Monday, September 17, 2007

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

(The following essay - as with all horror film essays on Jamespeak - contain spoilers. If you have not seen the film and don't want anything ruined for you, I suggest you read no further.)


"My family's always been in meat."
-The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, five young people drive through Texas to spend the weekend in an old house two of the young people grew up in. They pass by a slaughterhouse, which starts a reluctant discussion in the van about the upgrades in cattle-slaughtering technology: in the olden days, the workers killed the cows by hitting them in the heads with a hammer. Now, there's a new air gun that theoretically kills the cows instantaneously (and therefore more humanely).

As Franklin (Paul A. Partain), the wheelchair-bound slaughterhouse enthusiast continues to expound on the positive aspects of the air gun, the fivesome notices a very odd-looking hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) and decides to pick him up.

They ask the hitchhiker, who seems physically and mentally damaged, where he's been and where he's going. He's going home after taking pictures at the old slaughterhouse. Franklin asks the hitchhiker to weigh in on the value of the gun, which upsets the hitchhiker. "The air gun's no good," he says. The gun caused people to lose their jobs, specifically implying members of his family. He prefers hitting the livestock in the head with a hammer.

Later in the film, one of the five vacationers (Kirk, played by William Vail) enters a nearby farmhouse to ask if they can get some gas for the van.

Upon entry, one of the farmhouse's inhabitants, a giant man (Leatherface, played by Gunnar Hansen), making terrified pig-like squealing noises and wearing a mask made of what appears to be human flesh, panics and hits Kirk in the head with a hammer, killing Kirk instantly.

Later, Kirk's girlfriend Pam (Teri McMinn), tired of waiting for her boyfriend, enters the house, and finds a room littered with bones and skins from various animals - humans, cows, chickens - teeth, and chicken feathers. She starts to feel sick and runs out of the house. Leatherface, however, sees her, panics again, chases her, pulls her into the house, and plants her on a meat hook (a freakin' meat hook, people!) before resuming carving her boyfriend up (for, we later discover, dinner) with the titular chain saw.

We discover that the Sawyer family inhabits the farmhouse, which is made up of retarded grave robbing cannibals, and that the hitchhiker the kids picked up is Leatherface's brother.

If there's an underlying message to Tobe Hooper's 1974 film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a movie that simultaneously revels in and transcends its grindhouse/Grand Guignol roots, it's that we're all cattle.

It is also quite possibly the most terrifying and effective horror film ever made.

Despite living up to its name and reputation as being horrifically over-the-top and relentless (in his original review, Roger Ebert wrote: "[it] is as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises."), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is also quite subtle, something none of its imitators seem to grasp. The movie, for example, lets the audience figure out for themselves in hindsight what the vacationers are eating when they make the pit stop at the gas station/barbecue shack.

(Tangential trivia tidbit: for those who pay close attention and are really interested, Leatherface's real name in the movie is Bubba Sawyer [his brother calls him that when he asks for help bringing Grandpa (John Dugan) down the stairs]. I've never been able to catch what the other family members' names are, or if they're even mentioned. We only know their surname because we see a shot of the mailbox late in the film.)

Although using a number of stock horror movie conventions (kids playing in an abandoned house, kids entering a stranger's house, the van that's out of gas), none of them feel like clichéd conventions and many of them turn out to be red herrings.

In other words, there's no point in the movie where you think, "These people are stupid." When I watch it I realize I wouldn't behave or respond too differently. That the dialogue is often improvised also gives the characters - and movie - a sense of realism that helps making The Texas Chain Saw Massacre so horrific.

The first half of the film is shot almost documentary style, with very few flashy or fancy cuts or camera angles. The use of music is minimal (and mostly live). The day that the teenagers land their van by Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin's father's house is about as idyllic and unthreatening as you can get. When Kirk goes into what turns out to be Leatherface's house, there's nothing ominous about it: it's a fairly regular-looking farmhouse (some would say that the bizarre makeshift decorations in the front yard are clear warning signs, but they're really part-in-parcel with most farmhouses. If you're in the North Atlantic, check out some farmhouses in upstate New York or New England and you'll see what I mean).

The second half is ultimately Sally, the one and only survivor from the group, running for her life, screaming her lungs out and being terrified out of her mind. It's here where Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl abandons the documentary style for quick cuts, extreme close-ups (seriously, how far into Burns's eye does that camera go?) and intense music cues.

It is, in a word, relentless. And I do mean Re. Lent. Less.

Hooper does a masterful job keeping the audience with Sally the whole time: we not only empathize and identify with her, we feel like we're running for our lives ourselves. Every time I watch the final act of the film I feel like my appendix is about to burst, thinking that I couldn't possibly run that fast for that long without collapsing.

Although Hooper has said in interviews that this film was a response to Watergate and Vietnam (then again, weren't all horror movies in the '70s purported to be responses to Watergate and Vietnam?), and one can make an argument for such an angle (the movie is, after all, about hippies getting slaughtered), it's more obviously a response to the meat processing industry, our assembly-line culture (the Sawyer family consists of laid off slaughterhouse workers) and an argument against eating meat.

I admit I find it vaguely amusing that such a vicious and graphic film is ultimately a plea for vegetarianism, but then again many of the horror films of the '70s were far from subtle with their messages.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of those movies that is both part of and creator of a formula that no film or filmmaker has quite been able to duplicate, not even Hooper himself. The humor found in Chain Saw, and yes, there is some humor (how else do you describe the Sawyer family acting as cheerleaders to their senile and semi-conscious Grandpa who tries - and fails - to hit Sally in the head with the hammer, or when we see Leatherface in a matronly mask, wig and apron preparing for dinner?), is too blunt and broad in the Hooper-directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

The film is so effective, powerful and well made it almost defies analysis. Sure, there is a lot of "meat" to the film (pardon the pun), but no one goes to see this film to hear a commentary on the meat processing industry or an argument for vegetarianism. However, the morality behind the film helps it transcend being merely an exercise in artless cruelty and nihilism.

Not eating headcheese,

James "Bubba Sawyer" Comtois

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Blogger Goose said...

Very nice little essay, Mr. Comtois. First off, I didn't know about the vegetarianism message. It is a "no duh" once stated. I mean, I really didn't want to have any meat products (or food for that matter) after watching it, but didn't know that was an actual message.

I don't think they mention the names of the other family members. I think in later sequels/versions they do, but not in the original. I did do a cheat move and check out IMDB - no dice. But, did find another great piece of Trivia - did you know that John Laroquette was the voice of the narrator?

One thing I am going to have to go back and re-visit - and you may have just not put the other reason b/c of length - but, they were also going to go swiming (the first victims). But, I can't remember if they found a dried up "watering hole" or if they were also asking directions? It has been awhile since I have seen the original.

I really love this movie - it scares the crap out of me. And, the fast cuts are of the old school type, not tha ADD fast cuts like I call them today. You do feel like you are running with Sally at the end and each time you think she is getting away, and doesn't, it really feels like - God, is this ever going to end. I would just give up. You feel exhausted after. How many movies can you say that about now a days?

The first time I watched this movie was after Bible Study - that's right, Bible Study. My group leader called my mom to see if it was OK for me to see it and that she would be there to superivse. I was 14. NO WAY, I should have seen this at that age, but there you go and probably why I am a lover of horror today. :) Also, saw The Exorcist - by accident - when I was 8. Whoops.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks! I did indeed know that was John Laroquette (they say so on the commentary), which is of course, pretty cool.

Yeah, the first two victims are going out to the old swimming hole, which has dried up (Franklin and Sally remember swimming in it when they were kids, but it’s clearly been years since they’ve been back to the area). They see the farmhouse and hear a running motor, so they decide to go up there not for directions, but to ask for gas (the gas station/BBQ shack was out of gas).

And exactly: Sally’s ordeal in the final act is just so draining. You damn near admire her for her perseverance (I think I’d be catatonic long before escaping the house).

Well, hey. What better time to watch this movies than after Bible Study? :)

4:03 PM  
Blogger Ian Mackenzie said...

Another great horror post.

I've never seen the original film, but your thoughts on it here cut through the clutter of its Fangoria cult status, pulling the meat away from the bone to reveal a surprisingly thoughtful series of messages. Did I mention I'm a vegetarian? So any opportunity to call into question the "humanity" of our factory farming practices come warmly received.

(Related sidenote: I sat through Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation the other day – which is a fictional story, with fictional characters, intercut with real and contemporary slaughterhouse footage. Might make an interested double-bill with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hold on a second while I throw up.)

That said, I don't have much of a stomach for the slasher genre. I am more interested in the line between, as Todorov puts it, the fantastic-uncanny (supernatural) stories, and the marvelous (unlikely, but naturalistic) stories. Slasher films seem rarely to stray into supernatural territory (unless to justify the immortality of its villain). So slasher films are about bad people – which maybe cuts a little too close to the bone, as it were. At any rate, I don't find slasher films entertaining, generally.

Which leads me to my questions for you: In your study of horror films, how concerned are you with breaking them down into their sub-generic distinctions? Slasher, zombie, vampire, werewolf, ghost, monster, et. al. (and their requisite sub-sub-generic distinctions: Zombie begets mummy, for example). Do you see value approaching the genre in this way? Is it helpful to your analyses?


4:26 PM  
Blogger Ian Mackenzie said...

Wait . . . the Nightmare on Elm Street series is an example of an explicitly supernatural (fantastic) slasher film . . . any more?


4:28 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Interesting questions, Ian. I haven’t been thinking of them in subdivided categories so far, since I’m mainly pulling the ones that I can describe as art or even Art (in Title Case) and keep a straight face (which is not to say that I don’t have an incredibly soft spot in my heart for artless junk horror movies). I followed Halloween with Dawn because I happened to notice that they came out the same year and are polar opposites in terms of form and content (the former being minimalist, atmospheric and plentiful on scares while the latter being a bloodbath, about Big Ideas and not particularly frightening in the conventional sense of the word).

Or are you asking how important it is for me to subdivide when picking a horror movie to see? In other words, are you asking if I have predilections for slasher films over werewolf films, werewolf films over vampire films?

I had delayed in posting the one on Chain Saw because a.) I do think it may be one of the best horror films ever made (yes, I think it’s better than The Exorcist) and b.) I didn’t know how to do it justice. As is the case with all of these, I end up writing 1,000 – 1,200 words on them (about the limit that you can do with a blog post before people’s eyes start to roll to the back of their head) and realize I’ve come nowhere close in explaining why I think they’re so damn good and so well made. I guess Chain Saw simply intimidated me that much.

Chain Saw is far from fantastic and uncanny: it depicts two groups of people (the traveling hippies and the cannibalistic Sawyer family) whose paths should never cross. On one hand, I do believe this is an excellent film that transcends its genre, but at the same time, if you feel queasy about or dismayed at this sort of film, you really should stay away. Why? Because, well, it’s absolutely horrific.

I guess yeah, it’d be safe to say Nightmare on Elm Street (the original, mind you) is an example of an explicitly supernatural (fantastic) slasher film. I guess Friday the 13th would, too, if only because they keep bringing the guy back to life in each sequel.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

And yes, I think Fast Food Nation and Chain Saw would make an interesting...albeit thoroughly unappetizing...double-feature.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Ian Mackenzie said...

I guess it's just that horror seems to lend itself so cleanly to genre scrutiny.

Ask anyone, "What kind of horror movie is Halloween?" And 7/10 are going to say "slasher."

"What kind of horror movie is Dawn of the dead?" Most people are going to say "zombie."

"What kind of horror movie is Dracula?" . . . "vampire."

Horror (or "the fantastic" if you like) is the only genre that works that way – even the laymen knows its generic boundaries.

For example, "What kind of western is Once Upon a Time in the West?" Very few people are going to pull out "baroque."

Why? What is it about the horror genre that causes its stories to be delineated so sharply along generic conventions? I guess I ask you because this is one of my primary interests with the form. And since you are writing so eloquently on the topic . . . I thought I'd ask.

(Aside: Hopefully you'll do The Shining at some point.)


5:45 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

You're right, Ian, the genre does allow for closer scrutiny of subclasses. Although, I wouldn't classify Halloween as a slasher (even though it did invent the genre), I'd say it's a combination of the "Haunted House" movie and the "Unstoppable Monster" movie. I think this is also because Halloween is closer in tone, form and style to Psycho than Friday the 13th.

We don't really get the ability to subdivide with, say, romantic comedies or war films, so we? I think this is because ultimately, horror films are created to evoke broad emotional responses, as opposed to other genre films, which are made to tell a specific type of story (if that makes sense).

10:20 AM  

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