Tobe Hooper made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) with one specific intension in mind – to hate us and ruthlessly attack us, both psychologically and emotionally. The film’s sole intention is to drive us mad with its insane sights of the macabre – a ferocious, gruelling, waking nightmare that authentically captures the syntax of one; Hooper’s superior artistry with pitch-perfect execution pushes our boundaries beyond limits. Everything depicted here causes an impact so deep in our psyches that we will not soon forget what we just experienced – sheer horror, as we suffer from anxiety, despair, and fear from the psychological mindfuck that it relentlessly hits us with, and our emotional response is to squirm with immense discomfort. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an uncompromising exercise in cruelty and savagery entailing torture, mutilation, and murders. It features five prolonged sequences of maddening terror, and all its horrid events are encapsulated in a constant thick atmosphere of dread.
Yet despite the extreme acts of violence, there is hardly one drop of blood in sight. Expertly crafted composition cleverly makes us think we have seen more than we actually have, as if we have just witnessed a bloodbath of epic proportions. There are no explicit close-up money shots of gore and amputated limbs, as it is all done out of shot. Tobe Hooper did wonders on such limited resources with the independent production’s ultra-low budget; anything else would have been so fake looking, so this restraint was the right decision as it is far more effective.
This is in complete contrast to the film’s provocative selling points of its unforgettable title, and equally glorious memorable tagline – “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” There is actually only one chainsaw related death during the entire runtime, if we do not include the decapitation of an already dead victim, as his head is sawed off in front of his still alive girlfriend, hanging on a meat hook. However, Hooper does not hold back in all other horrifying aspects. He also emphasises upon sound design with the various excruciating sounds existing both in and out of the world of the story, contributing with great effectiveness to an ingeniously efficient piece of shocking cinema.
A native Texan growing up in Austin, Tobe Hooper was inspired in part by the graphic nature of the local TV news coverage, which showed explicitly in their reports of road accidents, the carnage of mangled human corpses. Another influence was the paranoia that the rest of the USA had about the rural Deep South and its inhabitants. The dangers of outsiders heading into the isolated territory of hostile, and sometimes inbred, hillbilly residents, were depicted a couple of years earlier with terrifying realism in John Boorman’s brilliant 1972 survival thriller Deliverance. It laid the foundations for the backwoods slasher, which is evident here, and in another later forerunner – Wes Craven’s own stark brutality of The Hills Have Eyes (1977). Hooper and Craven are both important innovators in the moulding of the slasher as a whole sub-genre of horror, with the former introducing the elements of the masked killer, the final girl, and the often-used backwoods setting along with its tropes.
Another inspiration was the body snatcher and murderer, Ed Gein of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Gein would dress up in the skin of recently buried women that he would dig up from the village’s cemetery. He would even wear the skin of his deceased mother; her passing was the cause of his psychosis. Gein also murdered two local women in his efforts to experience what it would be like to be a woman, and made furniture and other various artefacts out of his victims’ bodies.
This influence can be seen in the rundown farmhouse of the Sawyer family – the disgusting home of the film’s antagonists (although we do not learn their family name until Tobe Hooper’s 1986 sequel). Ed Gein wearing skin and his want of femininity inspired the look and behaviour of the film’s central villain and posterboy, Leatherface – the hulking, brutal force of nature, played with such vigour by Gunnar Hanson, who expresses himself through movements. Leatherface assumes the characters of his various human skin masks that he wears throughout, assuming different roles in his dysfunctional family. This includes the female role of the homemaker, wearing a feminine mask complete with cosmetic make-up; taking the part due to the lack of a female in the family. This makes him sexually ambiguous. Not only is Leatherface the most physically powerful of the family, but he is also the most frightened – a mentally challenged man-child defending himself against the luckless strangers of the youths invading his home as they search for gasoline. Gunnar Hanson actually studied mentally challenged people researching his role.
The head of the Sawyers is The Cook (Jim Siedow). He is the eldest brother, who has taken the role of the fatherly figure, the breadwinner, and does his best to support the family. He has a sadistic side that he tries to bury, but he cannot help giving in to the urges of his genetic bloodlust. The Cook represents blue collar America in the film’s social commentary of the era. He is the owner of a rundown gas station during the time of the country’s great gasoline crisis, which is a further financial crippling to his family’s victimization of industrial capitalism; technical advances in their working class profession of abattoir workers has resulted in their redundancy from the local slaughterhouse. The family have resorted to cannibalism to feed themselves, treating their victims like the cattle they used to slaughter. The results of industrial capitalism force its victims – the older working classes – to feed on society’s younger generation. Ironically, the shortage of gasoline leads the teenagers to their doom, when two of them go looking for gas at the farmhouse; both generations are victims of the same system. Further emphasis of poverty and unemployment can be seen in the film’s iconography of the landscape of these Texas surroundings – a barren wasteland, as if it were on the brink of apocalyptic destruction.Astrology also plays a part in the unlucky young adults’ bad day. We hear the sound of the radio in their van – a news broadcast reporting terrible events happening around the country. The group of friends are traveling to a local cemetery where the grave of the grandfather of two siblings here – Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) Hardesty – has been defiled. This is seen in the grisly opening pre-title sequence that perfectly sets the atmosphere and tone for the rest of the dreaded proceedings. One of the group, Pam (the meat hook victim, played by Teri McMinn), reads aloud from an astrology book, the gist of which is how today’s alignment of the planets has a negative impact on the day. Like the other tragic events happening in other locations, what is depicted in this film just so happens to be one of those events – the group’s bad day.
Leaving the cemetery, they pick up a crazy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who is the youngest member of the Sawyers. He is the defiler of the grave, and this really is the start of the group’s bad day. His role in the family is like the rebellious teenager, and he completes the components of a deranged version of an American sitcom family, of which Hooper’s underlying pitch-black humour can be seen in the last act, as all three comically interact with each other, while mentally and physically torturing Sally. Although this dark humour gets lost amongst all the unpleasantness and grimness, and so it went over the audiences’ heads upon release. This is something that really frustrated the director, and it would lead him to bring these elements to the forefront for his bat shit crazy black comedy sequel.
Marilyn Burns as Sally is a template for the final girl in modern American slasher horror, but this later common convention of the sub-genre has yet to be fully rounded here. We do not have the characterization of a sensible, virginal, bookworm with morals and values, who does not partake in sex and drugs and later blossoms with resourcefulness in the climatic chase sequence with the killer. Sally shows none of these characteristics, as Burns pulls off being petrified, helpless, and descending into madness with complete conviction in an emotionally exhausting performance.
Sally’s paraplegic brother Franklin, while obviously being a defenceless victim, is one of the most annoyingly obnoxious and tiresome characters ever. I think this was intentional by Tobe Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel. Instead of the brutal killing of a disabled person repelling us, we are made to feel guilty for having our wish come true in seeing this whiny childish brat get the chainsaw. The rest of the group are very likeable in comparison, and we feel sympathy for their misfortunes of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the purest horror films ever made, and is one of the most significant of 70s American cinema. It ushered in a new era of the genre, setting the template for what remains prevalent in modern horror today. It was made by a young radical filmmaker with real guts and vision, commentating on the current affairs in his country with a fresh, energetic, and provocative work. Tobe Hooper found the ideal genre as a vessel to carry his anger and frustrations in the metaphors of what he had to say, embodying it all in groundbreaking ideas to shred our nerves. His masterpiece hated us.