All American horror films that really matter can be separated into two time periods: before and after Vietnam, an event that epitomized an era and transmogrified the nation’s concept of “horror” forever. Whereas the horror films of yore would invariably depict true red-white-and-blue protagonists dealing xenophobically with foreign evil (vampires and cat people often represented all of Eastern Europe), a new wave of horror film presented terror in America as a messy, brutally honest implosion from within. The Vietnam War seemed to be the cataclysm that ended the idea that America was the world’s “control group,” at least for a while. Typically, Hitchcock’s Psycho is referred to as the film that sliced horror history in half along socio-political lines, but for all its subversions of the rules of horror, the film still faithfully presents mainstream American society (as represented by Vera Miles) as the norm. No, it took a series of social uprisings, the gradual unraveling of a deceptive image that American soldiers were swaggering like pimps in Vietnam, and a seemingly endless cycle of political assassinations to fuel a new breed of scare-mongering films. These films exposed and subverted everything America held true—open spaces, machinery, industry, and country-gravy hospitality—and amplified the nation’s capacity for superior terror.
The first big success story of this wave was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which evoked a country coming apart at the seams even as it portrayed a more threatening apocalypse. While not the first film to break the gore barrier (give Herschell Gordon Lewis’s mid-’60s work credit for that), it was the most successful at transplanting a genuine social dread into a metaphorical house of mirrors. Though zombies are busting down doors and chewing the flesh off of young couples outside, the protagonists who’ve barricaded themselves inside a farmhouse are more concerned with who among their cultural cross-section (a black man, an angry WASP man, a catatonic blond pinup) gets to wear the political crown in their small kingdom. Other films that turned American unrest into a catalyst for considerable horrors included Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and, later, The Hills Have Eyes. But the only other film to truly capture that uniquely unsettling promise of Romero’s first zombie epic and to deliver that threat to an unsuspecting mass audience was Tobe Hooper’s absolutely perverted directorial debut, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A spare and entirely unsentimental tale of five teenagers who one by one stumble into the clutches of a backwoods family of cannibalistic inbreds, the film has a far less traditional narrative thrust than Night of the Living Dead. But Hooper spikes his scenario with the baggage of the societal umbrages undercutting the era: Vietnam, the vegetarian movement, human jobs being taken over by machinery, and cult-family values.
The introductory montage (narrated by a somber John Larroquette) informs the audience that the film’s events are a true-life tragedy, but the film opens on a note of chicken-fried slapstick. The tubby, wheelchair-bound Franklin (played with porcine zeal by Paul A. Partain) is led out of the road-tripping van to take a piss in an old coffee can. A semi drives by and the tailwind blasts him from the side of the road down into a ditch. It’s not going to be the last time in the film that the invalid Franklin is beaten down, or worse, ignored. Probably the most significant social aura that Texas Chainsaw Massacre invokes, but doesn’t specify, is the disillusioned mood of the nation in the final, bitter stages of the Vietnam War. The useless Franklin, who the other four teenagers are forced to wheel around everywhere, represents the most tangible image that connects Hooper’s film to the daily newsreel footage of the war as seen on network television. It’s not made clear whether his handicap is recent or whether he’s been dealing with it for years (if anything, his constant whining suggests it’s a new obstacle in his life), but Franklin’s comical predicaments mask the horrifying reality that faced many Vietnam veterans upon their return to America. Because he suffers a series of funny embarrassments early on in the film, this demoralization only makes his violent slaughter that more shocking.
What separates Texas Chainsaw Massacre from its predecessors is its anarchic, cynical hysteria—its bizarre and dark-as-hell gallows humor. Watching Night of the Living Dead today with the wrong audience can turn the one-time king of terror films into a monotonous and campy affair, thereby sabotaging the film’s 11th-hour plunge into hell. But because Texas Chainsaw Massacre is often as audaciously funny as it is distressing, no one dares laugh. In many cases, the juxtaposition of horror with comedy is so confrontational, it can have a stultifying, choking effect. When the first victim wanders into the lair of the infamous Leatherface and is beaten to death by a sledgehammer, Hooper mutes the man’s screams and substitutes them with a frightened hog’s squeals. That’s just one of many examples of Hooper using the friction of stylistic dichotomies to create an atmosphere of perversion and dread. In addition to the horror-comedy split, there’s also a persistent tension between the film’s monochromatic, grainy, hand-held verité cinematography and the abstract rusty-razor editing, and between the campy tin-pan guitar on the van’s radio and the mechanical nightmare music score (which had to have been a primary influence on Trent Reznor’s Downward Spiral). The only place where some semblance of balance exists is in Franklin’s sister, Sally (Marilyn Burns), and when her stolid composure is brutalized by the Leatherface family, it damn well knocks the film’s fragile grip on sanity into the void. In the final, prolonged dinner sequence, the film’s pseudo-documentary realism gives way to arrhythmic editing, more non-diegetic animal sound effects, and extreme close-ups of the broken, red capillaries in Sally’s eyes.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not as split on its subtextual social stances, though. Its plea for vegetarianism could scarcely be more succinct. Besides the sound effects equating the slaughter of the teenagers with the slaughter of cattle and pigs, Hooper seems to be saying in many scenes that meat-is-meat, and meat-is-gore. When one of the teens stumbles into a room full of grisly upholstery made from bones, skin, and chicken feathers, it’s never clear what animals any of these bones originally came from. Franklin buys a sausage from the truck stop (which we later find out is being run by the oldest brother of the cannibal family) that may or may not be made from a human penis. Head cheese? Don’t ask.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre also updates the notion of encroaching mechanization in the American production industry from Upton Sinclair’s classic novel The Jungle. In an early scene, a hitchhiker the teens pick up complains that the machinery has put him and his family (guess who?) out of work at the local slaughterhouse. It’s easy for the characters (and the audience, for that matter) to dismiss the hitchhiker’s advocacy of the sledgehammer instead of the automatic, assembly-line air gun as an example of his insane bloodlust, but Hooper is more canny than that. He seemingly makes the audacious and outraged postulation that America’s profit-minded ethos of creating less jobs through technology and thereby destroying livelihoods will in turn result in rage, betrayal, and madness. Depression…cannibalism…office-building machine-gun rampages. What indeed is the difference?
Throughout the film, Hooper maintains a level of miasmic, grimy funk that is just about unparalleled in horror cinema. Much has been made of how Texas Chainsaw Massacre is hardly as gory as its reputation suggests and that much of its ingenuity is attributable to its power to strongly suggest gore and blood. One could add that it’s infinitely more impressive how Hooper elevates human sweat, clinging dirt, and tangled hair to the harrowing effect of gore. When Pam (Teri McMinn) wanders into the aforementioned room of bones-on-twine, it’s almost as distressing to see her collapse, choke back vomit, and struggle not to inhale the floating chicken feathers as it is to see her walking toward the house (in a stunningly non-verité low-angle tracking shot earlier in the film) or later being hung up on a meat hook. And Sally’s night escape from Leatherface through the woods is made terrifying not so much by Franklin being sawed to death in his wheelchair moments earlier, but by the way her wispy, long hair seems to constantly wrap itself around tree branches and thorns as she herself runs around in an ever-tightening circle like a clueless farm animal.
Hooper’s reputation has since waned and he’s regarded at best as a one-hit wonder. Some have suggested that the beginning of the end was a high-profile gig basically co-directing Poltergeist with Steven Spielberg. Hooper reportedly had “creative differences” with the superstar mogul regarding the film’s necessary scare quotient. Spielberg was fulfilling his boyhood fantasies over on the set of E.T., and Hooper might have ended up damning any further chances at getting into Hollywood’s good graces after that (though his reputation had already been damaged from going over budget on his previous film, 1981’s The Funhouse). One recent and significant work by this sadly neglected auteur was a cartoonish sequel to Texas Chainsaw Massacre starring Dennis Hopper that, though considered by some to be equal to the original, unfortunately also literalizes the first film’s implicit reaction to Vietnam’s effect on America.
In the end, both The Funhouse and Poltergeist are underrated as late-breaking entries in the American Nightmare canon of vanguard horror. Indeed, the latter is almost a freakish bookend to the period: trickily political (the invading paranormal deviants are actually vengeful westward explorers’ spirits upon whose graveyard a suburb was built) as well as a societal mirror in that America’s community standard had shifted from the countryside to the upwardly mobile suburbs. But Hooper may well end up being remembered solely for Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film that fully earns him a place alongside the greatest malaise-shredding horror mavericks.