Schlocktoberfest #5: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Though I love Poltergeist, I shied away from Tobe Hooper after seeing Salem’s Lot (admittedly a TV movie) and Lifeforce (which does have its sleazy charms). The Friday the 13th movies turned me off slasher movies, so I avoided this horror classic for decades. I must say that I regret not seeing it sooner, for it fully deserves its mantle as the king of the early slasher genre, which it may have actually spawned.
Another great slasher, Black Christmas, came out the same year; that movie hid its killer throughout its entirety and went for the Shadow of a Doubt style of terror that lurked in our own homes and could be anyone. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre goes completely off the deep end and throws us face-first into a human abattoir after a creepy 40-minute build-up, and is incredibly effective at immersing us in a carnival of bloody terror.
A group of youths are on a road trip through Texas in their van; two girls and three boys, one in a wheelchair. On the radio we hear news stories of grave robbers who dig up partially decomposed bodies and tie them in bizarre poses on the boneyard monuments; the kids seem oblivious, and pick up a strange hitchhiker as they pass through the sparse backroads. He’s twitchy and seems both slow and cunning, like a vicious animal… telling them strange things and then finally cutting himself, and then one of them, when they want him to leave. Up to here it feels like a naturalistic road piece, and the first killing manages to be a shock without resorting to the cheap jump scares we’re subjected to these days.
The kids talk about slaughterhouses while they’re on the road; how the animals are clubbed with a sledgehammer, then cut apart. The remote house they come upon turns out to be just that, when the first victim gets it, the comparison to a chicken with its head cut off is obvious. The body twitches and flails on the floor as the hulking man-beast within clubs it to death. We don’t get the in-your-face bloody eye of let’s say, Bonnie and Clyde; the horror comes from seeing a human treated like a slab of meat, and the complete indignity of violent death. It only gets worse from there, and the film might as well be PETA propaganda from how it forces us to realize the terror of knowing you are about to be killed, cut up, and consumed.
Leatherface, as he became known, is the hulking, chainsaw-lugging behemoth who does the killing for the psycho family. The original name of the movie was “Headcheese,” and the creepy hitchhiker tells them early on that his brother “makes some great headcheese! You’ll love it!” Headcheese, like sausage, is one of those foods best enjoyed when you have never seen it made, so it’s another allusion to “mystery meat” that might just be made of people. The killings play up the slaughterhouse theme- after he first body is felled, it is pulled through a doorway and a stainless steel door slides shut; a girl is hung from a meat hook, and stuffed in a freezer chest. The infamous dinner scene shows very little, yet through the use of eyeball close-ups and dutch angles, Hooper makes it disorienting and disturbing.
Loosely based on the murders of Ed Gein– the original Wisconsin cannibal killer who dug up corpses to eat, murdered women in their homes and made masks of their faces, strung them up like deer carcasses to dress them, and kept chunks of their hacked-out genitals in the fridge- it seems all too insane and contrived to be anything but sick fantasy, but we know better now. After the Manson Family butcherings, the idea of such things was not so unbelievable. While we tend to think serial killings have sprung from modern city life, such as Jack the Ripper prowling crowded London, older tales such as the Sawney Bean family in the 1600’s tell us that it has gone on since time immemorial. Seeing it portrayed without irony (as in Rob Zombie’s overrated The Devil’s Rejects) and without voyeuristic lingering on wounds and torture gives it the bleak terror of an inescapable nightmare.
Hooper keeps the theme of people as meat to the bitter end- when our lone survivor (isn’t there always one?) escapes to the highway, even her savior drives a cattle truck. And we know her victory is fleeting, as Leatherface stands in the road, waving his chainsaw. The movie has a reputation for brutality, but the murky Pioneer Special Edition DVD I watched really showed very little actual gore. It’s all in the cuts, the action, and the gut-wrenching low-frequency score. This is one of the classics, and it deserves to be seen as such.