Texas Chainsaw Massacre is more than just a movie, it’s a marker in time. The film is a flashpoint of American history, a cultural capper on 10 plus years of some of the most uncertain and tumultuous moments in American history. Between 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was murdered and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered on live, national television and the release of Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 we saw multiple assassinations of famed leaders, the start and pathetic beginning of the end of the Vietnam War and dozens of other cultural upheavals that would play a role in the creation of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Tobe Hooper’s horror masterpiece reflects the moment it was created in ways only legendary films do. The comparisons are limited because so few movies are a near perfect reflection of their time. James Cagney in Public Enemy No.1 comes to mind. One could argue for Gone with the Wind or, more recently, Get Out, Jordan Peele’s remarkable look at modern race relations, as genuine moments when art crossed over into political culture and reflected something important.
Despite its place in the bargain genre of the slasher horror movie, I believe completely that Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those movies. It’s a film thick with metaphors of the time in which it was created, metaphors that reflect the moment in time in which it was made flawlessly. You can argue that I am inferring a great deal more than what director Tobe Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel had in mind but whether intentional or by accident, they made the most of the moment movie of the 70’s.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre stars Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty. Sally is a hippie, one of the last of a fracturing sub-culture beaten down by war and the old guard establishment. She and her friends put on a good face about it, traveling the countryside in a VW Bus, smoking marijuana and talking about peace and love but reality is creeping in on the hippie mythos as we join the story. Sally is joined by her brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who is in a wheelchair.
Franklin is just home from Vietnam and his bitterness is the first warning of the beginning of the end of the good vibes that the hippies had been living off since the mid-to late 60’s. While the rest of the group, including Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry (Alan Danziger) and their couple friends, Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) do their best to ignore Franklin, his presence is a black cloud in their otherwise sunny view of the world.
That sunny outlook, smile on your brother, everybody get together and try to love one another, is about to face an even bigger challenge than Franklin’s bitterness. Part of the hippie ethos is picking up strays, helping those in need. It’s a wonderfully positive quality but as the hippie generation grows up and the world begins to change not in the positive way they had hoped, that worldview slowly matures from Peace and Love for all to the Me Generation of the late 70’s, a selfish worldview influenced by the growing negativity of the culture.
That change is embodied by a hitchhiker that the gang picks up along the way, a malevolent weirdo without a name and played with icky glee by Edwin Neal. While the hippies think they are doing a good deed, the Hitchhiker appears eager to punish their naivete. He’s rude, obnoxious and threatening. Eventually, the hitchhiker pulls a knife and the group is forced to throw him out of the van. He’s not gone from the movie however, as we will see, he’s only the appetizer for the horrors to come when the van runs out of gas and the group seeks the kindness of strangers at a nearby farmhouse.
In the 1950’s it was commonplace in small towns for people to welcome others into their homes. In small towns, doors were left unlocked and folks knew the names of almost everyone in town. A community used to be a real community and even strangers could find temporary open arms as needed. However, the spectre of Charles Manson and several other high profile murders along with a precipitous and breathlessly reported on rise in crime began to permeate small towns in the late 60’s and early 70’s and by 1974 places that used to welcome a visit were now growing paranoid and insular.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre signifies this change with a violent and grotesque display that reflects a definitive end of such openness. When one of our hippy friends approaches the farmhouse of a stranger he has no compunction about simply opening the stranger’s door and introducing himself. There he is met by the terrifying visage of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) who acts as much in psychopathic rage as he does in fear, a paranoid fear of the unknown that he feels he must meet with extreme violence.
The symbology could not be more clear. The reflection of a society growing desperately more fearful is demonstrated bluntly and shockingly by the swing of Leatherface’s meat tenderizer. No longer could strangers expect open arms from small town strangers. Wariness, and deep suspicion, especially of those hippy types, was now the order of the day in 1974 and whether intentional or not, no movie captured that moment of change in American culture better than Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Oh but the significant metaphors don’t end there. While the ending of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is arguably the single most iconic image in horror history, the dinner scene at the start of the 3rd act is nearly it’s equal. At this point, Sally Hardesty has been captured and tied to a chair at the head of a horrific layout from the Sawyer family, the family of Leatherface including his nameless, hitchhiker brother, his frightful father, Old Man (Jim Siedow) and his corpse-like grandfather (John Dugan).
What’s missing from that group? What role is Sally being forced to play as she is being menaced and tortured? It’s a mother, of course. There hasn’t been a female presence in the Sawyer home in decades. The lack of a mother character reflects the moment of 1974, a time when women were shaking off traditional gender roles and were moving into the workforce. In their wake were a group of angry and confused husbands and sons bereft, in their minds, of the comforting presence of a woman at home.
That’s not to say that violent men are the result of the absence of women, though that is an argument to be had, the point is not to set blame on women. The satire of this moment in Texas Chainsaw Massacre is on the male characters. It’s a reflection and deconstruction of the misogynist mindset that women belong in a certain role in a man’s world and what happens if they are not in that traditional role.
In this case, the lack of a female presence leads to filth and violence, the most extreme behaviors standing in as the best kind of satire of old school male mindsets regarding women leaving home for the workforce. It’s hard to see this metaphor today with women so well ingrained into the modern workforce but in 1974 this image was frightfully powerful and potent and the dinner scene in Texas Chainsaw Massacre captured it brilliantly.
On top of being thick with metaphor, the scene is remarkably scary. Tobe Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl and editors J. Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson put this series of shots together remarkably well. The scene is shot and edited with remarkable care with the camera doing as much as the scenario to build the gripping horror of Sally Hardesty’s dire situation. As the shot movies closer and closer on Marilyn Burns’ eyes the horror turns the tension like a screw tightening in your mind. It’s incredibly powerful and would be even without the thick metaphor to give it meaning.
Then there is that iconic ending. Sally Hardesty running through a field, covered in blood, screaming and being chased by Leatherface who is carrying a violently loud chainsaw. As Sally flags down a passing truck and climbs inside she is a near perfect reflection of America having survived the previous 10 years screaming and covered in blood, behind us a fearsome swirling tornado of terror that represents what we’re coming out of, escaping from.
There is Sally in the back of that truck, bathed in the blood of rioters, assassinations, Altamont, Kent State, Vietnam, staring back at the incredibly frightening recent past and looking toward an uncertain but surely less fearsome future. By the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, if your like me and Sally, you are spent. You’ve been through the ringer of a horror movie that isn’t merely a visceral, gut wrenching exercise in slasher formula, but one of the most thoughtful and terrifying movie experiences of all time.