TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
Directed By: Tobe Hooper
Written By: Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Gunner Hansen
Released: October 1974
Here's the opening Narration of the movie: “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.” This narration, along with the accompanying quick snapshots being taken by Forensic Police Officers set the tone for this movie beautifully. For 1974 this movie was pretty grisly and horrifying. Once the killing starts at the farmhouse it’s a hyper-manic struggle for survival. Leatherface is a disturbing and depraved monster that freaks you out from the first moment you see him on screen. Stand-out scary moment is when Sally Hardesty awakens tied to a chair sitting at a dinner table being stared at by a family of maniacs. The close ups of her terrorized eyes are truly frightening!
For as long as I can remember, horror movies have been some of my favourite films. From the multitude of scream queens, plethora of slashers, and scads of cinema macabre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has always been at the top of the body pile as one of my personal favourites. I grew up in a liberal family, with a teen-aged sister who liked horror films, and wasn't too concerned that her little brother was watching them too. The first time I watched Chainsaw I was 16 years old, and can still recall the load I dropped in my pants from how scared it made me. For years afterwards, I believed this movie was the scariest film I have ever seen. It became the standard to which I measured other horror films against. Each and every Halloween, I would watch this movie with a different friend who hadn't seen the movie before. Everyone had decidedly different reactions to it, from repulsed to engrossed (no pun intended). Although it advertises itself as a true story, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not — but the film was heavily influenced by the real life events of Wisconsinian nutjob Ed Gein, the flesh obsessed murderer and grave robber of the late 1940’s and ’50’s whose house was adorned with furniture made of female skin and body parts. Gein was also infatuated with creating flesh suits, and stored his petrified mother in her bed — which he would sleep in with! A real crazy momma’s boy!! Many elements of the Ed Gein case have lent themselves out to many horror movies throughout the past five decades, including: Psycho (1960), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), Deranged (1974), and Silence of the Lambs (1992) and quite a few others. In this essay, I aim to emphasize the themes of gender confusion, sexual metaphors and imagery, and the distinct relationship between pornography and slasher films as they relate to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Before we get started, check out the trailer for this disgustingly awesome movie:
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a vile piece of sick crap…it is a film with literally nothing to recommend it: nothing but a hysterically paced slapdash, imbecile concoctions 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“ – Stephen Koch, Harpers Magazine, November 1976.
PORNOGRAPHY AND THE SLASHER FILM
There has always been a close relationship between pornography and slasher film horror movies. Both are transparent sources of attitudes towards sex and gender. They both deal with portrayals of the body, and both are considered the lowest form of cinema. Where porn deals with arousal and pleasure of the body, the slasher experiments with the body in pain and torture, but both are obsessed with the body. In porn movies, the emphasis is in portraying erotic situations where the players are involved pleasurably (most of the time) in sexual activity and the viewers become turned on or sexually aroused. In contrast, the slasher film is most successful the more they turn people off by depicting situations where the body is in peril, terror, or jeopardy. What goes on onscreen has a relationship to the viewer’s bodily reactions as well. When watching a horror film, a person may shudder, shiver, or jerk their head away to avert their eyes from witnessing the characters onscreen enduring horrific events. These are all bodily sensations, much as sexual arousal is when watching a pornographic movie — one contends with gender while the other on the physical act of sex.
In a slasher film, and heavily apparent in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there is definitive conflict of gender vs. sexuality. In the tradition of the slasher films, the killer is often crazed, comes from an abhorrent upbringing or traumatic past and is sexually repressed or gender confused. The victims are usually attractive persons who are sexually active. The surviving character, otherwise referred to as the ‘final girl’, is sexually inactive – most likely virginal – and sexually depraved. The character is referred to as the final girl as the surviving character is more often than not female. The surviving character is generally introduced at the onset of the film and is also the most intuitive, paranoid, and aware of the surrounding environment or of impending danger. Both genres toy with the taboo that what is generally behind closed doors should remain behind closed doors. Pornos and slashers make these taboos accessible to the viewer, but also act as a visual violation of the eyes seemingly forcing the viewer to watch against their will – be it titillating or terrifying.
“The first ‘Chainsaw’ was gruesome and depraved, yes, but it also had an undeniable artistry, and it truly was frightening…the Texas Chainsaw Massacre caught people by surprise with its cast of unknowns, its low-budget documentary feel, and the presumption it was based on reality. The movie had a raw, naked force, as it told the story of a depraved family of rural cannibals, luring their victims to their doom. In the years since it was made, ‘Chainsaw’ inspired hundreds of films, including the dead teenager movies and all of the special effects extravaganzas with rotting flesh and decaying organs“ – Roger Ebert, At The Movies (1986)
GENDER ROLES AND CONFUSION
In the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the killer is a brutish mute by the name of Leatherface – a cannibalistic member of the deranged Sawyer family. He earned this nomenclature because of his penchant for sewing together flesh from his dead victims and fashioning masks out of them. In the original film from 1973, aside from the decayed corpse of grandma stored in the attic, there is no female presence within this family unit. This, in conjunction with the abominable lifestyle of the Sawyer family, has caused both Leatherface and his younger brother ‘Hitchhiker’ to perpetually remain mentally and sexually in a child-like state. Adorned with a women’s wig, fat and pudgy body frame, lipstick – eyeliner – and rouge on his sewn together face, it is apparent that Leatherface has taken on a feminine appearance. He behaves like a ‘housewife’ as we see him throughout the Sawyer home.
Interestingly, Leatherface murders his victims with the symbolic phallus — the chainsaw. But only the females and the disabled neutered male (Franklin) are incapacitated via the chainsaw. The other male characters are slain by powerful blows to the head by sledgehammer. Similar to a botched sexual encounter, Leatherface chases Sally with the chainsaw (phallus) for a good duration of the film. When he springs forth from the woods and butchers Franklin, he does so standing above his victim in a dominant stance thrusting his groin level chainsaw into his prey repeatedly, simulating sexual intercourse.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre presented psychological and sexual themes that continue to be portrayed in horror films of today. It was ground-breaking in its day and continues to terrify audiences 40 years later. It spawned a number of lesser sequels. It has been re-imagined. It has traversed other media including comic books and video games, and has countless toys and memorabilia produced for it. It is a timeless classic that has been submitted to the U.S. National Registry for preservation, and as Mr. Stephen Koch in the November 1976 issue of Harpers Magazine stated — “it is a vile piece of sick crap”…that must be seen by any true fan of horror cinema.