Sunday, July 3, 2016
Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1974)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The origin of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” has long since passed into horror film legend. Tobe Hooper was attempting to navigate a crowded hardware store, when he noticed a chainsaw on the shelves. A perverse fantasy entered his mind, of cutting through the crowd with the power tool. Co-written with his “Eggshells” collaborator Kim Henkel, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” had an equally legendary shoot. The actors sweltered inside a home with blacked out windows during a Texan heatwave. If the resulting film seems to take place in a world gone mad, that’s because the cast and crew almost went mad while making it. The resulting film was a target of controversy, often banned. Simultaneously, it would garner a reputation as one of the greatest horror films ever made. Over forty years later, the film still has the power to shock and unnerve.
Five young people, including Sally and her invalid brother Franklin, travel across the Texas countryside, hiding from the summer heat in a cramped van. Along the way, they pick up a deranged hitchhiker. He rambles about meat, cuts himself, and sets a fire. After kicking him out, Sally and Franklin insists the van stop so they can look at the abandoned home of their grandfather. The couple decides to explore a near-by farm house. There, they discover a chainsaw-wielding madman who wears the skin of his victims on his face. Leatherface is one member of an insane, cannibalistic brood. Soon, all of Sally’s friends are killed, leaving her to try and survive this world of madness on her own.
“Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was sold as a true story. An opening text crawl, narrated by a solemn John Larroquette, establishes the supposed “facts” of the case. The film, of course, is not based on a true story, assuming you discount the loose inspiration drawn from Ed Gein. Beyond adding a sensationalist quality to help sell tickets, the “true story” sham serves another purpose. There’s a sense of gritty, sweaty reality to the entire film. The viewer feels the heat of the sweltering, punishing Texas sun. Hooper leaves behind the psychedelic flourishes of “Eggshells” but maintains the documentary style. The camerawork often slowly moves through the scene, as if someone is watching from a distance. It alternates between wide shots and intimate close-ups. The directorial style, combined with the fantastic use of tone, makes “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” feel close to real, resembling what one imagines a snuff film feels like.
solar flares are driving people crazy. The radio in the youth’s van reports stories of grave robbery, murder, madness, suicide, and depravity. Early on, Sally watches a drunk writhe on the ground, rambling about the insanity of the world. The further into the heart of Texas the characters drive, the less safe the world becomes. By the time they encounter Leatherface, their lives have become a living nightmare. Even before then, there’s something deeply wrong with the planet as presented in “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The sound design emphasizes this. The combination of metallic shrieks, piercing whirls, guttural slaughterhouse clatter, and endless screaming further drives the viewer into the film’s insane hellscape.
Adding to the documentary feel of the film is the naturalistic performances. As in his debut, Hooper casts the film with local actors. The characters are loosely scripted. Allen Danziger’s Jerry cuts the figure of being slightly nerdy, thanks to his thick glasses. William Vail is partially a hippy, wandering around with his shirt half open. Teri McMinn’s Pam is characterized by her interest in astrology. While the screenplay leaves the teens with little personality, the audience still accepts them as nice kids. This is most apparent with Marilyn Burns’ Sally. She’s the most level-headed of the group, the most concerned about everyone’s health. How pleasant and normal the travelers are makes their inevitable, cruel fate all the more horrifying.
The cast seems like nice people… Except for Franklin. Confined to a wheelchair, Franklin is introduced being wheeled down a hill side so he can pee in a coffee can. Soon afterwards, he careens down the slope, tossed into his own urine. When the Hitchhiker starts ranting about headcheese, Franklin engages with the clearly deranged man. When he gets cut, Franklin shrieks like a stuck pig. When abandoned in a spooky house by the others, he blows raspberries in a petulant manner. After everyone else disappears, Franklin whines and gripes. What was the purpose of including such an obnoxious character? Mostly, Franklin seems like a hindrance to Sally, making an already bad situation worse. It’s clear the character was written to be annoying. Paul A. Partain has no problem filling that order.
It’s a well known anecdote that, despite the film’s reputation for being extremely violent, Tobe Hooper filmed “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” with a PG rating in mind. In hopes of achieving that rating, most of the actual violence is kept off-screen. Yet not seeing someone impaled on a meathook or dismembered with a chainsaw doesn’t lessen the impact of the violence. If anything, by utilizing the audience’s imagination, it makes the violence more visceral. Instead of gore, the film focuses on the writhing agony on the victims’ faces. Such as Teri McMinn screaming on the hook or Marilyn Burns’ shrieking while Franklin is cut to pieces. Yet the most powerful violence in the film is also the most in-your-face. When Leatherface enters the film, he steps into a doorway, nearly as wide. The camera swings with the killer’s hammer, cracking Kirk on the head. He seizes on the floor, blood hot on his face. After Leatherface finishes him off, he drags the body inside and slams the silver slaughterhouse door shut. The audience feels the sledgehammer blow too, the attack being visceral, violent, and sudden.
Leatherface is, strictly on a visual level, horrifying. After all, a huge man wearing a mask made of human skin isn’t someone you want to fuck with. Yet Leatherface is maybe the most fascinating character in all of modern horror. When wearing different masks, he assumes different identities. The Pretty Woman mask is worn on special occasion. The Killing Mask speaks for itself. This shifting personality suggests a lack of actual identity on Leatherface’s behalf. Yet, in other ways, the killer is sympathetic. His grunts and groans aren’t dissimilar to the confused sounds a slaughterhouse pig might make. His reaction to the youths invading his home is violent but also defensive and confused. He kills not out of malice but out of fear. Where did these people come from? Why are they yelling at him? Otherwise, Leatherface kills for food, regarding his victims the same way a butcher shop employee regards the cows and pigs. He’s not the sadistic serial killers of later slasher films. He’s a fully formed character, oddly innocent even while committing atrocities. Gunner Hansen’s expressive body language goes a long way towards establishing this.
“Texas Chain Saw Massacre” features scenes of raw, unrelenting horror. The film is deliberately paced, it’s early scenes dragging slightly. Once the characters reach Leatherface’s farmhouse, the film rarely slows down. An amazing jump scare features Leatherface, saw blaring, leaping from the shadows to attack Franklin. The second half is almost entirely devoted to Sally fleeing the chainsaw wielding maniac. The chase scene through the forest goes on, circling through the house, back into the woods, and into town. By the end, the film has descended entirely into total insanity. As Sally is tied to a chair, forced to participate in the family’s deranged dinner, she screams. And screams. The camera zooms in on her bloodshot eyes and open mouth. The audience feels themselves go a little insane too. By the finale, Sally is drenched head-to-toe in blood. Her manic laughter breaks apart into hysterical screams. Her body has survived but her mind hasn’t.
Yet for all its bleak, blunt, still effective moments of horror, there’s also an overlooked streak of black, absurd comedy running through “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” After being captured by the Cook, the old man pokes the hysterical Sally with a wooden spoon. He tells her that everything will be okay, even though it clearly will not be. After arriving home, the old man reprimands the cowering Leatherface for ruining the door. Later, the brothers slip a sledgehammer into the barely alive grandfather’s hand. It falls from his grasp repeatedly, despite the Cook’s insistence that Grandpa is the best there ever was at killin’. These scenes are capable of generating both laughs and chills. That’s the world the film inhabits, one of true absurdity, both off-putting and amusing.
the Vietnam War. Leatherface and his brothers slaughter healthy young people, the same way the U.S. government sent healthy young men off to die in Vietnam. Others see the film as a critique of capitalism. The cannibalistic brood turned to killing because the local slaughterhouse – their only source of revenue – shut down. Denied work, they continued to do what they’ve always done, barely surviving. Yet others see “Texas Chain Saw” as the ultimate vegetarian fable. By putting people in the status usually occupied by cows and pigs, Hooper’s film makes the audience emphasize more with the animals they eat. That all of these interpretations make sense shows how versatile and layered a film “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” truly is.
After watching “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” this time, I felt shaken, slightly jittery, but also invigorated. It’s a film that produces a visceral effect in the viewer. Still, to this day, it feels like a movie that truly captures madness on screen, a newsreel from an alternate universe gone totally insane. It’s a cinematic experience, packed start-to-finish with primeval power yet still expertly crafted. “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is a real goddamn movie, unquestionably the greatest regional horror film ever made, and a bracing work of art that has been often imitated but never matched. And Leatherface is still out there somewhere in the stinging Texas heat, dancing with his chainsaw, awaiting his next victim/meal. It could be you. [Grade: A]