When talking about the agonizingly slow death of his career, Orson Welles once claimed, “I began at the top and have been working my way down ever since.” Aside from debut feature Eggshells — an often forgotten experimental work about a hippie commune — this quote could also easily be applied to horror master Tobe Hooper, with his sophomore film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, persisting as his most revered work almost fifty years after its release. Despite directing a variety of grimy and fascinating films, such as immediate follow-up Eaten Alive or the unfairly maligned and beautifully horrid late-period Toolbox Murders, Hooper was seldom able to recreate the surprise success found with Chain Saw, except for perhaps Poltergeist, which is a film most refuse to acknowledge Hooper even made. It seems strange that many of Hooper’s later films would not find any similar degree of success, although his obsession with strange, macabre tales persisted throughout his entire career. However, it’s easy to see why Chain Saw is regarded as his magnum opus.
At the time of its release, there were few horror films that looked or felt like it. Up until the ‘60s, popular American and European horror was largely, although not entirely, defined by gothic tales, whether part of the Universal monster stable (Dracula, Frankenstein, etc.) or one of Roger Corman’s Poe works (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum). Aside from singularities like Psycho or Night of the Living Dead, the genre frequently revolved around monsters, ghouls, or demonic entities, infrequently grounded in the horrors of reality, even when they were not as overwhelmingly harrowing as the ones made in the early 1970s. Hooper, along with directors like Wes Craven, helped bring a sense of verisimilitude and bleakness to the genre, shifting its focus toward the cruelty and barbarity carried out by real human beings. No doubt this seismic shift was instigated not only by the dramatic changes in the sociopolitical arena at the time, but also by their ability to capture and air them on mainstream television. Hooper himself admitted that TV channels “showing brains spilled all over the road” as part of the Vietnam War coverage, alongside political corruption and more, contributed to the grim atmosphere felt throughout his film.
This influence sees Hooper turn Chain Saw into something primal, although he never fixates on the film’s more grotesque and violent elements for longer than necessary. As many others have pointed out, Chain Saw has very little actual bloodshed — Hooper himself was aiming to secure a PG rating from the MPAA, a fact which feels laughably implausible when viewing the final product. Leatherface’s entrance, for example, demonstrates how the film’s brutality is both entirely stripped back and punctures it at seemingly random intervals. Without hinting, he suddenly appears on screen before violently beating someone to death in quick succession. His hulking body and disturbing mask are enough to terrify, but there is hardly time to take it in; before long, he has disappeared out of frame. This lack of exposition on the Sawyer family’s presence in the world is a testament to the film’s power. Hooper explains nothing about this sadistic family, their motives, what exists in their past, or what will happen to them after the credits roll. He simply drops us into this already existing universe, with characters whose lives don’t start and end with the images on screen.
In her provocative essay, “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag claimed that “by reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art.” Chain Saw needs no interpretation. Whatever can be said about the film’s politics or its deeply embedded meanings is sure to pale in comparison to the incredible power of its images, which see horror distilled into its purest form. Attempting to grapple with the film’s meaning and deem it something that simply exists to serve a message — which is, unfortunately, the case for many modern flicks — detracts from its incredibly singular purpose — namely, to terrify the audience. Hooper does not waste a single frame, using each to instigate feelings of disgust or anxiety. Whether it’s the montage of bones and bodies in the Sawyer house or the barely-lit sequence of our villain chasing Sally through the woods, there isn’t a single moment that doesn’t add to the film’s unrelenting momentum.
That said, it is hard to detach Chain Saw from its unsubtle political connotations. The Sawyer family is an obvious extension of capitalism, a family which has been forced to adapt to the constantly deteriorating economy in the wake of multiple crises. We see the Cook (an amazingly demented performance by Jim Siedow) as both the family’s patriarchal figure and also master of the business, with the Hitchhiker claiming that he and Leatherface do all the work. This notion of work permeates throughout the whole film, especially in an industry on its last legs. Chain Saw is an apocalyptic film, although one remarkably grounded in recognizable reality. Hooper envisions late-stage capitalism’s natural end to look exactly like what we see on screen — a lawless wasteland of death, where you can find any number of grotesqueries and horrors simply by peeking into the depths of the unknown.
This apocalyptic feeling is specifically built from the film’s grim tone and unique soundtrack, crafted by Hooper and Wayne Bell, which utilizes ambient noise, rustling chains, and the horrifying sound of a chainsaw revving. All these elements coalesce in an industrial-style soundscape that’s seared deep into your brain as you watch it. Combining these unnatural sounds with the film’s expressionistic camera angles or heavy use of jump cuts provides a sinister atmosphere that borders on overwhelming. It’s a sensory experience that matches the deeply agonizing one of making the film, which involved long, grueling days in the pounding Texan heat; much like Apocalypse Now, the on-set tension and chaos quite palpably seep into the film’s final form.
But despite being clearly rooted in the political context of the 1970s, Hooper manages to transcend that era’s zeitgeist, crafting more than a mere time capsule of a dark past. Chain Saw is timeless in that it never loses any sense of its political relevance and, more importantly, its ability to terrorize audiences. To this day, the film’s legacy remains nearly unmatched. Few horror films have ever been able to rise to its level in terms of sheer influence and staying power, and it seems near certain that few ever will again.
Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 4.