The Great American Horror Movie

Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still a monster 45 years later

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced an enduring icon of fear in Leatherface (only twice is he referred to as such in the film, though Leatherface was one of the movie’s working titles, along with the hilarious Head Cheese). A monstrous figure in his blood-spangled apron and masks fashioned of human faces (he wears three different ones in the film), Leatherface oddly is the closest thing to a sympathetic character in this rather prickly and hostile narrative. At first he seems hulking and powerful, but when we meet his brothers — the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who at least has the freedom to come and go; the Cook (Jim Siedow), who lords it over his siblings as if he were their surrogate father — we see that Leatherface is actually the least powerful entity in this particular family dynamic. He seems to fear the Cook’s wrath, and he doesn’t seem to take much joy in the family’s shenanigans; the Cook piously declares that he himself “just can’t take much pleasure in killin’,” but later shots of him enjoying the pain of captive Sally (Marilyn Burns) put his nobility in question. Leatherface seems simple of mind and heart; he does what he does merely to serve and protect his family. He’s kind of like a big dumb dog.

As played by writer and poet Gunnar Hansen, Leatherface has a strange vulnerability and sensitivity he lacks in the sequels, where the directors just hired big guys who matched the description. Hansen’s incoherent babblings (sometimes he makes pig sounds, other times he approximates chicken clucking, as if identifying with those poor animals slaughtered for food) and frantic movements are a far cry from the silent-but-deadly Michael Myers, the bad-ass hockey-masked Jason, or the Borscht-belt prankster Freddy Krueger. Watch Chainsaw enough times and you begin to suspect that Leatherface really would rather not be doing this. If the bones-and-remains gizmos throughout the house (designed by Bob Burns, ingeniously) are his work, then Leatherface has an artistic soul, and if born into another family he might have made paintings and music. But he was born into this family, and must go into the family business.

This isn’t a movie that thrives on character development. That’s because there are no formal protagonists. We are introduced to one group of people first, so we are led to identify with them, and when they are placed in danger our instincts as moviegoers lead us to want them to get away from the threat. But really Hooper takes no special steps to endear these five people to us. We’re in there in the sweltering van with them, and, due to the much-heralded documentary feel of the film, we feel we’re one of them. It’s a tactic later used, to far lesser effect, in The Blair Witch Project, which like Chainsaw cast its young protagonists as not unlike the movie’s audience.

The first family member we meet is the Hitchhiker, a stammering creep who cuts himself, shows off photos of cattle he slaughtered (“I was the killer!”), sets fire to a picture of Franklin he’s just taken, and slashes Franklin’s arm — all in the space of a few minutes. Even before he does anything, though, Edwin Neal’s self-disfiguring performance (his involuntary grimaces make it look like his teeth take up half his face) fills the van with a haze of dread. It’s as if the humidity and the combined ill feelings of the people in the van had somehow collided and formed this creature of illogic. The Hitchhiker has some sort of mark (burn? scar? birthmark?) on his face, suggesting warpaint; he looks like a scraggly Indian warrior driven mad in battle. He may be taken as a rebuke to the comfortable youths in the van, who have the luxury of poring over astrology books and debating about whether or not to eat meat. The Hitchhiker comes from a world where you either smack cows on the head with the sledge (“The air gun’s no good,” he scoffs at the more humane method Franklin proposes) or you don’t eat.

Then we meet the Cook (or the “Old Man,” as he’s named in the credits), though at first he just seems to be a harmless gas-station attendant with a small barbecue pit on the side. (He certainly doesn’t seem to be making much money from pumping gas, since he doesn’t have any to pump — or so he says.) Have any other Chainsaw fans wondered what the deal is with the other gas-station attendant — the one who keeps rolling his bucket over to the van and soaping the windshield? Does he just work there? Does he know how his boss really makes a living? Anyway, the Cook appears to supervise the family; there’s a Grandpa but no mention of a Pa, so there has been some confusion among viewers as to whether the Cook is one of the brothers, or their father. Hooper, on the audio commentary on the Chainsaw laserdisc and DVD, said “He was meant to be one of the brothers,” so that settles that; however, since the Cook is so much older, and given the general dysfunction of the other two, the suspicion arises that the Cook could be their brother and father.

Lastly, of course, we meet Leatherface, about whom I’ve spoken before. Together the four family men (if you count Grandpa) form a tight unit — almost, you could say, a metaphorical quartet. And no, this isn’t going to be the sort of essay that insists the cannibal family was really Hooper’s statement on what we were doing in Vietnam. I’ll leave English-major interpretations — all equally valid, all probably also equally far from what Hooper actually had in mind — to those who dote on them; besides, such pre-chewing of the material dissuades the viewer from making his or her own connections. I will agree with the commentators who have noticed the strong class-conflict subtext, as well as the tenor of the movie itself that suggests it couldn’t have been made at any other time but the early ’70s — not like this, anyway. Yet, oddly, none of the old Southerners berate the youths for being longhaired hippies; the youths, in turn, are not snotty hippies who look down on the hicks. Hooper doesn’t need to manufacture conflict; it’s there in our gut-level feeling that these kids don’t belong here. “You boys don’t wanna go messin’ around no old house,” says the Cook, a sly Southern-style update of the old horror-movie warnings of evil places.

The Cook is the most presentable of the three cannibal brothers; he’s the only one who can plausibly get out there and work a real job. In reality, he falls somewhere between the Hitchhiker and Leatherface, between manic glee and remorse; Hooper talks about the Cook’s “schizo” nature, and indeed we see him flip-flop between sadism and compassion and back again, sometimes several times in the same scene. Jim Siedow has the voracious grin of a Martin Landau or a Milton Berle, one that can look either reassuring or wolfish, and the more you watch Chainsaw the more you appreciate Siedow’s performance — and the less you understand the Cook. Sometimes he seems like the (relatively) sane center of the vortex of the film’s last act; other times he’s jumping up and down with joy as the decrepit Grandpa tries to whack Sally with the hammer. You can’t pin him down, and you don’t really want to; besides, any character with such solid priorities in the midst of a crisis (“ Look what your brother did to the door!!” he bellows in one of the movie’s most beloved moments) has to be taken on his own terms.

At the time, Hooper did not know the name Ed Gein, though he had heard stories about Gein’s exploits from family members in Wisconsin (Ed’s headquarters). He decided, essentially, to make a movie about “a family of Ed Geins”; only two years later would he recognize that this was what he had done. So Chainsaw stands shoulder to shoulder with two other horror classics — Psycho and Silence of the Lambs — that wouldn’t have been possible without Gein’s indirect influence. (There was a fourth, 1973’s Deranged, which stuck closer to the Gein legend than any other film until 2001’s Ed Gein.)

The solemn narration, infamously delivered by a young John Larroquette (whom Hooper told to sound like Orson Welles), tells us that what we’re about to see was real. This is playful bunk, just as the “Based on a true story” line at the start of Fargo was. No matter, though; what we’re about to see feels real enough. You can just about smell the body odor, the beer, the barbecue, the gasoline of the chainsaw (and of the generator, which we hear in the distance and assume to be a chainsaw). In the dilapidated old house that belonged to Sally’s grandfather, you get itchy all over looking at the spider-infested walls and dusty floors — credit once again to Bob Burns, who knew how to rough up a room so that it looked realistically atrocious, not set-designed. Then there are the sounds — the nagging roar of the chainsaw, of course, but also the assaultive soundtrack (by Hooper and Wayne Bell), composed of discordant power-drill noise, clashing cymbals, freak-out deep-bass thrumming, and other sounds heard nowhere else on Earth. (This soundtrack was industrial before there was industrial music; it also predated Alan Splet’s work on Eraserhead by about three years.) Chainsaw engages all your senses like few other films in or out of the horror genre.

When Sally finally breaks free and crashes out into the daylight, it’s as if she has awakened from a nightmare that still insists on pursuing her. The Hitchhiker and Leatherface give chase; given many chances to catch the slow and hobbling Sally, the Hitchhiker opts to tease her by running just inches behind her. Ironically, it’s a truck that sends the Hitchhiker to hell; Leatherface’s advances are deflected by a man of equal size — a black man, which could mean anything or nothing — and Sally hops aboard a pick-up truck, laughing uncontrollably as the threat of Leatherface recedes into the sunrise. This, we feel, is not happy thank-God-I’m-alive laughter but simply hysteria taking a different form — she won’t ever be the same again.

Leatherface, meanwhile, is left alone with his chainsaw and his frustration. The crazed pirouette he does with the saw never fails to bring a catch to my throat, not because it’s particularly saddening but because it is so unaccountably beautiful. Cinematographer Daniel Pearl, all of 23 at the time and fresh out of film school, did his best work in Chainsaw with the mysteries of the sun — this is mainly a movie of well-lit horrors. Here, with an almost silhouetted Leatherface whirling frantically against a red and angry sky, Pearl locks in what could very well be an image to represent all horror movies — the beast raging against element and fate, unconsciously creating art with his body and weapon, the dance and music of terror. This shot, I am willing to say for the record, is the greatest parting shot of any film in its genre, and high on the top ten list of final shots in any genre. Not bad for a shoestring flick about a family of cannibal crackers.

Hooper himself did not repeat his brilliance — not in his Chainsaw sequel, and not in his other films afterward. He came close in the televised Salem’s Lot, using his skill at suggestion and misdirection to craft some genuinely creepy moments; the most memorable bits of Poltergeist (erroneously and harmfully attributed to executive producer Steven Spielberg), such as the bothersome clown doll, came about as close to the irrational terror of Chainsaw as any big-budget summer fantasy could. But mainly it was a bumpy and dispiriting ride, from the cheeseball self-ripoff of 1976’s Eaten Alive to the off-the-radar dreck of the ’90s ( Spontaneous Combustion, I’m Dangerous Tonight, The Mangler).

In 1993, Hooper did do some first-rate work — a segment of the John Carpenter-supervised anthology Body Bags. Hooper’s bit was titled “The Eye,” and as a baseball star who receives an eye implant from a serial killer, Mark Hamill gave the performance of his life. “The Eye” throbs with the hunger of two guys, Hooper and Hamill, pulling out all the stops to prove they didn’t peak in the ’70s; the result is a remarkably upsetting short film wallowing in fear and loathing — not unlike Chainsaw, come to think of it. So Hooper did still have it in him, and maybe he didn’t even have to sweat in a smelly room for 27 hours to do it. Even if he never fully equalled Chainsaw again, though, Hooper could and should rest assured that he shepherded a classic — a movie that, according to me and some others, is The Great American Horror Movie, and, to others, is at least up there in the top ten. No number of Spontaneous Combustions or The Manglers can undo that.

I see movies and write about ’em. Old, new, makes no difference.

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