The Texas chain saw massacre was named by Total Film as number one of the fifty greatest horror movies of all time. It spawned a number of sequels and prequels, but none as ground-breaking as the original, which was remastered in 2004 in 4K, making it that much more graphic. Time said that it set “a new standard for slasher films”. The concept of a vulnerable woman being terrorised by a monster was hardly new, and some critics suggested that the director, Tobe Hooper, may even have seen the Australian ‘slasher’ film Night of fear, so similar were the psychopaths. Night of fear was banned as too violent, and Texas chain saw, although less gory, was also banned in many countries, and was not available for showing in Australia for almost ten years after production. Night of fear moved from the knife or razor favoured in ‘slasher’ films to an axe; Texas chain saw escalated the weaponry even further with a large and very noisy chain saw. The chain saw is wielded by a particularly striking villain named Leatherface, so called due to his predilection for wearing a mask made of human skin.
Filmed in documentary style, on release it made a half-hearted attempt to appear to be a true story, whereas in fact it was based on the exploits of Ed Gein, a serial killer, but not a known cannibal, who was also the inspiration of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as well as Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs. It was filmed on a tight budget against expectations it might never be cleared for exhibition. The respected critic Roger Ebert summed it up as “a grisly little item…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.” Such exploitative movies are profitable if made at the right price point, and Ebert grudgingly allows that the techniques and special effects are far better than the genre demands. He particularly liked the rapid montages of the survivor Sally screaming, with extreme close-ups of her bulging eyeballs, expressing all the foam flecked terror of any animal who realises she is about to be slaughtered.
Leatherface lives in a family of ‘others’ who terrorise, slaughter and eat passers-by. They are ‘white trash’, but made trash by the process of industrialisation of agriculture: the abattoir in which the whole family worked has automated or closed, leaving them to use their expertise on a different species. The protagonists are a group of young hipsters, driving their Kombi through Texas to check on the grave of the grandfather of Sally and Franklin, following reports (shown in graphic footage during the credits) of graves being desecrated and robbed (an Ed Gein speciality). The pseudo-documentary style introduction tells us that “an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare”, one that seems to be a thinly veiled exposition of the nightmare faced by the Woodstock generation as they moved from the summer of love into the fall of Vietnam, drugs, the Manson murders and Nixon’s Silent Majority. Hooper spoke of his inspiration coming from the “beginning of the end of the subculture”, while one critic wrote that Hooper opened the way for horror to become a “vehicle for articulating twentieth-century pessimism”. It is revealing that this film about social decline was crafted in the period between Nixon’s landslide re-election and his resignation.
Besides the disabled Franklin, the other four beautiful people are entirely two-dimensional, laughing at the quaint locals, reading horoscopes and heading off into unimagined horrors when looking for a non-existent swimming hole. Franklin does most of the talking, more so even than Sally, his sister, the only survivor, whose role is mostly to scream and run and scream more. Franklin reminisces about their grandfather (whose grave they are checking) and the abattoir where he used to sell his cattle. His speech is accompanied by images of cows waiting to be slaughtered or drooling, near death, as he describes the killing process – a sledgehammer: “it usually wouldn’t kill them on the first lick”. The cows queue for death as the young people drive past, on the way to their own identical slaughter. They pick up a hitchhiker who tells them his brother and grandfather work at the slaughterhouse. “My family’s always been in meat,” he tells them, an esoteric reference to their own imminent fate, which only the viewers appreciate.
The family turn out to be very mentally troubled: the wild-eyed hitchhiker is the brother of Leatherface who occasionally puts down the chain saw and dons an apron to take a feminine role in the house of slaughter. Leatherface is actually humanised under his mask: grunting, sweating and showing us his deformed teeth he was as human as on-screen killers got in the days before Dexter and Hannibal. Another relative, the gas-station owner, appears normal and presents a disturbing picture of the schizophrenic nature of modern society: his station has no gas, he sells barbecued meat of a suspect origin, and he constantly offers Sally comfort as he recaptures her, gags her and beats her, all the time assuring her everything will be all right. I couldn’t help thinking of the protestations of farmers who insist that they care deeply about their animals, as they pack them onto trucks for the gruelling journey to a terrifying death.
The film’s final thirty minutes consist of Sally being chased, mostly with a chain saw, with occasional respites where she is captured and tormented before again leaping from windows. Hitchcock famously said that the chase is the “final expression” of the medium of film and ‘slasher’ movies thrive on them. Yet the film’s setting is deliberately confused: instead of the normative divide of country providing meat to the city, here the city kids are providing meat to the rural rejects. As the kids are slaughtered, we hear the sounds of pigs grunting, see a captive chicken awaiting her fate, in a room filled with the bones and skins of several species, particularly H. sapiens. The cannibals’ method of slaughter, the sledgehammer, the meat hook, the freezer, is the same as the way cattle and pigs are treated at an abattoir.
Is the film a disguised polemic against farming and slaughtering animals? The reviewer Forrest Wickman called it “forehead-slappingly obvious” in his review “The Ultimate Pro-Vegetarian Film Is the Last Movie You’d Expect”. So much so that PETA listed it in its “top 10 movies that make you go meatless”. Hooper said in an interview that he gave up meat while making the film: “the heart of the film was about meat; it’s about the chain of life and killing sentient beings”. He also claimed that Guillermo Del Toro, no shrinking violet himself in abject film-making, gave up meat after seeing it.
Nothing is as it should be in this film, nor was it in Nixon’s and Hooper’s America, circa 1974. It is filmed in bright Texan sunshine rather than horror’s normal Gothic gloom, the psychopathic Leatherface is cooking in an apron when Sally is carried in, Sally’s terror at the dinner table is accompanied with the noises of non-diegetic pigs, the normal filmic heroes (young white males) are butchered without any defence offered, and what were they all eating when they stopped the Kombi at the gas station and bought barbecue? Who among us, Hooper seems to ask, is not a cannibal?