The Saw Is Family: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Meaning of Murder

This week, horror fans and old goths like me around the world mourn the passing of Tobe Hooper, who died on Saturday at the age of 74, barely a month-and-a-half after we lost George A. Romero. Few directors get to redefine a genre, but Romero and Hooper both achieved this with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), two utterly ground-breaking movies. As a mark of respect, I’d just like to say a few words about Hooper’s remarkable breakout masterpiece, a film that more than any other sent me down the left-hand path of video nasties, meat movies, and independent horror in the seventies, for which I am eternally grateful.

Tobe Hooper‘No-one, absolutely no-one ever forgets the first time they ever saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ begins the theatrical trailer for Kim Henkel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994). This was a fascinating misfire from Henkel, who co-wrote the original with Hooper when they were fresh out of the University of Texas film school. It starred a very young Renée Zellweger as the final girl, with Matthew McConaughey as one of the chainsaw family (1). This film is an interesting bridge between the first three movies – TCM Parts 1 and 2 (both directed by Hooper) and Jeff Burr’s under-rated Leatherface (1990) – and the franchise reboot that began in 2003 with Marcus Nispel’s excellent remake of the original movie. With the wry humour that characterises the Chainsaw mythos, this trailer placed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the collective consciousness of American culture alongside such seismic historical markers as the Kennedy assassination (along with the fall of the Alamo, the other event synonymous with Texas), and the first Moon landing; at the same time hinting at more personal and illicit milestones like your first drink, cigarette, kiss, or even losing your virginity.

I can certainly still remember my first time. It was a grainy VHS transfer from a US copy, procured under the counter in 1984 from the same guy who sold me I Spit on Your Grave, A Clockwork Orange, and Dawn of the Mummy, films you can now routinely see on television but possession of which back then could get you arrested under the new UK Broadcasting Act. I had ached to see this movie ever since I read the House of Hammer review after its first NFT showing in 1976, and it didn’t disappoint. I get the same rush watching it now, and I still feel a little dirty.

Texas Chainsaw MassacreThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre was finally granted a general cinema and video release by the British Board of Film Classification twenty-six years after it was made, and this poster child for the Obscene Publications List is now acknowledged as one of the great films of the twentieth century, not just as a genre picture, but a dark work of art. The indie director Jim Van Bebber, for example, said that seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time ‘was as profound a cinematic experience as seeing 8 ½ and Citizen Kane’ (2). In genre terms, any claim regarding this film’s significance is probably an understatement. As the late Chas Balun of Fangoria and Gorezone observed, ‘one relatively infallible way to discern whether self-proclaimed genre experts have their heads up their asses or not is to check out their commentary on Chainsaw. If it’s ignored, merely given a perfunctory nod, or described with any factual errors, well, how can you respect anything else they might say?’ (Balun: 1986, 13). The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can also be viewed historically as the focal point of a particular and mischievous type of post-war American gothic, from the EC horror comics and attendant moral panic of the early 1950s, through Hitchcock’s Psycho and its imitators, to the grand-guignol ‘splatterpunk’ (3) of the 80s, and all the way up to the millennial postmodern revisionism of Scream and The Blair Witch Project and the slick and knowing contemporary carnage of Ash vs. the Evil Dead.

Compared to what followed, eventually arriving on mainstream television in shows like American Horror Story and The Walking Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is remarkably bloodless. The controversy that once surrounded this film, mostly generated by people that had never seen it, and the gloriously over-the-top tabloid title itself, continues to convey the impression that the film is graphically violent. In fact, it implies much but Hooper, like Hitchcock, shows very little. Nonetheless, this is probably one of the most gruelling, fidgety eighty-five minutes that you will ever spend in front of a screen. William Lustig (director of the thoroughly unpleasant and once banned-in-Britain Maniac, 1980), recalled attending an early screening in 1974 in which ‘The whole cinema bonded into one mass-hysterical group watching this movie that was totally outrageous.’ Then, as the original trailers confidently asserted, the distribution company (Bryanston) elated by the critical acclaim the film initially received from the New York intelligentsia, ‘after you stop screaming, you’ll start talking about it.’ Rex Reed described it as, ‘the most horrifying motion picture I have ever seen.  This film is positively ruthless in its attempt to drive you right out of your mind. It accomplishes everything it sets out to do with brilliance and unparalleled terror. This is the horror movie to end them all’ (4). Reed, a fashionable film critic who did not shy away from the avant-garde – see his performance in Myra Breckenridge – understood immediately the significance and device of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Hooper’s sense of horror comes from a devastatingly acute perception of the illogic of nightmare and the unreason of madness. Despite popular misconceptions as to the level of stage blood in this film, Hooper wasn’t trying to turn his audience’s stomach or impress them with special effects; he was, as Reed understood, going for their unconscious. As Van Bebber put it:

It wants to hurt you, it just wants to hurt you. Everything is inside it to attack the audience. That is something we don’t find in horror anymore. Everybody wants to shake your hand or meet you halfway and then try and scare you by hiding behind the door. This thing was fucking coming out in clown paint, blood-spattered with homicide on its mind.

As Leslie A. Fielder wrote, ‘the gothic is the product of an explicit aesthetic that replaces the classic concept of nothing-in-excess with the revolutionary doctrine that nothing succeeds like excess’ (Fielder: 1984, 134). The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is designed to drive you crazy, at least for as long as you watch. As the original UK poster art asked its potential audience, ‘Can you survive The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?’ The tag line for the original American poster had been ‘Who will survive, and what will be left of them?’ The UK poster displaces this threat to the victims within the film onto the victims watching it; we are challenged, in effect, to a test of psychological endurance.

Night of the Living DeadWhile Hooper’s movie shares some similarities with drive-in movies like Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (1967), in which a family of murderous lunatics live in a decaying rural mansion, and the redneck rampage of Harold Daniels’ Poor White Trash (1957), the closest conceptual correlative is George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s film brought horror home. It contained no monsters from outer space (so popular at decade previously at the height of the Cold War), and no supernatural beings with creepy Eastern European accents. As the central character of the sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978), later says of the zombie hoards, ‘They’re us.’ Night of the Living Dead was set in a recognisable American present, the violence was lingering and unsettlingly realistic, the film’s climax nihilistic and inconclusive: the (black) hero, as well as the rest of the principal cast, was dead while the cannibal zombies were still out there and multiplying. John Carpenter – whose Halloween moved the genre forward again in 1978 – said of Romero:

With Night of the Living Dead, George Romero bought a feel to horror films that had never been seen before. He combined several different elements. One was a documentary feel that came from his use of black-and-white photography and hand-held camera. Secondly, his dealing with graphic violence started an entire trend in horror films. Before that point, horror films were usually about rubber monsters or hands groping in the dark; tremendous clichés that went back to the thirties and forties. George revolutionized that. He made the horror movie something to contend with. His work has influenced every major director in the horror genre since 1968 (qtd. in Gagne: 1987, 21).

Romero and his crew had set a genre precedent which could not be ignored, and those who did ignore it, such as Hammer Films in Great Britain, who continued to make more traditional ‘period’ gothic well into the 70s, went to the wall. Even Roger Corman moved away from his hugely successful ‘Poe Cycle’ starring Vincent Price towards a modern setting. The paradigm shifts quite obviously in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1967). Bogdanovich, one of Corman’s stable of young directors, cast Boris Karloff as an ageing horror star appearing at a retrospective of his own work (from the Corman era naturally), and the narrative contrasts this cosy gothic fiction with the horror of a normal-looking guy who goes home one day and kills his entire family before going on a random rampage with his hunting rifle. The climax takes place at a drive-in theatre showing Corman’s The Terror (1963), the type of gothic narrative which the great man typified giving way to a much more modern trauma which continues to haunt America to this day, the cause of which is often ironically and erroneously laid at the feet of the film makers. Rather poetically, Targets was also Karloff’s swan song.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was also preceded by a collaboration between Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham (who was to give us the Friday the 13th franchise). The Last House on the Left (1972), based loosely upon Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1959), features a gang of psychotic criminals (some of whom are related, as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), who torture, rape and murder two teenage girls on their way to a concert and then co-incidentally hole-up in the family home of one of their victims. Last House on the Left begins Craven’s preoccupation with the dehumanisation of violence, and with turning ordinary Americans into instruments of vengeance. The same motif can be seen, for example, in his 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes, in which a middle-class family is forced to brutally fight for their lives against a family of mutant cannibals in the Nevada desert. In The Last House on the Left, the besieged parents kill their tormentors every bit as sadistically as the gang had previously treated their daughter and her friend: one character is horribly castrated and left the bleed to death while, notably, their leader, ‘Krug,’ is killed by an outraged father with a chainsaw.  The violence was hardcore and this film was banned in Britain for decades. ‘Can a movie go too far?’ was the question posed by the original poster art.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Sally)Such was the background to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the cutting edge of American new wave cinema. The Summer of Love was over, Charles Manson and the Family were in jail charged with murder, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and Janice Joplin were all dead, Nixon was in the Whitehouse, and the Vietnam War raged on (with images of blood and death on the TV news every night). Since Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda had gone ‘looking for America’ in Easy Rider in 1969, maverick young film-makers were eager to demonstrate that to have the American Dream, you must necessarily also have the American Nightmare. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is therefore both American gothic and outrageous satire. Kim Henkel, when asked why he created the ‘chainsaw family,’ replied with a smile that he ‘wanted to scare the shit out of someone.’ Hooper has said that, ‘I think what I was trying to say was: This is America!’

Hooper and Henkel had already made a movie together. Interestingly, Eggshells (1972) was about the decline of a hippie commune and coming to terms with the end of the sixties. The film won an award at the Atlanta Film Festival that year, but was not widely seen outside the art house circuit. Hooper needed an affordable but commercial project to break into Hollywood, and Night of the Living Dead was obviously inspirational. Exploitation films also had a guaranteed (teenaged drive-in) audience and, like the Expressionist film-makers of the 20s and 30s, Romero had also proved that horror could be art.

Still preoccupied with what we might call the Condition of America question, Hooper seems to have combined this with a childhood memory of Wisconsin relatives coming to visit and telling the tale of the notorious necrophiliac Ed Gein, ‘the woman skinner of Wisconsin,’ a backward and backwoods boy who had taken to robbing graves and wearing and decorating his deserted farmhouse with body parts in the early 1950s, before his insanity inevitably led to murder. His activities were finally discovered in 1957 and he died in the Wisconsin Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1984. Robert Bloch made no secret of the fact that this case was the inspiration for Psycho, even connecting the stories in the original novel that preceded Hitchcock’s movie in 1959: ‘Some of the write-ups compared it to the Gein affair up North, a few years back. They worked up a sweat over the “house of horror” and tried their damnedest to make out that Norman Bates had been murdering motel visitors for years’ (Bloch: 1962, 119). By the time of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’ yuppie serial killer, Patrick Bateman (named in a nod to Norman Bates), acknowledges Gein as a kind of inspirational folk hero, the father of all American psychos:

After a deliberate pause I say, ‘do you know what Ed Gein said about women?’

Ed Gein?’ one of them asks. ‘Maître d’ at Canal Bar?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘Serial Killer, Wisconsin in the fifties. He was an interesting guy.’

‘You’ve always been interested in stuff like that, Bateman,’ Reeves says, and then to Hamlin, ‘Bateman reads those biographies all the time: Ted Bundy and Son of Sam and Fatal Vision and Charlie Manson. All of them.’

‘So what did Ed say?’ Hamlin asks, interested.

‘He said,’ I begin, “When I see a pretty girl walking down the street I think two things. One part of me wants to take her out and be real nice and sweet and treat her right.”’ I stop, finish my J&B in one swallow.

‘What does the other part of him think?’ Hamlin asks tentatively.

‘What her head would look like on a stick,’ I say.

Hamlin and Reeves look at each other and then back at me before I start laughing, and then the two of them uneasily join in (Ellis: 1991, 92).

Deeply sexist, and all at once disturbing and knowingly witty, Ellis has perfectly caught the Gein legend. As for Hooper, who was a pre-schooler when he heard the story: ‘It stuck with me,’ he later said.

Haunt of Fear ECIn addition to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there are several Gein-inspired movies out there, for example William Girdler’s cheap and cheerful Three on a Meathook (1973); the excellent Deranged (1974), co-written and directed by Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormsby, which was unfortunately buried at the box office by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1990); and Chuck Parello’s Ed Gein (2000). Gein is to macabre American folklore what ‘Jack the Ripper’ is to English popular history. Just as the Whitechapel killings were interpreted in terms of gothic fiction at the time, the murderer appearing to have walked straight out of the pages of a penny-dreadful (5), Gein, except to the friends and family of his victims, has always seemed more like a character from an EC horror comic than a real human being who had killed at least two women and desecrated the graves of dozens of others.

The EC countryside was populated almost entirely by moronic cannibals and psychos. Jack Davies – a native of Atlanta – set his stories in the middle of rural nowhere, playing on the gothic otherness of the South. A ‘typical Jack Davis horror story,’ wrote comics historian Mike Benton, ‘takes place in a backwater village, populated by cretins who appear to be the hairy, pimply offspring of incestuous mating. Flies buzz around, dogs scratch at ticks, and evil – degenerate, perverse evil – pulses, throbs, and swells on every page,’ continuing:

Many of Davis’ EC stories revolve around a character who is either prey or predator.  Someone must die so someone can live, and you can bet someone does die, usually in a most horribly satisfying fashion.

Davis drew people naturally ugly. Even his women had overbites and big feet. The atavistic and primal look of the people in a Jack Davis horror story always fit in with the accompanying plots of grim and gritty survival (Benton: 1991, 14 – 15).

In a Jack Davis story, death was always arbitrary. Innocents simply blundered into this in-bred Twilight Zone like butterflies caught in a web. They were killed merely because they were there, because they didn’t understand the rules of the jungle, and because they weren’t from around those parts. Foreshadowing the ‘video nasty’ controversy that saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre banned in Britain and several other European countries, the hugely popular EC crime and horror titles were shut down by a moral panic engendered by the child psychologist Dr Fredric Wertham. His book, The Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today’s Youth (1954), led to Senate Subcommittee Hearings and the hasty self-regulation of the industry through the Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America, which made distribution of EC comics impossible. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, these comics are now acknowledged as influential genre trailblazers. In his analysis of American Gothic, Danse Macabre (1982), Stephen King cites EC publisher and writer William M. Gaines alongside Edgar Allan Poe in terms of cultural significance. King used the EC device of placing gothic archetypes in a contemporary setting in his second novel, Salem’s Lot (1975), a kind of suburban Nosferatu. Tobe Hooper directed Salem’s Lot for television in 1979, scaring the hell out of everybody.

Hooper is the quintessential heir to the EC aesthetic, especially the work of Jack Davis. ‘I started reading [EC comics] when I was about seven,’ he told Cinefantastique in 1977:

They were absolutely frightening, unbelievably gruesome. And they were packed with the most unspeakably horrible monsters and fiends, most of which specialised in mutilation … I loved them. They were not in any way based on logic. To enjoy them you had to accept that there was a bogey man out there … Since I started reading these comics when I was young and impressionable, their overall feeling stayed with me. I’d say they were the single most important influence on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A lot of their mood went into the film (qtd. in Jaworzyn: 2003, 30).

In concept, character and controversy, Hooper’s meat movie masterpiece was pure EC, and his next movie, Death Trap (AKA Eaten Alive, 1976), was based on a story by Davis called ‘Country Clubbing’ (Haunt of Fear 23). Hooper lit from a comic book palette, while his vérité style recalled the intimate perspective of EC narratives, as did his relentless parodies of the American family. There was also a common preoccupation with cannibalism, necrophilia and putrefaction. In Poltergeist (1982), Hooper also blended the Twilight Zone story ‘Little Girl Lost’ with the Vault of Horror story ‘Graft in Concrete’ (again by Jack Davis, from Vault of Horror 15); and when EC’s flagship title, Tales from the Crypt, finally returned with a vengeance as an HBO television series, Tobe Hooper directed the episode ‘Dead Wait’ in 1991.

Hooper begins his assault on his audience in a very direct way. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre opens with a brief, journalistic prologue stating, as did the posters and trailers, that this was a true story (which it wasn’t) (6). This quasi-documentary, cinéma-vérité sensibility pervades the entire film, emphasised by the use of hand-held cameras and actually assisted by the low production values. The terribly serious narrator was John Larroquette of the TV show Night Court, his (then) instantly recognisable voice a cultural code which immediately introduced the director’s central device: a mixture of verisimilitude and showmanship in roughly equal measure.

The film proper begins with darkness and digging. We hear laboured breathing, scraping sounds suggesting exhumation punctuated by the periodic flash of a camera (accompanied by one of Wayne Bell’s weird sound effects); each flash briefly illuminates a close up of part a badly decomposed human body. The camera tracks back out of the darkness (accompanied by atonal sounds using, according to Hooper, a variety of Oriental instruments and children’s toys), to reveal a very rotten male corpse wired to a monument in a graveyard in the baking Sun like a da da sculpture in hell. A radio news broadcast can be heard to report that ‘Grave robbing in Texas is this hour’s top story. Acting on a tip-off, members of the county sheriff’s office went to a cemetery just outside the small rural Texas community of Newt. Officers there discovered what appeared to be a grisly work of art … Subsequent investigation has revealed at least a dozen empty crypts and it is feared more will turn up as the probe continues’ (7). Then the title appears and the credits roll against a negative image of Sun spots flaring away into space, Hooper and Bell’s jangling, experimental music and the nasty news report. The next shot begins with a close-up of a surrealist road kill (a squashed armadillo), and a Volkswagen Microbus drives into shot through the shimmering heat haze. Traffic noise partially obscures the radio report, so that only snippets of death and disaster can be heard:

A sixteen storey building in downtown Atlanta collapsed yesterday killing at least twenty-nine people … Police in Gary, Indiana have been unable to identify the bodies of a young man and woman discovered by children … Police in Dallas arrested a young couple today. Complaints by neighbours led them to discover the eighteen-month-old daughter of the couple chained in the attic of a dilapidated house…

This is followed by some cheery country music and move to the interior of the van. The occupants (two square-jawed, slightly hairy guys in jeans with two pretty girls) are straight out of Scooby-Doo (as is the van), only they have a fat boy, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), in a wheelchair instead of Scooby. One of the girls (Pam, played by Teri McMinn, who has since completely disowned her part in the film), is reading aloud from American Astrology magazine: ‘The condition of retrogradation is contrary or inharmonious to the regular direction of actual movement in the Zodiac, and is in that respect evil. Hence, when malefic planets are in retrograde – and Saturn’s malefic – their malevolence is increased … Saturn’s a bad influence, and it’s particularly bad now because it’s in retrograde.’ This function as an ominous and personalised continuation of the radio commentary, and is equally naturalistic. The effect is cumulative. You feel uneasy, you can still smell the graveyard, the hype has already got you nervous and the opening titles were horrible.

There was nothing like this in 1974, and cinema audiences had yet to become inured to the special make-up effects of Tom Savini and Rick Baker; there was no Jason, Freddy or The Walking Dead with which to cross reference the imagery. Neither could the audience appeal to the traditional gothic; this was gritty and modern and close.

Tony Perkins PsychoThe group visits the graveyard, partly because Franklin’s sister Sally (Marilyn Burns) is concerned their grandfather’s grave has been disturbed, but mostly out of morbid curiosity, notably placing them in the same point of view as the film’s audience. The road trip then becomes even more ominous as the van passes ‘the old slaughterhouse’ (with a fast-cut to stupid-looking, drooling cows crammed together), which is announced by its stench. Franklin describes the different methods of slaughtering cattle, from the sledgehammer to the ‘humane killer,’ also doing the sound effects. For about twenty minutes now, the film has assaulted us with an audio-visual montage of sweaty images of death and decay. Hooper rubs our noses in it: he laughs at our collective fear of death, and juxtaposes the apparently carefree lives of the middle-class teens (the demographic that would make up much of his audience), with the ever-present and random injustices of madness (the grave robber/sculptor), and death (the grave itself); the radio news report covers both cases. The experience also seems voyeuristic, illicit, the realism pornographic. If anyone laughs when Franklin falls down or starts whinging on about something, it is an uneasy, guilty laughter. You ask yourself: How far is this director going to go?

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