Let’s Scare Jenn to Death: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
By Guest Writer James Olchak
Welcome back to to Let’s Scare Jenn to Death, the year-long experiment in making Jenn watch movies, scary, bloody, shocking movies completely unsuited to her natural tastes in entertainment. Why are we doing this?
One, to expose Jenn to some dynamic visceral narratives shot through with vivid, bloody metaphors for the problems we all face in life.
Two, because Jenn’s discomfort in watching deranged scenes of grisly violence is amusing.
Overview: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Let’s talk a bit about this month’s selection, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and why it was chosen. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an ultra low-budget 1974 independent film directed by Tobe Hooper, and written by Hooper and Kim Henkel. It was Hooper’s second film, and Henkel’s first, and despite its low budget and grimy presentation, it was the twelfth-highest grossing film the year it was released. It is considered a classic of the genre, and has been sequeled and prequeled and rebooted and franchised to diminishing artistic returns ever since.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t the first “slasher” film, but it exemplifies many of the tropes that even non-horror-fans could answer questions about on Jeopardy. There’s a hulking killer in a terrifying mask. There’s nubile young victims making bad decisions. There’s a “final girl.” There’s even car trouble, a trope with dates all the way back to “Old Dark House” thrillers like 1934’s The Black Cat or, well, 1932’s The Old Dark House. So what makes Chain Saw greater than the sum of its parts?
It’s hard to explain, but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre draws considerable appeal from its naturalistic, sun-stroked performances; its jittery, unpredictable pacing, and most importantly, its unrepentant, relentless ugliness. Whereas last month’s film, Suspiria, glided along on sleek art-deco visuals, chilling prog-rock, and dreamlike color choices, Chain Saw grinds its way forward with grainy, bleached-out shots of forbidding, ramshackle, rural locations, accompanied by a grim, droning, minimalist soundtrack that slowly escalates into a car-wreck cacophony of jangling and shrieking. Once it hits its stride, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film that offers no escape or relief from the ghastliness within.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the rare few films in which the small budget helped the presentation in notable ways. First, the shooting conditions were, by all accounts, horrible. They shot in Texas, in 100-plus heat (In one scene, a radio announcer helpfully puts the humidity at 98 percent), in abandoned locations, without running water. The fatigue, filth, disorder, and dehydration suffered by the actors colored their performances in a wholly immersive way. I’ve never seen any of the recent remakes of Chain Saw, but the stills look like any hollywood production. Clean, young, sexy actors, carefully spritzed with spring water and lightly smeared with soot, gadding about an air-conditioned backlot, somewhere. A layer of gormless artifice reminding you that what you’re seeing is a paycheck for Jessica Biel, and not much else.
Second, and surprisingly for a film promising not only a massacre, but one performed with chain saws, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre shows a remarkable amount of restraint. Only a handful of characters are killed, and there are few explicit gore effects, but what little is shown so perfectly compliments what is suggested that the audience leaves the film convinced they saw something far gorier. Few horror movies can utilize this kind of subtlety to present something so nasty. The title overpromises, and the visuals underdeliver, and the audience’s hindbrain fills the gaps, beautifully. It’s filmmaker and audience creating the story in tandem. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws rightfully gets a lot of credit for this kind of storytelling, but Chain Saw came out a year earlier.
What else can be said about why Texas Chain Saw Massacre was chosen? Despite my desire to choose exclusively films that would be completely under Jenn’s pop-culture radar, I simply couldn’t find a film that was as “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It was too damn archetypical to replace, and, as many other films on this year’s list will deconstruct and reconstruct the elements found here, we just had to watch it.
For a reference on how we will judge this movie, see our Horror Movie Judging Criteria.
Well, Jenn, we are now hitting on all cylinders. After last months glossy giallo Suspiria failed to give you so much as a single heart palpitation, I was happy to present something that has a more conventional arsenal of scares to infiltrate your brainmeats. But perhaps The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is too conventional? Is the lumbering monster wielding a bloody power tool too much of a cliche to scare a high-powered 2018 career woman like yourself? I know the plot of Suspiria was too vague and unrealistic to “get” you, does a more grounded tale of roadside inbreds cannibalizing teenagers and victimizing the disabled tap more successfully into your scare gland?
Yes. I grew up in small towns and I’ve spent a lot of time visiting them too. Mostly rural. I feel like I’ve been to places that feel like the beginning of this movie feels and I’m like NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE right from the start.
Let’s talk about the protagonists for a bit. Obviously, there are a couple smallish performances, here, in Kirk (the sarcastic one, who teases Franklin), Pam (Kirk’s girlfriend, who’s into astrology, and gets handed a tooth), and Jerry (Sally’s boyfriend, whose last words, sadly, are “Come on, guys; quit goofin’ on me.”). None of them gets a huge chunk of characterization, but do the scenes in the van (with the hitchhiker) and at the dilapidated “Franklin House” effectively create characterization for these three? Does the audience care when they’re dispatched?
I think a little bit sure. Though honestly I get so annoyed by people in horror movies. I’m always saying “Why would you do that? Why would you go there? No, stupid, don’t walk into scary looking houses in rural Texas” etc., etc., etc. I get that they are supposed to seem like OK kids who don’t deserve to be sliced to ribbons. I’ll buy that.
Sally and her brother Franklin’s relationship, by comparison, is more fully realized. Franklin Hardesty is criticised under the actor’s IMDB page as being “an extremely whiny, hateful, and unsympathetic invalid,” which is fair but dismissive of the character who drives much of the plot. In fact, I’m going to do a deep dive on how important Franklin is to the film narrative and metatext:
A Defense of Franklin Hardesty
Franklin is the only member of the group who attempts to interact with the (obviously disturbed) hitchhiker. While the rest of the group seems content to stare at the hitchhiker as if he were a sideshow, Franklin genuinely tries to talk to him about his interests and background. What does it say about these characters that the physically disabled character is the one that sees the mentally disabled character as a person, and tries to treat him as such? Is it, perhaps, non-coincidental that both Paul A. Partain (who played Franklin) and Edwin Neal (Who played the hitchhiker) were both veterans of the war in Vietnam? Is the scene of Franklin, ignored by his family and friends, alone with his wheelchair, throwing a quiet tantrum in the old family house a commentary on…something? Can we look at Franklin as a metaphor for the way the disabled are marginalized in the US?
Whoa, that’s deep. We could. I hesitate to read too much into movies because I don’t know if I trust that the people making the movies are quite that clever. But, it is interesting that they are both veterans and I do think it’s important that Franklin is the only one who talks to the hitchhiker. Now why on earth they pick the guy up to start is a different problem. Most of the people in the van clearly don’t want to, so what the hell, Kirk?
Misplaced empathy? Kirk was afraid the guy was gonna get heat stroke. But yeah, a lot of supposed subtext is created in the mind of the audience. Having seen this movie a dozen or more times, I’m definitely in that spot where I start picking at threads and seeing patterns where possibly none exist. It didn’t occur to me until this viewing that the opening scene of the corpses being photographed was the hitchhiker doing it. Up until now, I had always kinda assumed it was the police doing it.
I also think it’s hard not to read something into how much most of the group ignores Franklin. Why on earth they’re wheeling him about in rural nowhere Texas and abandoning him to his own devices I’ll never understand. I guess because people are trash?
Meanwhile, Sally Hardesty is a sharply-defined contrast to Franklin. She’s vital and attractive, and although she cares about her brother a great deal, she also clearly resents his disability, and the responsibility of taking care of him. She comes to Franklin’s defense when Kirk teases him about the hitchhiker returning to kill him, but only halfheartedly. It’s clear she would prefer to hang out with her friends without having to drag Franklin around. Is Franklin’s only role to “hold Sally down,” like an anchor? Do their small interactions, their bickering about his knife, their confrontation over the flashlight, foreshadow Sally’s eventual abandonment of Franklin to his fate? Is there more nuance in their relationship than just the immediately obvious?
I feel like Franklin’s role might be both foreshadowing of bad stuff to come, because of his intense interaction with the hitchhiker and his helplessness, and also to “hold Sally down” – like maybe she would have been able to flee much sooner and faster without him, right? He certainly makes things harder, which is, of course, not his fault, so it’s frustrating to watch play out. I think you can read some nuance into it. She’s taking care of him because she cares about him but as you said she’d rather not have to deal with it. Like so many things in life, right? You have to do a thing, you don’t want to, maybe you have obligations to people you care about but it would be much easier to abandon your lame responsibilities and go be a crab fisherman if there weren’t these jerky people holding you back! Also, easier to flee murderers.
The “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” follows a three-act structure, built around the antagonists of the film. In act one, we meet “the hitchhiker,” in the second act, we meet Leatherface, and in the third act, we meet the “old man” (and find out they’re all 3 related, narratively and by blood). How well does this staggered reveal serve the story? How effective are the three acts, individually, and as a whole?
I think it ramps up the scariness. I didn’t really think the hitchhiker was going to come up again, I just thought he was foreshadowing of general not-good-ness in this area. When he did it made the whole thing feel creepier. And because their stop at the gas station/bbq place initially included the old man advising them not to go out to the house they drive off to, I thought he was actually trying to warn them away from danger, like he knew something was wrong and wanted to keep them safe. That reveal was the most upsetting to me. Damn it, seemingly kind old man! You tricked me!
I think each is effective in its own way and even though I knew already the general gist of the movie there were still plenty of surprises to amp up my anxiety.
In Act 1, the group meets the hitchhiker. As he goes from “odd” to “offputting,” to “violent and feral,” the group of friends is shocked and horrified by his attack on Franklin. But they quickly recover, and mentally put the upsetting event behind them. In horror fiction (dating back at least as far as 1897’s “Dracula”), the protagonists are frequently confronted by an ominous portent, a warning that they’re in for a bad time (Franklin even refers to the hitchhiker’s family as being “a whole family of Draculas.”). Does the hitchhiker’s attack serve this purpose? Is it indicative of anything that Franklin is the only one who fixates on it (Or is it just conventional logic, since he was the one who was cut up)?
This act effectively makes me certain they need to leave Texas immediately and should go nowhere near anything, especially an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. I knew he was a sign of more bad things to come. There is absolutely no way that I, Jenn Martinelli, would be spending one moment longer in that town, county, or state, after that interaction. It could be just conventional logic that Franklin was fixated, or it could be that he was the only one paying attention because everyone else was too distracted about, I assume, going off into the crick in rural Texas for sexing or something. I don’t know what on earth was holding their attention in creepy abandoned house-ville.
Well, they were killing time until the van could be refueled, not knowing that the fuel was never coming.
Sure but they should have managed their fuel better. You don’t let your gas get low in creepy empty places, folks. And even if it does you just drive as effing far as you can and then you walk. You don’t stay there in Creepville.
In Act 2, all of the protagonists, save Sally, are killed (massacred, even), by Leatherface (a name never spoken in the film). It’s the simplest of the acts, in that many of the characters killed fail to even grasp that anything is amiss, until it’s too late. Kirk gets the most sudden death, his skull smashed in by a hand sledge (foreshadowed by the hitchhiker’s description of his prior work at the slaughterhouse). Scarcely before Kirk’s body stops twitching, he’s dragged out of sight behind a metal-plated door. Pam and Jerry are dispatched in equally abrupt ways (Although Pam does get to watch her guy get cut apart on Leatherface’s butcher block, from the meathook balcony). Do these rapid-fire character deaths do a disservice to the narrative, or are they just efficiently paced?
This was terrifying. His first appearance is killing poor stupid Kirk with a giant mallet, out of nowhere. This was obviously a sign that everything was going very very wrong and everyone should leave AT ONCE. And it only gets worse. I think the quick dispatch of the characters is actually good.
Otherwise I feel like it ventures into torture porn which I HAAAAATE and which I think is a deeply disturbing facet of society. I could go off on a tangent about why people enjoy Law & Order SVU so much, for instance. I think there’s something wrong with watching hours of human misery. The scare is not lessened and the grisly details are mostly spared, that’s the best case scenario for me in a horror movie. Ha.
In Act 3, lithe Sally’s flight from the tenacious but tubby Leatherface is almost successful. As she escapes into the night, she has the bad fortune to seek help from the wrong person, the seemingly meek gas station attendant, Leatherface’s brother, the “old man.” Beaten unconscious with a broom handle, and returned to the cannibal house, Sally is “treated” to a final meal with the whole insane family: the old man, Leatherface, the grave robbing hitchhiker, and the seemingly mummified paterfamilias “grampa,” whose achievements at the slaughterhouse are reportedly legendary. Are there parallels between how Sally treated Franklin, and how the “old man” treats the also-disabled Leatherface? How about the brothers carrying the wheelchair-dependent “grampa” down the stairs, in much the same way as Franklin was supposedly carried to the swimmin’ hole? What is the film saying about family?
I seriously thought the old guy was going to help. I was worried about him getting hurt when he went outside to “get the truck”. When he came back with a burlap sack and a rope I was incredulous. I am pretty sure I yelled at the TV at this point. So, that was highly upsetting. I also actually found this “fight” scene a little unbelievable and frustrating. He swatted her with that broom about as hard as I might swat a spider. I guess she was exhausted from all the RUNNING FROM A MURDERER earlier but. I wish she fought back harder and/or they made him look like he was doing a better job of beating her unconscious.
The scene depicting Sally’s recapture does veer a bit into comedy. I try to just chalk it up to Sally’s exhaustion, and the old man’s ineptitude with personal violence. I do like the scene where Sally is looking at the meat roasting, because I’ve never been able to definitively say if the “meat” is human parts or not. It’s ambiguous enough that that the unpleasantness is crafted in the audience’s mind, which is where this movie has much of its success.
I agree about the meat, that’s all I could think – is that human meat???
I think there are some parallels between the treatment of Franklin and Leatherface, but I feel like Sally’s frustrations with Franklin are tempered with genuine care while the old man’s treatment of Leatherface seem to be nothing but manipulation and bullying.
I didn’t think about the parallels between carrying “grandpa” and carrying Franklin; I am again slightly loathe to give the film too much meaning or read too much into it, but it is true that they specifically mentioned carrying him to the swimming hole and then creepy grandpa is carried down the stairs. Sidenote: at this point in the movie I didn’t believe the grandpa was still alive, I was like “oh cool they’re carrying a corpse downstairs”. When he started moving I am pretty sure I also yelled at the TV.
Grandpa being alive is a great reveal, especially since Sally encounters him, earlier, fleeing from Leatherface, and he gives every indication of being dead. The family clearly venerates “Grampa,” who is, at this point, a bloodsucking man-corpse (“A whole family of Draculas!”). The family’s desire to help Grampa relive his glory days as the slaughterhouse’s most efficient cattle-killer gives Sally another opportunity to escape, and this time, she succeeds. IS IT POSSIBLE that Hooper and Henkel were using the family as a metaphor for the decline of American civilization during the contentious years of the Vietnam war? Or are they just a crock of psychos? IS THIS ANOTHER THREAD MADE UP BY SOMEONE WHO HAS SEEN THE MOVIE TOO MANY TIMES
Ha ha ha it is probably a thread made up by someone who has seen the movie too many times. But I will give you that it could be less intentionally still sort of what you’re saying. Like maybe the director wasn’t like “oh let me make this a metaphor for the decline of American civilization” but maybe he was just mirroring what he saw, which was the decline of American civilization. Or something.
Cause of Death
Okay, Jenn, now that you are that much closer to being scared to death, can you rate on a scale of one-to-five severed Acadia heads, how well you think The Texas Chain Saw Massacre provided the elements of dread, shock, and horror?
I was dreading everything from the very first moment of this movie.
I mean, I generally know what’s going to happen so I guess it’s not quite a 5.
I think maybe the most horrifying scene for me was poor Pam hanging from a meat hook watching Kirk get butchered in front of her. Her trying to reach around behind her and grab the meat hook – ugh.
Finally, what do you think will stick with you the most, from the time you watched a movie about a mentally-disabled killer and his family of cannibal grave robbers ruthlessly carving hippie youths into BBQ in the bleak, sun-blasted hellscape of rural Texas?
Hmmmmmm… I can’t pick just one thing but the things that keep popping back into my head are:
- Pam hanging from the meathook (there’s a meathook scene in The Last King of Scotland that it made me think of)
- The moment when you realize the old man is in on it
- The very end where Sally is in the back of the pickup truck and Leatherface is just running around with his chainsaw in the middle of the road