Whenever the subject of horror movies is introduced, I stoutly maintain that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the ultimate horror movie. As in, you never need to see another one. I’m prepared to defend at length the proposition that it is an exceptional piece of work which transcends its genre. If I were still taking a film class at Santa Monica College, I could write a paper on it for sure.
I remember liking the sound effects and the music. I read somewhere that one of the victims screams for the last 30 minutes of the film, but I don’t remember that, and it’s the sort of thing I notice, because about 3 seconds of screaming is plenty enough for me. If indeed a woman screams for one-third of the film’s length, it is a testimony to its other elements that I didn’t register it.
I like what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has in common with Picnic at Hanging Rock – the portentous brooding evil of a bright day. Heat waves shimmering over a green field – how do you make that look sinister?
Hitchhiker is a facially-birthmarked grave robber whose character was based on the actor’s real-life schizophrenic nephew. When Leatherface performs an atrocity one of the lost teenagers, the cannibal father grouses, “Look what your brother did to this door.” Touchingly, Leatherface dresses for dinner in a shirt and tie, and a mask made up with rouge and eyeliner.
The only surviving kid finally gets away, and the most memorable image, fittingly, is the last scene. In the tender pastel light of a dewy dawn, in the middle of a country road, Leatherface is having abandonment issues. Still wearing his white dress shirt and tie and suit jacket, he whirls about in a grotesque frenzied dance of lonely frustration, chain-sawing the empty air.
Once, I recommended The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to a pair of friends. They rented it, watched it, hated it, and have never trusted me since. A like-minded film critic said,
…sadistic in the extreme and unrelieved by any artistic value whatever.
In Gadfly magazine Daniel Kraus, who will be quoted again, wrote,
…it was banned in the U.K., Germany and Sweden for over twenty years. Britain’s chief film censor, James Ferman, damned it as “psychological terrorism” and Harper’s magazine spat that it was, “a vile piece of sick crap . . . Nothing but imbecile concoctions of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it.”
Michael Bronski speaks of a new aesthetic which…
….probably traceable back to the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre – treats the graphic mutilation of human flesh as a satisfying end in itself.
Just a moment, Mr. Bronski. Okay, for Leatherface, mutilation is an end in itself. I give you that. He lives to wield the chainsaw. It is his passion.
But there is nothing graphic about it. The last time I watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it was with the express purpose of tabulating the visible violence, which seems to have been more implied than illustrated. Presumably there is dried blood on Leatherface’s apron, but I don’t think there is a drop of fresh blood. I think the only actual violence we see is, after the girl has been captured and put into a cloth bag, the cannibal father hits and pokes her with a stick.
But even here, the violence is, in the most technical sense, implicit. The odds that the girl is inside the bag approach certainty, but we still don’t see a direct assault on human flesh. It is a fine distinction but an important one, and one I think the director consciously drew.
Of course it could be that the violence is more explicit than I recall. If I’m all wrong about this, please speak up. Tell me in which scene a weapon, or a body part used as a weapon, actually strikes a blow that is shown landing, and I’ll watch the movie again and slap my own forehead in dumbfoundment.
Then again, Kraus says,
It’s the kind of movie where you swear you saw the rusty meat hook sink into the girl’s soft back, when it really wasn’t shown… Was it?
Wilson Bryan Key, author of Subliminal Seduction and Media Sexploitation, claimed that the film had those subliminal horror frames in it, which if true, could explain why some people are so appalled. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is said to have been made on a shoestring budget in seven weeks. It grossed $21 million in the first year, mostly at drive-in theaters. Then, next thing you know, it had made $30 million, and who knows how much by now?
In the summer of ’73 it was hot, hot, hot in Austin. Kraus says,
Under the lights, animal flesh and bone festered and burned, raising a sickly stench… Outside, a doctor applied nausea medicine to vomiting crew members.
As to story’s original inspiration, Kraus says,
The grisly case of Eddie Gein, who simultaneously desired and loathed women reminiscent of his mother, inspired the landmark 1960 film Psycho, as well as the shocker classic Silence of the Lambs. But in the fall of 1974, a film came out that — for sheer, relentless terror — devours them both.
And just in case you ever wanted a complete list of the nastiness promulgated by the real Ed Gein, the Gadfly article provides a full list. But in another publication, director Tobe Hooper told an interviewer,
Our family doctor told me that when he was a pre-med student, he once skinned a cadaver’s face and wore it as a mask to a Halloween party of med school guys. That’s where Leatherface came from; we weren’t consciously ‘doing’ Gein and had done no Gein research.
Vindication is Sweet –
Marks of Distinction Awarded to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (A Partial List)
It was chosen “Outstanding Film of the Year” at the 19th Annual London Film Festival, and shown there again when its 25th anniversary rolled around.
It was shown at the Cannes festival, where Rex Reed said it was the most horrifying motion picture he had ever seen, and was carried in Essential Media, the hippest catalog.
It was acquired (along with The Hills Have Eyes) by the New York MOMA for its study collection. The museum said, “We’re not willing to say yet these films are works of art. There is always a possibility that they will be accepted into our permanent collection but they haven’t been yet….” Then later on, it was accepted as part of the permanent collection.
A report from the 8th International Paris Festival of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films said,
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre… touted last month by Dan O’Bannon as the state of the art in horror films before Alien, was awaited with the greatest anticipation of any entry. Record crowds, estimated at 5,000 or more, were turned away, causing the first riot outside. When the movie was shown, it turned out to be a heavily censored version, sorely disappointing the audience and almost provoking a second riot.
Ridley Scott, director of Alien, said,
I think there are certain types of underground movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which are frightening beyond belief – really outrageous.
Joe Bob Briggs, author of Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies That Changed History, was asked by interviewer Sara Rimensnyder, “If you could show the moral nags one movie, what would it be? His answer:
Actually, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which 30 years after its release is still always used as an example of cultural decay and the depravity of mass entertainment. I’d have them tell me what about it revolts them so much. It’s a comedy!
Back when I lived in LA, a trip to the intellectually elevated Nuart Theater, where they kept a request log in the lobby, revealed that it was the most frequently requested film by Nuart patrons.
A review in Playboy said the movie was done with taste and conscience, and,
There are films that skate right up to the border where art ceases to be thrown off and exploitation begins, and those films are often the field’s most striking successes. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of those. I would happily testify to its redeeming social merit in any court in the country…
Daniel Kraus saw it as representing civilization versus the wilderness, “the rural getting revenge for the urbanite sins — business, familial and sexual.” Praising its brutal simplicity and “the sick grandeur of an age-old myth,” he cited “our barely concealed collective nightmare and hidden lust for a world of destruction and negativity.” He also said the film
…re-affirmed our ability to be repulsed and shocked, an ability we lost with the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the atomic aftermath in Hiroshima, and the concentration camp atrocities of World War II… The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has entered the popular unconscious to such an extent that it effects even those who have not seen it.