Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Country: USA

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a ferociously effective film with a power to disturb that remains undiluted after thirty six years circulating in the social consciousness of humanity. It is tempting to view the film as an exceptional and isolated event, certainly there is no other American horror film of the 1970’s to match its all pervasive atmosphere of charnel house terror. However, in retrospect Chainsaw was clearly a part of a strain of American cinema in the 1970’s that explored the dichotomy between the urbanity of city or suburban life and the simpler climes of the countryside. These clashes between modernity and rural existence were witnessed in varying degrees of success in Deliverance (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972), Badlands (1973), and one of my personal favourites Race with the Devil (1975). In his book Nightmare Movies Kim Newman terms these films ‘Rural horrors’, and their rich thematic territory explores issues of environment and ecology, the nightmarish inversion of American landscape and pioneer spirit, alienated and disenfranchised populations, and the sour decaying underbelly of ’American dream’ capitalist endeavour. They are also united by a belief in the backwardness of rural communities, with intimations of in breeding and aberrant behaviour or rituals adding a layer of hysteria to the horror. Of all of these films perhaps it is Chainsaw which succeeds best in creating the requisite tone and atmosphere to match these thematic concerns, and quite rightly emerged as one of the most radical horror films ever produced in America.

Those horror films that persist, achieve cult followings, and generally get under the skin of self appointed moral guardians or censor boards do so because they are radical in nature. The majority of horror films are conservative - they may possess elements of radicalism (the monster, serial killer, or supernatural force for example), but these forces of social or political unrest are usually contained and the status quo maintained. The radicalised horror filmmakers of the 1970’s had no choice but to work independently, a film like The Exorcist (1973) used blasphemy, graphic violence, bad language, and public hysteria to sell a repugnantly conservative message, Chainsaw has no need to resort to the carnivalesque because it deals in radical subtext. The only misstep is the title of the film, and I’m fairly sure that much of its reputation and much of the ammunition fired at it by the right is down to this unnecessarily lurid moniker. The main institutions of social control that Hooper’s film attacks are patriarchy and capitalism. Whether by accident or design screenwriters Hooper and Kim Henkel created a leftist critique, and one which stops at nothing to get a point across. The attack on patriarchy is channelled through another sacred institution; the family. By making the cannibalistic family at the centre of the narrative wholly recognisable, the horror comes from the revulsion that is generated by our own recognition of the petty squabbles and power struggles that exist in any familial unit. This is a family without a strong matriarchal presence (aside from the grotesque occasions when the retarded Leatherface powders his mask of human skin, applies makeup and wears an ill fitting apron!) and without this guiding hand it all goes to shit.

The failure of capitalism lies within a family who have been left behind by modern industralisation. The principles of Fordism and mass production means there is no longer a need for men to slaughter the cattle. The family have no option but to resort to extreme methods in order to assure their own survival in a harsh and unforgiving world in which the dollar is king. Capitalism cannot flourish without a culture of consumerism, Hooper and Henkel merely dramatise the most extreme and terrifying logical end of consumerim, by having a family survive by selling on the charred flesh of their victims as barbecue! This series of events follow a causal link and offer a vision of aspects of American culture simply forgotten about or left behind. At the time this film came out the American government were probably still more concerned with the people’s of Indochina than those in rural parts of Texas. Hooper and his colleagues also challenge prevailing preconceptions about the counterculture. Although Hooper’s consumerist metaphor is lifted completely from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Hooper never sentimentalises the counter-culture like Romero had want to do. Our hippy heroes in Chainsaw are bored, petty, and spend most of their time bickering. They have too much time and money on their hands. They are no less repulsive than the family of misfits, but are unable to save themselves because of the flabby middle class existence that has destroyed their survival instincts.

The tone and atmosphere of the piece is given much resonance by an astonishing production design which really gives a sense of grungy reality. The heat and the stench almost seeps through the screen. This is also a literate film aware of past traditions - the house functions like the castle of a gothic novel, becoming both a metaphoric and symbolic space, and one in which the links to serial killer Ed Gein can be fully realised. An opening scene of grave robbing adds another gothic layer, a layer that is horribly subverted by the grotesque image of the two corpses in a pose of copulation atop a tombstone. The ‘true story’ gimmick adds an apocryphal touch which in this case does add to the sense of reality. Never has a low budget been more of an asset, the filmmakers use such innocuous and cheap items as chicken feathers, birdcages, and of course a chainsaw to such memorable and symbolic effect. The title promised a gory bloodbath, but it is the subversive subtext of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that makes it such a disturbing picture.

© Shaun Anderson 2010


  1. It's unfortunate that the modern offerings in the horrorsphere fail to capture the important underlying social and political commentary found in groundbreaking cinema from the late 60's - early 70's such as NOTLD and TCM. Don't get me wrong, I love a mindless slasher like the majority of horrorheads, but I must admit there's certainly very few modern films with the thought provoking commentaries so evident in past cinema classics such as this.

    Great review Shaun.

  2. Thanks for the comment Stoner! - This is my kind of horror, I love films with a subtext, but a subtext that doesnt suffer from total obviousness (Romero's films for example) and social value. In the Hollywood version of this film, Leatherface would not have been allowed to end the film wildly spinning his chainsaw in front of the rising sun, and the family wouldnt have been allowed to end the film unpunished for their crimes.

  3. Wonderfully insightful review here, Shaun. I like this idea of how the rise of modernization creates new horrors. Take PSYCHO, for instance: the Bates Motel gets few travelers anymore because the new highway makes the old country roads obsolete. Which leaves, of course, plenty of time for psychic wounds to fester... Yeah, over the years, TCM has really stepped to the top of my horror favorites, and that charnel house atmosphere you note is probably responsible. And the score of unidentifiable electronic squelching noises...

  4. Wow, I think that is the best review of this film that I have read man! Interesting take on the whole capitalism angle, I never saw it that way. But I see your points.

    I always saw the film as Tobe Hooper exploring one of his favorite themes, and a theme he kept revisiting time and time again in films like The Funhouse and Texaschainsaw Massacre 2...the disfunctional family, and how their disturbed offspring is a direct result of their inability to live within what is considered a 'normal' family life.

    Your comment about how The Exorcist is a film that "used blasphemy, graphic violence, bad language, and public hysteria to sell a repugnantly conservative message" is so true of a lot of horror movies today. Be good, go to church, stick with god so this wont happen to you.

    Some horror films do the opposite, they mascared themselves as a horror movie asking you to do what is right, but they expose you to other ways of thinking as can work either way.

    Great review Shaun, loved it!

  5. @ Will - Hi there, thanks for flagging up the weird sound effects, I forgot to mention that aspect in my review, they contribute a vast amount to the strange atmosphere. I think it is the horror films attitude to modernity which most allies it to the gothic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. A suprising number of themes and anxieties date back over hundreds of years...excellent example with 'Psycho'

    @ Franco - I'm glad you liked the review buddy. Yes, Mr. Hooper does have a persistent concern with dysfunctional families, which is perhaps why Spielberg felt he was the right man to do 'Poltergeist', both those guys are preoccupied by struggling and/or abnormal familiy situations. A film like 'The Exorcist' seems utterly taboo breaking and challening on the surface (just hearing the word c**t in a Hollywood movie at the time was a terrific shock), but beneath all that bluster beats a message of conformity.

  6. With all due respect, taking the Marxist approach to TCM (1974) is hardly original; the late Robin Wood was on to this decades ago. (Christopher Sharret also wrote a similar, oft-cited study as well.)

    Doesn't the Capitalism-is-Evil-critique--while mildly amusing--virtually trivialize the sheer force and, yes, beauty of Hooper's art? It does for me, since you save any goodies for your last paragraph. Who cares if slaughterhouses wanted to boost production and upgrade their technology? This somehow and profoundly holds up a damning mirror to American culture? Rational people can say this with a straight face? To paraphrase Susan Sontag, a TCM analysis desperately needs the purview of an 'erotics of art.' It doesn't get one here.


  7. Thanks for the comment, I think it is borderline insulting, but I don't mind that at all. I'd have preferred it, if you hadn't opted to shelter behind the mask of your face and then perhaps I can show due respect to you. The first thing I'd say say is, who is saying taking the Marxist approach is original? I'm certainly not. I've read Wood and Sharret, and I'm always open to fascinating ideas and interpretations, and absord those that I find personally illuminating. Whether TCM is art is a matter of conjecture, not the empirical fact you seem to think it is. Finally I'd like to tell you what you can do with Susan Sontag and her 'erotics of art', but young people may be reading this blog.

  8. Well, my apologies, then. I was mostly reacting to your other reader comments. "Interesting take on the whole capitalism angle...," for instance.

    I've no bones to pick, but I so cherish TCM (1974) and, given that you're a talented writer, was just hoping for something more interesting than the standard America-is-Hell-and-Hates-its-Citizens, Lefty critique. (And I'm a proud lefty, btw). It's a subtext, sure, but the real meat (no pun intended) of the film will be found in another discussion. In my humble opinion.

    PS: I really enjoyed your recaps of those BBC ghost stories (Signal Man, and "Oh, Whistle...") Those films are masterpieces and I'm sad to hear the Dickens adaptation is out of print :-(

    Cheers from Chicago.

  9. Apologies if the tone of my response seemed combative. My reply probably came across badly. No offence was intended, you just happened to quote a writer (Sontag) that I don't particularly admire. Sometimes it's valubale to reiterate a standard critique. In this case the other readers comments would suggest it was. I tend to write reviews that do not exceed 1,000 words, and it is sometimes very difficult to choose what not to write about. I'm sorry the review didn't do all it could for you (but what review can?), I'd be very interested to hear your own take on the film, which would presumably be less standard. Thanks for the kind words about the Ghost Stories, I'd like to do more, but they are so hard to track down. I was lucky to pick up a copy of THE SIGNALMAN when it was released over here. I hope the tenor of my comments will not put you off making a return vistis...many thanks!

  10. hehe, while restricting yourself to stay under the 1000 words limit might be frustrating, I'm writing for a magazine where my reviews cannot exceed 1300 characters including spaces! Writing every review is a long session of slaughtering my newborn darlings.

    Great review though. Really enjoyed reading it.

    It's been a long time since I saw TCM last, but as far as I can remember, the family didn't start selling human meat to the public until the sequel. If so, your somewhat political take on the movie falters slightly, as the family in the original aren't so much cannibals out of any lost need to carry out their butchers trade, but rather outright insane rednecks, inspired by the story of Ed Gein.

    Movies are always interpreted up and down with claims about hidden meanings flying all over the place, but I would more like to know what the director actually intended. And so, do you think Hooper really intended there to be any social commentary in TCM?

    I think he simply wanted to scare people, and TCM is the one hit wonder he fluked out on.

  11. Hi there Tiger...thanks for stopping by and for following the blog - Now you come to mention it I'm not 100% sure myself about the family selling barbecued meat to the public in the first one, but my memory is that their is a suggestion that they do. I shall have to go back some time and check out that plot point. I have a Blu Ray of the film now, which I haven't yet given the once over.

    I'm not sure about Hooper's intentions, I think his primary motivation was probably to make a horror film that was as scary and disturbing as possible, but any film dealing with themes of unemployment, the family unit, fading industries, and the disillusioned rural backwaters of Texas are bound to have social or political connotations.

  12. Interesting point. I remember attaining a lecture with a professor who went into great lengths proclaiming why The Shining was a comment on colonization and the abuse of Native Americans. When I asked him if he thought Stephen King had meant for it to be so when he wrote the book, he said "of course not" with obvious discontent for the question.

    So what are we dealing with then? If a piece of art takes on a different meaning by the audience, than that which was intended by the artist who created it, is it then not some sort of failure, or at least a success for wrong reasons? And if so, can the artist still be considered "great" if he actually didn't fully consciously understand what he was doing, which kind of reduces him to an idiot savant? Does it all come down to the age old definition that good art provokes discussion, and so, the more controversial, the more impressive the art?

    hm, wonder what it would be like seeing it on blue ray? I recall one of the things I liked about it was that it was a bit grainy and unpolished, which kinda gave me the feeling that I wasn't watching a scripted movie.

  13. The Native American/Colonisation reading is there in THE SHINING, but to categorically state that King didn't intend this at all cannot be verified. How your old lecturer can say that without intimate access to the workings of Mr. King's mind I dont know.

    I think the difference lies in the words 'intention' and 'interpretation'. The latter is entirely in the hands of the viewer/reader. The moment a work of art is circulated in the firmament of culture it no longer belongs to the artist. It has become a commodity that can be purchased and owned. I think the creation of film art or literature is much more complex, and rarely cannot it be reduced to one reading.

    THE SHINING has the subtext your lecturer mentioned, but it is also about alcoholism, the breakdown of family structures, threatened masculinity/patriarchy, identity...and numerous tropes and themes imported from gothic horror. Anything dealing with the institution of the family can be interpreted socially or politically. It's an interesting debate Tiger.

    Yeah the grain is still very visible on the BR of CHAINSAW, and this is without a doubt due to the film stock that was used. This is why I never understand consumers moaning about older titles retaining grain on the BR...the grain was there within the stock!

  14. "Our hippy heroes in Chainsaw are bored, petty, and spend most of their time bickering. They have too much time and money on their hands. They are no less repulsive than the family of misfits, but are unable to save themselves because of the flabby middle class existence that has destroyed their survival instincts."

    That's an interesting perspective. They are certainly annoying, but I'm not sure if they're 'repulsive'. It's terribly hot, they're stuck in a van with no airconditioning and Franklin (Paul Partain) is particularly grating. Sure, they bicker, but there's also joking and humour between them (particularly at the old family house).

    I'd also suggest that this generation is (somewhat) newly 'middle class' - as the Hardesty family have their roots in the area, and, more particularly, can trace their family line back to 'the old slaughterhouse'. So, there certainly exists working class roots among them, even if the film suggests that their main act of hubris is dissassociating themselves from prior family history and culture.

    Nevertheless, it's a terrific review. :)


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