The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the few movies that truly, deeply sickens me. It belongs in a very select group of films that I probably could never watch again. While it is a film that I do not necessarily love, it is a film that I’ve come to respect because of its base ability to horrify, and because of the complex commentaries that bubble underneath its sinister surface. It is a film that uses the ‘slasher’ model to allegorise the suppression of the anti-Vietnam War movement, an American government destroying itself from the inside out, and the struggle to assert traditional masculinity in a disillusioned post-Watergate world.
A number of quasi-hippies drive in a van through the Texan desert. After picking up a deranged and self-mutilating hitchhiker, the friends come across a seemingly abandoned homestead. However, the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, who wears a mask made of human skin, and his cannibalistic family live nearby, and are prepared to wreak havoc on the unassuming teens.
If you can believe me, it’s much more shocking than this brief synopsis makes out. A significant section of the film takes place in the harsh light of day, where the radiant colours of yellow and orange seep through the vast Texan plains. While many horror movies take place in the dark, shooting the first hour or so of Texas Chainsaw in daylight is particularly effective – not only does it make the events seem as though they are taking place in real-time, which makes us experience the horror along with the characters, but it also shows us that even in the revealing daylight, you are never safe from Leatherface’s chainsaw.
The film opens with a close-up shot of a decayed human skull, but that is really the last horrifying thing we see for the next forty minutes. Texas Chainsaw is noted for its long and intense build-up before the eponymous massacre begins, and though this is effective in theory, the build-up is probably the weakest part of the film. Early on, the acting is shoddy at best, and director Tobe Hooper clunkily tries to heighten the tension in ways that are so bizarre that they become almost comical – the moment when the hitchhiker picked up by the teens cuts his hand open should be inherently disturbing, however since the actor portraying him is not a great actor, the scene becomes almost laughable. Indeed, this scene is a rather clumsy way of foreshadowing the future events, and the hitchhiker’s relevance to the overall story seems to be too telegraphed – he is eventually revealed to be Leatherface’s brother.
However, when Hooper starts employing some really oblique angles, long-shots and excruciatingly long takes, the point where the film’s clunky expositional build-up becomes unrelenting tension and horror is marked. The gore is both present and absent in the film – there is hardly any blood until the very end of the film. However, we can imagine the gore without having to explicitly see it, which makes Leatherface’s killings infinitely more unnerving. Hooper removes the tangibility of blood – a definite signifier that someone is injured or dead – and the only character to ever be seen drenched in blood is the film’s sole survivor. There’s something so inhuman and unempathetic about a bloodless corpse, and something so universally human and expected about seeing a cause-and-effect relationship between being hurt and bleeding.
When one character is slaughtered by Leatherface and hung on a meat hook, we don’t need to see blood to understand that this is innately horrifying. In this scene, humans are equated with animals, and we hear asynchronous non-diegetic pig squeals in the background. The reason for Leatherface’s massacre is food – his family are unemployed abattoir workers, and their daily forage for food becomes cannibalistic. They treat humans just like any other meat, feeding into Hooper’s ‘meat is murder’ agenda.
Indeed, what makes Texas Chainsaw so horrifying to me is the characterisation of Leatherface and his family, and what they ultimately emblematise. Leatherface is a childish man who asserts his masculinity through the phallic aggression of his chainsaw. He is clearly very psychologically disturbed, as he squeals and guffaws incoherently whenever he is out to kill one of the innocent teenagers. There is something indelibly frightening about an infantile, emotionally stunted man who cannot, will not and does not stop slaughtering anything and everything in his sight – whether it’s animals, like he did in the past in the abattoir, or humans, as he does now. To Leatherface’s intellectually and emotionally undeveloped mind, animals and humans are one in the same, and the primal inclination within the male psyche to destroy – as the ‘hunter’ in the ‘hunter-gatherer’ diptych – takes over whenever he encounters any life form that is foreign.
However, Leatherface embodies the ‘female gatherer’ too. As much as he tries to express brute masculine force through his phallic weapon, he is rendered the nurturer of the family. He is taken advantage of by his family to cook and clean, and towards the end of the film we even see him dressed in women’s clothing and applying makeup.
Moreover, Leatherface’s family represent the male-dominated bureaucracies within America under Nixon in the 1970s, and how the Nixon administration was undermined from the inside. Leatherface’s family is not only an embodiment of the Mason family, and the centralist belief that people from the city should stay in the city and people from the country should stay in the country, and that these two polar worlds should not interact. More so, the family’s cannibalism and the hitchhiker’s self-harm mirror the self-destruction of the Nixon government in the aftermath of Watergate and the Kent State Massacre. The deceptive façade of the Nixon government, who ostensibly espoused peace talks in the Vietnam but really escalated the military conflict, is suggested through the deceptive façade of Leatherface’s house: the house looks like a normative American household, but it is concealing a pernicious abattoir inside.
The Nixon allegory in Texas Chainsaw seems almost arbitrary, until you consider the semantics of the titular word ‘massacre’. The word massacre was often applied to the Nixon administration – from the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, where several members of Nixon’s government were dismissed or resigned following Watergate, to the Kent State Massacre in 1970, where four anti-war protesters were shot dead by members of the Ohio National Guard. When you consider the hippie-like stereotypes that the teenagers embody, the Kent State allegory is palpable, and Texas Chainsaw thus becomes an indictment of the Nixon government.
The ‘final girl’ is a convention that essentially started in Texas Chainsaw, where it is a young woman who survives the potential penetration by a phallic weapon because of her ‘virtue’. But when all this is taken into account, the conservative politics of later horror movies like John Carpenter’s Halloween, where the final girl survives because of her ‘purity’ and virginity, are incongruous with the leftist politics evident in Texas Chainsaw. While Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie in Halloween is clearly a virgin, Marilyn Burns’ Sally in Texas Chainsaw is not necessarily virginal, because we seldom get a glimpse into the teenagers’ personalities.
Indeed, it is Texas Chainsaw’s ending that makes the film so disturbing to me. Psycho ends with Norman Bates – a character, like Leatherface, inspired by serial killer Ed Gein – locked up, never to see the light of day again. The Exorcist ends with the demon being expelled from Reagan’s body. The Shining ends with Jack Torrance frozen and his family safe. Even Halloween ends on a moment of tranquillity and triumph – though Michael Myers has vanished, he has been shot multiple times, leavening his potential victims safe (for now). But Texas Chainsaw ends on such a terrifyingly nihilistic note. When final girl Sally is rescued from the deadly mayhem in the back of a ute, she cackles and screams maniacally; we know that she will never recover from this experience. And as Leatherface insanely waves his chainsaw in the air, we know that he is all too ready to do it all again.