My Kinda Horror: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

In My Kinda Horror I am going to be looking at some of my favourite horror movies.  Although I wasn’t around when most of these films were released, I still rate them as a big part of my formative years.  The only difference was that instead of going to the nearest cinema and sitting in the dark watching these films on the big screen, I rented them from my local video store and sat in the darkness of my lounge room.  Even though they weren’t new films, they were new to me – discovering them during my teens still had the same effect than if I had seen them on the big screen.  So in a way, I did grow up watching films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead and Psycho.

The films I will be discussing mean a lot to me; they are a big part of who I am today.  While not all of them will be masterpieces (or even minorpieces), they will be important either to the evolution of the modern horror film, or just my own perverse little pleasures.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was made during the summer of 1973 (and released the following year), just outside of Austin Texas, at a time when mainstream cinema was pushing the boundaries of screen violence and sexual content – in such films as The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance.  Made by mostly young college students in the sun-drenched South, with a budget that would make Roger Corman bleed with envy, what emerged from that revolutionary times (in terms of cinema) is one of the most unsettling and remarkable horror films ever made.

The story itself it quite simple: a group of young adults driving through the Texas back roads stop off at an old house where two of them grew up.  They all end of being chased and slaughtered by a family of imbred hicks, all that is, except for one girl who is captured, tortured, but manages to escape relatively unharmed (psychically speaking – her mental state is highly questionable).  Now, that all sounds very hackneyed and cliched, but you do have to remember that Chainsaw was made before Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night and countless other slashers that Chainsaw helped fashion.  I’m not saying that Chainsaw is a slasher – because, in my opinion it’s not.  For one thing, we know who the killer’s are, even get to spend some time with them and get to know them a little; whereas in slasher films, the killer is always either a mystery until the climax, or, as in the case of films like Halloween, even when the killer is known from the start, they remain in the background, only seen in shadows, and rarely talk.  The point of slasher films are the build up to the kills and the kills themselves.  We have a bunch of teens, now, who is going to get picked off, when, and, most importantly – how?  That is the formula for these films.

Chainsaw does have some of these points – we do have a group of young people, and we do wonder who will be killed, when, and, of course, how (although the title should give you some idea).  But these are not the emphasis of the film.  It’s not solely about the killings – it’s more about the killers and their sordid world and the poor kids who find themselves trapped in it.

So basically what I’m getting at (in a roundabout way), is that Chainsaw isn’t your typical gore slasher flick (which I still love mind you, but are generally nowhere near as well made or intelligent). Chainsaw is more akin to the anti-hero character studies that were prevalent in the ’70s.  We’re not told to root for the killers – the film is from the point of view of the kids – but the killers aren’t cardboard characters, existing only to cull the teenage population.  They’re not robots wielding a machete just for the sake of a few cheap thrills.  They’re very real, and that’s partly what makes Chainsaw so frightening.

The three actors that make up the principal family members – Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface); Edwin Neal (The Hitchhiker); and Jim Siedow (The Cook) – give remarkable performances.  They’re so authentic in their portrayals that you really do believe they’re backwoods hicks, that they were picked up in a small shack on the side of the road and placed in this film in exchange for a few dollars and some beers.  Each actor gives his character depth and nuance, and there are moments in this film that you rarely see in horror movies – such as when The Cook is scolding Leatherface for letting Sally  (Marilyn Burns) escape and for breaking the door (“Look what your brother did to the door!”).  Now, when you consider that the cook is about five feet five and weighing about 90 pounds, the fact that you believe this man could beat and humiliate someone as insane and powerful as Leatherface is a remarkable feat on both the actor’s part and the writer’s.

The kids, too, are wonderfully acted by the young neophytes.  They may not have the skill of De Niro, but the kind of naturalistic acting needed for this type of film wouldn’t work with someone of De Niro’s caliber.  Even though we’re only with most of the kids a short amount of time, we get to know a little of their personalities and you do genuinely care for them as they’re brutally slaughtered.  The dialogue between the kids is also very well written.  They’re real people who have real conversations about nothing.  There’s no witty one-liners or self-conscious back stories inserted into the plot.  We can identify immediately with them, and that’s the beauty and genius of screen writer’s Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel.

Also, while it’s pretty clear who are the ‘good’ and guys and who are the ‘bad’ guys in the film, there’s still some ambiguity in the characters – the kids aren’t all good and the baddies aren’t entirely bad.  That’s how it is in real life, and Hooper and Henkel know this and use it to create some wonderful moments.

Upon first viewing, it may not be evident just how well made Chainsaw is.  And it’s not just the writing.  For such a low-budget film, and one filmed entirely on location, all technical aspects of the film are superlative.  The sound, lighting, editing are all incredibly well handled, and the score and camera work help to create the intense and sometimes surreal quality.  One scene perfectly illustrates all this: the one where Pam (Teri McMinn) is captured by Leatherface and hung on the meat hook.  This scene encapsulates everything that’s great about the film and why it works so well.  Here we have difficult lighting conditions handled superbly (we go from inside the dark house, to the bright summer day outside, back into the house again), tight editing (contrary to popular belief, we do not see the hook go into Pam’s back) and brilliant sound design (Pam’s constant screaming is never muddled or annoyingly loud).  The camera is both fluid and even innovative – the shot under the swing as Pam gets up and walks to the house is a great example of Hooper’s wonderfully creative camera shots (it also allows for a great shot of Pam’s bare back, so when she gets impaled later on in the scene, even though we don’t see any blood or the actual penetration, our mind remembers her exposed flesh from the earlier shot).  Then there’s the score, that bizarre and highly effective a-tonal industrial soundscape (by Hooper and Wayne Bell) consisting of percussion crashing, rattling, shaking, scraping and abstract music.  My favourite use of the score is during this scene.  Hooper manipulates convention to full effect by not having any music when Kirk (William Vail) first goes up to the house.  Where most horror films would have foreboding music playing as Kirk enters the house and begins walking towards the open door, here we have nothing.  Hooper brilliantly plays on our emotions but not telegraphing Kirk’s death.  We’re so used to hearing suspenseful music before something scary happening, that the audience, just like Kirk, is taken totally by surprise when Leatherface – massive, weird and just plain frightening – steps into the scene and clubs Kirk on the head with a hammer.  Since the film is from the point of view of the kid’s – in this case Kirk – Hooper, totally opposite to Hitchcock, doesn’t give us or the characters any prior information.  The audience is experiencing this madness along with the protagonists.  And it’s this unexpectedness, that makes the film so unsettling for the viewer.

The blatant disregard for horror movie conventions and the unconventional use of camera, sound and score are used all throughout Chainsaw.  It’s a conscious effort on the filmmakers part.

These are all tangible reasons why Chainsaw is not only extremely well made, but also awesomely scary.  But there are other factors which makes it work so well that aren’t so easily explained, some even impossible to pin down. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the few films that forces the viewer to experience it all – while you’re watching you can feel the summer heat and smell the rancid headcheese.  It’s get so far under your skin that you feel dirty after having watched it.  It’s sweaty and grainy and claustrophobic.  It’s raw and real and frightening.  It’s a sweltering Texas summer in the groovy ’70s, an unforgettable journey into America’s heartland.  It’s about people doing horrible things to others for no reason other than for the pure fun of it, treating people like cattle, expendable objects merely to be killed and, in the case of the family in Chainsaw, cooked and eaten.  It’s no coincidence that so much of the film relates to slaughterhouses – Kirk clubbed on the head; Pam strung up on a meat hook and then locked in cold storage; people being carved up and sold as BBQ; chickens in cages and the bones of old victims lying around; shots of cattle waiting to be slaughtered.

And when, at the end, Leatherface is wildly swinging his chainsaw around, while Sally is carried away, face caked in blood and laughing madly, we’re not satisfied.  This is no happy ending – the killers aren’t all dead and the sole survivor won’t be okay tomorrow.   It’s a pessimistic view of the world – the ultimate feel-bad movie – and Tobe Hooper wants to pummel the viewer with so much terror and madness that by the end we’re fell the same way Sally does; we’ve been through her ordeal.

In an era of realistic filmmaking, where anti-heroes ruled the streets, Chainsaw emerged as one of the most extreme and unsettling films of the decade.  It’s the nearest to a nightmare a film has come to.  There’s black humour in the film, but it’s buried beneath so much grime and heat and terror, that it’s hard to laugh at the event unfolding on the screen.  I’ve always thought that Chainsaw looked like a bunch of documentary filmmakers went out one day to film a story on cattle and their role in the food chain, and ended up filming a bunch of kids being terrorized and murdered by a clan of psychopathic cannibalistic hicks.  The fact that it looks so real and works so well on so many levels is a testament to the filmmakers and to the actors. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a one of a kind film, a product of its time, even a dissection of it, and it captures the period like no other film, and in the process questions human values, what we do to survive, the breakdown of the family unit and what it means to be a stranger in your own land.  It’s the ultimate horror story -finding yourself trapped in a world so familiar, yet so alien.  Of being helpless and at the mercy of the scariest creatures ever created – humankind.

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