American New Wave: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Updated mid-2017 after another rewatch – such an amazing, amazing film, not particularly violent in a diegetic sense, but one which feels as though violence has been done to it. 

This post being in honor of the film’s fortieth anniversary this upcoming Wednesday, October 1. Here’s to forty more years of soul-deadening terror. 

The story of five nobodies wandering through rural Texas and running afoul of America’s hidden secrets, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is infamously violent, which is curious because it’s hardly violent at all. The body-count is shockingly low and deaths happen mostly off-screen, relegated to the abyssal margins of an already poetically empty screen space, one which seemingly voids participation in a wider social milieu. But if the movie feels violent more than it is violent, that’s because it feels positively disgusting. This is grimy, disturbing filmmaking in every possible way, almost toxically fugitive in its disobedience to propriety. It may be one of the grossest-looking famous movies ever released, somehow both punishingly direct and monstrously, mystifyingly oblique, like it’s showing us everything head-on while veiling more submerged truths about American discontent. The film grain, even for the time, is knowingly poor – it feels like a documentary more than a film, lending it an unsettling and grimy immediacy, but also an evasive sense of ambiguity. The film-grain scratches which are testament to the authenticity of its expression of reality also suggest the film’s curiosity about a reality that is ultimately inexpressible, a sense of horror which is both extremely forthright – sometimes breaking through the film screen itself to confront us head-on – and obliquely suggestive of terrors we aren’t, and perhaps can’t be, privy to.

That the movie can convey so much in the way of violence without really showing anything goes beyond subtle implication – it has to do completely with the sheer, oppressive grotesqueness of the film. The film stock and perturbed cinematography are ably abetted by the film’s otherworldly inhuman-ness, most fully captured by the garish set design in the famous dinner scene where main character Sally is tied up to confront the rest of main stalker Leatherface’s family. The set-design is almost floral in its dreamlike hell, with almost everything in the room lovingly (scarily) composed of bones and body parts. The film doesn’t hold the violence away from us as much as it subsumes the violence into the murky, nasty, brown-and-grey celluloid itself. If most horrors work with shadow and pristine darkness, here the murk keeps us from even this clarity of decay – it’s all covered in mud and uneasy despair. We couldn’t make out a shadow if we tried.

The earthy yet otherworldly nightmare-grime and immediacy of the film extends beyond the visual component, however, and into the characters, the narrative, the pacing, and the film’s ethos. Simply put, this film doesn’t so much have a narrative as it wanders around aimlessly with ill intent, not a physical violence, but a murder of the soul on its mind. There is a build-up, which features five teenagers lost in the Texas backcountry. They include Sally and her paraplegic brother Jeffrey and their three friends, all of whom pick up a hitchhiker who then proceeds to kill himself – an event which serves less as a notable moment on its own than one minor blip on an increasingly perturbed descent down the rabbit hole of an Americana underbelly. This is highlighted, most famously, by a confrontation with the brutish Leatherface, his chainsaw, and the family he loves.

Of course, the build-up is intentionally druggy, dolorous, and even poorly-acted, an exercise in woozy, amateurish style to capture the imprint of a disturbing shadow of a world we assume to know as everyday life. This is the rare film that manages to be both gut-churningly tight and filled with aimless malaise. Adding to this all is the film’s illogical but undeniably effective editing, which, like Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now the year before cuts on emotion rather than narrative, intuitively (or counter-intuitively) voiding continuity in service of a nightmarish, associational linkage of things we shouldn’t expect, like interruptive transmissions from hell itself. Even more famous are the film’s inserts, which include light bulb flashes on edits for no other reason but to screw with us, the devil flickering the film on and off.

Most disturbing though is one insert of a cow, included as if to invade the film’s dead flesh and meat Grand Guignol parade and to dehumanize the main characters even further. In another scene, the film makes such a wonderfully midnight-movie use of the crash-zoom that I cannot but pause and throw my hands up in excitement at how thoroughly the film’s ambivalent attitude toward continuous space and spatial detachment manhandle me into submission. The film is gleefully committed to using every trick in the book, as well as inventing some of its own, just for its single-minded purpose – it’s wonderfully obsessive and in its own way extremely amateurish, but in a way that feels like an emergent howl of cinema’s future, unindebted to any film before.

Once things get going, the film descends into an unmediated form of chaos that would rather openly flaunt the form of the conventional slasher narrative if this form had been existent at the time and this film didn’t essentially invent it. While we expect the five heroes to be systematically and methodically stalked and slaughtered, the film bucks any masterly planning, the number of protagonists decreasing from five to one in such violently quick succession that the film itself doesn’t even seem to have reconciled it for us. Say what you will about the film’s violence, but it doesn’t dwell on the kills. They happen so quickly that they only partially register, leaving their impression scratching on our cortex, blunt but just out of reach. The film continues before we can come to terms with them and move on.

Even beyond this, the film eschews what would later become the slasher film’s raison d’ etre, the moralistic conservative hand of authority coming down upon teenagers for engaging in immoral activity. After all, the decade when the genre flourished, the ’80s, was defined by its authoritarianism and its moralist judgment aimed squarely against teenage hedonism – in those films, you were killed because you behaved against the will of the moral authority primarily by having sex. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has no sex – its teenagers don’t do much of anything. They’re barely characters, in fact, and that’s precisely the point. They don’t die because they’re immoral. They die simply because they’re people who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time: anywhere in America and the 1970s.

And while the ’80s would be the domain of a renewed patriotic moralism underscored by an iron fist, a sense of superficial happiness whose limits were the limits of moral behavior, the ’70s knew no such façade. This was the decade whose defining word was cynicism. This film, made at the tail end of the Vietnam War, was birthed in this amoral gaping hopeless wound of a nation – characters don’t die here because they don’t hold themselves up to the nation’s moral fiber, but because the nation lacks any fiber of any kind. They die not from something they did, but because people die, and because it’s the world’s sick sense of humor for them to die rather pointlessly and without any reason.

The sense of aimless, pointless chaos permeates the film’s famous ending. Most films leave us on a cathartic note, either happy or sad, but this film has no such hope. After slightly less than half-an-hour of mental torture to the surviving character, she escapes and runs away. Two truckers come to help her when she runs onto the nearby road, leaving Leatherface in the dust behind her, waving his chainsaw around in the air like a child who’s had his favorite toy taken away from him. The scene disturbs, again, because it has no time to register – nothing happens to Leatherface, nor do we have time to see Sally reflect upon her escape, let alone what’s happened to her before it. It’s all just left there: hanging, incomplete, refusing an unqualified finality. The whole film has that nonchalant attitude toward its very cavalier self-destruction. We want, or need, it to find catharsis for its kills or the main character’s escape, but the film doesn’t give it to us.

What we’re left with is the curiosity of the film’s claim as a ’70s B-picture. Midnight films are known for exploring in subtext a grimier or less normative side of the reality of the time in which they were produced – it’s almost the unstated norm in any film. And writing about an American film made in the ’70s as inextricably linked to that time and that decade is perhaps the biggest cliché in the book, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is so viciously and unapologetically a film that couldn’t but have been made in the 1970s that  it feels dishonest not to mention the fact. Released in the same year as other beaten-down ’70s exercises in cynicism such as The Godfather II, Chinatown, and the viciously paranoid The Conversation, this film is perhaps the most timely of them all. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, largely owing to its low-budget non-corporate nature, had the freedom to boil all of this depression and hellishness right down to its most primal core, unadorned with any ornamental happiness whatsoever. It is one of the most nightmarish collective gasps of them all, bent on taking real world horrors and rendering them so depressingly pinpoint and direct in their concrete malaise that no reason, no logic, and no excuse is necessary to cause harm. Any sense of cause and effect had been taken outside, shot in the head, driven over, set on fire, beaten to a pulp, and blown up for good measure.

There’s a certain undeniable air of the anti-rural to the film; it opts not to critique the long-forgotten spots of American history and instead to capture the fear they instilled in people. As such, it’s quite a bit problematic in making the rural poor out to be creepy heathens who are less than human, objects of fear rather than subjects of exploration – it is very much a film from the gaze of suburban dwellers who trek out to these forgotten spots and discover what’s waiting within, and it is not particularly interested in critiquing that gaze (unlike many other more textured and nuanced ’70s films). Thus, an amoral film awaits, but amoral and art, unfortunately, are not mutually exclusive; this is a film that points out a fear faced by society, even if it is an immoral and irrational one, and codifies it and shoves it onto the screen as a collective nightmare shared by that society. It does not seek to explain it or to come to terms with the rural regions of society, or to critique society for being afraid of those regions invalidly. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not interested in texture or nuance though – it’s interested in the raw instability of guerrilla senselessness and a thoughtfully thoughtless lack of form. If The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most immoral and depraved famous films ever made to have its way with just about every human sense, the central question of its morality is merely one more blood-drenched question mark on its tattered sleeve.

Score: 10/10

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