Fondly recalled with a yearning, romantic patriotism, the plains of the American country are recognised as the nation’s beating heart, still clutching hold of the very values that have long defined the proud land. Texas is often the state from which these feelings emanate, with the history of the ‘Wild West’ still tied to its influential past, along with such moral imperatives as justice, liberty, law and order.
Such law, order and justice are flouted and mocked in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a purely horrifying horror film that speaks to the terror and insecurity of America that was suffering the bruises of the Watergate scandal as well as the ongoing Vietnam war. Damaging the legitimacy of the country’s political foundations, such events demonstrated that the law, order and liberty that the USA was built on, may no longer exist.
Presented as a “true story” as per the film’s introduction, director Tobe Hooper ridiculed the lies of the American government by purporting that his clearly fictional film was also based on fact. Criticising the likes of the Watergate political scandal as well as Vietnam, which was entered into with a lack of real rationale, the shape of American culture was changing, as the nation’s people began seeing the result of their nation’s brutality on television and in newspapers. Seeing brains spilt over the road in his memory of Vietnam war coverage, Tobe Hooper recognised that it was America and the actions of man that was the true problem with much of contemporary violence.
It is in the forgotten state of Texas where Hooper’s violent film takes place, located in a land littered with the fossils of cattle alongside little-used gasoline stations and forgotten graveyards. A mass necropolis, the vast lands of the deserted American wasteland seem to embody the slowly defiled identity of the country itself, with the villainous Leatherface and his cannibalistic family representing the strange victims of such a change.
This land mocks liberty and toys with justice as if a boney bird in a cage, with the dust of the Texas landscape totally devoid of any hope at all; such that it’s a wonder why any young people would want to walk its ground at all. Seeking out the resting place of their grandfather, Sally Hardesty, her brother Franklin and their three friends set on a road trip across the Texas wasteland whereupon they become the latest victims of the land’s barren hope and lack of law.
Glazed in a grotty, uncomfortable tone, Hooper’s film manages to transcend its celluloid limits to infect the boundaries of the cinema screen and indeed the viewer’s mind as it injects a dose of pure terror into the retina’s. Captured with the fine-grain of 16mm film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre achieves a suffocating level of pure terror, well expressing the raw brutality of such callous violence as it slowly cranks up the horror.
Consider the home of Leatherface and his family to be the sheer epicentre of the nation’s oozing wrongdoing and the sheer nauseating dread of its environment can truly be appreciated. Venturing into his desolate, brittle home, a shroud of hopeless, impending doom fogs the camera lens, with the dank stench of the rotting walls stained with blood, mould and dirt wafting through the film’s every frame. As one of the greatest, most understated pieces of set design in film history, production designer Ron Bozman dispels all feelings of ambition and creates a nightmarish vision of hell.
With no crescendo, flashy camera work or notable soundtrack, Leatherface stalks the corridors of his home and the wastelands of the land as if a vengeful spectre, acting out with carnal emotion, fear and anger as he seeks to protect all that he has. A snarking, dribbling villain, smeared with the blood and bodily fluids of his past victims, the only morsel of humanity discernable from Leatherface’s horrifying appearance is his flapping tongue and grotesque pig squeal that makes up his entire vocal capabilities.
By his side, in the film’s infamous dinner table scene, sit his equally despicable family, a band of unkempt, greasy maniacs so repugnant in their actions and appearance that they even evoke a strange fantastical quality. As the family’s grandfather clings to life through his impossibly wrinkled white skin, one wonders, maybe, if this actually is just a nightmare only to snap awake horrified by its disgusting reality.
In direct response to the real-life horrors on display in America in the 1970s, Tobe Hooper gave audiences a film that stabbed at the national zeitgeist and awoke a new dawn for horror cinema that would materialise in the slasher subgenre of the ‘80s. The facade of peace, justice and liberty had dropped with the political choices of the country’s elite and the sores, bumps and bruises of the national identity were being capitalised upon. As Leatherface runs to the golden Texas sunset at the end of his film he flails his chainsaw in a wild frenzy as he celebrates the chaos of his violent doing much like a dog would excitedly wag its tail.
As Sally Hardesty’s nightmare finally ends, the camera stays with Leatherface’s crazed jubilation, for the future of modern horror was merely about to begin.