Unrelentingly Hostile: Editor's Cut
Three decades later, 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' is still about everyday evil. In 1977, two UT grad students explained.
By Louis Black and Ed Lowry, Fri., Oct. 17, 2003
[Ed. note: The Seventies and Eighties saw the horror movie redefined yet again. Few other film genres are as equipped to deal with the unspoken, sometimes unacknowledged, yet ever-evolving concerns and fears of the modern world, related to but not specifically referencing current events, politics, history, social and cultural problems. With a tip of the hat to the Forties horror films of Val Lewton -- as well as to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho -- George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) helped bring film into modern times, using style, cutting, and camera movement to create worlds in which the monsters looked just like us, and terror came not from the lab but from family and each other. The full imagination of cinematic vocabulary empowered these films, influencing not only the horror genre but Hollywood, independent, and international film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), directed by Marcus Nispel, opens in Austin this Friday. Here, we present an essay on the original by Ed Lowry and Louis Black from CinemaTexas program notes (Vol. 13, No. 4, Dec. 7, 1977). For more information on CinemaTexas, see On Ondine on Film and The Eyes of CinemaTexas.]
Once it was monsters and now it is maniacs. Horror novels and films used to create terrifying images of our innermost fears. Vampires, the Frankenstein monster, werewolves, mummies, and zombies represented terrors which we were scared we might meet in the dark. In films certain actors, especially Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre, came to be horror archetypes themselves. They transcended any role they played and when people went to see them in a movie like THE BLACK CAT, MAD MOVE, or WHITE ZOMBIE they knew exactly what they were getting. People screamed and fainted and continued to go to the theatres. Part of the advertising campaign for the original FRANKENSTEIN (1931) announced that there would be a nurse in the lobby. Having oneself scared half to death can be a surprisingly pleasurable experience.
The society changed and the film form with it. There was World War II and the Nazis and ovens with people mass-murdering other people. The ritualization of war that allowed us to cope with disguised genocide broke down and we were forced to confront a new kind of horror. At the first battle of Bull Run, the Washington D.C. elite drove out from the city with picnic baskets to watch the anonymous boys in blue slaughter the anonymous boys in gray. But when the tables turned the elite hurried home. They didn't really want to be involved; they only wanted to watch. Film audiences are allowed such privileges.
We are the audience with those privileges, fascinated by watching humans slaughtering humans. We are the audience watching Alain Resnais' short NIGHT AND FOG about the Nazi concentration camps as he talks about modern day tourists posing in the doorways of the ovens to have their photographs taken. It is Bermuda shorts and straw hats and Nikons and corpses and blood and mountains of hair and teeth.
The War ended and the Cold War began. [The Bomb, weapons of mass destruction, nuclear power, the horror was now from science.] Hollywood made a few science fiction films but not many horror films.
In 1960 Alfred Hitchcock made PSYCHO and the monster this time looked like you and me. The terror came at a typically American motel, and the car, clothes, and people were not alien but very real. PSYCHO pointed the way. There were still movies with monsters and movies celebrating the grotesque and the unreal, but the horrors in society were changing. Charles Whitman, Richard Speck, Charlie Manson, and others became famous. But they were just the very visible tip of an iceberg that seemed to keep growing: anonymous brothers who murdered sisters, children who murdered their families, handymen who killed their employers, people who slaughtered people they never met. The real horror has now become that some night your next-door neighbor might knock on your door and, when you answer it, blow your head off. The real horror is that, when walking to class or driving to work or watching a football game or picnicking in the countryside, someone may murder you. The real horror is snipers with guns and maniacs with knives and lunatics with bombs and very calm, normal-appearing people who suddenly turn deadly.
Whereas most horror movies had traded on the ghosts of the dead or the supernatural transformation of the living, CHAIN SAW explores the almost unimaginable horror of those real events which appear in the headlines. When corpses rise from the grave in CHAIN SAW they are not resurrected by an otherworldly power, but dug up by real life ghouls. Lots of blood is not a real horror. Gore has become a S. Clay Wilson comic book release or a hysterical, screaming catharsis. The vast quantities of blood in certain movies allow us to deal with them as over-indulgent fantasies. CHAIN SAW is not that glory. It is its complete lack of humanity that is terrifying. More blood would have allowed us to look at the screen less. For the most part it is a cold and sterile film about a nihilistic world, with no values, no caring, and no compassion. It is a film which has grown out of our very real fears about the nature of American life.
CHAIN SAW undoubtedly offers one of the most intense and physically exhausting movie experiences available. There is a relentlessness to its pacing, its unendurably protracted scenes of horror and its intolerably mounting suspense which has less to do with entertainment than with catharsis, and less to do with catharsis than with pain. It is a film which generates horror, not through the liberation of demons from the psyche, but by confronting directly the reality of human pain. Not only are we forced to contemplate the horror of being held captive by a group of crazies who intend to torture you to death or the feeling of being skewered alive on a massive meat hook; we are also forced to face the pain of frustration (Franklin left downstairs by his sister and friends), of annoyance and hostility (the argument between Sally and Franklin), of being confined to a wheelchair, of enduring the oppressive Texas summer heat.
The universe of TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is unrelentingly hostile. "The world has gone crazy," one of the victims observes early in the film, and we are constantly reminded that the chain saw massacre is neither isolated nor comprehensible. Following the report of grave robbing, the radio continues to drone on during the credits, reporting on the deaths of 29 people in the collapse of a building in Atlanta, 14 cases of an infectious and fatal disease in San Francisco, the explosion of three storage tanks at a Texas refinery, a suicide in Houston, as if all these events somehow were linked in a cosmic scheme to torment mankind.
Is there some grand explanation? The film itself seems to ridicule such an idea by making fun of Pam, the girl who is "into" astrology, as she searches for reasons in the fact that Saturn is retrograde. At the same time, however, CHAIN SAW establishes its own cosmic context, constantly connecting scenes with shots of the sun or moon and projecting its opening credits across astronomical photographs of million-mile-long flames leaping from the sun's surface. By connecting the world's real social and physical brutalities with the conventional signifiers of nature that contribute the metaphysical dimension to the standard horror film (a hazy sun, the full moon, a dark forest) CHAIN SAW implicates the entire universe in its path.
Are the killers crazy because their father is crazy? And is their father crazy because his father worked in a slaughterhouse? Are we all crazy because we eat meat? Do buildings collapse in Atlanta because graves are dug up in Texas? Or is the world in general crazy due to the total arbitrariness of the universe? Is pain the human condition? And, if so, what kind of a universe is this which torments us without reason? Is God the ultimate sadist?
All of these modern, almost Sartrean questions are raised and implicitly linked by the film, but no solution is even proposed. The universe seems to function according to Manson's Law: "No sense makes sense." Logic is no defense for it fails to take into consideration the total arbitrariness of lunacy. But our poor victims can only operate according to the rules they're familiar with. If your friends go off and don't come back, you should go looking for them. If your friend's jacket is on the front porch, your friend must be inside the house. And if, by some horrible chance, someone should try to kill you in that house, you run for safety to another one.
Logically, the characters have nothing to fear in the deserted house. Stories about haunted houses are for kids and, after all, those are only spiders in the corner of the room. But when Franklin discovers the bizarre bone and feather altar, he cannot logically deduce its implications. Similarly, the numerous cars which the couple discovers seem weird but not terrifying. There is no way a rational person could assume that each car represents several hundred pounds of human barbecue.
Who we are at movies and during movies and after movies and what movies do to us is a question that many have talked to and about but no one has really answered. Because of the subject matter and the brilliant pacing at certain moments during CHAIN SAW, when we are alone, the world being just ourselves and the movie, we confront that question in a very real way on an absolute gut level. Some of us scream and some of us laugh and some of us pretend to be bored but because of our interaction with the screen and the importance in our life of that finite amount of celluloid at that moment, it all, somehow, becomes terribly important and completely unimportant. Movies, we are so tempted to say, are after all only movies, but then of course, are they?
TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE was produced independent of any major production company and was shot in a small town near Austin, drawing most of its actors and crew from local talent. In its numerous paradoxes the film represents the system of independent production at both its best and its worst. Most importantly, CHAIN SAW provides an outstanding example of the kind of film which can be produced by a group of dedicated people working with very little money, but lots of ingenuity and fortitude. The low budget / independent / exploitation status of the film allows it to confront modern horrors in a way no big budget Hollywood film (with its necessity to appeal to a broad audience, in order to make back its investment) has ever attempted. By no means, however, was the film without restrictions -- when it was completed, the distributor was distressed by the lack of gore and the total absence of sex, returning the film to its makers with orders to reshoot one scene putting Marilyn Burns in a wet T-shirt which would cling to her nipples. But the film was a labor of love for those involved, and the degree of their dedication is apparent in the minutely detailed, unspeakably grotesque sets and props of art director Robert Burns, the inventive and accomplished cinematography of Daniel Pearl and the creatively manipulative, expressionistically suggestive editing of Sallye Richardson and Larry Carroll.
Simultaneous to its demonstration of the capabilities of the creators and the possibilities of the independent production, TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE also represents the fulfillment of the worst connotations of "exploitation film" in its exploitation of those who made the film. Shot with a non-Union cast and crew, the film was not restricted to specific working hours or a minimum pay scale. Most everyone involved was happy to be making a movie and the principals were satisfied to take a small percentage of the profits.
The work was grueling, with shooting continuing non-stop as long as equipment was available. The climactic scene around the dinner table was shot in one 36-hour stretch with breaks taken for only long enough to allow the cast and crew to eat. Descriptions of the experience by members of the cast make the actual shooting of the scene sound more hellish and sickening than the scene as it appears in the film (and it is certainly one of CHAIN SAW's most repulsive sequences). All openings to the room were sealed off so that shooting would continue through the daylight hours. The lights, only a few feet from the actors' faces, heated the room to an almost unbearable temperature, recooking the barbecue and causing the chemicals injected in some of the fleshy props to release a noxious gas. But one is willing to sacrifice for art and for a percentage of the earnings.
Unfortunately, after dealing with the distributor (Bryanston Films) and the investors' company (Vortex), those involved in the production have seen very little or nothing of the money that CHAIN SAW has continued to gross for a full three years. Lawsuits have been filed and bitterness still surfaces against producer-director Tobe Hooper. In view of the kind of contract Hooper signed with the investors, it seems likely that he never expected that he or any of his fellow collaborators would make any money off the film. His detractors claim that Hooper was only looking to land a five-picture contract with a major company. Ironically, the big break Hooper earned may not have paid off. His next film, STARLIGHT SLAUGHTERS, was previewed briefly in Austin, but has never gained national release.
It would be unfair, however, to deny Hooper the credit he deserves for CHAIN SAW. Having co-written the script as well as having produced and directed the film, his vision forms the core around which the movie revolves. Perhaps the ugliness of the way the film was made informs the ugliness of the film itself. Nevertheless, it seems no mean achievement that Hooper was able to create what is probably the ugliest film ever made. It is an accomplishment which guarantees TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE a place in the pantheon of American film classics. The Museum of Modern Art made it official not too long ago when they accepted a donated print for their permanent collection.
This is an extended version of the story that ran in the print edition, Unrelentingly Hostile.