The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

texaschainsaw.jpg
Bryanston Distributing Company/Photofest/Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
Tobe Hooper/United States 1974

The intention of this review is to remind people of a classic that is still revisited by filmmakers today – the original 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Seeing it really solidifies my reasoning and motivation behind horror moviegoing at large.

I have never had a strong desire to see scary movies. They really scare the shit out of me, especially those supposedly based on fact. But I have come to realize that it is the anticipation of the viewing, and the potential to see something that really will change the way I view life, that is scarier than the actual movie. Thus, when recently watching Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time, I virginally witness a truly beautiful representation of a truly fucked-up mess. The form of the film (shot composition and development) is artistically and technically beautiful – awesome in the true sense of the word, despite the horrifics.

Shot in the summer of 1973, any article about this film agrees that the aesthetics capture an uncanny composition. Shot with low angles, slow-tracks through grass, unsymmetrical framework and distance – something that is rare today – the film creates a filmic space that echoes documentary technique. The opening sequence – or rather, disclaimer – enacts this sentiment with the paternal voice reiterating the title cards. The double emphasis of narrating as well as showing the written text tries to reassure the audience that this story has a place in history.

With the assurance of historical representation validated through the introduction, the ensuing action of the film doesn’t allow the viewer to engage in an over-privileged viewing space as is common in film today. Instead, the viewer is left without a strong commitment to the five characters that is typical of character identification in movies. What results is not a spectator who is rooting for the particular character for ideological reasons (such as romances, religious reasons, etc.). Viewers find themselves identifying with humanity verse everything we see as not human. The badness embodied in the character of Leather Face (Gunner Hansen) and the goodness depicted in the sole survivor, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), become the plight of good vs. evil – the right to humanity against the evil forces that exist, or civilized co-existence in opposition to senseless acts.

Although identification is not ideologically engaging (i.e. a film’s attempt to engage in sympathy due to race, or class privileges), the focal identification here is one to humanity. But after much contemplation, it becomes apparent that, as in all horror films, the attractive young white often female embodies the symbol of that identity. The opposition is the animalistic, the uncivilized, and the bestial.

The conflict of the film at one end engages in non-ideological form (not allowing character identification), but on the other, unable to escape the traps of ideology, exemplifies the patriarchy inherit in the genre of the horror film. This is relevant because, despite any filmic intentions, the recognition of this dynamic is the first step to tear down the walls. The film becomes something that we as individuals and viewers, find ourselves in opposition too. Creating this polarity allows viewers to search for better ideas and utopias of life and hope for the extinction of the behavior depicted in the film (if it even exists in the first place).

The aim of this review is to raise this issue of wanting to encounter this dialectic. It is not something that I would call fun, and it is only entertaining for some. What is interesting is the fact that we as viewers continually subject ourselves to these types of films (where content calls for ideological re-evaluation), and it is exactly for this sentiment that we want to challenge our notions of normalcy and complacency. Most say we go to the movies for escapism or entertainment, but it is possible that we do it for the exact opposite reason. We want to encounter some type of horrific event, because otherwise we would be in a stagnant framework, evolving to be a capitalist drone as is the common criticism with shit Hollywood films. This is what was worthwhile about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, especially because as a viewer, it is only a temporal anxiety that ensues for most. It is the re-evaluation that is the important process when watching films such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or any film for that matter.

© 2006 Myles David Jewell. All rights reserved.

2 Comments

  1. If I want to encounter a horrific event, all I have to do is think abuot my last date, but you are right on with your point of the anticipation of seeing the film being worse than the actual viewing. People always pay to get the shit scare out of them ….how much is it for a roller coaster ride now days? I’m sure there was a Pavlovian response to the sound of chain saws comprable to swimming in the ocean after Jaws or taking a shower after Psycho.

  2. I too watched this film recently and was quite scared. Chainsaws do not really scare me unless Leatherface is weilding one. I do enjoy a hot shower. And when I am swimming whether it be in the mighty ocean or a neighbors pool I have a defense mechanism of peeing in that body of water as a direct result of being scared of Jaws.

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