the entire horror genre to follow and has since been so widely imitated that if you had never watched it before by now, you may wonder what the big deal is about it in the first place.
This is a somewhat unavoidable effect when a highly original, influential idea in a medium/genre becomes absorbed into the commonplace, colloquially known as Seinfeld Is Unfunny.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a touchstone in the horror film genre since it was arguably the first horror movie to dispense of such burdensome details like plot, character motivation, and resolution in favor of highly stylized visuals and shocking depictions of violence and depravity. However, through all the gore and chainsaws, there’s also a commentary on the ideological differences in America after the 1960’s, and how neither side ultimately “won” but just barely survived, much worse for the wear.
Hard to believe this didn’t turn out well.
After a foreboding introduction narrated by pre-fame John Larroquette(!) stating that what we are about to see is based on actual events (it’s not), an opening credit sequence begins that sets the disgusting tone for the rest of the flick and has been ripped off by every grisly movie from Seven to Saw, with gross stuff being illuminated by flashes from a camera bulb. That gross stuff is people, and the accompanying gristly sound effects inform us that the cameraman’s posing them to capture their best side. Because yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
You must be able to handle this amount of grossness to continue this review.
With an appearance by The Dead Armadillo of Doom (shorthand for “We’re in Texas!”), we meet our doomed hippy protagonists driving down the road in the Mystery Machine with the unwanted Franklin, a young man who is paralyzed from the waist down. He’s a distasteful character, and one of the more interesting character constructions I’ve ever come across in a horror film.
This is because Tobe Hooper, the auteur behind the film, makes a point to test the audience’s sympathies to his protagonists in this film: aside from Franklin, the other four (two boys and two girls) are young, healthy, attractive, vaguely hippie-ish figures, but in action they are often dismissive or even downright mean to Franklin; one of the young women is his sister, Sally, and she can barely mask her impatience with her disabled brother. Although from all outward appearances they appear like the cast of Hair, they’re just as self-centered and impatient as everyone else, even if they’re outwardly on the side of peace, love, and understanding.
But we can also see why they would be irritated with Franklin: he’s bossy, negative, displays odd behavior and talks about gross stuff. Physically, his disability hampers their mobility and freedom, and socially is the obvious fifth wheel in this group.
“You mean I’m symbolic, mister?”
Anyway, hippy talk abound in the Mystery Machine as Sally speaks tarot and somebody bogarts something probably. When they drive by a stinking, rotten slaughterhouse, Franklin lights up and starts going on about what how fun it would be to brain cattle all day (see what I mean with this guy?) and going into detail about how slaughterhouses slaughter. The Beautiful People in the van are visibly disgusted and I’m having that mixed feeling about Franklin as a character in my tummy.
Of course, it’s the hippies (and not Franklin) who decide to pick up Charles Manson’s less charming brother from the side of the road. This guy starts trading awfulness with the perpetually unpleasant Franklin and they have a grand tete-a-tete about killing cows. (Manson Lite prefers the sledgehammer method, the Continental that he is).
Everything’s going as fine as being trapped in a speeding van with the devil can go until he gets his hands on a knife and deeply cuts into the palm of his hand. This is received poorly by the hippies.
They just don’t get performance art.
He then takes their picture (Hey, remember that camera from before? Hunh? Do ya?) and asks for two dollars for it. When they refuse, he requests that they drive him home and extends an invitation to dinner, because he is a Southern gentleman. But the hippies turn this request down so he flips shit, lights the picture on fire, then slashes Franklin’s arm (as one does) for good measure.
But Franklin is unlikable even when injured, and these hippies and their American Astrology Magazine make me wish they had enrolled at Kent State a few years earlier. They kick Charlie II out of the van and speed off.
Gas station hicks let the gang know they’re out of gas and give directions to Sally and Franklin’s family’s old house that’s nearby, even though he continually tries to warn them NOT TO MESS AROUND IN THIS AREA.
But Franklin’s just stabbing at the interior of the van and keeps going on about his family’s nearby property so the gang piles back in and off to their dooms they go.
“They say if we hurry we can all be dead by sundown!”
So they go check out the ol’ homestead that’s nearby on an empty tank of gas and it’s a decrepit old house that looks like it hasn’t been lived in for nearly half a century but somehow 20-year-old Sally remembers going there as a kid. Franklin gets an idea that something strange is afoot but the rest of the gang take their feet far away from him at this point to get busy.
But the house is old and gross and not Franklin-accessible (if you catch my drift), so he struggles to get inside as the distant laughter and general happiness of his “friends” angers him.
Now I know I’ve laid into the character of Franklin a lot so far, but he is a purposely unpleasant character, and witnessing his bizarre mockery of his fleet-footed companions and the subsequent pity party that he throws himself is somewhat repellent.
Here, Hooper manipulates his audience like a pro: On an intellectual and emotional level, I realize Franklin’s lot in life stinks, but his character is written to be such a jerkass that I vacillate between hating and feeling sympathy for him. His character skillfully creates a cognitive dissonance in people who consider themselves empathetic to the challenges the disabled face yet still find themselves disliking a disabled character.
Having worked with the public professionally in a number of facets, I have met plenty of physically disabled people who were total assholes. Did this make me feel conflicted about disliking them? You bet it did, just as it does here.
Of course, the abandoned house is all cursed-up with secret hobo signs and spices, and two of the hippies (Blue Jeans Committee and Hot Pants) go looking for a swimming hole but find their own gruesome ends instead. Then again, that’s why you don’t go trespassing on private property in Texas. Don’t Mess With Texas (Chainsaw Massacres).
Blue Jeans and Hot Pants in better times.
Blue Jeans Committee knocks on the door of a somewhat normal-looking farmhouse (minus the strange atrocity exhibits all over the front lawn) and finds a human tooth on the porch. Undeterred by this (possibly because he’s under the influence of the marijuana), he goes into the house because he hears a squealing pig inside. Fun fact: This is the same situation that 30% of Texans meet their future spouse in!
Then whammo! The ol’ sledgehammer to the head trick from Leatherface. After grotesquely spasming on the floor, another swing takes out Blue Jeans for good and he’s dragged into a room adjacent to Hell.
“Just doin’ my job.”
Hot Pants, like an idiot, also enters the house looking for BJC and falls into what I like to call The Bone Room (because it’s full of bones, you see). While digging this macabre scene, she wretches, screams, cries, and is then caught by the squealing maniac Leatherface.
“Get over here, you little rascal!”
Hung up by the neck on a meat hook, she watches as Blue Jeans is decapitated and my nightmares just got some fresh new material. Back at the Mystery Machine, Franklin is pitching a fit and Ray Manzarek wanders off to find their missing friends/die.
Franklin finds a shred of self-respect and tries to make amends for being a burden—not because of his disability, mind you, but because he’s been a real goose this whole trip. Then he gets sad and now I’m sad too :^( see?
So Manzarek goes up to the tooth porch and hears Hot Pants’ terrified whimpers from inside. He enters Leatherface’s workshop and find that Hot Pants is off the hook—and in the freezer! Long story short, he goes down with one swing of the sledge. Leatherface is like, Where the fuck are all these people coming from? Is somebody playing a joke on me? Are we getting a new car, too? He sits down and contemplates all of the changes happening in his life.
…or he’s just starring in an antidepressant commercial.
Franklin & Sally (coming this fall on FOX!) are now in the dark, waiting for their now-dead friends. They took the keys, it turns out, so I guess Leatherface is getting a new car! Good for him.
Sally goes off for her friends and poor Franklin struggles to keep up with her through the wilderness. Sally, part of the “Blame America First” crowd, disregards this in favor of the pill-popping, anything-for-a-thrill atheist Me Generation (Ed. Note: Sorry, I turned into an editorial cartoon from the late 1960s for a moment there). But before you can say “drop acid not bombs,” Franklin gets a chainsaw to the tum-tum and L.F. is gunning his engine for a slice of Sally pie.
If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.
After a brief entanglement through the wretched Texas brush, Sole Survivor Sally comes across a house. It’s Leatherface’s, of course, but I guess any port in a storm. This House of a Few Dozen Corpses leaves much to be desired before it could be considered a “safe space,” so Sally takes a dive out of a second story window and runs screaming into the night.
After about five minutes of Nightmare Scenario #338 with Leatherface chasing Sally closely behind with a chainsaw, she collapses into the gas station from before, where the attendant calms her and goes to fetch his truck to bring her to the nearest town. Finally, the nightmare’s over. And that Bar-B-Q he has on the grill sure looks…um…fresh.
Well, the sign ain’t lying. Zagat’s gave them four stars!
After a heel-face turn from the gas station attendant that involves every Southern sheriff’s fantasy about beating up and capturing a hippy, Sally’s off…back to Leatherface & Co.’s house. Along the way they pick up Manson II, who’s of relation to L-Face and the increasingly creepy gas station attendant. And would you believe there’s a lot of abuse and trauma in this family?
Sally’s experience in this house is…unsettling. This whole family’s wildly grotesque and nothing being depicted in these scenes back at the house could be considered OK by any stretch of the imagination.
It shocks and is an affront to so many things that are so deeply ingrained into us through family, interpersonal relationships, and general social norms—morals, appropriate behavior, instinctual fear of death, autonomy and a sense of safety—that it is literally horrifying to watch.
This is what a family in crisis looks like.
Since this film is just made of nightmares, the family dinner scene is still one of the more disturbing things I’ve ever witnessed. Even having seen this movie multiple times over nearly twenty years, I find this seen gravely unsettling. But why?
Everything in this scene is an affront to both my (the viewer) and society’s normative values. It turns into a grotesque mockery because it mocks every single thing that we as members of an egalitarian society and culture hold as the agreement between each other.
A young woman—bloodied, beaten, and in obvious extreme emotional distress—is tied to a chair with both arms out, unable to protect herself against any potential assault. She is held against her will to take part in a disturbing dinner tableau that features Spanish Manson, the duplicitous, dominant patriarch Gas Station Attendant, and (in a disturbing subversion of normatives) Leatherface wearing a woman’s face with makeup applied to it and a smart blue blazer. Grandpa also attends the dinner, only he’s a husk that looks like an animatronic mummy.
The walls are grimy and stained, the food is the stuff they feed you in the fifth circle of Hell’s cafeteria, and when Sally begins to scream, the “family” screams even louder in unison, eventually breaking into unrestrained laughter and mockery of her suffering.
They’re violent and vile to everyone and everything, even each other. And at the height of this completely insane moment, the camera snap-zooms out quickly from the farmhouse, revealing the calm, picturesque rural scene masking the horror show going on inside.
The conclusion of this dinner is the slaughter of Sally, which they offer the honor to their mummy-grandpa to take first whack at her head, which I guess passes for respect in this clan. She’s set up for slaughter over a bucket (to catch her blood, I suppose. I don’t know and I don’t want to think about human abattoirs).
And if you think watching someone get hit in the head once with a hammer is unpleasant, Sally endures several from the ancient husk before breaking free and jumping out of a window. Again.
In bloody panic, Sally runs to the roadway, chased by Manson & The Leathers (playing at The Stone Pony November 9th!) and a mac truck stops on Manson’s body.
He has a giant truck and Sally quickly gets in, but what does he do? Get out of the truck. Where Leatherface is with a chainsaw. But this trucker, Yellow Shirt, throws a fucking wrench into LeLe’s face and (maybe) gets away. Fortunately, another truck comes along and Sally jumps into the bed, laughing hysterically at having escaped the shrieking madness from a moment ago.
That’s it: I’m moving to Austin!
Leatherface does a one-man chainsaw dance in the setting sunlight, still out there, waiting once more for the right group of people to make one wrong turn.
He also secured a NEA grant for his interpretive dance project.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was created in an America that was reeling from the heady, wild 1960s, with a division between young and old, liberals and conservatives alike after the defeat of both the counterculture movement and defeat in Vietnam, respectively. Both sides were unsure of where their ideologies were headed just as sure as they were in strong opposition to the other side.
Cutting through this cultural miasma like a chainsaw through the screen, Tobe Hooper set out to create a horror masterpiece. The two sides represented in this film, of the hippies and their non-violent (though self-centered) ideological outlook, and the decidedly more forceful conservative population, the Silent Majority that swept Nixon back into the White House just a few years earlier only to watch as their champion of the Right Wing was dismantled by a couple of liberal journalists and the ugly truth just beneath their placid vision of America.
Tobe Hooper, along with other artists at the time, saw the disparity between these two visions of America and the various forces eroding their ideological beliefs.
Neither side really “wins” the argument in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—although the staunch conservatives (represented by the Leatherface clan) claim they are only doing what they have to out of survival, Hooper also depicts them as even more immoral and depraved from their sure insularity, acting upon their convictions without regard or restraint, readily harming others for their own gain while also justifying their actions by doubling down on their inhumane indifference.
Hooper was careful to toe the line and not make this explicit (2004’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning makes this subtext direct in its depiction of the Leatherface clan and their attitudes in that prequel), but it isn’t difficult to draw a line between the wanton indifferent slaughter being justified for survival and the (then-recent) Vietnam debacle that tore the country apart both socially and politically and its supporter who continued to insist that they don’t mind if those people were slaughtered before their very eyes.
The liberals don’t get off any easier in this story, either: as mentioned before, while our hippy-ish crew look and talk the part, their behavior towards their fellow man (personified by their disabled friend Franklin) suggests a shallow regard to actually being empathetic and being more interested in their own desires and comforts, hoping to pass for being groovy and in-touch with mankind.
This aspect of human nature was a major reason for the collapse of the counterculture ideology: the Me Generation, for all its talk and philosophizing of wanting to found and nurture an open, loving society, ended up being just as self-involved and self-centered in their actions as any other human being.
It’s easy to preach peace, love, and understanding until you suddenly have to figure out a way to support yourself and your family with just that–and not competition or survival or facing conflict directly–in mind. This just leaves them naive and vulnerable to the wolves that roam the prairies.
In the end, neither side won in this movie: Sally escaped certain death, but only by luck and fate, while the rest of her friends, including her own brother, were senselessly slaughtered.
Meanwhile, the Leatherface clan—now down to the dad, the demented Leatherface, and Mummy Grandpa—have a shrinking stronghold in a world that’s all but discarded them. However, note that Hooper didn’t make any of the clan sympathetic in the slightest; it could be read that he empathized with the counterculture, but was critiquing the (valid) weaknesses in their outlook and ideology that made their movement susceptible to the corroding forces that would eventually make the once-great notion of peace and love an easy target for mockery and criticism.
In this still, my analysis is represented by Leatherface, while your interest is now running away from it.
The Horror…The Horror
I can’t recommend The Texas Chainsaw Massacre enough to anybody 15+ (I think it’s good for younger people to watch horror movies; it gives them easier things to worry about than the terrifying truths of their oncoming adulthood), as both a horror movie and as a contribution to American cinema.
It’s a boundary-breaking, genre-redefining film that is oft-imitated but rarely surpassed. The burnt color palette, the eerie cinematography, the evocative sound design and disturbing score (also by Hooper!), and so much more of this film would go on to influence not just horror movies, but cinema as a whole, and is a film school-grade primer in how to terrify an audience.
But why is it so terrifying? Random, violent things happen every day. I think that in matching setting (Texas) with time period (early 70’s) and the incongruity of a pastoral scene with extreme brutality, a perfect storm was created. By dispensing of backstory, motivation, and even any clear reason why any of this would befall this particular group of young people speaks to our fear of both the unknown and strangers.
I’ve used the word before many times, but nightmare is most apt description for this film. This film is a nightmare that keeps getting worse and worse and more and more violent as it goes on, and you can’t wake up from it. But maybe, if you can hold out for just a little bit, you’ll survive to the end.
I’m easily giving this film four out of four Leatherfaces.