Foraging For Subtext: 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' (1974)

Gunnar Hansen in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Gunnar Hansen in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Photo: Bryanston Distributing
NOTE FROM BRAD: I would like to welcome Matt as the newest contributor. He will add a much needed dose of horror coverage to the site, and in ways you might not typically expect when it comes to coverage of the genre. I think you're going to like what he brings to the table.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a perfect horror film. From an aesthetic and narrative standpoint, it is one of the most emulated genre films of the last half century. It has its roots in the bloody chamber archetype, the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale and the literary notion of the Bluebeard. Put simply, it is the cinematic incarnation of the most primal fear mankind experiences, that of being captured and eaten by an animal more vicious than ourselves.

Certainly the elemental terror of being trapped, tortured and consumed is grisly fodder enough to base a film around. But Tobe Hooper's 1974 masterpiece uses that as merely the foundation for a multi-layered treatise on the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam cultural schism America was then roiling in. The echoes of the Manson family's ruinous effect on the peace generation reverberate through every frame and the sordid, predatory impulse inherent in Western capitalism is laid bare by the actions of the central antagonists.

How much of this trenchant subtext first time director Hooper consciously imbued the film with is debatable, but its efficacy and continuing relevance is not. Transitioning to a feature from his drug soaked student film Eggshells (watch it here), Hooper figured a low budget horror film the easiest way to get a foothold in the industry, a tack having previously worked for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich.

Being terrified by tales his mid-western relatives told him in his youth of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein planted the seeds for the ghoulish family of laid off slaughterhouse workers that would terrorize the hapless hippies in his horror opus. However, the creative lightning strike that birthed a legend and subsequent franchise was Hooper imagining a chainsaw he spied in the hardware section of a busy department store being utilized to cut a swath through the throngs of shoppers. He now had his villains, the iconic weapon and the films salacious hook.

Shot in Texas during a blistering August in 1973, the production was a famously arduous ordeal. One during which relative insanity set in amongst the cast and crew, culminating in a 30 hour day spent filming the climactic dinner sequence. The fetid mania in the finished scene is palpable. With windows closed off to approximate night time, temperatures soared to 125 degrees in the house. The meat used as set dressing rapidly rotted, giving off an intolerable stench that prompted the crew to regularly rush outside and retch in the bushes.

After multiple unsuccessful takes of a key sequence, Leatherface actor Gunnar Hansen lost his composure with a malfunctioning special effect and removed the guard on his blade so as to actually cut Marilyn Burns finger and bring the scene to completion. Hansen has gone on record stating that during this moment he completely lost sight of the distinction between himself and the loathsome maniac he was portraying. To say this was a troubled shoot is an understatement of epic proportions, but the visceral authenticity these conditions produced can't be denied.

Once finished and released, the film was a surprise critical success and financial smash hit. Unfortunately, the company that ushered it into theaters (Bryanston) was a mob front for money laundering and no one involved in the film's creation ever saw their share of its substantial earnings. Only Hooper went on to have much of a career as a result of its acclaim, and save for a very few exceptions, most of the cast and crew bitterly resent him to this day for that lamentable fact.

pamThe bulk of the accolades were bestowed upon the manner in which the avant garde soundtrack (also by Hooper) and sun burnt cinematography contributed to the believably grimy milieu. The tracking shot following Pam (Teri McMinn) as she approaches the sinister house has deservedly become legendary. Yet Hooper's keen eye somehow finds a way to elevate even a static shot of a gas powered generator to high art. Indeed, many years on, the shot composition and poetic transitions remain stunning artistic achievements, especially considering the miniscule budget and relative inexperience of Hooper and his cinematographer Daniel Pearl.

What wasn't as widely discussed at the time of its release, were the many instances of pitch black humor and mordant social commentary. The intervening four decades have provided ample time for this to become transparent and for those of us so inclined to theorize as to its greater meaning.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film about the degenerative neuroses of the patriarchal white male mindset. It portrays the manifest destiny impulse that ignited the industrial revolution as stemming from a poisonous, all-consuming greed. It is the eventual souring of the corporate business model and how that inevitably leads to compulsive societal cannibalism.

Consider Jim Seidow as the Cook, seemingly a kindly old shopkeeper, in actuality an abusive head of a malignantly dysfunctional family. A family devoid of any legitimate feminine influence, their entire existence revolves around procurement of the next meal and the aggregation of material goods unwillingly contributed by the unfortunates they ensnare. The original hoarders, the Chainsaw clan's yard is littered with the trinkets, vehicles and general detritus of those they devour as the inside of their home is awash in their bones.

At one point, the cook tellingly exclaims to final girl (Chainsaw originated this convention) Sally Hardesty, "There's some things you got to do in life, that don't mean you have to like it". The most fascinating aspect of these bogeymen is they don't consider the crimes they perpetrate as a matter of right or wrong so much as an unpleasant, but necessary by-product of their ingrained way of life. These are warped, perverted men living an outmoded existence predicated on the suffering and death of others. They are incapable of change and when faced with representatives of a progressive society outside of their entrenched madness, choose to exert their power and ultimately consume them.

LeatherfaceAs much as I adore the Cook for serving as a surrogate for the pragmatic capitalist, Leatherface is the film's stand out villain. Infinitely more psychologically complex than the spate of imitators that cropped up in his wake. He's a shambling, distorted mirror image of a human being. He isn't the alpha hunter here that he became in later iterations. He's as scared of the teenagers invading his homestead as they are of him.

Leatherface's defining moment as a character occurs after he kills Jerry with a devastating hammer blow, then runs frantically to the front window to peer out the drapes. He scans to make sure there aren't any more intruders to deal with. Once satisfied his home protection duties are complete, he collapses in a nervous heap and starts wringing his hands and licking his lips, emotionally exhausted by the day's upheaval.

Leatherface is whatever his family needs him to be. He even becomes a matronly presence in the kitchen, donning a grandma wig and feminine makeup. He silently suffers the abuse and disregard from his brother and father figure as the family matriarch would in an oppressive domestic environment common to the time. His masks, fashioned from the faces of his victims, aren't so much war paint designed to intimidate as they are a device to strip him of all individuality. As in any domineering family structure, his persona is obliterated, then absorbed into the collective, his wants and desires irrelevant trivialities.

The Grandpa character is perhaps the most prescient exemplar for where patriarchal capitalism was headed at the dawn of the new millennium. He is an impotent vampire, inexplicably revered and deferred to by his offspring. He literally must taste the plasma of a nubile youth to become animated and once his blood lust is aroused, he lacks the sufficient strength to finish her off. A grotesque monument to inefficiency and cancerous tribalism, Grandpa set the sadistic example for his kin and they've viciously followed suit in his incapacitated stead. The sins of the father passed down through polluted blood.

The most compelling aspect of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn't the manner in which these degenerates terrorize American youth, it's how they mirror the dysfunctional nuclear family and embody the end result of its calcified, unchallenged reign. Tobe Hooper well understands the most psychologically damaging incidents to typically befall most Americans occur within the purported comfort and safety of the home.

The inimitable alchemy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is to be found in the way Hooper captures lightning in a bottle artistically and grafts archetypal fears onto generational disconnect and mistrust. He then seasons this heady stew with a liberal dose of Freudian familial neuroses. Entirely intentional or not, the end result is a watershed moment for the genre and a film that will be discussed and analyzed for equally as long as its revolutionary forbears from the silent era.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is both of its time and timeless, the rarely achieved goal of any serious work of art.

  • Ryguy815

    Welcome to the site Matt, I am a big fan of horror and I can't wait to read more of your articles!

  • Adriano

    This is a great article. I'm also a huge fan of horror movies (my favourite genre), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is without a doubt one of the best of its kind. Astonishingly, it gets better every time I see it.
    The last sentence sums perfectly the importance of the film.

  • Driver

    As much as I love horror, I don't give the classics the time they deserve, so this kind of articles encourage me to revisit those films. I can't wait to watch 'Texas Chain Saw' again, it's been some time...

    Welcome to the site Matt.

  • Matt Risnes

    Thanks for the kind words everybody!

    • Ryguy815

      Your very welcome, keep up the good work!

  • andyluvsfilms

    Welcome to the site Matt, i enjoyed your article very much and look forward to reading more of your work. You do know you have to buy everyone cakes on your first day right?

  • Tom

    Great article Matt. This definitely sparked my interest to revisit TCM again.

  • Xarnis

    I'm not a huge horror fan, but this was a great article! Welcome to the site Matt. I look forward to reading more of your writing in the future

  • Ron

    This was a great debut article, interesting and makes me want to watch the movie again! :)

  • Mikey

    First let me say that I have my problems with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While the antagonists are compelling, the protagonists are incredibly bland; the acting can be a bit questionable; and I prefer horror/tension that builds instead of the quick jolts that can make the narrative a bit jerky. Having said that, I will not deny anything said in this article. Even though I don't think he totally succeeded, I can easy commend Hooper's effort. I really wish that horror films of today could be dissected as in depth as TCM is here. Now of course there are a few exceptions, but they are few and far between. I can't even count on one quality American horror film a year anymore (it's the only major genre I'd say that of).

    Anyway, complaints about the current state of horror aside, this is a fantastic article. Matt, you have a great, very readable, writing style and I can't wait to hear more from you. The horror genre is certainly one I like, but am admittedly not as fluent in as others.

  • The Dead Burger

    I do think that all of the social/political commentary that people talk about with this film is in there, and I think it was intentional, but in my opinion it's perhaps not as complex as some of the film's ardent defenders claim and it's certainly not THE reason the film is such a masterpiece of horror, even if it contributes to its legacy and makes the film more digestible to "serious" cinephiles. Ultimately, I think the reason it's such a classic is simply that it's incredibly effective, a legitimately terrifying experience that is, in a lot of ways, unusually realistic and believable, but still cinematically involving and well-crafted. There are a lot of movies that are scary but there aren't many that are scary in the WAY that the original TCM is scary. It's unforgettable, both satisfying and deflating.

    Anyways, wonderfully written article, and I look forward to your pieces to come! Goodness knows horror is an underserved, occasionally kind of pitiful realm of the cinesphere.

  • Harry Fuertes

    Fascinating and quite enlightening. Can't wait to read more of your work, Mr. Risnes.

  • Matt Risnes

    Again, thanks so much for all the supportive and extremely nice comments. The crowd that visits Rope is an intelligent and thoughtful one!

    I sincerely hope this does cause some to revisit the film. I think TCM is a movie that most take as a given they've seen and know intimately, but when they sit down and really focus on a viewing, they're quite surprised by how powerful it truly is.

    I didn't mention the protagonists, but do think they are far from a bland bunch. I find their dynamic very authentic and compelling, their era-specific idiosyncrasies to be endearing rather than grating, and in the case of Sally and Franklin, the sibling rivalry adds a potent dimension of strained familial stakes.

    I also disagree that TCM relies on jump scares, I find it to be maturely paced for a film of its ilk, with scares built on a carefully constructed aura of tension and unease. I do however agree that these days we don't get more than one good American horror offering a year. If we're lucky.

    Thanks so much for the intelligent input and opinions! I look forward to more dialogue like this in the future!

    • Mikey

      After all this reading (both your article and the comments) I may have to return to TCM at some point in the near future.

      I'm not sure if you were referring to my comment, but one thing I would like to clear up is that when I mentioned "quick jolts that can make the narrative a bit jerky" I did not mean jump scares. I instead was reffering to Hooper's method of suddenly introducing scenes of extreme, but genuine, tension and terror. I feel "jump scare" makes it seem a bit cheap and artificial, and for all the problems I have with TCM I would never argue that Hooper doesn't earn his scares. Hooper definitely accomplishes his goals. It's just not a style of filmmaking I love.

      • Matt Risnes

        I was referring to your comment and I apologize for misinterpreting it! I get what you're saying now, sort of like the placid build up, then sudden, grisly sequences of depravity. That makes sense and if that's a personal preference issue for you, I get that. It helps me to have a greater understanding of films I love when people explain what it is about them that doesn't work for them. Thanks for the dialogue!

    • RagingTaxiDriver

      I actually have put off TCM because I thought it was just some horror movie that has picked up cult status. You have convinced me otherwise. Hoping to check it out soon. Great review/analysis.

  • Randall P McMurphy

    I hope to see this soon, all this talk about it is making me want to see it like the talk about The Vanishing did... I've seen the remake and its sequel and hated both, but I'll give this one a chance this week

    • Matt Risnes

      If you and RagingTaxiDriver give the film a chance because of reading this, that's the highest praise I can receive. I hope you do and end up enjoying it immensely! You guys both have fantastic screen names that derive from some of my favorite films of all time, thanks for reading!

  • Stephen Bjork

    I actually registered just to thank Matt for the very concise and well-written analyses of the film. I have read many, many thousands of words devoted to TCM,and this is a very good synopsis of the film and its apparent subtexts. In one sense, the intentions of Hooper, Henkel et. al. are not strictly relevant to an analysis of a decades-old film, as once it was so firmly ensconced into popular culture, it has taken on a life of its own. Any reading of something that has gotten under the writer's skin is valid on its own merits, regardless of whether or not it matches the goals of the filmmakers. The movie has grown far beyond ANYTHING that its creators could have intended!

    Anyway, thanks again, and I look forward to reading more columns from you.