The Cathode Ray Mission: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

So this is the inauguration of what I hope is a continuing series of analysis of visual media. I’ve kind of been meaning to do something like this for a while, and though Letterboxd is a decent place for movie stuff, it a.) doesn’t allow any space for other types of visual media, and b.) I’d rather use that for quicker thoughts and this for the things I want to elaborate further on. This is more for me than anything else, I’m not expecting a ton of people to actually read these, but I need to have a place organize my thoughts and that I can return to. So, with that out of the way, let’s get started.

I watched Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the first time about two years ago. I have a crystal clear memory of that night, of going around Pittsburgh and getting banh mi with my brother, and then coming home to watch this movie and clutching at my own limbs to try and keep from shaking. I rarely every have this kind of recollection with the films I watch; I think that alone is evidence of the effect that it had on me. It feels like that was the catalyzing moment for my continued fascination with horror media, where I had previously held the genre at a distance, now I wanted to dive in deep into the trenches and uncover all the submerged power it held.

To start, an explanation of the movie. For anyone unfamiliar, TCM is a 1974 film directed by Tobe Hooper about a group of young men and women that get slaughtered in rural Texas by a cannibalistic family. It truly is that simple, there’s no hidden twists, no complicating events; it is exactly what it says on the tin. What that results in is not only an individually terrifying film, but a newfound formula for the genre to exploit, refine (as in Halloween), and even satirize (as in Scream). But TCM was really the first to throw a bunch of teenagers in the woods and have a masked murderer wipe them out, so credit where credit is due.

While this formula has been exploited ad infinitum in the intervening 45 years to the point of exhaustion, there is still a power to what TCM does that has continued to divide viewers. To say that it is a nasty film is to imply that it has some measure of contempt built into it, whether for the characters or audience or whomever, and I’m not sure that that is an appropriate characterization, but I don’t think it’s entirely inappropriate either. There is no effort to really establish sympathy between the audience the victims of the film; Franklin, a wheelchair-bound character, would seem to be an easy target to try and cynically build this sympathy, but the film foregoes that route. Franklin is just as mean and resentful as anyone else, and while part of that is understandably a result of the other characters treating him as a burden due to his physical limitations, part of it also seems to be an ugliness that resides deep within him that shows itself unprovoked throughout the film. Even Sally, the “final girl,” doesn’t have many irredeemable qualities. Our sympathies as audience members extends to her inasmuch as she is the victim of events that no person should experience in their lifetime, but beyond that primal sympathy, she also kind of sucks. In this sense, I don’t think it’s terribly off-base to say that the film does hold its characters in contempt, and to a certain extent finds pleasure in punishing them. This, again, is a fundamental aspect of the slasher formula, the often blurry line of audience identification, careening between the masochism of the victims and the sadism of the killers.

The other end of this designation of “nastiness,” the contempt the film holds for the viewer, I feel is a lot harder to pin down, partially because the normal forces with which we initially latch onto movies for, the characters, are so thoroughly unsympathetic, and thus the violence that they endure is less an assault on our own sympathetic allegiances and more the mechanical workings of a machine that has been turned on and cannot be turned off, and we are left to view the spectacle. At the time of release, though, it would not be difficult to find a great many critical voices espousing the idea that this film, and the very act of showing this film, is a form of violence inflicted on the viewer. And to some degree, I don’t know if that’s entirely wrong; someone (I wish I knew off-hand who to cite) once called it the cinematic evocation of a nightmare, which I find an apt description. Effectively scary horror films create physiological reactions in the viewer, as do nightmares, and while I can only speak from my own experience, the sweating, muscle tension, and elevated heart rate I had while watching it would constitute as such. It is relentless over its lean runtime; the opening sequence of close-ups of corpses illuminated by flashbulbs, with a radio narration describing a rash of grave robberies in Texas, among other horrible current events, to the end, with Sally jumping in the bed of a pickup truck and screaming her way to safety as Leatherface remains behind, swinging his chainsaw through the air like a grisly ballet in the rising sun, punctuated by a hard cut to black, no denouement, no relief, only finality. If the relentlessness of the film, and the intensity that it carries, is evidence for a disdain of the viewer, then so be it, but I would argue that if anything the film is indifferent to the viewer, the same way that roller coasters are indifferent to their riders; it will go whether you want it to or not, it will make you feel ill, and like death is certain, but it will not rub your nose in it. TCM, for as grisly as it is, could be much worse, it could wallow in its own muck and grime and viscera, but it does not. There is a restraint and an artfulness to what unfolds: the only truly graphic death is the first one, and it serves as a profoundly effective way to set the tone for what’s to come, but after that most of the worst violence is implicit, and the truly worst atrocities are left to the imagination. We can look to any number of its imitators to see it done in much worse fashion, to see what a truly contemptuous horror film looks like.

Whether or not this is contemptuous or nasty film, however, is something that is more subjective, more reflective of taste and tolerance than what the film and what the genre are doing. What I think I’ve taken most from my (relatively) recent dive into the horror pool is an idea that critic Robin Wood articulated, that what we see in horror, and what we find, as viewers, horrific, are reflections on our own society and the anxieties resting beneath the surface. Continuing with Wood, the formula for a horror film is that of a monster and normality and the relationship between the two; how does the monster threaten normality? how does the conflict between the two resolve? who is it that resolves it? what does the monster look like with respect to normality? etc., etc. With this formulation, horror media can serve as an effective sort of mirror, to see what it is that is ingrained deeply within the social and cultural attitudes of the time of production, and to bring it to the surface, like a pimple ready to pop.

TCM I find somewhat difficult to understand with this formulation in mind. There is no clear ideology at play. The monsters are fairly localized, society writ large is not under threat from Leatherface’s family. We do not return to normality either; it is, as I said previously, a hard cut to black on the image of the monster. What anxieties, then, is TCM expressing? Normally, I would question the necessity of this question in a situation where the answer is so unclear, but there is very obviously some anxiety being manifested here, the vision is too clear, too visceral, too truly unsettling for it to be otherwise. In trying to figure out this answer, I want to look at the three features of Wood’s formula, starting first with normality.

We can understand normality to be, in this case, the victims of the film. Only briefly at the beginning do we get any interaction with wider, seemingly functional members of society, but their contributions are so minimal as to have no impact on the plot. Sally and her friends then are the representatives of what is ‘normal’, and, as I said before, that is not a very positive representation. They begrudgingly do the bare minimum to accommodate Franklin, and Franklin in turn resents them. Pam shows apparent interest in astrology, which her friends belittle, and her partner Kirk later on teases her by handing her a stray human tooth he finds on the porch. Relationally, there is little affection displayed between them; even when three of her friends have gone missing, Sally seems solely concerned with finding her partner Jerry. Individually, most of them are blank slates. Franklin and Sally, the siblings, are the most fleshed-out of the group. One interesting detail that is brought up is that their family were the owners of the slaughterhouse that exists off-screen of where the action takes place. They come from wealth, and take a detour to check out the old manor that they grew up in, now decorated with peeling wallpaper, animal carcasses, and bones. If we were to take this as a microcosm of normality of the society the world of the film presents, we could determine that the film believes it is a decaying and bitter society.

Now, the monsters. To start, what is important to acknowledge is that, though Leatherface is the symbolic icon used to represent the film, he is certainly not the only monster, and in fact may not even be the most malicious. Leatherface is a hulking figure, and within his perverse family dynamic, takes on a sort of traditionally maternal role. He is domestic, he rarely leaves the house, he prepares the food, he even dresses up in a wig and makeup for their dinner later. In a strange way, Leatherface is almost the most sympathetic character in the film. He is clearly dealing with some sort of mental disability, he lives in an abusive household, and he alternates between being enraged at the intruders in his home, a sort of bumbling and unwieldy manner of carrying himself, and a care to detail and grotesque aesthetic sensibility. He contains far more multitudes than any of the people he kills. The hitch hiker and the father are an odd pair. Most of their time together is spent at conflict, where the hitch hiker belittles the father by saying “You’re just the cook!” and being physically and verbally reprimanded by him in turn. The hitch hiker is the agent for the family that crosses between the normal world and their own monstrous world, as is seen when Sally’s group picks him up, a moment I will return to later. The father, the “cook”, is a clearly abusive patriarchal figure that is strangely funny in the casual nature with which he goes about his business, taking care to shut off the lights and lock the door after binding and gagging Sally. Leftover is the grandfather, a withered husk of a man that only seems to return to sentience after tasting Sally’s blood, a man that is celebrated for being the best of the best at what he did, which was slaughter cattle. Taken as a unit, the family is perverse reflection of what could be considered a normally functioning family unit. The only female presence in the house, sans Sally, is the corpse of the grandmother in the attic. They are an abusive and self-destructive unit, cannibalizing in a literal and figurative sense, but even so seem to have stronger bonds to each other than any of the people in Sally’s group. They are also unambiguously blue collar, having worked in the slaughterhouses for generations, and taking that expertise back home with them after they have been made irrelevant.

The relationship between monsters and normality is one of asymmetrical power, but not one of alienness. In fact, the family is very closely related to the representatives of normality, having worked in the slaughterhouse that Sally and Franklin’s father owned for years before they were laid off. The monsters are even unrecognizably monstrous at first, with the hitch hiker being picked up without any real effort made otherwise. While undeniably odd, he is an object of fascination for the group while in the van, talking about his family and what he does, and even bonding to some extent with Franklin over his pocket knife. The victims are none the wiser to who he is, and in that way there is something unnerving about the way in which he is able to ingratiate himself relatively smoothly with the representatives of normality. Only when he becomes sadomasochistic, cutting his palm for all to see, then cutting Franklin on the arm, do they kick him out; the only thing really separating him from them, at least spatially, is his violent outburst. Another detail in the relationship between these two points is the aesthetics the family employs. The service station and farmhouse look no different from any other of their kind, and in fact the latter has an almost picturesque, idyllic quality to it, especially in comparison to the now rotten home Sally and Franklin grew up in. Only inside is where the true nature comes to light, with animal and human residue decorating the walls and floor, but, similar to the hitch hiker incident, the monstrous looks no different from the normal at the surface.

Continuing with this train of thought, this dichotomy of surfaces and interiors is a useful dynamic to understand further the relationship between the monster and normality beyond a solely textual level. The monster is the family, twisted and perverted beyond recognition, and they proceed to violently murder and consume the representatives of normality, save for Sally, and this, I think, speaks to an underlying belief of the film: There is a rot that exists; we do not quite know the causes of it—maybe it’s the alienation of the working class under capitalism, maybe it’s the traumatic effects of the patriarchal household, maybe it’s something else entirely—but it exists, and it is waiting to consume that which it comes into contact with. This is an extension of the shift in American horror films away from the foreign and into the home, but it’s especially frightening in TCM, due I feel to the lack of any sort of psychological reasoning to the existence of the monsters. We can absolutely make assumptions, we can try to piece together whatever tragic history has made this family this way, but we ultimately do not know why they are the way they are. There’s an urge in our society to pathologize and understand those that commit atrocities; look at the billion dollar industry of true crime media, or the variety of responses following a mass shooting trying to figure out motives, politics, ideologies, etc, for proof. Taking this urge in a non-cynical way, one could argue that understanding what drives people to these actions can shed the light on ways to prevent them. We can look at white supremacism or deeply ingrained misogyny or the ease of access to guns, and say that these are problems that can be addressed and hopefully solved (of course, the actual desire to solve those problems needs to be there in the first place, but I digress). But the cannibal family resists being understood by cause and effect, and in this way they are terrifying in a much deeper and much more insidious way than many of their contemporaries and imitators.

In this manner, the film is a nihilistic nightmare. There is no meaning to the slaughter, there is no hidden truth that comes to light, there is no feeling beyond sheer terror and destruction. The film is a moral vacuum, a shell of unexpectedly sophisticated filmmaking filled with nothing but screams and blood, and it is astonishing to behold. I don’t think there can ever be another film like Texas Chain Saw Massacre again, a perfect locus of low-budget, intelligent filmmaking, laser-focused on scaring the absolute hell out of whoever is watching it, with no pretensions to anything greater, and with the cultural footprint that TCM has.

I made mention before of the last shot of the film, of Leatherface performing his macabre chainsaw dance in the light of the rising Texas sun. Within the continuity of the film, it remains a moment of high intensity, even with the apparent escape of the protagonist. But out of context, removed from the string of horrors that came before, it takes on a strange, almost surreally beautiful quality. There is an undeniable aesthetic quality to it, the griminess of the film up to that point seems to disappear, and what we’re left with is an inscrutably gorgeous picture of a grotesque man dancing in the morning light with his chainsaw. It feels representative of the movie as a whole. It is senseless, and unsettling, and for as difficult as it is to actually read the mood of the moment, it is raw emotion expressed on screen.

recreationally writing about movies and other media

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store