It’s been a while since I’ve done a post for Project: Monster. With Halloween coming up fast, I decided to fix that. This one is inspired by the monthly meetup I attend with my friends on 3rd Saturday. One of the discussions between a couple of friends turned to talk of Halloween and this film. As followers of this blog may remember, most of my horror fandom comes from the earlier monster movies, with only a small sampling of the slasher films. This is an oversight I’m working to correct as I go, and it wasn’t that long ago that I blogged about Halloween. Following that discussion, I decided I really needed a frame of reference to appreciate their discussion of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
For the purists out there, I’ll apologize up front. I’ve seen the title printed on screen, on the original posters, and on various references as both “Chain Saw” and “Chainsaw.” As near as I can tell, the first seems more correct for this film, while the second is more correct for the franchise as a whole. I’m just going to use the latter for the sake of consistency. Also, I’ve categorized this film as part of the slasher subgenre for the sake of convenience, but as I’ll discuss here, that’s not entirely accurate.
This film is, for me, one of those where its reputation precedes it. Having grown up in rural Texas and lived in the state most of my life, this is one of those films that seems like an absolute “must-see.” Until last night, the closest I’ve ever gotten to it was an early Mark Harmon comedy called Summer School, which I caught on TV at some point. The plot is infamous. A group of teens visit a rural homestead and get attacked by a family of cannibals. It was marketed as a true story, and the film claims as much in the introduction. Discussions with my horror aficionado friend tell me that the film is, in fact, satire with some loose inspiration taken from real-life murderer Ed Gein, aka “The Mad Butcher.” Admittedly, I didn’t catch the satire upon watching it as I was more transfixed by the mortal terror aspects of it, but as I thought about it, the satirical elements became obvious. There’s a great deal of political commentary to be had here that applies today just as much as it did then, about the backwards savagery in the details of “how the meat is processed” in our social and political systems. Such things are on full display as I write this, less than three weeks away from the 2016 presidential election. I suppose such themes are timeless and evergreen.
The film itself was shot inexpensively, under brutal Texas heat conditions for 12-16 hours a days, seven days a week, so as to reduce rental fees for the equipment. The gore aspects of the film were toned down in the hopes of a PG rating to secure wider audience release, but the Motion Picture Association of America slapped it with an R. Similar troubles mounted overseas as the film was denigrated for its violence. Isn’t it funny how such things only serve to drive word of mouth? As one would expect, the film was a box office success, which would eventually secure a franchise of obligatory sequels and reboots, beginning some twelve years later in the wake of the slasher craze.
As mentioned, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is technically not a slasher film, anymore than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, though both carry the DNA of what would manifest in this subgenre. As it was outlined to me, the slasher subgenre revolves around a single face of evil, and by “evil,” one could define that as obvious malignant intent at a subhuman level. The franchise would be defined by studio executives around the character of Leatherface. The thing is, when you watch this film it becomes obvious that Leatherface isn’t evil at all. Maladjusted, certainly. Not in full possession of reason, absolutely. But he’s as much a victim as he is a killer, which kind of takes the mickey out of it to be quite honest. Leatherface has been bullied into submission to play his part. He’s the butcher who processes the meat to feed his family, nothing more, nothing less. There’s no premeditation on his part, simply reaction to a situation. By contrast, his family is evil, and while one could argue a level of insanity, I would suggest that they knew exactly what they were doing and simply didn’t care. In the matter of Leatherface, this means that if you take away the family, he’s not exactly the stuff of slasher legend by himself. Even so, the film as a whole raised the level of what films would do and added fuel to the fire that would become the slasher subgenre. As I’ve not seen any of the sequels or reboots, I can’t say how the franchise plays out as part of the bona fide slasher genre, but based on commentary from those around me, it sounds as though studio suits shoehorned it in as they always do. I’ll comment further on that as I get to those films eventually.
For myself, I’m not really sure what I expected going in, aside from the obvious. Typically I enjoy classic monsters and/or supernatural threats over a standard mortal slasher. When I was watching, I got about half an hour in and immediately texted my friend, wondering if the film would get any better. The problem with slasher movies that we agree upon is that the killers should not be glorified in any way, and maximum impact is predicated on the notion that one should actually give a damn about the people being hunted. I can honestly say I didn’t care about any of these people, and that’s part of why I haven’t seen as many slasher films. When I do care, that’s when those films really shine for me, such as with A Nightmare on Elm Street or Candyman. Also notice that both of those films have supernatural threats and ideas that will haunt you well after the movie’s over. The hitchhiker brother who gets picked up and cuts himself with the knife is one of those characters that doesn’t impress me. He’s too overblown. I’ve had people try the insanity act on me in real life, and I’m just never frightened because I can think of too many ways to incapacitate them while they’re showing off. More often than not, you can simply stare down people before things get out of hand. Obviously this won’t work in the case of the truly insane, but there again, the showmanship will be their downfall if they encounter those who are even moderately prepared. Pepper spray, tazers, any degree of fighting knowledge… the self-protection industry has really taken the edge off such things for me. It’s still not something I’d like to face in real life, but I need movies to be bigger than life. This is why I prefer the supernatural stuff in movies. Makes it more of a challenge.
But timing is everything, and right after I texted my friend, that’s when Leatherface made his first appearance. It wasn’t so much the character himself that’s scary, though he is certainly freaky enough. As discussed, he’s a victim of circumstance more than anything else. It’s the camera work, the chainsaw, and the sound design of this film that makes it work, each adding to a larger whole. It plays with your mind and runs your nerves raw. I have to applaud that because mortal level threats very rarely freak me out in a film. This one absolutely did once it got going. They had me at “meat hook.” That’s the kind of thing that makes me squirm. The dinner sequence with the entire family… that’s the stuff of true nightmare horror. Well played.
The visual elements found inside the house hit a little close to home. I grew up in the country, and I had a friend who would make weird sculptures from old animal bones to freak out his sister. I’ve got a friend today who creates sculptures from mismatched parts of toys a la Sid from Toy Story, which has pretty much the same effect. Should it bother me that a film like this creates nostalgia? *laughs* Yes, it probably should.
Just for grins, this article appeared yesterday on the Fort Worth Star Telegram website. It seems one of the original film locations, simply called The Gas Station, is now fully restored and open for business, selling memorabilia, and soon to be serving up BBQ. I will absolutely make the road trip for this one.