Today on Movie Geeks United, we discuss Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), one of my all-time favorite horror films, and certainly one of the best movies the genre has yet produced.
I hope you will listen in to the show; not just to hear me (!) but to listen to an interview with the film’s amazing cinematographer, Daniel Pearl. The Movie Geeks team always does an amazing job and I know this will be no exception.
Regarding, the film, director Tobe Hooper never gets enough credit, as far as I’m concerned, for masterminded one of the most significant titles in film history; one that — like Psycho (1960) before it — literally re-writes the rules of screen decorum, and shatters all sense of convention.
Where Hitchcock artfully fractured the act of learning amongst three sets of protagonists in Psycho, Hooper takes the next, trailblazing step. He subtracts the idea of learning all together from Chainsaw, to incredible and often harrowing effect.
In broad strokes, this colorfully-titled 1974 film arises from the context of the “savage cinema,” which we associate with such titles as Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Last House on the Left and Deliverance. In keeping with that sub-genre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t spare the sensibilities, or dodge dark issues concerning human nature.
The Texas Chainsaw Masssacre depicts a kind of uncaring, disordered cosmos in its powerful visuals and in the discordant musical cues that open the film. For instance, the first clear composition of Chainsaw is of a rotting corpse propped up outside its grave, and this is an early visual indication that something is universally wrong.
This ghoulish scarecrow symbolizes the idea that “death has risen” and order has been overturned. This visual is later re-inforced by a shot of road kill in the path of the protagonists. It’s an armadillo, dead on the road, and it rests upside down in the frame, a visual composition/symbol of death in the cinema since the beginning of the art form.
Over and over again, disorder reigns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A spider web flourishes inside a house, a human dwelling. There’s talk of a watering hole…but it’s just dry earth. The kids visit a gas station, but there’s no gas. Again and again our expectation of order is confounded. Insanity has supplanted sanity in the film, right down to its core, taboo–breaking genetic structure.
If Hitchcock denied the audience of a single identification point with the murder of Marion (Janet Leigh) in the shower, Hooper in Chainsaw denies us the idea of heroism (and therefore learning…) all together. Each of three kids goes into that cannibal farmhouse in rural Texas and violently meets his or her death, without passing on any knowledge or learning whatsoever. Forget about mounting a defense or beating the bad guys; Leatherface and his kin. The movie offers no constructive second and third acts, at least not in a traditional narrative sense.
Yesterday I wrote that “learning” in a three-act screenplay structure follows a straight trajectory, up-and-up until — at the climax — we’ve learned all that we need to know to satisfactorily draw conclusions. In Chainsaw, learning literally and metaphorically gets bonked on the head with a sledgehammer a third-of-the-way through…and then a steel door gets slammed on it.
The film’s structure — essentially repetitious — blocks every attempt for us to learn more; for the protagonists to learn more about their terrifying plight. This structure subverts our expectations and literally makes us feel endangered in theater. The movie’s young cast — and by extension the audience — feel like it has no chance. Madness reigns.
Indeed, even at film’s end, order is not restored. Leatherface just keeps on spinning. The world around him may be out of gas, but he’s still sputtering, twirling and dancing in unending insanity and blood lust.
You can listen in on more of my observations about this classic horror film today on Movie Geeks United.
And don’t forget to check out my 2003 monograph on Hooper: Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre.