The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974
Dir. Tobe Hooper
I just got back from seeing a remastered film print of TCM at the Circle Cinema here in Tulsa. It was a tremendous experience and that box is now checked on my cinematic bucket list.
I saw the film with my brother-in-law who hadn’t seen the film before, and it was evident from the mood of the crowd that some of them hadn’t either. During John Laroquette’s voice over I think some were expecting a rather campy film, which I suppose one could rightly expect from something four decades old, especially a movie. But the mood quickly changed; TCM has aged well. Somehow it’s the first modern horror film, one that finally puts the tropes together which will be used for the next 40 years, yet still feels cutting edge, different, and dangerous. It’s a lot like The Sex Pistols or The Ramones (who wrote a song about TCM). Like them (depending on when you think punk really began), while everyone has tried to copy the formula, TCM did it first, and did it perfectly. My brother-in-law had a similar reaction: “How could every slasher movie copy it but do such a bad job copying it?” he asked. In a way, that’s the Tl;dr of my older article.
Watching the movie this time I was struck by how sympathetic, even well-developed Leatherface is portrayed relative to the slashers who would follow, yet done without a tired backstory that attempts to make him sympathetic. Rather this is all done, silently, on screen. One of my favorite scenes in the film is after Leatherface has killed his third victim. He looks confused and careens towards the window, sitting down in a chair to as if to ask “where are all these kids coming from and why won’t they leave me alone?” Gunnar Hansen’s performance is remarkable. Leatherface isn’t a killing machine. He’s a big, lumbering simpleton who reacts violently to the modern, outside world; the only reaction he knows and perhaps that the world has given him. And this is why he still scares us, why his appearances elicited screams from this audience 40 years later: he is an exaggeration of something real. While the surrealist sculptures of bones is one of the most effective visual tools of the film, this may also explain why the bodies are being unearthed. Society abandoned a segment of their population and hoped they’d disappear only to have that violent past uncovered and return again.
And that (rather zig-zaggingly) leads me to the second thing I noticed. The film looked great, beautiful actually, but I realized had grown to love the film through my old VHS copy and there was something about how badly it looked that really enhanced the film for me. This almost felt like seeing the film anew. But the real revelation is the remastered sound. Think about the classic horror films. What do they all have in common? They are sonically adventurous: Bernard Herman’s Psycho score, The Exorcist‘s use of “Tubular Bells,” Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack, John Carpenter’s score for Halloween. Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s score for TCM may be the most adventurous of them all. But it’s not just the score. The world of TCM is one full of horror, even apocalyptic dread. This is established in the sunspots (the shots of the sun shot day-for-night, the re-occuring shots of the sun and moon all later mirrored in the veins Marilyn Burns’ eyes) shown under the opening credits, but more so by the relentless news reports on the radio that the groups listens to in their van. In an exaggerated version of reality, the news reports a litany of terrible events; in one a man, angry that a sporting event is blacked out, jumps off of his apartment building leading to a violent riot. Pam’s New Age interest in astrology (which was big at the time) may be a red herring. The massacre has nothing to do with Saturn in retrograde but are consistent with the chaotic, violent events of their world which is systematically flawed.
I’d argue the other reason this is still a terrifying film today is that while Leatherface elicits screams he also makes us laugh, and then laughs at Sally’s (and our) terror. TCM has two parts which utilize different violences. The first, is the young folk being offed by Leatherface, and the first death, by hammer, is one of the most brutal in cinema (thanks to a perfectly timed twitch by the actor), uses physical violence. The second part, with only Sally left, turns into a nightmarish episode of The Three Stooges and uses a terrifying mixture of humor and emotional violence. I would argue that the second half is the more disturbing and includes shots that literally has the three characters we’ve seen terrorize the characters violently, laughing at us, the audience.
My brother-in-law’s first, immediate reaction to the film was, “that was insane.” I could write a lot more about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I think it’s a perfect film; one of the true, pure works of cinema, a singular, visceral, discomforting, and ultimately cathartically liberating experience unlike any film ever made. What does any of that mean, exactly? At it’s most basic, I think for me it means that it’s something to be experienced that you can’t experience in other forms; where the best you can do is laugh and say “that was insane.”
From this point on is my previous post:
“Exclamations/interjections,screams/interruptions,interrogations/on/the putting into question/of/the Last Judgment”-Antonin Artaud, To have done with the judgment of god.
One of my interests in film lies at the strange intersection between exploitation and art film and perhaps nowhere is that move evident than in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. From it’s jittery voice over, the apocalyptic sun spots of its credit sequence, to its gorgeous ending, the film has the ambitions of something greater than sensational drive-in fare.
“Our spiritual anarchy and intellectual disorder is a function of the anarchy of everything else-or rather, everything else is a function of this anarchy.” Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, 79. This is from, perhaps, his clearest definition of his Theatre of Cruelty (No More Masterpieces), and this “spiritual anarchy,” referred elsewhere as a sickness, hunger, or (as interpreted by later writers) homelessness, was what his Theatre was to cure.
Aside from the apocalyptic sun spots of its credits, the radio in the van during the road trip recites the wars, violence, and chaos of the world outside of the rural setting of the film, serving as something of a chorus. The missing bodies from the graves, others artistically displayed as abject sculptures, suggest an end of the world; a profane resurrection.
It is not much of a stretch to apply Artaud to a film like TCM, except that it is, a film and not a work of theatre. His theatre would hold attention “at first by crude means,” as part of placing the spectator in he middle of the spectacle. TCM accomplishes this by placing the viewer in a privileged situation, via the voice over, knowing beforehand that what they are watching has, in some temporality, already taken place. A similar situating of the spectator is doubled in the infamous and celebrated dinner table scene. In this essay, after the crude, follows the importance of sound: “sonorisation is constance: sounds, noises, cries are chosen first for their vibratory quality, then for what they represent” (81). The unique sounds and the avant-garde score, fits this proscription.
Aside from the score, the most notable thing about TCM is its lack of blood. Viewers, in retrospect, seem to recall the film being uniquely violent. But there is only one scene of explicit bloodletting (the hitchhiker). Everything else is not just implied, but transferred via bizarre push ins and shots of feathers, ambiguous structures of bone, spider webs, etc.
“A violent and concentrated action is a kind of lyricism: it summons up supernatural images, a bloodstream of images, a bleeding spurt of images in the poet’s head and in the spectator’s as well…the violence and blood having been placed at the service of the violence of the thought…the superior use of the state unused by the action and which, restored, produces purification” (82).
One of the other elements of Artaud’s theatre was a borrowing of the foundational myths. TCM is really more a Grimm’s fairytale than an adaptation of Ed Gein’s murders. Only instead of a huntsman you have my favorite character in any horror film ever: the Mack Truck driver.
The framing of TCM as a cinematic Theatre of Cruelty serves not only to rescue it from its many, many imitators, but also to prescriptively ask why did more than half of every horror film after borrow its structural template, but stylistically why have few, if any, other horror films followed suit?