Eric Hynes on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The first scary
movie I remember seeing was Poltergeist.
I don’t recall if I saw it in a theater (since
it was somehow rated PG, I certainly could have),
but I know it was one of the first movies I watched
on the family VCR. A friend of the family showed
up in early 1983 with a single cassette containing
three recent hits: Tron, Star Trek II:
The Wrath of Khan, and Poltergeist.
I fast-forwarded and rewound and slo-moed with
fidgety abandon, stretching out the extended-play
bootleg-quality dupe until the picture achieved
a dim, David Fincher-worthy murkiness. I remember
being scared of Poltergeist, but no more than
I was of Khan’s mind-mangling ear snails,
and I definitely liked it. Though liking things
can be complicated when you’re eight years old.
The family friend could have given us Missing,
and I’d have watched it repeatedly and said I
liked it. My brother likes to tell of how visibly
traumatized I was by Time Bandits (little
people eating rats!), before I proclaimed, on
the way to the car, that it was my favorite film
of all time. I was also, at the time of Poltergeist,
still very much in love with E.T. (with
whom—matted, ratty, and stuffed—I still slept).
I was keenly aware of Spielberg’s name in the
credits and in the newspaper advertisements, which
I guess made me a partisan of auterism about a
decade before I encountered the term (and made
me partisan in the Spielberg vs. Tobe Hooper debate,
oblivious as I was to the name of the film’s actual
At that time, I felt very safe and comfortable at home, and even Poltergeist’s domesticity imperilment didn’t screw me up too much. What screwed me up was encountering a low-budget slasher film at a friend’s birthday party sometime later that year. I’ve seen thousands of movies since that day, but few scenes made as strong an impression on me as those glimpses of a Sasquatch-like monster flinging a man in a sleeping bag onto a long pointy branch, and of the same monster ripping the genitals off a man who’d been peeing against a tree. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. E.T. was of no help. I knew then, and I held fast: I was through with horror movies. My memory for images, and the liberties my imagination took with them, was too strong to see such things. I established rules for myself, declined invitations to Halloween parties, and changed the channel when local NY television stations showed—once a week it seemed—mean little drivel like Devil Dog: Hound of Hell.
As an adult I’ve caught up with most of what’s considered essential viewing—horror films that either define, exemplify, or transcend the genre. But since I was never a fan (which is an understatement) I come at these films from a different angle. Interloper maybe, but never dismissive. If I could dismiss horror films then I’d have an easier time watching them. In a sense, since I still can’t watch with ironic or benumbed remove, my fright speaks well of a film’s potency. If it bumps, I jump.
I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the other day. I always knew that I should see it. I’m pretty sure I’d even pretended that I had seen it at various points. But rather than The Exorcist or The Shining or Psycho or even Halloween, I knew, I just knew that it was in another league. As a kid, the suggestiveness of the title and of the video box art placed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre second to only Faces of Death in the list of movies I could never, ever watch. Well, I’m 31 now, and though intense images still stay with me and keep me from sleep, it’s time to face the film. Besides, it can’t possibly be as bad as I’d imagined. Now that I’ve seen and lived to write about it (and have even slept a little in the meantime), I can tell you that it was indeed as bad as I’d imagined. No. Worse. And also really, really good.
Directed by Tobe
Hooper, the same cat whose directing credit was
buried in the Poltergeist promos, The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre arrived in theaters
in 1974, which happens to be the year I was born,
and more importantly was the year that Richard
Nixon resigned from the presidency. Actually funded
with money earned from 1972’s surprise blockbuster,
Deep Throat (which, coincidentally enough, happened
to supply a nickname for the source that helped
bring down Nixon’s presidency), Texas Chainsaw
is unimaginable without its crude, low-budget
forebears. Political and historical context is
relevant (Vietnam, the Manson Murders, hippie
culture, etc.), but not as crucial to the production
and box-office success of Texas Chainsaw
as the established popularity of underground films.
By which I don’t just mean Russ Meyer, porn, or
John Waters. I also mean snuff films. Not long
after film enthusiasts wondered if a big movie
star like Marlon Brando was having real sex onscreen,
a horror movie came around that begged similar
questions about the authenticity of depicted violence.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes off like
a home movie gone fatally awry.
Aside from the masterful opening shots—which flash
the film to life with hints of decomposed flesh—the
film initially comes off as an atonal mess, a
poorly acted, amateurishly shot exercise in nastiness.
Five young Texans pile into a van to find an old
abandoned house, picking up a crazed hitchhiker
and running low on gas before parking for good.
There are telegraphed moments of foreboding, clumsy
line readings in the service of thematic foregrounding,
and predictable lunacy. Dialogue is hard to decipher
and dreadful when audible and the characters
are flat and unappealing. This continues for 34
minutes. But rather than lose my attention, this
apparent time mismanagement lulled me into thinking
I was safe, even as the good-looking guy, Kirk
(William Vail), and the good-looking gal, Pam
(Teri McMinn), tease us with dooming talk of skinny
dipping at the swimming hole. Instead of taking
that swim, they approach a house behind the old
house (the old house is merely a decoy) in hopes
of obtaining gas. After so many unremarkable frames,
Hooper finally gets our attention with a gorgeous
ground level upshot tracking Kirk’s walk to the
door of the house; body, tree, and house move
against the looming, stationary sky. Soon Kirk
enters the house—trespassing, it should be noted
—and trips on the way to an interior doorway.
Before he or we know what we’re seeing, a hulking
man appears and hammers him on the head. Kirk
convulses like a stricken animal, the man drags
him to the interior doorway, and they disappear
behind a metal door that slides closed like a
falling guillotine. Unmoved during the attack,
the camera still peers in from the doorway as
if it knows better than to follow. Until curiosity
and utter stupidity get the better of us.
Over the next 15 minutes two more people are brutally
felled—both as guilty as Kirk of entering a strange
house uninvited, and these times the camera follows.
For which we all pay. With a swiftness to match
the immobilizing blows, the camera brings the
house’s interior—as well as the chainsaw-toting
assailant, Leatherface—into disorienting, reverse-zoom
view. What’s shown doesn’t lessen the mind’s burden
of suggestion, as the details are even worse than
could be imagined: meat hooks, body-sized freezers,
rusty tools, a buzzing saw, and Leatherface’s
ghoulish mask of patchworked human skin. We don’t
see hooks piercing flesh, we don’t see dismemberment,
we don’t see Leatherface peeling himself a new
mask—in 15 minutes there’s only time enough to
conjure such lovely thoughts in our heads. Thanks
to Hooper and Wayne Bell’s masterful sound design,
the conjuring cues aren’t just visual. Sliding
between sound/picture synchronicity (hammered
head crunches) and disconnected cacophony (pig
squeals and clanging steel), the film offers no
respite for those too scared to look.
After a fourth
person is dispatched (Paul A. Partain’s wheelchair-bound
Franklin is the only character impaled by chainsaw),
only the benippled lass, Sally (Marilyn Burns),
remains. Outside of a brief, gratifyingly contrapuntal
family freak show, what follows are 30 minutes
of hyperventilating chase. Sally gets bloodied,
Sally gets hammered, Sally jumps from windows,
and Sally screams. How much can she take? Hooper
pushes her, and us, to the very edge of will;
survival begins to seem not worth the cost.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reveals—and
I can’t believe I’m saying this—how satisfying
cinematic death is. It reveals this indirectly,
because death hardly occurs in the film. What
occurs is death suspended, death delayed, which
is frustratingly, terrifyingly unsatisfying. Most
slasher films fetishize shots of piercings or
beheadings or obliteratings that describe a gory,
though instant, end. With the conclusion of each
death, another sequence begins in which another
live person heads towards an end, and on from
there. The intensity lies in the intense imagery,
which is immediate and, leavened as it is by the
narrative’s renewal, oddly satisfying. No such
solace in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Justifiably
praised for suggesting more than it shows, the
nature of its suggestion is far more horrifying
than I’d imagined. For death isn’t what’s truly
horrifying here; after all, the blankness of death
stalls the imagination; what’s truly horrifying
is torture. Prolonged, agonizing, unthinkable
torture. This is what Texas Chainsaw masterfully
conjures in the mind. A head blow here, a head
blow there, a meat hook and an asphyxiating body
in a freezer, cue chainsaw buzz and pig snorts
— and suddenly I’m imagining myself in each scenario,
all at once, desperate for the release of death.
Just get it over with. But nothing in The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre is gotten over with—and
nothing it shows or suggests can be gotten over.
It leaves you, like the girl on the meat hook,
hanging there in terror.
Texas Chainsaw doesn’t create these preoccupations,
it draws on pre-existing fears and pushes them
to elaborate, medieval extremes. The film locates
the spot in your brain that fears unfathomable
pain and neverending torture, and presses hard.
Praise to Hooper (et al) for finding that spot,
and for pressing so masterfully. In my memory,
only The Blair Witch Project can rival
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its exploitation
of such primal fears. And my memory—still clinging
to visions of cheaply costumed killer Sasquatches—won’t
let any of it go anytime soon. Which commands
a healthy measure of respect, perhaps even awe.
But not, if I may draw the line somewhere, gratitude.