Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre- Review

Hello, Subscribers!

This week, instead of an Old Motel 20 miles away from Fairville, California, I have moved us to Kingsland, Texas, to unveil the horrors of a family of cannibalistic slaughterhouse workers come to life. This review will highlight some of what I believe makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a horror film worth watching. 

Without further ado, 

Here is my take on the trip that brought destruction to the Hardesty family, and friends.

*Spoilers Ahead*

Although horror films often take a backseat when one thinks of cinematic sophistication, Texas Chainsaw Massacre runs counter to these thoughts. Another film based on the real-life killer and graverobber Ed Gein, Texas Chainsaw connects to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, my previous horror film review. In that review, and with how it connects to this one, I spoke of Norman Bates as a character “hidden-in-plain-sight.” Director Toby Hooper uses this tactic to go further than a matinee model turned psychotic killer, creating an entire family of cannibalistic killers. As with Hitchcock’s Psycho and what can be read from the taxidermy, the amount of depth one can unpack in Tobe Hooper’s scene construction speaks to his understanding of the genre’s films that came before him. As with how Hitchcock saw the precedent in films like Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955), parallels can be drawn with Hooper and both Psycho (1960) and The Night of the Living Dead (1968). Many of Hooper’s scenes go further than Psycho in their overt display of chaos in the form of animal carcasses, bones, or decomposing bodies. In addition to that, Hooper perverts the nuclear family to make these characters work as cross-generational killers. Even with these intricate scenes, when we think of this film, our minds still may gravitate towards the psychotic chainsaw-wielding killer Leatherface. As a whole, however, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is much more than a single character. Even though Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen)  is largely the main antagonist or main culprit, the most shocking moments of horror culminate when Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) is trapped in the dwelling of “the family of Draculas.”

At the beginning of the film, which is said to be “based on real events,” narration grips us with a quasi-documentary feel. The isolated sounds of what might be rusty hinges open the film, which is unnerving; it combines with the sweltering Texas heat to create atmosphere. Accompanying these noises are diegetic flashes on a decomposing corpse that looks like Norman’s mummified mother in Psycho. The opening is as though we are witnessing a police procedural. Although, as we progress onward and see the iconographic image of a dead armadillo, we are inundated with a tone of pessimism. In its entirety, I felt like there was insincerity or harshness in general exchanges. Perhaps Hooper overtly rose the muck to the surface to comment on the state of 1970s America, or this underlying chaos could be hinting at the danger to come. For the world of the film, moments of the unexpected certainly develop an atmosphere eschew. An example is the only remnant of authority in this film is a drunken babbling sheriff near the gravestone. This occurs as the group approaches the graveyard where the beginning grave robbing occured. 

The sound design, by Wayne Bell, in Texas Chainsaw is another aspect of the film I think is fantastic. The beginning of rusty hinges sets a great atmosphere coupled with the sun beating down. I also noticed quite a bit of ambient noise, which I felt worked in creating a raw tone of pessimism. This ambient noise was also unnerving because it created an ambiance of machinery, which connotes a slaughterhouse, as does the sound of Leatherface slamming a metal door. Another memorable sound effect is when Kirk finds a nest of spiders. The sound effect simulates and isolates the spiders’ movement, producing a skin-crawling effect on the viewer. Another powerful sound is when Kirk is killed with Leatherface’s mallet. The diegetic sounds of pig squeals and Leatherface’s imitation of Pam all contribute to alarming us. While following Jerry, we believe that Pam is still alive behind Leatherface’s door. However, these noises are just a lure for us and the character. An earlier example of creating a tense atmosphere is through the generator. The loud generator immerses the audience in the terrain and works as a call to what is coming next. Finally, the diegetic chainsaw and Sally’s screams are the most apparent sounds. Accompanied by the Hitchhiker’s (Edwin Neil) laughter, the noise of the chainsaw creates a feeling of urgency in the pursuit. Sally’s relentless screams shatter our protective boundaries and make us want it all to end. The ending of the isolated chainsaw swung by Leatherface is jarring. When the chainsaw’s sound is overwhelming, and at its loudest, Hooper abruptly ends with silence. It’s an ending without a clear-cut conclusion, but one that got my adrenaline pumping.

 Chaotic dialogue is another element of the film that struck me.  There is a heated tension between the family of killers throughout the dinner scene, beginning with the Cooks’ scolding of Leatherface for breaking the door, that creates an apocalyptic mood. We are trapped with Sally, with ostensibly no escape. Their celebration and mocking imitation of Sally’s screams produce anger and allow us to merge with Sally as she makes a desperate and adrenaline-filled escape. This “dinner scene” is one of the most horrific film scenes I have ever seen. The horrors come from this entrapment and the disjointed edits while employing extreme close-ups of Sally’s eyes. The cast’s almost candid performance feels as though it is a stage performance or a horrific joke. In terms of back and forth, the dismissal of the cook shows his ostracisation for not being a “true” killer. The non-killers as the “white sheep of the family.” Drayton “The Cook” Sawyer (Jim Siedow) is probably the most horrific character to me and one that aligns us with Sally. When he states, “I get no pleasure from killing,” but also cheers in pleasure while Grandpa weakly swings, shows a double-side to his nature. In the car, when The Cook captures Sally, the mise-en-scene is well-crafted. The lighting in his car, how he pokes her with his broom, his sadistic laughter, and Sally’s muffled screams all contribute to this character’s Batesian transition and the movement toward complete chaos. The character himself is just one of those people who looks like they have a darker side, which I feel was a great casting decision. With the other characters, I would say the family and “flower-children” are well cast. Gunnar Hanson’s height is definitely intimidating, which Hooper may have looked for in his main antagonist. With this “dinner scene,” I found it to be one of the most horrific in all of cinema. Despite this, I still found the group cheering on their Grandpa while he gathered the strength to hit Sally with a mallet to be a great moment of black comedy. 

The possible social critique of the film is another aspect that I appreciate. The main psychotic family is abandoned by automation. They were slaughterhouse workers who turned to murder or a twisted version of modern capitalist logic— “the exploitation of others for profit.” Hooper aligns us with the youth of the “flower-power” generation who come to investigate the cemetery and to visit the old Hardesty farm. The term “flower children” can embody all the characters, with Jerry (Allen Danziger) being the most overtly dressed in late 60s fashion. The film’s overall pessimistic tone seems to reflect the state of society at the time. The film may have some striking parallels to world events such as the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre, urban race riots, and traumatic political assassinations. In addition to that, the film may also serve as a warning, said by Kendall R. Phillips: “If the youth movement sought to tear down the structures of society, the film suggests, they had best beware of what lies beneath.” The killers are what is underneath. As I was watching, I couldn’t help but read too far into the Vietnam Era. With this in mind, I saw the ramifications of the Vietnam War early on. When the Hitchhiker shows photos to the group, it is oddly reminiscent of some of the accounts of returning US soldiers showing photos of the carnage. The images might even call to the brutality of the photographs of murdered Vietnamese civilians. Additionally, the slaughterhouse and cattle could be seen as a comment on the US’s draft and soldiers being treated as disposable bodies. The way we follow our main characters’ vehicle is not unlike a military convoy. The language at the gas station is not unlike military jargon: “transport comes late afternoon.” Franklin, wheel-chair bound, may also be Hooper’s way of commenting on the influx of Veterans returning with life-altering injuries. Robin Wood interprets the films as a “tale of counterculture youth set upon by murderously reactionary elements of the traditional order,” essentially pointing out that Nixon’s “silent majority” is killing off these counterculture youths. 

As a piece of art, this film’s apocalyptic tone is really what drew me in, one of underlying chaos hidden beneath the surface of the ordinary. With an ending that does not allow for catharsis, we are left with what author Kendall R. Phillips calls “an inevitable age of degradation and destruction.” I can say matter-of-factly that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre goes beyond what is simply brutal and unrelentingly graphic. For a film to bring about discussion of the events of its time, I can firmly say that Texas Chainsaw is worth seeing. Scenes such as Leatherface impaling Franklin with a chainsaw in darkness and the lengthy dinner with “the family of Draculas” are moments I will never forget. It takes guts for the filmmaker to taunt their viewer as they align themselves with the main character, which I believe Hooper achieves. If you want something to keep you up at night, for reasons beyond the horrors within, I recommend you make Texas Chainsaw Massacre your next cinematic excursion; unless you are faint of heart.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – Movie Trailer – YouTube

— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.

Christian’s Bio:

Christian is a Senior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.”  In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mizoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.

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