Happy Halloween, everybody! As is sometimes my tradition, I have managed to do a write-up of one of my all time favorite movies that I haven’t done an official piece on. In 2016 I finally got the balls to do THE THING, and in 2017 I did INFERNO. I guess when I did DAWN OF THE DEAD it was a month after Halloween, but that’s the type of review I’m going for here.
One Halloween I just compared the Fresh Prince unofficial Freddy Krueger song to the official Fat Boys one. You can only do that once though I think.
These reviews of the classics are intimidating because there’s such a risk of saying the same shit that’s already been said, but I’m tired of linking to my Ain’t It Cool News review of a DVD release every time I mention it, which is inconvenient when I seem to compare half the movies I watch to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. I remember I even compared the Kathryn Bigelow racism drama DETROIT to it. Incidentally, even though I’ve been thinking about HALLOWEEN movies all month the world is feeling more TEXAS CHAIN SAW to me these days.
In other words, be warned: this is one of the ones where I relate the movie to the politics of today, so if you hate that, please don’t read, and go have a happy Halloween. If not, please do read, then have a happy Halloween.
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THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. One of the greatest horror movies since they started makin’ ’em. Not sure if I’ve mentioned that before, but it’s true.
It’s a movie that has grown on me and with me. When I first saw it I was probly 13 and I thought it was dumb. Just some crappy footage of a dude chasing people around in the dark. I was a Freddy guy. Saw it again in my twenties and it became pretty much my favorite movie. Back then it was VHS (not sure if it was even letterboxed) and I really believed that the raw quality of the footage was part of its magic. That it felt like a documentary, one made by crazy people.
After believing that for years I got that remastered edition that Dark Sky Films released, the one in the steel case (which I took these screengrabs from). It looked so much cleaner I wasn’t sure if I should accept it at first. Now I watch the way-more-pristine-than-that Blu-Ray and I love the movie even more as the controlled, artful craftsmanship it had always secretly been. For the moment, forget “drive-in” or “grindhouse” and think “great American film of the ’70s,” even if it’s all of those things.
It came out in October of 1974. In the world of horror, THE EXORCIST was less than a year old. Stephen King had only just published his first novel. Slasher movies weren’t a thing yet – it would be a couple months until BLACK CHRISTMAS, and several years until HALLOWEEN. Hammer Studios was still running, though their releases that year, CAPTAIN CRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER and THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, were attempts to put new spins on their brand of gothic horror as its popularity was fading. In the real world Nixon had resigned and been pardoned, the IRA was bombing buildings, a global recession was causing gas shortages and price increases, smallpox was killing thousands of people in India, drought and famine scourged Africa, shit was looking bleak.
And in the middle of all that, this feverish indie masterpiece exploded out of Austin, Texas.
The opening scenes set a hell of a mood considering nothing really happens. The bizarre metal scraping sounds and camera flashes, close ups on rotten flesh. Then the slow pullback of the body that somebody dug up out of a grave and wired to the top of a tombstone in a strange pose. It’s almost pretty the way it glistens in the sun. On Blu-Ray you can see a drop of… something fall off the teeth.
And you have what sounds like clanging pans (courtesy of Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell), and a fuzzy news radio broadcast. A movie pet peeve of mine is news broadcasts that aren’t written or read in the style of the real ones, as if the filmmakers have never seen the news before. This one is Levie Isaacks, who would go on to become a director of photography (including for TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION, but mostly mainstream stuff like Malcolm in the Middle), but I would swear they just hired a real radio man. After telling us about all the missing bodies from this graveyard, where Sally and Franklin Hardesty and their friends are going to check that their grandpa’s grave wasn’t messed with, we get to hear what else was in the news that day: oil fires, buildings collapsing, people attacking each other or jumping out windows.
I’m not gonna claim Sally and friends are our best and our brightest. But they seem to be nice people. They’re not up to anything nefarious. When they see a hitchhiker there’s immediate concern for his welfare on such a hot day.
“Should we pick him up?”
“Yeah man, he’ll asphyxiate out there!”
It’s that hippie love for their fellow man.
They listen to a song about “I spend most every day / in the sidewalk cafe / drinking coffee and watching women go by,” and by outward appearances that’s pretty much the laidback vibe of their day trip. But they know why they came, so something is out of whack, some bad mojo in the air. Pam tries to explain it with the zodiac. We see solar flares and a full moon. When the hitchhiker flips out and cuts open his own hand, Franklin seeks meaning even in the blood smear the guy leaves on the side of the van. He asks Kirk if he thinks the stain on his knife is blood, if he thinks he could do something like that to himself, trying to understand this person who’s so different from him. Trying to get out of his bubble, reach across the aisle, etc.
It has become conventional wisdom over the years that Tobe Hooper’s first masterpiece is about the anger of the Vietnam and Watergate era – not necessarily by Hooper’s intent, but by the chaos of the times bubbling up in the work, as often happens in horror. I would like to add to that theory that it feels especially alive with meaning when revisited in times like this of rampant corruption, chaos and institutional failure. One minute you’re just looking for your friend, the next minute a big dude making pig noises wearing a skin mask bashes you over the head with a hammer and drags you into his butcher room and then your girlfriend falls on a floor covered in feathers and bones and turtle shells and shit and gets hung on a meat hook and your friend finds her in a meat freezer and her body jerks like she’s still alive and WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING?
Compared to the minimalism of low budget horror hits of subsequent decades, the amount of detail is incredible. Art director Bob Burns, a rookie who went on to do THE HILLS HAVE EYES, TOURIST TRAP, THE HOWLING and RE-ANIMATOR, turned the house interior (including the dinner table) into a sicko’s fantasia of bones and animal parts built into mobiles and wall hangings, and just literring the place. There’s something so ominous about the red wall with all the skulls on it that we only see from outside of the room where most of the killing takes place. I wonder if that’s what Ridley Scott was talking about when he said his goal with ALIEN was to make “the TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE of sci-fi”? With passion and a little bit of lunacy these young Texans built a killer’s den that drags these kids into a Hell they’ve never even imagined, inhabited by devils brought to heinous life by the unglued performances of Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow and Gunnar Hansen.
(Man, even if they were gonna be nice to you, who would want to visit this place? How long would it take you to get the smell off after you got home?)
So here we are, this van full of young people, probly from Austin or somewhere, a little smug, a little naive about what we’re getting into. We think you know, it’s cool, we can hang in the boonies where our family comes from, but then maybe we really can’t. Instead we fall into the lap of this crazy fucked up evil that has apparently been brewing out here for years and we just didn’t know it. This mix of regressive family traditions, sexual repression, violent aggression and misogyny. Of course it’s upsetting to us.
Where did this come from, this man with another man’s face, dragging us into his inferno? How can this exist? This depravity, this joyful cruelty, this absolute annihilation of societal norms? How can people really be like this? How can they get away with it?
They beat us and drag us around in a burlap sack and nail us to a chair and then when we react they mock us.
Look at that. That’s every online redhat stormtrooper, blue-check-marked right wing pundit, cable news white nationalist, disbarred teen hedge fund manager, Russian troll masquerading as very very American mother of veteran who loves Trump and emojis more than could possibly be healthy, White House Press Secretary or sitting congressman who ever proudly “owned the libs,” or called a victim a liar, a crisis actor, a false flag, or mistaken but it’s important that women are heard. It’s not about an ideology, it’s about domination and humiliation, about getting a stiffy from your suffering.
Keep in mind, Franklin and Sally’s grandpa owned this place. He lived next to these absolute peaches of down home country charm. Sold cattle to the same slaughterhouse where their finger-sucking grandpa worked. I wonder how Grandpa Hardesty felt about them? Did they seem like good neighbors? Did he wonder where they got all those cars? Before things go totally south Franklin is obsessed with his connection to this rural life, trying to show off that he’s morbidly interested in how animals are slaughtered, that he’s eaten headcheese. He doesn’t want to be the tourist, he wants to belong among these people. But that won’t save him.
Our relatives who support Trump, in most cases, are not cannibals, in my opinion. And maybe the people who think the answer is to reach out and understand each other and find out what we have in common are right. I hope they are. But I tell you as an illustration of our deepest fears, the metaphor fuckin works. I literally can’t comprehed the people I know as nice, loving aunts and uncles being okay with the bullying and racism and dishonesty, with the white nationalism and racist code words and demonizing of refugees and immigrants, with the smearing and humiliation of rape victims, the heartless responses to tragedies, the abandonment of Puerto Rico, the daily cruelty, crassness and dishonor, with the consistent do-the-opposite-of-what-I-was-taught-America-and-Christianity-were-about – any more than I can understand a fuckin skin mask. They make about the same amount of sense to me. Both bizarre crimes in the annals of American history.
Of course the people who are wreaking the havoc in our politics are not salt of the earth, they’re silver spooners condescendingly trying to trick poor people by wearing stupid hats. Nobody in the Trump administration ever lost their job at the slaughterhouse because of automation. What the two have in common, though, is sadism. I mean, you can’t tell me that Trump, Bolton, and some of these other assholes don’t agree with the hitchhiker’s opinion that hitting animals with hammers is more fun than doing it quick. “They die better that way.”
Like Trumpists, the Texas Chain Saw family are not exactly masterminds, in fact they’re almost completely incompetent. Hitchhiker calls attention to their string of over a dozen grave robberies by creating that “grisly work of art,” meanwhile leaving his brother alone, allowing him to kill Kirk, Pam and Franklin, plus mess up the door. And then Sally gets away and gets help and hitchhiker gets run over by a truck and Leatherface falls down and saws his own leg. And there’s all kinds of in-fighting – the cook calling the other two half-wits and bitch hogs, the hitchhiker belittling him as “just the cook.”
The cook is just as depraved as his brothers, but he knows how to put on a public face. He owns the gas station, he talks to people, and to his credit when he finds out the kids are headed near his house he attempts multiple ways of convincing them not to go there. Probly more to simplify his life than out of the kindness of his heart. He’s just trying to get through his day at the gas station (with no gas) without worrying what mischief Leatherface will get into.
“Yep, them girls now they, they don’t want to go messing around no old house.”
(Side question: Does his employee, the guy who washes the windshields, know what’s cooking in that barbecue?)
As much as the cook claims to “take no pleasure in killing. There’s just some things you gotta do,” when he has Sally in a bag in his truck he can’t help but keep jabbing at her with his broom handle, clearly getting off on it. Then he pretends to talk to her all calm and reasonable like.
And still they get away with it because of the vast extravagance of their sins. Nobody wants to face that this madness is going on here in Newt. They might even have people covering for them. The first radio report on the grave robberies mentions the sheriff having “strong evidence linking the crime to elements outside the state.” An update at night says he “hinted at” links to a “large and well organized west coast jewel theft ring.” Yeah, blame it on the big bad west coast. And don’t even have the balls to come out and say it. Just imply that it’s true. People are saying L.A. hipsters dug up and played with our dead relatives, who knows if it’s true? Pretty familiar format of bullshit these days.
But like I said about the HALLOWEEN series recently, there is hope in this confrontation with insanity, because Sally gets away. To me, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE illustrates as well as any the appeal of that Final Girl template. She goes through Hell and she just barely scratches her way out of there. And I imagine when we get out of this we may feel as bloodied and hysterical as Sally. But we’ll be back on the road toward somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Happy Halloween everybody. But celebrate TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE year-round.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.