The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Soothing and Sadistic Poetry
Updated: May 26, 2022
In the late 1960s and into the 70s, Hollywood not only started to take notes from the auteurs of the French New Wave, but from the counterculture, the sexual revolution, and the disillusionment brought on by a tumultuous decade and the Vietnam War. It was, as they say, a time to be alive.
There are many films in this era one could point to as the end to the infamous Hays Code, that pesky set of guidelines that ruled the Golden Age of Hollywood from the early 30s well into the 60s. Despite the censorship, directors managed to skirt around it with allusions, subtle winks, and visual subtext. It made directors look even more clever in the devices they utilized to say what they wanted to say, even though the Hays Code prohibited it. There are arguments, depending how you look at it, to be made about both the benefits and drawbacks of the Code. The latter being the side-eye perturbations brought on by explicit violence and sex (Movies used to be clean! When it comes to sex on screen, Hollywood is way more prude today than the 70s), the former’s arguments included a little more representation for the stigmatized, radical and realistic filmmaking, and the exploitation of the “so-called” innocence America was losing at the time which, like the Golden Age of Hollywood, it never really had; it had just been hidden and was now being exposed, especially through cinema.
The bloodshed of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) pushed the Code fully off of the plank it was teetering on, the ship being USS New Hollywood, ready to berth itself on the land soon to be Nixon’s damaged America. Then The Graduate (1967, a bit dated today however, Benjamin literally stalks Elaine) and Midnight Cowboy (1969) said hello to sex in visual ways people had never seen before. There was also Rosemary’s Baby (1968) of course, as well as the ménage à quatre in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). Though the latter ended with a more traditional message, a kind of a “screw you” to the hippies of the day. There was also Easy Rider (1969) which said “hey, here’s some drugs, let’s hit the road and forget all of this.” Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is another brutal example. I could go on.
I digressed straight from the start here, let me get to my point. Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Scorsese all knowingly made their marks in the era. But for me, it was a little film- now massive- called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Tobe Hooper did with his second feature what Wes Craven failed to do with his first feature, The Last House on the Left. He exploited the distress and uncertainty of the era in a disturbing yet real way. This brings me to a different time, that time being- let me check my notes- today! Taking a break from Netflix’s wonderful The Haunting of Bly Manor and rewatching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, one of the best slasher films ever made, (Halloween (1978) and Black Christmas (1974) are better slashers, Massacre is a better messenger) this Halloween season was quite a different experience since I last saw it.
Imagine New Year’s Eve 2019, we were so clueless. Life was better than it is now. A new decade, big things were going to happen. Big things did happen, just not how we wanted, and now 2020 is starting to look like it will be a seminal year for the decade. Just like at the beginning of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this group of young people aren’t expecting anything big, much less bad, to happen to them on their road trip to their friend’s old house. Plus, it’s summertime in Texas, everyone’s hot but no one’s bothered. There’s nothing but good folks in these parts. It’s still the world where you can pick up hitchhikers and while the one they pick up is the first sign of things turning dark, they figure it’s just a fluke; a guy who has lost his mind, not impossible but surely an anomaly these days. Even when the radio talks about murders and awful crimes, they’re not really listening. Those things are rare, they would never be victims of such things.
Then they switch the station and there’s the twang of country music; it reminds me of the quintessential New Hollywood film: The Last Picture Show (1971) directed by Peter Bogdanovich. Where Hank Williams yodels behind the lost and despondent characters of that film, the country music of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is much more ominous. If you want to go even deeper here, Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets (1968), was inspired by the UT Austin Tower shooting in 1965 that almost disappeared into obscurity thanks to lack of media coverage and a sudden rush to act like it never happened. Americans refused to believe such a heinous thing could happen. In 1974, when Massacre takes place, that attitude was barely hanging on.
Here we are again. 2020 has been a year of massive, unprecedented change. Just like the 70s, the 2020s will doubtless have writers and filmmakers attempting to make the definitive work of the sudden and unexpected anxiety pool that was 2020. And just like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it could be another horror film. It is the best genre for exploration and strangely somehow, as was my case rewatching it, I was comforted by it. I’m always comforted when I know I am watching a great movie, especially that giddy feeling that comes from that knowledge (can’t wait to talk about it, can’t wait to tell people about it, can’t wait to write about it), but it was also the horror of Massacre that soothed me. Sure, it sounds sick, it’s a film about a big dumb brute revving people with a chainsaw and then eating them with his good old Texas family (“You’d probably like it if you didn’t know what was in it.”). I just had the feeling it could definitely be worse and even so, it’s still a movie (loosely based on Ed Gein, it’s mainly fictional), very rarely would something like this happen in real life.
It’s not about that, however, it’s the fact that something like this could happen and the anxiety, the uncertainty of the film- the point of it being made- somehow acts as a remedy for its short runtime. I’ve said before that cinema at its best is a mirror. When we see ourselves, our fears and our worries on screen, it can help us to reconcile with them. At its absolute peak, it heals. A pandemic can happen and it did. The repercussions of it are being felt collectively around the world. It’s why there were articles in March about people with anxiety and depression suddenly feeling a little better because hey look, the rest of the world knows how they feel every second of every day. Add on the polarized political climate of this year and those people are probably back to square one but I don’t want to digress again.
Seeing others suffer, feeling the same things we feel in that moment, whether its a fictional character screaming for her life or its real people stuck in the same rut thanks to COVID, mitigates some of the pain. You’re uncertain, I’m uncertain, we’ll be okay. However, just like in real life, people in horror films die. The horror genre gives us a morbid reckoning. We’re all going to die, hopefully not from a chainsaw but we’re going down someday whether we like it or not and the uncertainty of whether it is as brazen as a chainsaw-wielding maniac (the bluntness of the murders in the film, no jump scares, no lead-ups; just boom, sudden and unexpected swing of a hammer to the head, uncertainty turned into certain death) or as tedious as old age, it’s the one certain thing that paradoxically causes uncertainty in life, but fortunately gives up both hope and faith as well.
There’s even a study from this year about how horror fans and morbidly curious individuals are more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there’s nothing wrong with escapism and watching a feel good film to get away from our realities (I’ve done that many times this year as well), it can be more rewarding and cathartic to embrace our fears and darkest places through film. Because negative feelings are just as much a part of life and being human as the good feelings. I like to watch the horse ride off into the sunset, it’s a beautiful cliche, an optimistic image but most the of the time the crazy brute dancing angrily with his chainsaw in the sunset is just as grin inducing; a terrifying visual that resonates more emotionally and realistically while soothing in the most masochistic way. Sadistic poetry is still poetry.
If you think this is funny, then you’ll enjoy the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Happy Halloween, ya leather faces.