Continuing with our 3rd Annual Halloween Movie Marathon, “The Unenthusiastic Critic”—my wise-assed, horror-hating girlfriend “N.”—joins me for a viewing of the 1974
Merchant and Ivory Tobe Hooper film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As always, spoilers follow, so if (like my girlfriend) you haven’t already seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and if (unlike her) you would like to, you should really do that first.
Yes, yes, I’m well aware of the fact that All Saint’s Day has come and gone, and that somehow I only managed to post a couple of entries in our 2013 Halloween Movie Marathon. Real life interfered, and I apologize for that.
That being said, N. and I did find time to watch a couple more horror movies before our arbitrary October 31 deadline, and I think I should still write them up anyway, calendar be damned. It is one thing, after all, to explain to my readers why I haven’t yet produced the latest installment of The Unenthusiastic Critic: it is another thing altogether to justify it to my girlfriend, thus retroactively removing what little motivation she had for subjecting herself to these movies in the first place.
Or, as N. more succinctly says, “If I have to watch these fucking things, you have to write them up.”
What We Watched: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), directed by Tobe Hooper, written by Hooper and Kim Hinkel. Starring Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Allen Danziger, Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedlow, John Dugan, and Gunnar Hansen.
Why We Watched It: You know, to be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure why we watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Obviously, it is widely regarded as one of the most important—and scariest—horror movies of all time. (For a random sampling of opinions on its place in film history, Entertainment Weekly and Time Out both rank it as the 3rd best horror movie of all time, behind only The Shining and The Exorcist. Slant gives it the top slot, IGN has it at #9, and it enjoys a 91% “fresh” rating—and a place on the list of best reviewed horror films—on Rotten Tomatoes. For even snootier approbation, critics gave Tobe Hooper’s low-budget exploitation flick a place on Sight & Sound‘s list of the top 250 movies of all time, and it is also part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
But I have to confess, I didn’t go into this with any particular love for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In fact, as I was forced to admit to my beloved girlfriend N., I wasn’t 100 percent sure I’d even seen all of it before. (Which is—in the end—the real reason I chose it for this marathon.)
What N. (and I) Knew About It Before We Watched It:
Me: Okay, so…The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What do you know about it?
She: This is another one I’m going into pretty blind. I’m assuming it takes place in Texas…and that there’s a chain saw involved…
Me: Wait—are you sure you haven’t seen it?
She: No, I just have excellent reading comprehension skills. But I’m assuming it’s some backwoods crazy psycho killing people with a chain saw. That’s all I know.
Me: You know…I think that might actually be all there is to know about it. But I have to confess: I’m not completely sure I’ve seen this movie. I’ve certainly seen parts of it, and I know generally what happens, but it’s been a long time. And what I do remember, I don’t remember loving. I don’t think it’s really my kind of movie.
She: That doesn’t bode well.
Me: Well, you usually hate the movies I do know and love, so maybe your odds are better with this one.
Truth be told, however, I was a little worried about how this would go. N. really does hate scary movies—it’s not an act—and I generally try not to subject her to anything too irredeemably unpleasant. I’m not a fan of extreme gore or torture-porn myself, and most of the films we’ve watched that have a high violence-factor—from The Thing to Evil Dead to Re-Animator—all had a healthy dose of humor and general goofiness to temper the trauma. And we’ve had bad luck with some darker films that we’ve tried to watch for this series. (Last year, for example, we tried to watch David Fincher’s Se7en. It’s a movie I love, and N. actually appreciated it too, but the heavy mood during that viewing was not exactly conducive to mockery and mirth.) I warn N. that I have some doubts about whether this film will work for our purposes.
She: Wait, so are you concerned that I’ll be traumatized by watching this shit, or are you just concerned that I won’t perform up to my usual standards?
Me: Can’t you just register the fact that I’m concerned, and leave it at that? But no pressure: if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.
She: Right. But see, even if we don’t get a blog post out of it, I still have to have these images in my head that I don’t want.
Me: Right, but it’s okay, because I don’t have to write about it.
She: You’re concern is touching. Really.
How It Went: Better than I’d feared, not as well as I’d hoped. Neither N. nor I were quite converted to lovers of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it is well-crafted enough—and weird enough—that it definitely held our interest.
Part of what makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre such a landmark film is its pioneering use of faux-documentary style realism. It’s not a “found-footage” film, but it purports to be a true story, and this—combined with the raw, unpolished filmmaking—contributes to its feeling of immediacy and authenticity. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a grindhouse film that achieved mass-market success, and it is easy to imagine how mainstream audiences used to the polished suspense of Hitchcock and the campy scares of Hammer would have been unprepared for the visceral, matter-of-fact brutality of Hooper’s film. As horror director Wes Craven famously said of the film to Vanity Fair, “It looked like someone stole a camera and started killing people.”
Hooper prepares the audience to accept this as “real” right from the beginning, with some portentous voice-over narration and accompanying scroll that sound like a documentary or news report. (The narrator, by the way—doing his best “serious newsreel voice”—is John Larroquette, of Night Court fame. It was Larroquette’s first film credit, and he claims he was paid exactly one joint for the work.)
The text is indeed ominous, and I consider it a good sign that my girlfriend laughs.
She: That is some really heady text for this level of film.
Me: It sounds like the beginning of a 60 Minutes expose.
She: Seriously. Are we talking about the Holocaust?
To me, the most genuinely creepy part of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the pre-credits sequence, in which Hooper inserts flashbulb shots of decaying bodies between long shots of a black screen.
She: Ohhhhh-kay. I really don’t need to see these images, thanks.
This fades into a radio news broadcast that tells us that graveyards in Texas have been desecrated, with bodies stolen, misplaced, and put on grisly display.
The radio report goes on to say that family members of people buried in the graveyard are journeying to the site to ensure that their relatives bodies are undisturbed. It then segues into unrelated news stories of refinery fires, cholera outbreaks, collapsing buildings, and suicides.
She: That’s a lot of bad news coming out of Texas.
Me: Is there any other kind of news that comes out of Texas?
But of course The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—like most horror movies—is just tapping into the cultural zeitgeist. The film was shot in the sweltering summer of 1974, and the news in America hadn’t been so good for a while: the President was in the process of resigning, the war in Vietnam and the bombings in Cambodia had just ended the previous year, the energy crisis was underway, and the country was just in a generally shitty, depressive, pessimistic mood. Crime was also a major issue in the public consciousness: the 1970s broke records for crime rates across the country, and paranoia about the kinds of bizarre, high-profile murders The Texas Chain Saw Massacre presents was somewhat justified: the trials of Charles Manson and his followers had been big news in recent years, as was the ongoing (and unsuccessful) search for the Zodiac Killer; Bundy and Gacy—among other serial killers—also had sprees well underway by the summer of 1974. The film doesn’t overtly comment on any of this, of course, but it’s easy to imagine how the country was primed to respond to the insane, motiveless crimes that Hooper presented.
Some of the people heading to the graveyard to check on dead relatives are Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), and three of their friends: Jerry (Allen Danziger), Pam (Teri McMinn), and Kirk (William Vail). They stop their van at the side of the highway so they can wheel Franklin out to take a leak.
She: You bring someone in a wheelchair to a horror movie? He’s a liability.
Me: That’s very ableist of you. Besides, they didn’t know they were coming to a horror movie. It’s not like they were all, “Hey, Franklin, we’re all gonna go get chased by a chain-saw-swinging maniac! Wanna come? I’ll bring the ramp!”
An 18-wheeler goes rumbling past them, and the breeze from it—or something?—sends Franklin’s wheelchair tumbling down the hill. He’s fine: it’s just a random moment of peril to spice up the first reel of the movie. (My girlfriend—predictably—laughs.)
Back on the road, Pam is reading aloud from a book about astrology. “Saturn’s a bad influence. It’s just a particularly bad influence now that it’s in retrograde,” she lectures.
She: OK, red flag #1: don’t do shit when Saturn is in retrograde.
Me: Well, I mean, that’s fine, but you and I don’t really keep track of that, so that information is of limited use.
The kids get to the graveyard—to check on whether their Dear Old Granddaddy has been disinterred—and an old man lies drunkenly rambling on the ground, talking about all the bad things he’s seen.
She: Red flag #2: crazy old drunk.
Me: You should always listen to crazy old drunks?
She: Always listen to crazy old drunks. Especially when they’re in a graveyard.
Granddaddy’s remains turn out to be resting peaceably, so the kids get back on the road to go visit Granddaddy’s old house. On the way, they all notice a terrible odor wafting in from the barren scenery around them. “What’s that smell?” they ask.
She: IT’S THE SMELL OF EVIL AND DEATH.
Close: it turns out to be the smell from a nearby slaughterhouse, where Granddaddy used to sell his cattle. Franklin starts describing how they used to kill the animals with a sledgehammer, sometimes needing two or three blows. “I mean, they’d skin ’em sometimes before they was even dead,” he says, getting very animated about the subject.
Me: He’s really into this conversation.
She: Yeah, he’s getting pretty worked up.
Me: “What’s that smell?” “It’s the smell of foreshadowing.“
Up ahead on the highway, they see a hitchhiker. “Should we pick him up?” Jerry asks.
Me: I’m sorry, you have an opinion on this issue?
She: Never pick up hitchhikers.
Me: It’s just being a good Samaritan.
She: Never pick up hitchhikers. Unless you recognize the person as Jesus himself. Jesus, or… [She tries to think of someone else who would be acceptable.]
Me: How about nuns? Are some stranded nuns okay to pick up?
She: No, they could be in disguise. And, they might start singing. Then I’m stuck in a car listening to them solve a problem like Maria, and I gotta put those bitches out. I can’t deal with that.
Me: Got it. Just Jesus, then. Good rule of thumb.
She: Jesus, or…Jason Mamoa.
Me: Really? You’d pick Mamoa up? Because that guy looks like he could fuck you up.
She: In a good way.
Prejudiced as she is, this hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) turns out to be someone N. would not have stopped for.
She: Aw, HELL naw…
Me: I don’t think that’s Jesus.
She: No, I don’t think so. What the fuck? Is that a cat around his neck?
Me: It makes a handy purse.
The Hitchhiker does turn out to be a little disturbing. First he starts talking—very excitedly—about his job at the slaughterhouse, and how his whole family is in the slaughter business. “My family’s always been in meat!” he says. He not only describes the process in detail—including the secrets to making good headcheese—he keeps Polaroid pictures of his kills in his neck-carcass.
The Hitchhiker wants to borrow Franklin’s jackknife, and Franklin hands it over.
She: WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?
And the Hitchhiker, grinning, begins cutting into his own hand.
She: That’s enough. PULL OVER. See, this is why we don’t pick up hitchhikers.
He hands Franklin his knife back, and pulls out his own straight razor from a sock.
She: WHY HAVEN’T WE STOPPED THE CAR AND PUT HIS ASS OUT?
And then he pulls out a Polaroid camera.
Me: He’s got a lot of stuff, and he’s pulling it out of nowhere: camera, straight razor. He’s like Batman.
She: Or a crazy redneck Mary Poppins. THROW HIM OUT. Don’t even slow the van down: just open the door.
They get there eventually—especially after the Hitchhiker takes a picture of Franklin, ritualistically sets it on fire with some highly flammable powder, and then cuts Franklin’s arm with his straight razor.
She: See? And now he’s cursed you. You should have thrown his ass out while you had the chance.
They finally do push him out, and he dances about gleefully and smears blood on the side of the van as it pulls away.
She: That wasn’t Jesus.
Me: See, I don’t know how you’re supposed to know they’re Jesus. I don’t know why you think Jesus would be hitchhiking in the first place, and I don’t know how you think you would recognize him if he did.
She: But come on, that guy was fucked up. He had red shit on his face; he had a dead animal around his neck; he was obviously insane. Maybe don’t pick up crazy.
Down the road, the kids pull into a gas station, where a fellow (Robert Courtin) sits waiting for some windows to wash.
She: OK, this community is full of people who look like… [stops herself]
Me: What snobbish, politically incorrect thing did you just catch yourself from saying?
She: They’re questionable–looking individuals. That’s what I was going to say.
Me: C’mon, have the courage to voice your prejudices, city slicker.
She: My prejudices keep me the fuck out of Texas.
The kindly owner (Jim Siedlow) gives them directions to the abandoned old house they’re looking for, but warns them that it’s dangerous to be messing about in such places.
She: Red flag: always listen to the gas station attendant.
Me: Of course you should, he’s the harbinger. “Am I on speakerphone?” By the way, I’ve lost count: how many red flags have you counted so far? 10? 12?
She: I don’t know. It’s a lot of flags. Too many flags.
The gas station is also—quite logically—out of gas.
She: So the van’s low on gas.
Me: Yeah, that probably won’t factor in later.
(But in fact, it doesn’t factor in later: when the moment comes, late in the film, when they need to start the van but can’t, it’s because they don’t have the keys. We could charitably assume the gas problem was included just to metaphorically invoke the then-current energy crisis, but in fact I think it’s a sign of haphazard, even sloppy storytelling in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Elements like this are introduced and then never followed up on: the whole thing has a very made-on-the-fly feel to it, which I suppose is part of its charm.)
The kids ignore the advice of the gas station attendant, but they buy some of his barbecue for the road. They head up to the abandoned old house where Franklin and Sally’s grandfather lived. It’s a dilapidated, decaying wreck, dark and grey and falling apart: why anyone would want to come back here is a mystery, but—as my girlfriend points out—it’s a particularly weird pilgrimage for Franklin to make.
She: Doesn’t look very wheelchair-accessible.
Me: No, I don’t think it’s up to ADA codes.
And indeed, Franklin is the odd-man out; the four others all race upstairs laughing, while Franklin sulks downstairs angrily, giggling sarcastically in irritation and blowing raspberries at them.
Me: “What an eccentric performance.”
She: He has a lot of anger.
And in fact, if I were watching this for the first time without any awareness of the plot, I’d be tempted to wonder if Franklin wouldn’t turn out to be the one who goes crazy and starts murdering people. Between his love for slaughterhouse lore and his seething resentment at his able-bodied compatriots, he seems just a chain saw away from going psycho himself. But that’s not the kind of movie Hooper was making: instead, Franklin’s bitterness, anger, and general unpleasantness are just minor expressions of the general mood of America, which will manifest itself more perfectly in the crazies to come.
My girlfriend—always keenly on the lookout for bad omens—finds plenty to make her nervous here. First of all, Kirk discovers a corner of the upstairs bedroom that is infested with what seem to be hundreds of nasty looking spiders.
She: It’s Charlotte’s Web. And Charlotte is spelling: G-E-T T-H-E F-U-C-K O-U-T!
And outside the back door, Franklin discovers some troubling tokens. On the porch, there is a welcome mat of animal skulls, bones, and feathers, and hanging above is a mobile of bones.
Me: It’s folk art.
She: It’s the wind-chimes of the devil!
Pam and Kirk—otherwise known as Disposable Couple #1—decide to go seek out the old swimmin’ hole that is supposed to be behind the house somewhere. They wander back through the scrub and discover that the crick is dry, but on the way they hear the sound of a generator and decide to try to barter with the neighbors for some gas. They follow the sound to an old farmhouse with a yard full of junk and an alarming number of abandoned cars.
She: THOSE ARE THE CARS OF THE PEOPLE HE KILLED.
Me: Oh, you’re so paranoid. They just happen to collect folk art and vintage automobiles…and, possibly, spleens.
Pam starts to get the same bad feeling N. has—especially after Kirk finds a human tooth on the porch—and wants to leave: she gets mad at Kirk, but Kirk really wants some gas. He enters the house, calling out for its occupants. Hearing noises that sound like a pig being slaughtered, Kirk heads to the back and steps into a small hallway decorated with animal skulls.
She: Those are not sounds that make you want to enter a home.
What happens next is remarkable for its brevity and its matter-of-fact efficiency: a huge figure appears suddenly in the doorway, wearing what appears to be a mask of human skin on his face, and he clubs Kirk with a sledgehammer.
She: Oh, shit!
This, of course—though he’s never called it in the film—is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). Kirk lies twitching like a side of beef, and the figure clubs him a couple more times for good measure before dragging him in and slamming an industrial metal door behind them. The whole transaction takes about 15 seconds. As with the rest of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it’s Hooper’s realistic approach and unwavering eye that make it so effective: there is no warning, no build-up, no suspenseful music readying us for the shock. When it happens, it happens in real-time, not in slow-mo, and Hooper films it dispassionately and without flourish. Give credit where it’s due: it’s one of the great Holy-Shit-Did-That-Just-Happen? moments in movie history.
Outside, Pam is still pissed off, but starting to worry. She starts calling for Kirk, and walks back up to the house. My girlfriend—not surprisingly—takes issue with this decision.
She: Fuck Kirk. Go back. Kirk gone.
Me: Your concern is touching. So if I go into a house…
She: First of all, I say, “Hey, maybe don’t do that!”
Me: And then I don’t come back out. And thirty seconds later…
She: Peace out! I’ll tell your mama where I last saw ya!
But Pam—whom I would say has a more highly developed sense of compassion than my girlfriend, and whom N. would say has a less developed instinct for self-preservation—enters the house. She wanders through calling for Kirk, and stumbles upon a room that appears to be furnished in fur, and feathers, and human bones.
She: More folk art?
Me: I have a new idea for a decorating scheme for our apartment.
She: Chain Saw Chic?
Pam, to N.’s dismay, just seems absolutely transfixed by the decor.
She: GET THE FUCK UP AND GET OUT.
Me: Yeah, she’s taking a really long time soaking up the ambiance here.
Too long, as it turns out. When she finally gets her shit together enough to run screaming from the house, Leatherface emerges and catches her on the porch. He drags her back to his workroom—where he’s preparing to make sausages out of Kirk—and hangs her screaming on a hook. Still alive, she gets to watch as he revs up his…
She: CHAIN SAW!
Me: And the main character finally appears.
(A side-note here: one of the things that struck both of us as we watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that it is remarkably bloodless for a movie about a chain-saw massacre: it’s a gruesome movie, but not a gory one. Whether it is by design, or due to a happy accident of budget, there is almost no actual blood on-screen in the movie. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre may be the granddaddy of modern torture porn films, but its descendants could learn a thing or two from their ancestor about how to film effective slaughter scenes without resorting to squirting packs of fake blood.)
While Kirk and Pam are getting to know Leatherface, Franklin is worrying that the blood mark on the van is somehow a sign that the Hitchhiker is going to come after them. Jerry taunts him with this fear. “I gave him your name, Franklin, and I told him where you lived. He’s gonna kill ya.” Sally tells him to knock it off, so Jerry goes off looking for Pam and Kirk.
Me: Jerry’s kind of a dick.
She: And he looks like Hippie David Letterman.
Jerry’s search for his friends leads him, of course, to Leatherface’s house: on the porch he finds Pam’s jacket, and inside he hears sounds coming from a freezer that turn out to be Pam herself; she’s mostly dead, but she has enough energy to lunge out desperately at Jerry when he opens the lid. Jerry reels back, right into the swinging sledgehammer of Leatherface.
Me: You know, for a chain saw murderer, he doesn’t do a lot of chain-sawing.
She: Well, he hits ’em on the head first, and then he chain saws them into pieces.
Me: Still, it’s kind of false advertising. But I supposed The Texas Sledgehammer Massacre doesn’t have the same ring to it for marketing purposes.
Leatherface stuffs Pam back into her fridge, and reels around himself in a state of agitation: he runs around the house incoherently, looking around and peering out the curtains. At first—because the editing is really unclear—we think that Jerry has somehow survived and scuttled off, but this turns out not to be the case. Instead, Leatherface is just understandably upset that all of these damn kids keep showing up in his house. He’s freaking out, wondering if there are more of them around somewhere.
Making incomprehensibly pathetic noises, he finally collapses into a chair, looking distraught.
She: Aw, he’s distressed. He’s layered.
Me: Well, now I feel sort of bad for Leatherface. And I mean, they did enter his house uninvited. Technically, under Texas laws, I’m not sure he’s committed a crime yet.
When we check back in with Sally and Franklin, night has fallen, and the siblings are arguing over the right course of action. “They’ll probably be back in a minute or so,” Franklin says.
She: Ha! No, they won’t.
Franklin wants to go back to the gas station for help; Sally decides to take the flashlight and go look for her friends. They argue, but Sally storms off into the woods, and Franklin rolls after her frantically. “Sally, I can’t keep up with you!”
She: This is what I’m talking about: he’s a liability.
Me: No, he’s handi-capable.
She: Is Franklin going to be the only one to make it out alive?
Me: If he is, you owe him and all people with disabilities an apology.
But alas, sad as it is to say, N.’s original assessment of the situation turns out to be correct: Sally and Franklin head towards the lights of a house, but with Franklin’s wheelchair they make painstakingly slow progress through the nearly pitch-black woods. Then Franklin tells his sister that he thinks he’s heard something in the woods.
And he has.
She: OH SHIT! Oh…..
Me: “Told you I heard something.”
As if to make up for his earlier loyalty to the sledgehammer, Leatherface chain saws the shit out of poor Franklin in his wheelchair. Sally begins screaming—she won’t really stop screaming for the rest of the movie—and begins running off through the woods, frequently getting snagged and tangled up in branches.
She: You know, bell-bottoms are really not the ideal running pants in this situation.
But she actually makes pretty good time—partially because Leatherface keeps stopping to cut down shrubbery in his way.
Me: Why is he taking the time to do landscaping now?
She: “I’m really just pissed about the overgrowth. That’s why I’m so angry. I tried to do this whole Secret Garden thing, and it didn’t work out.”
Sally finally makes it to the house, screaming for help: she doesn’t know, of course, that this is the worst place for her to be. She enters and locks the door behind her—forcing Leatherface to chainsaw his way through the front door—and runs upstairs, where she finds a nice old couple we shall call Grandfather and Grandmother.
She: Hey, it’s Norman Bates’ mom.
And, of course, it is Norman Bates’ mom: Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—along with Silence of the Lambs and other films—are loosely based on the same real-life case: that of Ed Gein, a Winconsin-born graverobber, cannibal, murderer, and all-around weirdo. The Wikipedia page for the case is here, and you can read it yourself. However, in case anyone should be tempted to think fiction is ever stranger than truth, I’ll just note the list of items said to be found by authorities in Ed Gein’s house, which included ten heads, four noses, nine masks of human skin, bowls made from human skulls, assorted furnishings upholstered with human skin, nine vulvae in a shoe box, a belt covered in nipples, and a window-shade drawstring with a pair of lips on it. Let’s face it, Leatherface would have entered this guy’s house and said, “Dude, that’s fucked up.“
Which, coincidentally, is exactly what my girlfriend says when she sees the upstairs of Leatherface’s house—but for different reasons.
She: THAT IS SOME FUCKED UP WALLPAPER.
Me: Really? That’s what you notice?
She: I mean, the paper, and the pink railing…
Me: I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’m just not sure that’s the most important thing to be focusing on right now.
Sally heads back downstairs, but Leatherface has finally turned his front door into kindling, and chases her back up to the horrible pink landing: terrified at both him and his decor, no doubt, she decides her only course of action is to jump through the window. She lands outside, and then the running begins again.
She: This is a lot of running.
Me: Yeah, and he’s got to be tired.
She: Yeah, he’s kind of a big guy. And carrying that fucking thing?
Sally, it turns out, has run all the way to the gas station, where she collapses into the arms of the kindly owner. He says he’s going to go get the truck, so he can drive her to the hospital and authorities. She waits alone in the station, panting hysterically, and Hooper stays with her in real time: it’s a very effective scene, ramping up the tension by slowing everything down long enough to register Sally’s terror and humanity.
As her eyes scan the room she notices a lot of meat roasting on a barbecue, but doesn’t think anything of it. Neither, for the record, does my girlfriend, who is convinced she knows—as she always knows—what’s going to happen next.
The truck pulls up, and the gas station owner appears in the doorway. N. braces herself for inevitable reappearance of Leatherface at this moment.
Me: Oh, you think you know everything.
But no, it’s actually worse than that: the owner, grinning, is carrying some rope and a sack, which has never boded well in this kind of situation. “You just cooperate, young lady, and we’ll have no trouble,” he says, and when Sally refuses to cooperate he beats her with a broom and ties her up; throwing the sack over her head, he carries her to the truck.
She: THAT’S WHERE HE GETS HIS MEAT FROM.
She: The barbecue is people. This is like a giant PETA campaign.
The man continues with his folksy, friendly manner on the drive—”Hope you’re not too uncomfortable down there,” he says—as he grins wildly and absently pokes her viciously with a stick. He pulls up back at Leatherface’s house, and sees our old friend the Hitchhiker walking up the driveway.
The owner—he is listed as “Old Man” in the credits—jumps out and begins berating the Hitchhiker. “I told you to stay outta that graveyard,” he screams, beating the younger man. “I told you never to leave your brother alone!”
Me: See, they’re just one big loving family, with good values.
She: Yeah. Just boys being boys.
Me: Spare the rod…
She: …spoil the meat.
They carry Sally inside, and while Old Man catches up with Leatherface on recent events, Hitchhiker ties the struggling girl to a chair that appears to have severed human hands for armrests.
She: It’s an armchair. Get it?
Me: No, I don’t get it. Can you explain that joke, please? It’s too subtle for me.
“Get upstairs and get yer grandpa!” Old Man orders Hitchhiker, and the two brothers—Hitchhiker and Leatherface—return with the dessicated thing in the wheelchair, which turns out not to be quite dead. They put him at the head of the table, and let him suckle on Sally’s finger for a few minutes.
She: What the shit?
Me: Apparently, Grandpa’s still alive…if not exactly thriving.
Sally, understandably, has had too much—or perhaps she’s just exhausted from screaming. Either way, she passes out. When she comes to, the whole family is gathered around the table having dinner. (Leatherface, for reasons unknown, is wearing a woman’s wig.)
She: Why the shit is he wearing a lady’s wig?
Me: I guess he’s the mom in this little nuclear family.
She: It’s the Cleaver family. Get it?
Me: No, I don’t get that one either.
The family is bickering: Hitchhiker berates the old man for being just the cook, and letting him and Leatherface do all the work. “I just can’t take no pleasure in killin’,” he explains. “There’s just some things you got to do.” Then the whole family starts laughing, and taunting Sally, and the music swells to unbearable tension as Hooper starts cutting to extreme close ups of Sally’s eyes to convey her absolute terror and panic.
She: Those were some weird shots.
Me: It’s a little stylized.
She: I almost thought something was going to happen—like she was developing superpowers or something.
Me: “Crazy Carrie, crazy Carrie!”
But alas, despite the arch direction, Sally has no latent telekinetic abilities to draw on: she just keeps screaming. “Let’s let Grampa have some fun,” Hitchhiker says, and everyone agrees that that’s a good idea. “Our old Grampa was the best killer there ever was,” Old Man tells Sally. They untie her and place her in front of the wheelchair—kneeling over a bucket—and put a hammer in Grampa’s hands.
But Grampa—whatever kind of slaughterhouse legend he might once have been—is not quite up to the task: he keeps dropping the hammer, and they keep putting it back in his hand and trying to swing his arm for him hard enough to kill Sally. It keeps bouncing ineffectually off her skull.
She: This is just sad.
Me: Yeah, it’s nice of them to want to include him, but I don’t think Grandpa really has it in him anymore.
This entire sequence is—justifiably—the most famous in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and it really is what elevates the film—if that’s the word—above the average slasher film. It’s just so weird, in ways that feel like they come from a very dark and perversely troubled place. (Texas, that is.) It looks like hell, and apparently it was—for the actors, as well as the characters. As Jason Zinoman writes in Vanity Fair:
If it looked like a snuff film, that was partly because the actors were genuinely miserable. They worked 16-hour days in the boiling heat of central Texas in July and August and spent much of the time covered in fake blood (Karo corn syrup) and real bruises. “Let me put it to you gently,” says Edwin Neal, a Vietnam veteran who played Leatherface’s maniacal brother. “I moved troops through the jungles of Vietnam, and it wasn’t as bad as making this film.”
On the longest day of shooting, Hansen finally cracked. They were filming a scene where Leatherface tortures Sally, played by Marilyn Burns. Exhausted, overheated, and frustrated by a tube of fake blood that wouldn’t spurt, Hansen decided to cut Burns for real, just to get the scene over with. “That was hardly the worst of it,” remembers Burns […] “I got a black eye that day,” Burns says, “and I remember getting beat up by everyone while Tobe was standing nearby saying, ‘Hit her harder! Harder!’”
Sally—or perhaps Burns—takes advantage of the confusion to jump up and run through yet another window; she runs screaming away from the house, with Hitchhiker—who can’t run in a straight line—and Leatherface—who has stopped to get his chain saw—in awkward pursuit.
She: And here we go running with the chainsaw. And the wig.
Me: He’s just a sweet transvestite.
She: And the other guy runs like a spaz.
Sally makes it to the highway, just in time for an 18-wheeler to run right over Hitchhiker.
She: So much for that guy.
The driver stops, and Sally runs up to the cab of the truck, with chain-saw-wielding Leatherface right behind her. The driver (Ed Guinn) pulls her into the cab.
She: Black dude to the rescue!
But then—instead of doing the logical thing and driving off—they both climb out the other side of the cab and start running from Leatherface again.
She: What the shit? Why the fuck did you get out of the truck?
The truck driver turns and throws a wrench at Leatherface’s head, which turns out to be way more effective than such an absurd tactic should be: Leatherface not only falls, but he lands with his still-running chainsaw pressing against his own leg.
She: NICE! Chain-sawed on his own petard!
Me: I don’t think that’s how that saying goes.
Leatherface, however, is still not finished: he staggers up and begins chasing them again with the chain saw. At this moment, however, a pickup truck drives by.
Me: I gotta be honest: I’m not sure I would stop if I happened upon this little tableau.
She: Absolutely not. None of these people are Jesus.
But the driver does stop, and Sally jumps in the back, and this time the driver does the right thing and drives the fuck away. What happens to the other truck driver, we never see—he just kind of disappears from the movie, and perhaps is still running—but our last shots are of Leatherface swinging his chainsaw around in an incoherent ballet of rage and disappointment. The poor fellow has, after all, had a very long and disturbing day.
As I said when I began, I don’t think I’ll ever love The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and I think it’s elevated place in the annals of movie history is perhaps a bit undeserved. Hooper’s subsequent filmography would seem to bear me out on this: though he made Poltergeist—with, depending who you believe, some significant amount of input from Steven Spielberg—and he made the creepy TV version of Salem’s Lot, but for the most part he’s labored in TV- and B-movie obscurity.
Still, I have to respect the bare-knuckled bravura of Massacre, and its willingness to push the envelope and capture the jagged, despairing psyche of its time. For that reason, I’m glad we watched it.
But what did my girlfriend think of it?
She: Don’t show me shit like this anymore. Seriously, don’t do this.
Me: What do you mean? That was the seminal horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. One more item you can check off your bucket list.
She: This was not on my bucket list. That was horrible.
Me: Just horrible?
She: Just horrible.
Me: Well, the whole thing is a little unrefined—which is part of its charm, I think. But I’m not sure it really has the organic unity of real art.
She: Well, no, it’s called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so I wasn’t expecting art.
Me: But it has a message.
She: I suppose. The whole thing is just a treatise against the meat industry.
Me: The thing with the slaughterhouse…
She: You’re just being punished for eating meat. It’s like those ads PETA did—and got in trouble for—comparing eating animals with human trafficking and slavery. This wasn’t far from that.
Me: Right, the How do you like it? argument.
She: It would make a good companion piece with Forks Over Knives.
Me: Yes, nice double-bill.
She: And actually, I was expecting much more gore out of it. More blood. And most of the shots of him slicing people up, or him putting the girl on the meat-hook, you actually don’t see much.
Me: Yeah. Actually, the only person you actually see him chain-saw is himself.
She: The whole thing is just weird, and fucked up. And I think I was more afraid of Leatherface when I thought he was just a lone psycho. But you add this whole dysfunctional family into it, it just becomes silly. You’ve got family squabbling, and Grandpa trying to hit her with the hammer…That changed the tone a bit.
Me: That’s actually my favorite part: it’s just so disturbing. What was your favorite part?
She: The end.
Me: You mean the ending?
She: I mean that it ended. The ending itself was just weird. Those shots of focusing on her eyes. And then that scene on the highway was just sloppy and unsatisfying. It was like they just didn’t really know how to end it.
Me: I have to say, this whole movie is more or less exactly what I assume Texas is actually like.
She: In the present day?
Me: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been to Houston and places like that, but I assume that if you get out of the major cities, and get off the highway, that it all looks like this.
She: Well, I feel that way about a lot of places. If you get out of the city, and get far enough into those states…I mean, shit gets scary fast not too far outside of Chicago, too.
Me: That’s true.
She: So the moral may be…
Me: …just stay the fuck in the city.
She: And don’t pick up hitchhikers that aren’t Jesus.
Me: Again, I don’t know how you’re supposed to know they’re Jesus. You give yourself a lot of credit in these movies, that you have these magical powers that would somehow tell you exactly what to do in any given situation.
She: I would know.
Me: You would have stayed with the nice old guy at the gas station in the first place. You said to listen to him.
She: You’re right, that was my fuck-up. I didn’t know he was making human barbecue. Touché.
Me: So see, you don’t have any magical powers.
She: I have magical powers. My powers would have told me to stay the fuck out of Texas in the first place. That’s my power.