It is not surprising that the term ‘American Gothic’ still makes folk automatically think of the more traditional traps of British and European Gothic; moonlit castles, howling wolves, heaving bosoms, pitchfork wielding villagers and Michael Ripper. By contrast, American Gothic invokes a more gritty and sleazy side of the American psyche: of desolate, dust strewn landscapes, skulls being bleached by the sun on a bumpy highway, folk forgotten by the progressing world around them and the deconstruction of the fabled American Dream. Two films that fill this remit beautifully are Tobe Hooper’s Southern duo of 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and 1977’s Eaten Alive (known in the UK as Death Trap).
Of the two films, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is undoubtedly the more well known, and is in fact one of the most famous and enduring horror films of all time. Despite the claims by the narrator at the start of the film –“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths…” the entire work is fiction; although parts of the story were based on the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. I’m sure everyone and his dog knows the plot for Texas Chain Saw by now, but let’s run through it once again, for the cheap seats in the back. While on a road trip five friends hear on the radio about the desecration of the graveyard where some of their grandparents are buried. They detour to find out more and then go on to visit their old family home, after picking up and then ejecting a hitchhiker whose incoherent rambling and knife play unnerves them. On the hunt for petrol, they stumble across a house that is home to some very unsavory characters (a vast understatement!), and the nightmare begins. Texas Chain Saw is one of those films that oozes filth and decay from the screen (and I mean that as a compliment!). The sun beats down oppressively, and the parched, acrid wasteland is the perfect setting for the journey into insanity that the story takes us on. The film is set up as a battle between the modern and the old; the five educated, hippy like youngsters who are enjoying growing up in in a world of privilege and progress, versus the uneducated, feral cannibals, whose livelihood and way of life has been stripped away by that same progress afforded to the teenagers. Forgotten about by the world, the cannibal family slip deeper and deeper in a primal state, until all who pass their way are regarded as no more, and no less, than the cattle they slaughtered at the abattoir where they used to work– where they had been able to contribute to society, until society took that away from them. If all this sounds like I’m crying into my porridge for poor old Leatherface and Co, fear not! They are obviously despicable, wretched people (entertaining and fear inducing in equal measure sure, but still despicable and wretched), but it is an interesting angle that Tobe Hooper and scriptwriter Kim Henkel bought to the script. The early 1970’s in America was a tempestuous time, a national oil shortage, the tail-end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal all revealing an America that was both fractured due to the war and unwilling to trust its leaders due to Watergate. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that the young characters in The Texas Chain saw Massacre would have been part of the anti-war counterculture and in favour of the impeachment of Richard Nixon, while the Sawyer family would be pro-military and Republican. But while the hippy like kids enjoy benefits of being young, white and American, the backwards rural folk, despite also being white and American, are left to rot in the desolate squalor they call home. Middle class versus Low, or lowest class, in this case, is one of many themes in this surprisingly multi-layered film. (See also Wes Craven’s 1977 cult classic The Hills Have Eyes as another fine example of a horror battle of the classes, and the educated versus the backwards).
Another, this time satirical, edge that Hooper brings to the film is that of the Sawyer family as a grotesque bastardisation of the all American nuclear family unit, which is shown through the various masks that Leatherface wears. He wears a fairly plain mask for his killing duties, a uniform for his ‘work’ if you will, an ‘Old Lady Mask’ for domestic chores, such as helping in the kitchen, and a ‘Pretty Woman’ mask, complete with make-up, for dinner, because, in the Southern tradition, one must always make an effort for dinner, especially when in company (in this case, the terrified and hysterical Sally). Leatherface is shown to be the weakest family member, emotionally, so he is given the traditionally female role of house maker and host. They sit around the table and eat dinner like a ‘normal’ family, complete with in-jokes and family games, but still try to involve their guest in their family time, as is only polite. The twisted irony being of course that she is the family game. The family is in awe of the main patriarch of the clan, the impossibly old, frail and hideous Grandpa, still believing him to be the as good as a killer of animals as he was in his heyday at the old Slaughterhouse. In this premised there are shades of failure to recognise signs of weakness in a father figure, as well as a stubborn refusal to accept that the slaughterhouse glory days are no more. Leatherface himself is obviously the most fascinating member of the clan, used as both the family’s killing machine and punching bag. Unlike other slasher villains, like, say, Freddy Kruger, Leatherface takes no great pleasure in the killing of his victims; he is scared of the intruders on his property and affected by his ‘family duties’ in an emotional way. This seen most prominently in the scene in which, after the dispatching of one of the teenagers, he takes a moment for himself, and is shown to be nervous and disturbed by what is happening. His reward for taking on the bulk of the slaughter and the dirty work is to be dismissed and bullied by the rest of his family, despite his obvious need for approval from them. Basically, what I’m saying is that the Sawyer family are a massive Freudian clusterfuck.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an unrelenting experience to sit through, no matter how many times you watch it. But it is only after that first viewing, once the horror of what has been witnessed has faded away, can the film be looked at through a more analytical lens. Here it becomes apparent what a clever and nuanced film it actually is, despite the depravity on show. It shows the logical progression of what could happen to certain factions of society who are side-lined and ignored in the name of Capitalism. Much like the many small mining towns in the North of England that have never quite recovered from the tyranny of Margaret Thatcher, there are many similar rural communities in America that were left behind to be quietly forgotten while the rest of the country recovered from the 1973 stock market crash and following recession, and got straight back to making money for people who already had more than enough.
While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a grim, sepia tinged look at a decaying rural South, and an exercise in endurance to sit through, Tobe Hooper’s 1977 follow up Eaten Alive is a lurid, high camp look at a decaying rural South, which is also at points an endurance to sit through. Not, however, for the same reasons as the in every way superior Chain Saw. Eaten Alive has more in common with Texas Chainsaw’s 1986 sequel than it does the 1974 original. It’s a high octane romp with little substance, but still strangely entertaining. Like The Texas Chain saw Massacre, Eaten Alive has at its roots in a true story, although one that was never actually proven. In post Prohibition Texas, a man called Joe Ball owned a saloon named the Sociable Inn. He kept a number of alligators in a pond behind the property and it was claimed that he murdered several local women, including his wife, and fed them to his alligators. Ball committed suicide when the police turned up to interview him, and although the bodies of two women were found on his property it has never been proven that he actually fed his unfortunate victims to the creatures.
In Eaten Alive there is no such ambiguity, the plot follows the misadventures of several people who end up at the Starlight Inn, run by stereotypical Southern hick archetype: Judd (Neville Brand); who, unlike his real life counterpart, had only one unusual pet, a giant Nile crocodile, to dispose of the evidence of his murderous desires. The objects of these desires include a runaway prostitute, an arguing family (featuring Marilyn Burns from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and their dog, the father and sister of the aforementioned prostitute, and a second stereotypical Southern hick archetype played by Robert Englund, long before he donned Freddy Kruger’s famous striped jumper. There is little in the way of actual story (folk turn up at the motel, act stupidly, die, get munched by the crocodile. Rinse and repeat). What is unusual is the setting, in which the Starlight Inn is in such an obvious, and bizarrely lit sound stage that it feels more like watching a play than a film. Whether this was deliberate on behalf of the filmmakers it certainly contributes to the Grand Guignol feel the film has. It also gives it quality of it being of logic defying, feverish nightmare, an idiosyncrasy that Dario Argento used to such great effect in his earlier films. And no, I am obviously not stating that Eaten Alive is any way near on par with Suspiria or Deep Red. Nor is it any way near Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire, but there is a hint of influence from these most famous plays in the film; the stifling ambience of a single set/location and the suffocation of the oppressive atmosphere that the hot summers in the South can bring, coupled with lack of hopes for a future when one is chucked unceremoniously to the bottom of society (The character of Judd in Eaten Alive is a forgotten War Veteran, while Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire considers herself well above the surroundings she finds herself in). I’m sure at this point you must all think I’m a total loon for trying to equate a trashy film about a man eating crocodile to one of the masters of American literature, but, in my defense, I did say ‘hint of influence’. A mere soupcon of influence, if you will.
While a lot the more subtle social commentary in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is lost due to the notoriety of its reputation, Eaten Alive has no such issues, as there is no social commentary, subtle or otherwise. Even with Judd’s apparent PTSD from the war the character doesn’t have as many layers as Leatherface, which in a way is pretty damning. It is a sporadically entertaining affair, sleazy in an arch, neon coloured way, as opposed to Chain Saw’s unsettling, grim way. It is a confused film, as if Tobe Hooper was giving cinema goers what they thought they got, or were going to get in Chain Saw – bloodletting, gratuitous nudity and over the top violence – due to its reputation.
While the two films are very different in tone and content, they surely both bring southern Gothic elements to their respective parties. Both are gloriously macabre, featuring an American South that has been abandoned to progress, in which characters are troubled, the importance of family is paramount, outsiders are viewed with suspicion, and danger lurks in isolated homesteads. American Gothic in film, pretty much since 1955’s Night of the Hunter, often has a veneer of gritty realism, and a sense of being a twisted mirror being held to up the life that many experience in the hinterlands. It is these qualities that separate it from its British and European counterparts, and help encapsulate the raw terror that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre inspires.