Scared Out of Your Skin: The Twisted Terrors of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Some movies changed the face of horror, forging characters who defined a generation. Others were so much more. Embrace the twisted terrors of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was meant as a comedy; just take a moment to process that. After the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 more than a decade later, a madcap homage to the wild excesses of 80s horror, director Tobe Hooper was adamant that a similar undercurrent of humour existed in his original slice of slasher exploitation, something that was lost on audiences and critics alike. Hooper would even limit the gore in an attempt to qualify the film for a PG rating. Imagine taking your kid to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974! The mind boggles.

Looking back, the comedy element in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, despite its ludicrous, amped-up violence, and more likely because of it, is glaringly obvious. As difficult as it can be to register beneath the deluge of horror, there’s a subtler humour to be found in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre too, its deranged familial aspect reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock at his drollest. It’s not often you see a family of cannibals sitting down to dinner with a screaming victim as their guest of honour, a somewhat reluctant guest who is also their pre-cooked, ready to be split and drained main course. The way our patchwork band of killers approach the whole ordeal, quarrelling like petulant children amid the chaos, it’s all so manic and hysterical, but the hysterics wind-up being of an entirely different variety. It’s like laughter just to keep from crying. “I spent a lot of time on all the subtext and behaviour,” Hooper would explain. “There is this kind of, I don’t know, Thanksgiving-dinner-in-Texas-with-a-big-family feeling about it ― where if you back away far enough from it you’ll see a family fighting and it will become funny because it’s based in truth.”

Hooper must have had a sick sense of humour, because what we get in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most visceral explosions of pure horror ever committed to celluloid, an almost ceaseless assault that batters you into submission with its haunting imagery and oppressive sound design. The 1970s was a serious, sombre decade, a mood reflected in cinema across numerous genres. From gritty crime dramas (The French Connection, Serpico), to urban westerns (Dirty Harry, Death Wish), to rough and ready, anti-establishment films emerging defiantly from the sociopolitical cracks (the blaxploitation genre), cinema would mature along with a jilted counterculture generation. Even the time-honoured musical would fade into relative obscurity, perhaps the most relevant coming in the form of John Badham’s inner-city disco smash Saturday Night Fever, which beneath its dance hall decadence was every bit the hard-nosed urban drama.

Perhaps the most notable and controversial tonal shift occurred in the horror genre. Following the emergence of the increasingly graphic giallo during the 1960s, the dying embers of the flamboyant Hammer Horror era would give way to a frenzied deluge of grindhouse and exploitation flicks that focused more on human behaviour and the horrors therein. Even big studio movies such as Don’t Look Now, The Omen and The Exorcist dealt with the corruption of real people, presenting us with supernatural concepts that were much more relatable and grounded in reality. Victims were no longer confined to the faraway gothic castle, stumbling across misty moors as a classic monster gave chase. Now the pursuer was your next door neighbour, the monster someone you’d known your entire life.

Of all those movies, it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that truly hit home, a low-budget outing in the exploitation mode that gained international notoriety, bringing in a cool $30,859,000 on a budget of approximately $140,000. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn’t feel like a movie. It was far more palpable, a kind of prelude to found footage horror hammered home by a weirdly authentic prologue proclaiming the events that would follow were in fact real. Even Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, another slasher innovator released the same year that would employ the soon-to-be-ubiquitous POV killer motif, felt stylised and filmic by comparison. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had that ‘snuff’ quality countless directors chased during the ‘video nasty’ furore of the early 1980s, the kind very few came close to emulating.

The sounds that follow the film’s opening proclamation set the tone for an excruciating 83 minutes of pure audio torment. What we see and hear is short, sharp, and, when compared to the movie’s zoo-crazy climax, almost merciful. That’s not an admission of its subtle nature. The alarming flash photography used for the pre-credits sequence, revealing the decayed body parts of previously discovered victims, offers an almost subliminal peep at the madness that will follow. That horrendous reverberation, like a rusty cello striking a dying animal’s spinal column, an undisclosed creation composer Wayne Bell dubbed ‘The Stinger’, is so beyond the realms of human comfort you may as well be frying in the molten pits of mosquito hell. It’s tough to stomach, even tougher for those watching back in 1974, and a fair warning that those with a nervous disposition probably shouldn’t enter.

Narrator: The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Bell’s work was even grubbier since, ‘The Stinger’ aside, the TCM OST was a severely LoFi recording, something that was less a concerted audio accompaniment, more a fortunate requisite. Budgetary constraints meant that Hooper and his crew had no choice but to use cheap equipment, resulting in a dirty sound befitting of the film’s overall presentation. In today’s widely accessible, predominantly digital industry, you would only arrive at such a juncture from a stylistic decision. Like the mask used to fashion another of horror’s most indomitable figures, Michael Myers, a rubber William Shatner pallor sprayed white with the eyes cut out, some things are forged out of necessity, and often provide the best possible outcome.

The fact that Hooper used a cast of unknown actors, a rarity back then for films that reached a mainstream audience, was another of those fortunate requisites that only adds to the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s troubling air of authenticity. There’s nothing more reassuring in a horror movie than being familiar with the stars playing a killer’s victims. You may get caught up enough to suspend your disbelief, but you always have that identifiable base to turn to when things get rough. When it’s a cast of nobodys, lurching through the Texas desert like a pack of prairie dogs robbed of their sense of smell, it’s a different experience entirely. When audiences go into a movie, they carry with them certain expectations, safeguards if you will. In 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was like an open canvas forged from human skin.

At the time, critics and audiences were somewhat unprepared, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would become one of the most influential films in the history of any genre, something very few realised from the outset. Most critics reached for the flaming torch, condemning the film like a witch-hunting rabble pursuing a misunderstood monster, though others realised that Hooper’s startlingly visceral onslaught was much more than a ragged punt at infamy. The opening paragraph of Roger Ebert’s review summed up its begrudging acceptance as a film of technical merit, an analysis caught in a peculiar void that encapsulates its unique and seminal nature. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert would write, “Now here’s a grisly little item. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises — a real Grand Guignol of a movie. It’s also without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose. And yet in its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.”

The part of that excerpt that really stuck with me was ‘all too effective’. Horror is cinema’s redheaded stepchild in terms of plaudits. Of the American Film Industry’s Top 100 Movies, only two are from the horror genre, and there’s always been a certain degree of snobbery when it comes to recognition and awards. The film is, even today, all too effective, and though I’m not trying to take anything away from the cast of rookies tasked with playing out arguably the first and greatest ever slasher, what Ebert didn’t know, and what countless documentaries and interviews have now informed us of, was that the emotions on screen were largely the product of Hooper’s notoriously vindictive methods.

Shot in and around a Texas Victorian townhouse left to rot by a real-life hippy tenant, the desert temperatures cast and crew members were forced to endure were already unbearable, growing inhumane after Hooper consciously created an oppressive, borderline-sadistic atmosphere that made the emotional torment all too real. This was only exacerbated by the era’s rampant drug culture, the entire production undertaken under an agitated dope haze. Hooper would even pass out drugs as payment, John Larroquette, the man responsible for the film’s infamous opening narration, paid with a single joint of marijuana for his contributions. Even those who were paid in actual cash were afforded peanuts for their hardship, with salaries as low as $50 for a shoot that went 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, with further deferred payments promised based on the film’s success, though again we’re talking small percentages.

Temperatures far exceeded 100 degrees within the stifling confines of the movie’s real-life house of horrors, a ramshackle eyesore decorated with animal bones, carcasses and rotting meat, creating a stench that was nothing short of nauseating. “The real sense of insanity came from… it was 117 degrees in that house,” Hooper would explain. “The hot lights started cooking the props. The cast and crew would run to the window and heave, you know, because of this nauseous odour. Of dead things. That length of time, under those conditions, everybody got a little crazy. [The cast and crew] all hated me at the end of the movie. I mean, there were two wrap parties going on. The groups were split and I was sitting on the porch of the house all by myself.”

I’m sure the cast didn’t appreciate such hardships, but it was a small price to pay for being part of one of the most lauded and enduring films of any era, and there was clearly a method to Hooper’s systematically instilled madness. Despite its beautifully exploitative title, the kind of attention-grabbing statement independent filmmakers would attempt to emulate for more than a decade, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre works more on a psychological level. There are some truly brutal acts of murder, but you don’t see any slit throats or decapitations. In fact, you rarely see an implement making direct contact, the titular chainsaw used only once. The few deaths that do occur are brief, abrupt, and light on physical carnage, but it doesn’t seem that way. Instead we succumb to a prolonged emotional assault: the deadening thud of a hammer, the thumping twitch of Kirk’s corpse, the raging buzz of our killer’s serrated death machine and the nerve-shredding screams of our fleeing cast, but the movie’s trump card is Leatherface himself.

The influence of Gunnar Hansen’s lumbering creation cannot be underestimated. If it were not for Leatherface, the masked killer trope that gave us Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and a whole host of seek-and-destroy killers may not have existed, or at the very least featured so prominently. On the surface, Leatherface is a mindless killing machine who seems to run on pure instinct, the physical component of a family of cannibals who lure victims to their remote house of horrors and sell their dead flesh as BBQ, but the character’s often devastating brutality is arguably the least disconcerting part of his personality. It’s what lies beneath the mask that truly fascinates.

There is much more to Hansen’s squealing monstrosity than at first meets the eye, a depth glimpsed during rare moments of quiet introspection. It is during these moments that everything and nothing seems to be going on inside; a startling, barely understood sense of conflict festering during instances of unbearable inaction. He’s like the shark that has to keep moving. Every last shred of emotion, whatever it may entail, is contained behind that mask, the sickly sight of his tongue lapping at his crooked teeth and lips revealing a monster of almost pure impulse; a deranged, confused, almost autistic killer who flips between internal confusion and outward panic. The only peace he seems to derive, at least onscreen, is that moment immediately following the kill, the realisation that the most awkward and urgent part of his job is done. Everything else is pure, combustible chaos.

It seems like madness to suggest as much, but there’s a tragic quality to Leatherface that is almost worthy of our empathy. The source of this is Jim Siedow’s patriarchal terror ‘The Cook’, the fiendish head of the family who keeps his band of inbred psychopaths in line. The Cook doesn’t get involved with the killing, claims to take no pleasure in it, a comment that hints at delusions of superiority in the face of so much uninhibited derangement. Unlike the animalistic Leatherface and the frenetic lunacy that is Edwin Neal’s ‘The Hitchhiker’, The Cook is able to maintain a mask of sanity for long enough to handle the whole operation. There is a pragmatism to him, a sense of order and self-restraint that he believes makes him better, but in fact makes him the worst of the bunch. To fleeing victims, Leatherface is evil incarnate, but in the presence of The Cook he is a timid little boy terrified of failure, the victim of patriarchal oppression.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was in part inspired by Ed ‘the Butcher of Plainfield’ Gein, a notorious serial killer and body snatcher convicted of unprecedented acts of debauchery, but also by a lesser-known, Texas-born killer named Elmer Wayne Henley. A then 17-year-old Henley would become involved in a series of incidents known as the Houston Mass Murders, luring young boys to the house of fellow serial killer Dean Corll, a depraved retreat where victims were subjected to prolonged acts of rape, torture and ultimately murder. Their operation was redolent of the one used by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s ungodly feeders on human misery, but co-screenwriter Kim Henkel was more interested in incorporating the killer’s psychology.

“I definitely studied Gein… but I also noticed a murder case in Houston at the time, a serial murderer you probably remember named Elmer Wayne Henley,” Henkel would explain. “I saw some news report where Elmer Wayne said, ‘I did these crimes, and I’m gonna stand up and take it like a man.’ Well, that struck me as interesting, that he had this conventional morality at that point. He wanted it known that, now that he was caught, he would do the right thing. So this kind of moral schizophrenia is something I tried to build into the characters.”

It is that moral schizophrenia that best characterises The Cook.

Though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is based on true events in the loosest possible sense, there are similarities between Gein and Leatherface that go beyond brutal murder and exhuming corpses, most of them undertaken offscreen. Leatherface is seen storing bodies in freezers and dismembering corpses for future acts of cannibalism (Gein denied eating his victims, though presiding Judge Robert Gollmar thought it “very possible”). He also keeps the bones and skin of his victims as trophies in the same way as Gein, whose home contained furniture and trinkets made from human remains, the very same that fill the movie’s horror house. It’s disquieting to think that a graceless, seemingly autonomous brute like Leatherface could have the patience and skill to manufacture such macabre objects. In a sense, they’re the artistic endeavours of an introverted enigma. How many other seek-and-destroy killers can boast such indelible nuances in the realms of slasherdom?

Leatherface was also a product of America’s cultural and political landscape, a commentary on an era of corruption, death and misinformation that inspired Hooper’s decision to include the “film you are about to see is true” motif. The political subterfuge of the Watergate Scandal, the 1973 oil crisis and the televised and photographed atrocities of the Vietnam War all contributed to the character’s personality and aesthetic. Leatherface is a confused, emotionally conflicted man used as an agent of death and destruction, a person forced into a life of murder who doesn’t know how to be anything else, a thinly-veiled representation of a generation plunged into an ‘afterlife’ of post-traumatic stress disorder. Hooper was concerned with the “lack of sentimentality and the brutality of things”, concluding that, “man was the real monster here, just wearing a different face, so I put a literal mask on the monster in my film”.

Beyond the macabre, real-life connections, what makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so terrifyingly authentic is the movie’s au naturel cast, the real and isolated environment they find themselves in, and the almost documentary style in which the action unfolds. This was long before the slasher descended into formula and stereotypes; before the term slasher had even been coined. It doesn’t have the immediately identifiable types audiences would one day become accustomed to ― the chauvinistic jock, the racy slut, the unpopular geek. It doesn’t even have an immediately identifiable heroine. This means characters are harder to presuppose, are more believable and worthier of our empathy. There are no moralistic rules to ensure their survival. It’s pure, non-discriminatory chaos. It could happen to anyone.

The Cook: I just can’t take no pleasure in killing. There’s just some things you gotta do. Don’t mean you have to like it.

This is also a post-Vietnam environment, a time of great cultural and generational division. Our cast are young, free-spirited hippies more concerned with the cosmos than any Earthly fate. In the eyes of their elders, they are the enemies of traditional American values, especially in a devoutly Conservative state such as Texas, a place with notoriously harsh laws on offenders. For kids like these, Texas law officials were hardly someone to rely on. If anything, they were the foreign enemy; someone to fear. Set against such a vast and anonymous landscape, such elements add an extra undercurrent of hopelessness. Isolation is one of the key components to making an effective horror movie, and these kids are isolated geographically, culturally, and emotionally. They don’t have a friend in the world.

The character audiences most remember is the late Marylin Burns’ Sally Hardesty, one of the first examples of a ‘final girl’, and for many the purest progenitor. If The Texas Chainsaw Massacre works more on a psychological level for characters and cast members alike, then Hardesty/Burns takes the brunt of it. From the moment Franklin is torn to shreds in front of her very eyes, the ordeal begins, an almost ceaseless final act of nerve-shredding terror. When the film isn’t saturating us with blazing chainsaws, bestial grunts and unrelenting screams of primal fear, it’s drugging us with woozy set-design and claustrophobic environments. The drawn-out scene in which our internally quarrelling family try to aid their mummified grandpa with the terrified Sally’s ‘braining’ is excruciating to behold, a cacophony of real-time inanity reflected in extreme close-ups of her naked eyeballs.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was famously banned in several countries, eventually making its way onto the infamous Video Nasties list. It was also pulled from numerous theatres following complaints about its graphic depictions of violence. I’m sure the few kills featured in the movie were hard to stomach back in 1974, particularly in light of cultural and political events, but I’m almost certain it was sheer exhaustion that offended more than anything: the erratic, unconventional presentation, the ceaseless audio assault, the stifling madness and the sheer realism of it all. It’s the whole experience, rather than the film’s isolated acts of violence, that touch a raw nerve.

No matter how many times I watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s a harrowing ordeal. Unlike most horror movies, there’s no real clarity to the movie’s final act. I don’t remember it as scenes, more a cavalier onslaught; it’s not something you can really compartmentalise, the action just spills out in front of you. There’s no cooling down period, either. For thirty harrowing minutes, the film never lets up. That final shot of a bloodsoaked Sally escaping in the back of a passing truck, maniacal with relief, offers no real emotional closure. The screaming doesn’t abate, and internally probably never will. Then there’s that iconic parting shot of Leatherface himself, swinging his chainsaw high above his head, a gorgeous composition of dawn-kissed insanity. As direct and unabated as the character is, he somehow seems beyond detection, destined to continue on his monomaniac quest for human disposal. He is representative of man’s underlying animalism, human destruction in its purest form, and you know there are killers out there just like him. You know because history has, and always will, continue to reveal as much.

Director: Tobe Hooper
Screenplay: Kim Henkel
Tobe Hooper
Music: Tobe Hooper &
Wayne Bell
Cinematography: Daniel Pearl
Editing: Sallye Richardson
Larry Carroll

3 comments

  1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those unsettling horror films that really gets under you skin, no many how times you’ve see it, there’s something about this one that is really brutal to behold. There’s no real gore to speak of, just the grim, unsettling atmosphere and setting. A fantastic horror film for sure, but never an easy one to watch.

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  2. I had the honor of watching this film again last weekend at a local drive-in in Central Texas, as perfect a viewing experience as can be. Even as a middle-aged man, the movie still makes my heart pound with dread and concern for the well-being of the protagonists. The sound design and cinematography are simply perfect, and I’m never sure whether to laugh or cry during the more absurd onscreen moments — it feels like a claustrophobic fever dream. I’m just grateful I didn’t have any nightmares after this viewing (at least not yet!).

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    1. Hi, Will

      A drive-in in Texas. What a setting for one of the greatest horror movies ever committed to celluloid. I’d be worried Leatherface might appear for real. I can’t imagine what that looked and sounded like, or the atmosphere in the place. I’m sure it was a fun time.

      Like

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