The thing that springs to my mind when I think of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the first holiday I went to without any adult supervision. It was to Majorca with Aldo Breda and Greg Byrne, we were seventeen, stupid and horny. I was also skint. It wasn’t that I didn’t have spending money, up until a day before we flew out to the Spanish sun I’d saved up £140 for the two weeks we’d be away. Ten pounds a day back then was more enough for beers and burgers. However on my back home from buying a pair of “cool” swimming trunks (black with royal blue stripes? Well it was the eighties) a shelf in a crappy little video rental shop caught my eye. Through the window I could see the faded but distinctive red and white cover of a VHS of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It stared at me… called to me.
You have to remember that back in the late eighties there had been a huge purge of the early video release horror movies in video shops. This was after the notories Video Nasties Act of 1984 which resulted in the mass burning of genre video tapes like it was Nazi Germany. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wasn’t actually on the Video Nasties list but right wing papers like the Daily Mail frequently used it as example of the type of film corrupting British children’s lives. So it, along with all the other movies, got removed from from the rental shop shelves.
Therefore for me to be suddenly confronted with a copy of the film in the window of a shop with a big closing down sign on it, and having a wad of cash in my pocket, meant I was in there beginning notions before I knew it.
My negotiation skills were not up to par.
I set off to Majorca with £60 in my pocket and I beaten up copy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in my bag. I was a happy, but very poor, young man.
The upshot of all this was that I watched my copy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a lot over the next few years. No one else had the film, so when I had mates over it was the first tape pulled off my extensive video shelf. It was so coveted that my first girlfriend stole it off me (her next boyfriend gave it back). It even got shown at my university film club in their cinema – its shaky, tape-damaged picture with rough, wobbly sound thrilling my fellow students as they downed the free bourbon we handed out to them.
However until last night I had only ever watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a terribly poor pan and scan VHS copy, and I don’t think I’d ever realised what a damned beautiful and cleverly shot movie it really is. I’m not saying that it looks like a Terence Malik number but Tobe Hooper uses and exploits the subject and scenery to such an extrodinary effect that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre stops just being a pinicale of exploitation cinema and becomes a work of filmic art. And remember this was shot on 16mm film stock on a budget of just $300,000. Spoilers ahead…
The opening scene sets the tone. Bursts of a light bulb reveal grisly close ups of old, rotten flesh before we cut to dawn and a macarbre display of dug up corpses. Its not until much later that we can make the connections of what these images mean: the flashes of light are from the soon-to-be-met Hitchhiker’s camera and this is him expressing himself in a form of revolting, anarchic art. The house his family, the Sawyers, live in is full of this self expression from the Hitchhiker. Instead of unearthed remains, his materials are his victims. You could say this scene was what Tobe Hooper was trying to do as well: make art out of horror.
When we cut to daylight, and supposed normality, as we see the doomed youths driving around in the mystery machine from Scooby Doo. They are a tiny, insignificant spec on the landscape. For now it seems like just big old American country, but everywhere they go they are confronted with signs of their impending doom. For example there is the twisted form of a drunk on the floor, rambling about strange occurences in these here parts, himself looking like a one of its victims.
When the gang foolishly pick up the Hitchhiker they suddenly realise that the free-wheelin’ hippy world they live in has no place in this part of Texas. The Hitchhiker may look like just another counter culture drop-out but he’s unpredictable, twisted and takes great pleasure in unleashing violence upon them. He keeps photos of slaughtered animals in his weird furry bag and laughs manically when he slashes open the wheelchair bound Frankin’s arm with his cut-throat razor. The looks on the gang’s faces as he shows them his knife is priceless, revealing horror, bemusment and confusion:
When they reach their destination, an old colonial mansion that used to be owned by Franklin and his sister Sally, it is not their home any more. Despite it being broad daylight the house is draped in darkness. Hooper and his team found a fantastic old abandoned location for this, the overgrown vines making the windows black even in the midday sun:
This feeling of entering dark territory extends to inside the house; when the four horny and able young things are running around the corridors of this mansion, Franklin is left by the front porch cut away from them. He’s trapped in his chair. We’re unable to properly see his longing to be part of the gang but his silhoutted head angled up, listening to the footsteps above him, says everything we need to know.
Whether its through choice or simply a lack of budget for some decent lamps, Hooper uses the silhoutte to great effect numerous times in the film. He uses it show the passing of time in a simple, but beautiful, image of one of the characters standing against a glorious sunset:
And he uses silhouette to show Leatherface, rocking back and forth in his seat. Is he upset by his own actions or just rocking back and forth with some kind of demented rush of pleasure?Its impossible to tell, and Hooper leaves it up to us to decide.
Hooper also uses it to illustrate handsome but stupid Kirk’s final moments. He peers into the darkness of the Sawyer household, unable to see anything but darkness, but still he goes in:
This light and dark is cleverly reflected in the reverse angle: the set up and composition of the shot is almost exactly the same but instead of having the brilliant brightness of light, and life, through the door, we now see dark blood reds and animal remains. It is a doorway of death, and the moment we see it it is the moment that murder arrives in the hulking form of Leatherface. He towers above Kirk before landing the killer blow. It is one of the great shocks in horror cinema and Hooper makes it look easy.
The first half of the film has a number of beautiful images before the film gives way to the ugliness of the situation the gang, but mostly Sally, find themselves in. One of the very best shots in the film has to be when poor Kim goes looking for Kirk. From sitting on the swinging chair to walking up to the Sawyer house, this shot alone says so much about the film it is in. There’s the glorious Texas sunshine, the supple young thing casually sauntering up to the old house (she has so little protection she is virtually naked), and the house itself, looming over its victim, its blacked out windows and covering trees stooping over her, and us. We don’t know what is going on behind those walls. The below still can’t show you but this is also a stunning and smooth tracking shot that starts off under the seat of the the swing and follows Kim, through the grass like a snake, to her inevitable, terrible doom.
Once the sunlight fades and we are thrown into darkness, Tobe Hooper uses his next great film making trick – most of the night time shots are lit almost exclusively by the in situ lights. When its only siblings Franklin and Sally left, they are lit just by the Mystery Machine’s headlights and Franklin’s torch:
Now, instead of the Texas sun they have nothing, and no way of knowing what is out there in the darkness beyond a couple of failing lights. When Leatherface lurches out of said darkness, chainsaw in hand, it is a genuine shock, and a sudden, merciless end to the most outspoken character in the film. Franklin may repel any sympathy we have for him with his constant wining but he is also the only sensible member of the gang. It’s always him who says they shouldn’t hang around the house, he notices the emblems made of bones and he’s the one who says that they need to drive away without Kirk, Kim or that other chap with massive hair. Sally of course ignores his words and pushes him to his death in the dark woods.
There Franklin is, lit only by his own flashlight, and its a nauseating and offensive image: a man so defenceless due to his handicap, murdered in the most gruesome and violent fashion, by a monster looming out of the dark.
It’s at this moment that Sally, who so far has been little more than back drop, comes into her own. Unfortunately for her, she realises instantly that not only is her brother dying in front of her but that her boyfriend and mates are all dead, and she is all alone. Her reaction to this, as Marilyn Burns expresses so brilliantly, is complete and utter insanity.
This madness does drive her forward though in a deranged bid to survive. The long, desperate chase through the woods, towards pin pricks of light that might hold civilisation and therefore safety, again shows Hoopers excellent use of light, or a complete lack thereof. Night time shooting is difficult enough at the best of times, but trying to shoot an action chase with next to no set lights must have been a nightmare. The effect though is riveting. We barely see more than twigs and branches whipping past Sally but Hooper keeps things moving at a breakneck speed with fast tracking shots and long lenses like the one below that makes Leatherface look like he is a foot away from Sally, about to strike the killer blow.
In horror cinema there is nothing more basic than a masked maniac chasing a girl through the woods at night, and the one in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one the first examples of this. It is also probably the very best, as it is so dynamic and oppressive in its execution.
Its after this breathtaking scene that Hooper’s playfulness with some abstract closeups throughout the film reaches their punchline. There have been numerous odd close ups like the bone through a pocket watch, or the dead armadillo, littered throughout the film. It’s hard to tell what they are let alone what they actually mean. However when Sally thinks she has found sanctity at the gas station, she stares numbly at the barbecue cooking up a treat next to her.
What is that hanging there? It’s never explained and Sally is distracted by the next horror before she can fully ingest what it is she’s looking at, but Hooper doesn’t have to say anything. That meat isn’t just any old animal. The close up won’t tell you what it is, but to the audience it can only be one thing.
If it isn’t obvious then shortly afterwards we are treated to a lovely family dinner, again lit only by location light. However this location’s light is made of human skin.
From here on in the rest of the film is purely from Sally’s perspective, often from just behind her head, so we get a great view of the Sawyer family watching us as their dinner guest.
Or even from Sally’s direct point of view so Leatherface, now in his favourite female face, stares directly into our eyes.
Hooper gets so into the idea of seeing this monstrous scene from the victim’s crazed point of view that he thrusts us deep into her eyeball. Her intense terror literally fills the whole screen.
It’s a sudden relief when Sally takes her one chance of freedom and makes a break for it through the window. What’s shocking is that after the seemingly eternal night it is in fact daylight outside. So is it that the family dinner she was the “guest” at must have in fact been an early morning breakfast, and she was the fry up?
Upon her eacape she comes across a juggernaut driven by this guy:
The poor chap. There he was minding his business, probably thinking about his next burger, and all of a sudden he’s getting chased by a nutter with a chainsaw. Unlike Sally he doesn’t eacape on the back of a pick up truck and, let’s face it, is probably not the fastest runner. What happens to him after the credits roll? We never find out but that’s a sequel I would watch.
As Sally drives off into the distance she may have physically escaped alive but, covered in blood like slaughtered livestock, there doesn’t seem to be anything left of her humanity. She is just a mad, screaming image of fear.
We end with Leatherface dancing a macabre waltz with his chainsaw. He spins it round and hold it up in the air like its his ballroom partner. To him it’s a celebration of his monstrous life – alive and in broad daylight doing what he does best: swinging a chainsaw and scaring people to death.
It’s as if Hooper understood what an iconic monster he was creating in Leatherface and was celebrating him with this ghoulish shuffle in the Texas dawn.
Some would say that Hooper would never again reach the heights he reached with this his second film. Artistically they almost cetainly would be right… The seventeen year old me upon watching my newly acquired VHS for the first time thought he preferred Hooper’s ridiculous Lifeforce. But then that teenager had seen the space vampire epic in the cinema and The Texas Cahinsaw Massacre only in crap-o-vision. Now I’ve finally seen it in all its lurid glory, I can fully appreciate what a true work of art it really is. I hope you all can too.