Looking Back at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The story revolves around a young woman named Sally, her disabled brother, and three friends who road trip through a desolate Texas town. Expecting a simple, brief trip, the group find themselves victim to a masked psychopath wielding a chainsaw. Though its structure has been copied ad nauseum, there truly is no influential equivalent to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Spawning an entire genre of film, Tobe Hooper took the Frankenstein archetype, gave him a mask made of skin, and put a chainsaw in his hands. After the horrors of the Vietnam war, the country was prepared to have a dark mirror held up its face. Nearly 50 years later, this low budget film is still a consequential addition, if not the most consequential, to the ongoing world of horror film today. What made it such a phenomenon was both its revolutionary style and perfect timing.
Equating to around 600K in today’s dollars, Tobe Hooper was going to have to be very creative if he wanted to bring his hideous nightmare to life. Instead of shortening the scope of TCM by cutting cast and location, Hooper opted to shoot the film as direct cinema, a style of film almost exclusively used as a means for non-fiction film and television. It may be difficult to imagine that a documentary style film could be so effectively ground breaking, but at that point in time people were only used to seeing it on the nightly news or other informational, non-fiction television programs. People’s eyes were trained to equate this style with the truth. For those lucky enough to watch TCM when it was released, they were treated to a film whose violence was so realistic, and subject so deranged that there was no proper visceral context to ease their senses.
A year prior to its release, The Vietnam War had finally ended. During the war, every day, Americans would tune into the nightly news to get a glimpse of the young servicemen fighting in the war. Many of them would never return home. The bloodshed loomed large over the country, and soon, people were desensitized to it; desensitized to the slaughtering of young Americans, and desensitized to the slaughtering of so many Vietnamese nationals. Back home, a counterculture had emerged preaching peace, love, and happiness. However, this sentiment didn’t necessarily apply to those lucky enough to survive and come back home. This counterculture was firmly against the war and eventually became spiteful of the men fighting in it, even though a large number of them didn’t choose to be there in the first place. Hatred for the military didn’t end there. There was distrust of the government and past generations for celebrating the horrors of war. They accused those who strictly abide by conventional values and norms as backward thinkers, trapping us in a cycle of empirical murder. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre perfectly encapsulated the fear and tension felt within this new counterculture.
The fear and distrust of generations past is expertly highlighted in the first act of TCM when they pick up a hitchhiker on the side of a lonely Texas highway. Sally and company do not know this man, but they take pity on him. They certainly don’t know he has a brother that will terrorize, murder, and slaughter them, or at least leave them with everlasting emotional scars.
The Hitchhiker looks and dresses differently than they do. No one dares sit next to him. He explains to Franklin, Sally’s brother, how the superior method of killing a cow is the hammer opposed to the captive bolt pistol used by modern butchers. The reason, he says, is that the move to the cattle stun gun put many butchers out of work. Of course, the Hitchhiker is referring to his own family. What we later find out, is that he and his clan have been made obsolete by technology. Since technology drives culture, the Hitchhiker is a thing of the past. Because of this, our five main characters are disgusted by everything about him. This can be surmised earlier in the same scene before they pick up the Hitchhiker when Franklin describes the hammer method of slaughter to the other four. The mere mention of slaughtering animals sickens them. Of course, this doesn’t stop them from enjoying tasty Texas barbecue moments later.
Sensing the group’s disgust, but excited at the prospect of new friends, the Hitchhiker decides to entertain the group. He grabs the knife out of Franklin’s hand and digs it deep into his own palm as blood pours from the open wound. All of our main characters are horrified, not the reception the Hitchhiker had intended. This is an allusion to the cultural divide within the van. Like a young, war veteran returning home to find a drastically changed world, the Hitchhiker cannot seem to relate to people his own age. What he thought was an innocent gesture was viewed as a disturbing and barbaric statement by his peers. This is when Sally and company regret picking up the Hitchhiker, and it does not go unnoticed by the young barbarian.
What the group doesn’t know, but we do, is that the Hitchhiker is an artist. By the camera hanging around his neck, we can connect him to the opening credit sequence that ends with the image of a corpse holding onto a severed head, and hoisted upon a gravestone. The mere fact that he uses the dead to create art implicitly states that his creations are anchored in the past and essentially dead. The country’s youth viewed the art that the generations of the past hold dear as outdated, vile, and rooted in male psychotic violence. The Hitchhiker’s affinity for taking pictures of his gruesome art hammers home the idea that he represents everything the five hates.
The lens from how we see TCM is clearly through the eyes of our five modern twenty somethings of Sally, Franklin, Pam, Kirk and Jerry. Each are clear models of the type of people valued within the hippie counterculture, though Sally is valued in nearly all cultures. In the Hitchhiker, they find the embodiment of the very thing they despise; the sum of their fears. This is at the root of what makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre work. A film so universally terrifying that it created an entire sub-genre that it still casts an immense shadow over. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is perhaps one of the greatest examples of horror film innovation. With massive budget restraints, Tobe Hooper manipulated our sense of reality at the time, and changed cinema forever.