By Michael Ewins
In the wake of the Vietnam War (1955 – 1975), which shattered thousands of families and killed Americans as young as 16, the United States was experiencing a turbulent period. Whilst trying to regain America’s trust after the Watergate Scandal, President Nixon’s resignation and the presidential pardon he had granted Nixon for the Watergate Scandal President Ford presided over the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The future of his country was distinctly uncertain.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is a film which lives in the foreboding shadow of these destructive times, mourning the loss of a great number of young soldiers and heralding the possibility of an economic and social collapse. Thinking about it 1974 was an obvious time for a film about a bunch of young people being brutally slaughtered in a completely comfortless climate. That is, afterall, what America had just experienced in reality.
After the opening credits, which focus on the festering, dismembered remains of corpses, Hooper’s masterpiece observes a monument of bodily remnants which a radio broadcaster refers to as “a grisly work of art.” Chillingly decomposing, this work of art connotes all the atrocities associated with the Vietnam war as well as signposting he road our protagonists will travel. It is a road to nowhere; its path is apocalyptic.
After this visual prologue the camera closes in on an upturned armadillo which consumes the entire frame. The rest of the shot is out of focus, but we are soon made aware of a green people carrier pulling into a lay-by at the side of the dusty road. The five protagonists pull up to a graveyard so that Sally (Marilyn Burns) can see if anything has happened to her grandad. The people here are creeps. One drunken man falls back in hysterical laughter to proclaim “things happen here about, they don’t tell about. I see things.” Not exactly the kind of welcome to put you at ease.
After driving past a farm of cows (for the slaughter) they come across a hyperactive hitchhiker who appears to have been traversing the landscape for days. The greasy haired straggler says he came from the slaughterhouse (“my family’s always been in meat“) and his face is streaked with red. He grabs a knife from Franklin (Paul A. Partain) and cuts his hand with it, gleefully laughing at the self-inflicted pain. This is a stark, savage place, and we imagine the same one previously inhabited by Ed Gein.
A cannibalistic madman who dressed up in his mothers skin, ex-babysitter Gein is one of the most infamous serial killers in American history; a true backwoods butcher who also influenced Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). He was indoctrinated by his mother’s strict religious values from an early age, and although The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not overtly religious in theme it does have an apocalyptic edge. The apocalypse, of course, is an event which originates in Revelation, the last book of the New Testament and Leatherface’s hermetic enclosure certainly seems like the product of a fundamentalist faith system. I like to think that his demented family live just a few doors down from Gein’s old farm. Somehow it seems right that the youth of America were destined to end up on this particular stretch of highway, about as far away from idyllic suburbia as one can imagine; its corruption surface rather than surpressed.
So, we have America on the brink of social turmoil, grieving for the thousands of lives lost in Nam, the rest trying to build a future against the backdrop of economic crisis and mass unemployment. Religion is growing in practice, and Ed Gein is in Wisconsin’s Central State Hospital. America is devouring itself, and five friends are on a barren road to what could conceivably be the end of the world. There’s no gas in the tanks at the gas station and hardly any cars on the road with them. What they find at Sally’s grandfather’s house is not peace or resolution. Sweating and frustrated, their personal relationships reaching breaking point, they find a house on the edge of the world that has warped itself into a cannibalistic circus.
It’s unlikely to be an accident that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has two greatly juxtaposed colour schemes. It’s set on a sunny day, with an almost clear blue sky radiating over what should be a quiet weekend away. Are the outdoor sections of the film being viewed through the eyes of our five protagonists, projecting optimism into the bleakest of scenarios? As soon as Kirk (William Vail) enters Leatherface’s house the image is noticeably darker; consumed by a feeling of hopelessness. There is no wallpaper, only rotting wood; decay. No light except for that allowed in through the murky windows. Skeletons adorn the walls, and the sound of squealing echoes from the basement. This clever use of colour contrasts certainly suggests a comment on the America people were being “sold” and the America that really existed.
Through the unrelenting horror and pitch-black comedy (Keaton would have been proud of the scene where Leatherface’s decomposing grandpa tries to bash Sally’s head in, but repeatedly falls short) Texas Chainsaw threatens to end on a note of metaphorical optimism. Sally escapes from her captors and ends up on the back of a truck being safely sped away from Leatherface, who stands swinging his chainsaw in the soft, dimming twilight. Covered in blood and screaming at the top of her lungs it would seem that she survived the carnage, but I wouldn’t count on such luck. Not on this road. Sally probably just escaped from one horror to another and if her driver isn’t as backward as Gein and Leatherface she’s sure to come across another house on the highway that would be happy to accommodate her limbs as furnishings.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is more than just a horror movie. It’s one of the most important reflections of post-Vietnam America ever made. Even the weapon of choice: a chainsaw is a weapon that can readily inflict a torturous, bloody death. People are not shot or drugged in this film they are massacred suggesting a buried outrage, or perhaps simply just rage, at the monstrous outcomes of Vietnam – a war that hadn’t even officially ended by the time this film was released. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a horrifying encapsulation of mass fear, institutional instability, and an apocalyptic road movie which envisions the highway as a route to the end of the world and from that perspective it’s criminally underrated.