Midnight Movie Madness - 40th Anniversary of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre
This weekend the Music Box Theater will be showing Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Midnight both Friday and Saturday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this infamous film. Below is my thoughts on how the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is essentially a Southern Gothic Tale…
The Southern Gothic in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) essentially can be classified as a Southern Gothic by exploring the film’s characters, structure, setting and elements of story by comparing it to such classics as Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. By looking at this legendary cult film that is both honored for its daring filmmaking and also vilified for its relentless violence and depravity.
This paper will showcase that this gruesome film, which some critics consider as one of the very first slasher pics, is just on par with the two classics of Southern Gothic Literature. In all three of these works, characters are on a returning journey to home. In As I Lay Dying, the Bundren family journey to take their dying mother, Addie, across the desolate land of Mississippi to bury her in Jefferson. In Wise Blood, Hazel Motes is traveling back from the War on a train ride back to his hometown.
The children in Texas Chainsaw Massacre are also on a journey. In all three stories situations occur that befall upon the characters sending them onto another journey that delays the way. However, in Hooper’s 1974 classic this detour is the most gruesome. This midnight -cult- grindhouse classic of video nastiness is really a breathtaking tale of the highest art. This film has managed to grow into something of mythic proportions. Some might argue that its reputation is more notorious than the film itself. Stephen Koch of Harper’s magazine said this of Hooper’s film in an issue from 1976.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a vile little piece of sick crap…It is a film with literally nothing to recommend it: nothing but a hysterically paced slapdash, imbecile concoction of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it.”
1 That was a prime example of what the mainstream film critc thought of the film. For a teenager who grew up in a small Midwestern town that was fed a diet of classic Universal Monsters, Freddy Kreuger, Michael Meyers, and Jason Voorhees, it had an entirely different kind of mystique. There were the stories around the film that one would hear from friends and parents like that is the scariest movie of all time. The artwork on the VHS box taunted from the bottom shelf in the local video store horror section alongside all the other slasher classics containing titles like Driller Killer, and Faces of Death. It said, “rent me if you dare boy!”
The image was particularly gruesome. It showed Leatherface armed with his weapon of choice, a chainsaw, running through the darkness out of a farmhouse suspended in oblivion. In the background a woman screamed silently in a red shirt about to be impaled on a meat hook. Then there was the lore around the film that this was something that actually happened. I had only seen clips of Texas Chainsaw Massacre that were featured in a wonderful horror film anthology Terror In the Aisles hosted by Donald Pleasence and Nancy Allen. The time had come to see the horror film that had so much sordid history surrounding it.
The first thing that the viewer is assaulted with is a voiceover2 that Mikita Brottman calls a fairytale warning in her essay, “Once Upon a Time in Texas: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre As Inverted Fairytale.”
The film, which you are about to see, is an account of the tragedy, which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected, nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them, an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.3
The plot of the film is a basic but very effective narrative. In fact it acts almost like a fairy tale. Sally, Franklin and their friends are traveling through the Texas countryside when they hear a news report that there have been some disturbances at the cemetery where their grand parents were buried.
Somebody has been robbing the graves! Once Sally and Franklin discover that their grandparent’s grave is not disturbed they make way for the farmhouse that they were raised in. However, on their journey there they come across a hitchhiker along the side of the road after passing the slaughterhouse. Hooper makes it very clear to the audience that Sally and her friends are hippies by their mannerisms and dress. The other woman is fascinated by astrology that she rambles on about to each member in the van. The garb of the Hitchhiker is that of a feral nomad. He wears regular clothes but also is adorned with an animal fur bag that he keeps his peculiar belongings in.
His hair is unkempt and a nasty birthmark mars his face. Because they are hippies and have the free love mentality we already know that they are going to let him in the van. Upon seeing him Franklin says, “We just picked up Dracula!” The Hitchhiker threatens Franklin with a razor by cutting his arm. He flees the van and rubs his blood on the side of the van in a barbaric symbol. It marks the inhabitants of the van. The van runs low on gas and they head to Sally and Franklin’s childhood home.
While looking for a watering hole to distract them for an hour, the faint roar of a generator send Pam and Kirk searching a neighbor farmhouse that is not rundown as Sally’s family home looking for gasoline. One by one the crazed lunatics inside the farmhouse kill Sally’s friends like cattle. Sally goes thru a night of hell at the hands of the horrific family of killers. In the morning she flees in terror to escape the clutches of her captors. Her screams of madness and laughter fade out the film.
What the Texas Chainsaw Massacre shares with themes of Southern Gothic are primarily its sense of a desolate location, its eccentric characters, the importance of family, and finally how an agriculture business has industrialized itself at the expense of its workers. In Gothic, Fred Botting says, “the disjointed perspective William Faulkner’s and Flannery O’Connor’s fictions disclose a grotesque and absurd world seen through the eyes of misfits, freaks, and malcontents, a world of quiet desperate haunting.
Southern gothic is barely gothic in any European sense. Even Poe’s terrors and horrors seem extreme in respect of the gently haunted reality of class, racial and familial tensions…Changes in American modernity, its speed and urbanization shadowing a world whose social fabric unravels in the shade of porches and long-gone family dramas, of a way of life that seems to have forgotten how to die.
The film’s setting is a small town in Texas. Hooper does an excellent job of letting the audience know that it’s Texas, and that unlike the traditional Gothic with its cold desolate foggy castles, its sweltering hot there. The film practically sweats in every frame. His first establishing shot after the warning is the oppressive Texas sun shining down on two sun baked corpses propped up on a cemetery cross in a grossly humoress fashion. One has their legs spread on the bars of the cross. The other is riding piggyback. The entire film has an element of lawlessness and chaos.
Other than the scene in which Sally and Co. are checking out the graveyard there is no representation of an authority figure whatsoever. In his essay, “The Idea of Apocalypse in Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Christopher Sharrett argues that the film “is about a world dissolving into primordial chaos, set in an archetypal wasteland where the sustaining forces of civilization are not operative.
The cannibal motif, which occurs in a number of films5 following Hooper’s success, suggest a number of ideas about the resuscitation of primitive culture that need to be dealt with in detail. The profane element of the film is the localization of the cataclysm precisely in the historical situation of the American Southwest in the late twentieth century.”6 This is the same thing as Faulkner situating his novel in the midst of rural Mississippi in the earliest parts of the twentieth century.
O’Connor sends Hazel Motes on his blasphemous journey in the wilds of a small town in post World War II Tennessee.
When brought into the farmhouse of the of sadistic killers from Pam’s POV we see a vast array of skulls and bones, both human and animal, in what I shall dub the trophy room. Upon a recent viewing of the film, there are at least ten human skulls scattered throughout the room. Earlier on there is the shot of the collection of cars under a camouflage netting that hints to past victims.7 Hooper makes his landscape of Texas an apocalyptic wasteland of broken down farmhouses, barren riverbeds, and dingy gas stations. There is blight all over this rural landscape. As in most horror films the idea of this being a real place is far from the truth. Even the thorny woods that Sally runs through to escape Leatherface are more of a nightmare than nighttime.
The characters of the film are just as eccentric as those from the pages of O’Connor or Faulkner. There is the gleefully demented Cook who gets so much relish when he starts smacking Sally with the broom from his store. However, he gets no pleasure in killing. That pleasure is reserved to work of the Hitchhiker, Leatherface, and Grandpa! Unlike the kids who split up for their own explorations, this family stays together. They even have time to have a sit-down dinner for every member of the family. Work is an important aspect to this family of killers. Since an automated gun has taken over for the use of a man to swing a sledgehammer, the killers are left without jobs.
There is a microcosm of a class war going on in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The working class is taking out the middle class in the most primal way possible. They need a creative release to practice the only skills that they know how. In an earlier scene, the Hitchhiker and Franklin get involved in a heated discussion about how the old ways of using a sledge to deliver the killing blow is better than using a gun that shoots a killing bolt into a cow’s skull.
Franklin contemplates that the gun is better. However, the Hitchhiker says, “Oh no. With the new way…people were put out of jobs.”8 Both Franklin and the Hitchhiker have kin that worked at the old slaughterhouse. Both the Hitchhiker and his brother, Leatherface are former workers of the closed down facility. However, we learn that Leatherface has been still using the old ways to dispatch his victims. Hooper makes a very distinct difference in the coding of the characters in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. By looking at the way they are dressed, their mannerisms, and speech patterns Sally, Franklin and their friends are from an educated middle class.
They are dressed for leisure activities on a vacation. Sally and Pam are dressed very casual and also revealing. Neither wears a bra. Pam wears sandals on her feet. All of them are dressed for play not work. On the other hand, the family of cannibalistic killers is dressed specifically for work. The Cook wears coveralls while he attends the gas station and the BBQ place. Leatherface wears an apron and work clothes. He also sports a tie to this killing ensemble. All members of the cannibalistic clan wear heavy work boots. By their dialect it is clear that they are not as educated as the hippies in the van.
These men definitely have a job to do across the Texas countryside. Texas Chainsaw Massacre shows the working class preying upon the educated, leisured middle class and slaughtering them in a most gruesome way. Robin Wood argues, “Leatherface and his family are oppressed by industrial capitalism. They are out of work slaughter house workers whose skills are rendered obsolete by technology. Their cannibalism is a logical extension and a proper metaphor for consumerism in capitalist society.”9 In Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, the celebrated author says, “what Tobe Hooper did with this film was signal to his audience that he didn’t give a shit for their finer feelings.
The picture becomes an assault. Its narrative is minimal; its visuals are grittily real. To complete the achievement, Hooper created Leatherface and his family- characters whose relentless, ironic, obsessive malevolence is uniquely modern. Most monsters of the past had moments of regret or fear: these beasts know neither.”10 One scene in particular occurs when Leatherface has finished with his victim he sits down to take a breather.
It is a telling scene because it’s one moment that the viewer is shown a private window of this character. He rests momentarily while holding his head. It reveals to the audience that even though he enjoys what he does, the action is so very physical. From viewing this moment in the film, one gets an idea of how much brute force must be used to kill someone with your bare hands. The act of killing your victims and then preparing them for a meal is a very laborious task. His final action he licks his disgusting lips and reveals his jagged teeth used to eating human flesh.
Botting, Fred. Gothic (New York: Routledge Press, 2013). pg. 157.
Mikita Brottman, “Once Upon a Time in Texas: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre As Inverted Fairytale,” in Necronomicon Book One 1996, ed. Andy Black (London: Creation Books International, 1996) 7.
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (New York: Vintage International, 1985).
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper (1974).
Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror, directed by Ursula Macfarlane (1997).
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990).
Christopher Sharrett, “The Idea of Apocalypse in Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” in Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, ed. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett (New York: Scarecrow Press, 2005).
Jason Zinoman, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror (New York: Penguin Press, 2012).