The Goriest Film You Never Saw
When it comes to endless savagery and violence in cinema, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film that usually comes up during the conversation. People shiver as they recount how a madman wearing the faces of others chases down a group of stranded young folk, always eager to carve them to pieces like Thanksgiving dinner (not the worst metaphor either, as the killer and his family enjoy feasting on the remains of the fallen). Those who can recall their own grueling viewing experiences remember all these morbid tidbits in lurid detail. And those who have not seen it, in turn, are taken by the film's reputation and either become hesitant to watch it or convinced that the film is another mindless gorefest.
But upon a close examination of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, viewers may find that the physical root of this almost universal repulsion is more difficult to discover than previously thought. That's because director Tobe Hooper creates cleverly structured scenes that simply tease our fragile imaginations. Instead of resorting to special effects, he taps into our psyche with the deft use of suggestive imagery in order to invoke grisly scenes of horrors unlimited in our mind's eye.
Hooper works with precision in placing us directly in the right mood when the film opens. The first full image we are exposed to is that of a sticky cadaver wired to a monument, its remaining bits of lumpy flesh baking in the Texas sun. It leers at us from atop its mantle as it sits above the stone headstones of a graveyard. As our eyes take all of this in, it's almost as if we can feel Death is upon us, this grim statue a constant reminder of its presence throughout the entire film. This gruesome portrait paints a feeling of unease within our minds. This is the first instance in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre where Hooper seems to be showing us something more, something far more horrible than what is actually being physically depicted on the screen.
The audience is only immersed deeper and deeper into Hooper's wretched hell as the events unfold in the film. An off-kilter hitchhiker is given a ride in the van of our protagonists, proceeding to give everyone on board the jitters. He gleefully tells them of the methods used to kill the cattle at the local slaughterhouse. He exhales his reverences for the use of the sledgehammer as the rotting fetor from the farm cooks in the air. Just then Hooper cuts to the face of a cow, its eyes glazed over and spittle drooling from its mouth. The shot lingers for just a moment and is gone. Already Hooper has our minds ticking away and conjuring images of the cows having their heads caved in by the pounding of a hammer. He manages to pull this off with just a few words and one brief but unsettling glimpse into the slaughterhouse's depths.
But the director throws a surprise curve ball after delivering this subtle scare to his audience. As the hitchhiker proceeds to act like a complete nutcase, the culmination of his ravings ends with him taking a switchblade and deliberately slicing open his palm. The other characters, like us, are aghast, their/our eyes glued to this grim figure who seems to be delighting in his own self-mutilation. This moment marks the first and one of the very few times when actual blood leaks onto the celluloid. This bizarre display immediately sets off all the alarms in our brains. We're now prepared to face all the messy horrors that Hooper will undoubtedly unleash on us from this point on. But it's just another sly trick. Because as we'll see, there really isn't any gore to be had. Hooper may be playing the effect of this scene down, but its significance as a visual catalyst for all the events that are to come is immeasurable. The scent of blood from this scene stays with us and carries on into the rest of the film.
Hooper works a cruel sense of irony into the cattle slaying references as the first victim of the film, Kirk, is slain by a blow to his own skull from Leatherface's hammer. We see it at a distance and hear the sickening crunch of breaking bone. There is no bucket of blood flying across the screen or a prolonged moment of the victim screaming in crimson agony. Just the swift attack of a killer in a darkened hallway. We can barely make out the form of our fallen hero, his legs twitching from the shock. Before we know it the scene is over, the resounding slam of a metal door leaving us with the impression that we had just seen the most gruesome moment our eyes could witness.
The director proceeds to play his tricks of optical illusion through the use of subtle, and at the same time powerful, imagery. Kirk's girlfriend Pam is claimed after she stumbles into the house's "trophy room." The den is filled with bleached bones and feathers, the overwhelming sight of these artifacts of the dead almost convincing us that we can smell the dank, heavy air of that infernal room. Pam barely manages to get over her shock before Leatherface claims her and drags her into the back room of the meat locker. Hooper's camera hones in on the cold steel of a meat hook and, as we watch Leatherface and his prey come ever closer to it with bated breath, we know in our sickened hearts what is to come.
But Hooper robs us of the relief of seeing the actual impalement. Instead he merely gives us the scene from the front as Leatherface drops Pam onto the hook with a heavy jerk and leaves her screaming in torture. Without witnessing the mutilation for ourselves, we're left to think of the goriest sights within our own imaginations. The director taunts us again with a quick flash to a tub placed under Pam's flailing legs, its purpose giving us a hard slap to the face. Hooper doesn't want us to forget that this girl has been run through with a hook, and as Leatherface starts his beloved chainsaw up and throws his head back in glee as he renders the remains of his first victim off-screen, we can't help but feel that Hooper is laughing darkly at us too.
We're later set up for another shock when friend Jerry goes looking for the missing couple. What he finds instead is Pam's body in a refrigerator. There's hardly time to process the sight before the body goes through an eerie death shudder as it twitches back to momentary life. We become so engrossed in this macabre display that Leatherface's arrival, complete with heavy war cry and sticky hammer, almost goes undetected by our overwhelmed senses. The adrenaline pumped into the scene is at such a level that we are certain Jerry has met a splattered end displayed for all to see... when in fact all that was actually shown was Jerry's screaming face before Leatherface's hulking form covered it up as the hammer came swinging down.
All throughout the rest of the film we are bombarded with what appear to be shocking images of bloody dismemberment and violent ends. But they're all tricks stuffed up Hooper's sleeves, his meticulous handling of them carrying the air of a trained and wise magician. The death of Sally's invalid brother Franklin is the only one that is actually dealt by the titular chainsaw. And even then we do not see the messy effects of Leatherface's ripping blades. The darkness of night, the ultimate symbol of unseen monstrosities, envelopes hunter and hunted and we only catch the kill from behind as the cross-dressing killer voraciously digs the roaring weapon into Franklin's body.
Even when Sally is held captive by the family of mad cannibals, Hooper doesn't resort to pulling out the rubbery intestines and corn syrup for the big finish. Instead he keeps on piling the misery and dreadful anticipation of what's to come. There's another sadistic moment where the filmmakers seem to be winking at our obvious revulsion of the events unfolding that occurs when the Sawyer family wheels out their cadaver-like grandfather to the dinner table.
In a horribly warped scene of family bonding, the three homicidal sons cheer and squeal the parched patriarch on as he attempts to club Sally's head in with a hammer. But he's so feeble with age that he drops the tool with every swing. Hooper is just wringing us dry of every last bit of sanity we have left. Our fears escalate with the rising of the hammer and we let out a weary sigh as it clatters to the ground. But just when we think it's time to relax, Grandfather is given the mallet again so he can give it another shot!
Sally lets out shrieks of mania (screams that have been welling up in our very own throats) by the time she manages to escape the house. But still the endless (yet always unseen) violence pursues her as the hitchhiker and Leatherface eagerly chase her down. The hitchhiker madly slashes at Sally's back, almost as if he's a taunting reminder of the terror that the character and audience can never be free from. We can't help but feel chased down as well, each swipe of his gritty blade resounding within our minds. Sally is soon drenched in blood from head to foot, the most we've seen of the sticky red stuff during the whole of the film. At this point, all bets are off, and Hooper knows this.
Still, the director maintains that sense of restraint that's been present the entire time. Notice how we finally see the chainsaw tear through flesh for the first time; but, contrary to our expectations, it's Leatherface that receives the injury when his own tool of murder falls on top of him after a brave truck driver whips a wrench at the maniac's head. The hitchhiker's demise by the driver's vehicle is just glimpsed at as well, a sudden and shocking moment caught at the corner of the camera's eye.
Hooper may be eager to show us a little bit of the meat, but he isn't that eager. He keeps poking and prodding at our brains with the power of suggestion, forcing us to imagine the most profane of sights right up until the film's end. Leatherface's waltz in the sunrise can be seen as a victory dance of sorts on Tobe Hooper's part. He's convinced us to play into his bloodied hands and he can't help but spin about and rub it in our faces (or the face of someone else, as it were).
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is undoubtedly a classic of the horror genre. But even for all its skin masks and talk of munching long pig, the film never for an instant degrades itself to the lower standards of the genre. It may have the very look and feel of a grindhouse picture (which is more likely due to budget than artistic approach), but this deceivingly grainy-looking number actually taps into the very core of what horror is.
It's that plaguing notion in the back of your mind and the feeling of cold fingers cramping around your stomach that occurs when you just know something bad is going to happen. Hooper keeps his bad things in the dark, even as the blistering sun beats down on all the depravity at hand. It's the goriest film you never saw. The blood only trickles within our minds. That's what real terror is, and Hooper knows just how to make it work. For as our giggling friend the hitchhiker points out: "He makes it real good."