The Fruit Cellar: The Many-Gendered Faces of Leatherface
There is really nothing I like more on a chilly, rainy evening than sitting down with some of my best pals. Of course, as these pals usually consist of murderers and madmen, I like to keep them safely trapped on screen. They wield knives and axes and machetes and chainsaws from the safety of the little box that sits atop my chest of drawers. I sit on the bed directly across from them shivering-just a little-in my oh-so-jaded boots. There aren't a lot of films that can actually make me shiver in these old boots, but when I find one, I hold on for dear life. I make sure the experience of watching is sacred, and I don't mess around with those little brats who laugh through some Fulci-style ocular terror.
If you want to be scared, you have to put yourself in the
right head space to be scared. And this is often a difficult
task-what with sirens outside the window and neighbors screaming in
Spanish. Oh, sorry, that must just be my apartment. Maybe you guys
have kids and cousins and in-laws. (I don't think I like your
lives.) So when I sit down to a good horror movie, I take it
seriously. I settle in for just the right kind of experience, and I
am usually disappointed.
Let's face it. Finding the beautiful in a horror movie these days is hard. It's more likely that you'll be reminded why feminists aren't supposed to like these flicks and atheists reject the values they present. And most of the time, you don't mind this. But when you're sitting in a pile of crappy (note that I did not say "craptastic") flicks that made you regret ever running around the house in your footy pajamas yelling "Tina! This is God!" in a Freddy-like scream-whisper, well, you might just have to make your own retrospective and reevaluate loved films from the past.
What better way to start a self-designed at-home horror retrospective than with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Let's just be totally honest here. This film is still the scariest thing ever recorded. It is mind-blowingly amazing, and if you disagree, well, you're wrong, and I don't love you anymore. Take that! (No, seriously, I probably can't ever love you again if you don't think it's scary.)
Tobe Hooper's 1974 film is more than an exploitation flick (in fact, does it really count as one at all?), more than a representation of Southern Gothic with smatterings of class analysis mixed in. Oh, yes, it's a veritable smorgasbord of complex ideas and identities. On the surface, it sure seems to be the standard fare. A pretty blond final girl, her moderately decent boyfriend, her slutty girlfriend, and her slutty girlfriend's slutty boyfriend-and her invalid brother. (Please note the intentional multiple uses of the word "slutty" as this is standard fare in horror.) But the interesting characters in this film are far more depraved than any of those kids transgressing their Judeo-Christian upbringing.
The family of cannibals in this dry Texas town is where you will find the more complex characters. Here you have an infantilized brother who runs around like an eight-year-old sociopath-something like what Darlene Conner imagines her brother DJ will be like as an adult. You have a decrepit grandfather who is vaguely like a vampire, and the only thing that revives him is sucking on the bleeding finger of Miss Sally Hardesty. And you have a father who seems to get no pleasure from the "killin'." This crew is fascinating enough, but let's be honest with ourselves. Nobody wants to hear about Edwin Neal-the hitchhiker with the enormous birthmark on his face. Nobody. They want to talk about Leatherface. Leatherface is the character that counts.
Our introduction to Leatherface comes a little more than thirty minutes in. Kirk is wandering through his house, and Leatherface conks him on the back of the head, and he's down. This is a beautiful scene, and Kirk's feet jiggling all over the place when Leatherface drags him inside is among the most disturbing things I have ever seen. We don't get much of a look at Leatherface in this moment, and so our assumption is likely that he is protecting his home from an invasion from the outside world in a rather corrupt and transgressive way. After all, aren't all Southerners into this homespun justice? (Note the tone of sarcasm.)
But then there is Pam-lovely, lovely Pam. When she comes looking for her lost boyfriend, she finds Leatherface (along with a bunch of icky carcasses used in grisly fashion) inside the house. Of course, being no worse than your average idiot, she sees Leatherface and takes off running. Screw Kirk, right? But Leatherface won't let her go. She is just making it out the door when he wraps his thick arms around her waist. And now we know. He is not trying to keep invaders out of his house. He wants to keep them in! This is not a homeowner protecting his property. Something more is going on here.
It is in this moment that we see Leatherface in full. When he grabs Pam on the porch, we see his most prominent feature. Leatherface is (gasp!) wearing someone else's face! Whose? We don't know. But we do know from this moment on that Leatherface's identity is not something easily discernable, a fact that becomes clearer and clearer as the film progresses.
Until Sally enters the home in a sack carried by the Old Man, Leatherface is all masculinity. He's a big, hulking dude (thanks partially to the build of actor Gunnar Hansen). And he carries his phallic symbol in his hand waiting to wield it against any victim who trespasses on his family's land. Leatherface and his chainsaw eventually became the predominant images from the film, but it's his person that holds more interest to dorked out folks like me.
When Sally is tied to the arm chair (made with real arms! Right on, Tobe Hooper!), we see a whole new side of our apparently mute slasher. He is wearing a new face! How many faces he has is something we will never know. But this one is decidedly different than his big man face from earlier in the film. Leatherface's new face has blush on the cheeks, and he has a wig on and a pretty blue apron. Leatherface is a lady!
Now, of course, Leatherface is not an actual lady. But he is performing those roles for his family of Texas cannibals. He is the cook of the house, and he is the mother of the house. Though the literal implication seems to be that he is the son of the Old Man and brother of the Hitchhiker, during the scenes in the house, he is wife and mother. The Old Man beats him when he doesn't live up to the standards set for any country wife. And he falls under the weight of the Old Man's abuses. He submits to him-even though we all know he is big enough and strong enough to kill every single cannibal (and non-cannibal) in his house.
What Tobe Hooper has done here is create a decidedly homosocial dynamic in the family. Everyone must take on very specific roles when women have been removed from their rather rigid idea of the family system. While there is no implication of the Old Man transgressing any sexual barriers (Good Lord, no. He is a country fella, after all), there are implications that he has been the one to push forward this new definition of family. He is the task master and disciplinarian. He is the father and husband.
So what makes his wife/son so darn scary? Hooper's film relies on a lot of imagination to keep its audience as frightened as we are. And we come equipped with this and subsequently pee our pants in terror. And yes, pretty much everything about TCM is upsetting and unsettling. But why has Leatherface been made into an icon for the film when, in fact, he is not the only "evil" being in the house?
It seems that Leatherface has become such a household name precisely because of his status as unknowable. Who is he? None of the perpetrators in the film have a name. And of course, this makes them all just a bit scarier, but with their actual faces on full view, we know who they are. They have an identity. Leatherface is the only one who lacks this. And isn't this just the queerest thing of all. Unlike the Freddies and Jasons of the world, Leatherface is performing multiple identities at once, and because of this, we never understand him, and that makes him the most terrifying thing of all.
So now you sit in front of your screens yelling, "Yes, but why does any of this matter?" Well, the nature of horror is to upset and disrupt the natural order, no? It is human nature to reject (and most often fear) anything that goes against the way we've constructed our (usually very limited) worldview. Slashers, by nature, subvert our worldview. They have taken to punishing the sins of "normal" people in a way that is at once extreme and wholly effective. Leatherface represents, in my mind, the greatest perversion of the "natural" order.
In a world where amendments are being passed that exclusively discriminate and Matthew Shepards are being killed, Leatherface is the ultimate baddie. He represents the blending of two traditionally dichotomous roles. This is the polar opposite of a world that is growing more and more unable to see the gray. If Leatherface is to succeed in being Mother and Wife and Son and Brother, what role is there for women? He (and his family of cannibals) has effectively destroyed the world order-and created a world in which women are superfluous. (Perhaps this is the reason they are so eager to kill, kill, kill, no?) The family's exclusion of women (in the most aggressive fashion possible) is the ultimate expression of power.
It is this expression of power that causes, ultimately, viewers to cower is terror, to run screaming from the theater, to cry into their pillows at night. If a force as transgressive as Leatherface and Co. can disrupt our world so easily, what is left for us? Who knows when we might come up against our own version of Leatherface? (After all, he is based on real-life killer Ed Gein.) And so we sit transfixed, learning to fear that which our most boring and offensive predecessors have feared-a disruption of all we hold dear (or all we revile, if you're like me). When it comes down to it, that's what it's all about, right? Maintaining the status quo? Sheesh! Who wants Rosie the Riveter when you can have Donna Reed? Or in horror dorkdom language, who wants Annie Brackett when you can have Laurie Strode?
So in the end, sadly, it seems that slasher films and the survival of our final girls reinforce our worldviews. (Gee, that makes me feel bad for being a fan.) But the good news is, it's been years and years of Hoopers and Carpenters and Argentos slowly perverting the roles assigned, and over time, that does wear us down now, doesn't it? Perhaps one day we can hope to find a film that accepts the malleability of our various categories and finds its horror in something new. Perhaps that day is today.