"A TASTE OF DARKNESS"
Film analysis of
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
© copyright by Rob Ager Sept 2015
This text was primarily written in preparation for my editing of a video version of the analysis, though due to its length
I'm now unlikely to produce the full video. Readers unfamiliar with the film and its characters may therefore find the text hard
to follow in terms of referenced scenes and so it is recommended to have a copy of the TCSM DVD handy.
- The splatter illusion
- Dinner is served
- The horrorscope reading
- A whole family of Draculas
- The southern crazies
- Women in torment
- The hot country
- Grit in our eyes
- The mind mincer
- Funny bones
Hi folks, this is Rob Ager of www.collativelearning.com and in this article and I shall offer you my film analysis of the classic, and still very unsettling, horror movie A Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which for brevity I’ll mostly just refer to as Chainsaw or TCSM. Now some ppl will be thinking “Hey, don’t you normally talk about more high brow movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mulholland Drive? TCSM is just a dumb slasher flick. What could you possibly have to say about it that would be of interest?”
Well, although I don’t particularly enjoy watching Chainsaw because of its lurid subject matter, the film is a lot smarter than its video nasty title suggests and I’m not the only one who thinks so. In this interview director Tobe Hooper recalls that upon introducing himself to Stanley Kubrick as the director of TCSM Kubrick immediately gave him a big hug and confessed that he’d bought a 35mm print of Hooper’s film. Chainsaw has also been hugely influential since its release and, while many of its pale imitations (including pretty much all of the sequels and remakes) can mostly be passed off as exploitation, the original film maintains its genre-defining reputation and has been subject to many critical studies.
In 2013 I posted a short video, which was less than 5 mins long, outlining my interpretation that the film carried an underlying theme of exposing the audience to the suffering of meat industry animals raised in appalling conditions and slaughtered often in grizzly and sadistic ways. At Slate Magazine one of the senior editors Forrest Whittaker agreed wholeheartedly with that interpretation and cited my video as the inspiration for his own follow up article. Writers at Cracked.com also posted their take on the same theme, again citing my video as a source.
Now in this much longer article I’m going to give a more detailed study of the animal rights themes of Chainsaw, but I’m also going to explore several other aspects of the film which I previously haven’t written about, such as the hints of supernatural influence, the dark side of family life, humour, real world serial killer comparisons etc. But first of all, for the really cynical viewers who watch movies with conceptual blindfolds and who think film interpretation is a load of cock and bull in which film analysts assume meaning where there isn’t any, I’m going to address those objections in advance. Firtly for the cynical I advise that you go check out my 13 minute video 9 film directors who admitted putting hidden themes in their movies (embedded below) . The video contains absolute proof that some film makers put hidden messages in their movies, and often without even revealing to the cast and crew that they’re doing it.
9 film directors who admitted putting hidden themes in their movies
I’d also like to draw your attention to the fact that, while in this article I will often point out seemingly minute details in TCSM as being evidence of certain themes, I am fully aware that as they say “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”, which is the favourite catchphrase of film analysis deniers. That quote is actually from Sigmund Freud, who ironically is himself renowned for sometimes reading too much symbolism into human thought and communication. I also draw your attention to the most important word in that quote, yes SOMETIMES a cigar is just a cigar, which itself implies that SOMETIMES things are not one-dimensional, SOMETIMES there ARE double meanings / symbols / metaphors.
Rather than just assuming everything in a movie has meaning, I do actually put effort into checking up in order to find out if certain details are incidental. For example, near the of TCSM I noticed the pink colouration of the door frames and stair banisters in the house of horrors and wondered whether it was something deliberate. So I checked the director commentary and learned that the real life occupants of the house had painted it that way because their kids were frightened of going upstairs to sleep so they were just trying to brighten the halls up a bit. Constrained by their low budget, the film makers left it as it was. In another example I noticed the word WESTERN written on a box on a shelf in the scene of Sally and the old guy in the garage, but to my knowledge that detail doesn’t reliably link up with any theme I’ve noticed and so it’s probably just a box that happened to be on set. And in one more example, the black lorry driver character at the end of TCSM was named Ed Guinn, which sounds very similar to the serial killer Ed Gein, whose cannibalstic activities partially inspired the film. But, despite the uncanny similarity between the two names, I see no reason to believe the actor was chosen because of his name.
However, although the film makers cite in the commentary that the dead armadillo seen at the beginning of the film was something they just spotted in the road and decided to film, a dead armadillo is also seen on the dinner table at the end of the movie. That is not accidental. I did a Google image search for armadillo dinner table and found no comparative examples of anybody doing this. So this detail of the film begs interpretation. In another example, the chainsaw dance at the end of the film is claimed in the commentary to have been initially made up by actor Gunnar Hansen for another scene. The film makers then decided it would be appropriate at the end of the film. Now as a film director myself I know that when this kind of adlibbing and incorporation happens on set, it’s usually because the director perceives some symbolic meaning in the adlibbed dialogue or action. And so in the follow up film TCSM 2 the same director included the chainsaw dance right at the end of the movie again, this time performed by the would be victim of the story and seen at the top of a weird hill structure with a US flag sticking out of it. Only a moron could look at this sequence and refuse to accept even the possibility that some sort of hidden concept, perhaps even a political one, being communicated.
Getting back to the original Chainsaw movie, there’s also the strange blood smear made on the side of the van by the hitchhiker, who I’ll just refer to as Hitch. The characters hypothesize the blood smear is some form of writing. We’re never told outright what the word or symbol is, but one character surmises, “Everything means something I guess”. So there we have a direct quote in the film regarding the existence of hidden meanings even in seemingly incidental details.
Now there are literally hundreds of bizarre details in Chainsaw from strange props and weird dialogue to unusual pieces of editing and strange sound effects. On their own, these individual details are weird and sometimes slightly unsettling, but many of those details begin to make a lot more sense when they’re cross referenced. That’s where the film’s more subtle concepts begin to emerge.
I’ll also add that Chainsaw was Hooper’s second feature film. His first one, titled Eggshells, was a surrealist hippy movie, which if you read the various online plot summaries, sounds a lot like a David Lynch styled art house movie, full of social commentary metaphors. I've embedded a trailer for the film's restoration below. So it’s absolutely plausible that with Chainsaw Hooper imported his existing surrealist thought process into a horror-genre story frame.
Eggshells by Tobe Hooper
So with all that in mind, let’s crack on with the full analysis of TCSM.
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THE SPLATTER ILLUSION
One of the things that TCSM does extremely well is that it appears to be much more violent than it actually is. Popular horror movies like Hellraiser, The Shining and The Thing contain a great deal more blood than TCSM does. Even the gangster movie Scarface has a chainsaw murder scene that is more graphic than anything in Chainsaw, but as a child in the 1980’s I used to see the TCSM box on the shelves of VHS video stores and the title alone scared the hell out of me.
The title, written in blood red, along with the image of a young woman on a meat hook positioned to look completely naked (even though she isn't in the movie), conjured in my mind images of extreme gore and sadism, which made me subconsciously avoid watching the movie right through to adulthood. So I was over 30 yrs old when I finally decided to watch the film and even then it was because a respected film fan friend assured me that there was actually very little gore in it. While that first viewing was still an intense and unpleasant experience I was very pleased that the film was much smarter and less exploitative than I’d been led to believe by all the hype.
The film also tricks its audience in terms of believability. The words “It happened” appear on one poster, which leads the would be viewer into assuming the film is a true story that the viewer can’t just disregard as ridiculous exploitation. In deciding to watch the film the viewer subconsciously has to accept that they are going to be made aware of something horrific that will remain with them permanently after the film is finished. This true story framing is reinforced by the film’s opening which features a cleverly deceptive narration and caption intro that suggests, but does not state outright, that the film is based definitively on real world events. However, the film is only very loosely based on a real serial killer story, but we’ll get into that real world comparison and others towards the end of this analysis.
Rather than actually show us detailed chainsaw mutilations and other forms of depravity, TCSM mostly just implies such unpleasant details. It persuades us to imagine the horror for ourselves and thus we become like psychological participants in the editing of the film. And it uses all manner of tricks to do this. The most simple and easy to notice one is that gory details, when they do happen, tend to be just out of our view. We see Leatherface thrust and slice with his chainsaw, but we don’t see the impact against his victims. We don’t even get to see their injuries after they are dead. The only time we actually see a chainsaw cutting into human flesh is, interestingly, when Leatherface falls and accidentally cuts his own leg. Because he’s a bad guy who we don’t empathise with it’s not so disturbing. This is all a far cry from the splatter fest implied by the film’s title.
In the case of Franklin’s death (the character in a wheelchair) we just see a little bit of blood splatter on Leatherface’s apron, but it’s far less than what we would expect from such a brutal form of mutilation. And in the meat hook and body slicing scene, the walls already have dried blood on them from previous victims or animals, so there’s not much need to show us Pam or Kirk’s fresh blood.
The meat hook impaling of Pam, while certainly being a disturbing moment (possibly the most disturbing in the film), also does not show us any detail of her injury. We don’t even see any blood dripping down her back, though its presence is implied by a very quick cut to and pan away from a bucket placed beneath her to catch her blood. And the lump hammer blows to Kirk and Jerry's skulls are basically communicated by sound effects, while the edit specifically avoids showing the close up detail.
But it’s not just the cutting away (sorry for the pun) from gory details as they happen that causes us to insert our own mental imagery into the story. Other clever tricks are used. For example, in the first scene of violence, which is Hitch cutting himself and then cutting Franklin’s arm, we are shown the blood of both victims and we are actually shown the knife slicing into Franklin’s arm in close up along with an added screeching sound effect that is completely unrealistic, but communicates the pain of injury. What’s clever about this is that by showing us the details of comparatively minor injuries early in the film we are led to believe that the rest of the film is not going to shy away from showing us violent injuries. It leads us into expecting to see chainsaws actually cutting into flesh with huge sprays of blood.
Hitch’s masochism is also an important psychological device because any man who would willingly cut himself with a knife and enjoy it isn’t likely to show much empathy for a live victim who he decides to carve up. He also has a plaster on his finger. Was that also the result of self-harm? His burning of Franklin’s picture is also pretty darned creepy – obviously a metaphor of his desire to make Franklin suffer and die, or burn in hell so to speak. His use of flash photography in photographing Franklin also might be a deliberate clue regarding the film’s opening flash photography of exhumed bodies accompanied by the sound of a digging shovel - We learn later that Hitch is the one who has been creeping about digging up corpses and creating monstrous art displays out of them.
Another psychological trick used, and this one’s a lot more subtle in the kind of way we’d expect from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, is that when we cut away from Leatherface presumably dismembering and beheading Kirk (again the exact details are left to our imagination), we are immediately shown the windmill outside the house, spinning fast like a chainsaw and with the rays of the sun flashing through it like rays of intense pain. And then we cut straight to a close up of the blood smear on the van. Later when Jerry is on his way to what we’ve already guessed is going to be his own death, flashes of sunlight are again deliberately shown, this time through the leaves of passing trees. This could be a very subtle suggestion of the chainsaw dismemberment that awaits him too. Pam and Kirk walking to their deathbeds also included a low angle shot looking directly at the sun. And in a carefully set up shot, Jerry’s silhouette is engulfed by the firey heat and brightness of the sun. I seriously doubt this was done just to make the shot look pretty because the opening titles of the film show us sun spots and sun flares, darkened and colourized to look like splatters of blood – again this is setting us up psychologically to perceive the presence of blood splatters later where virtually none are actually shown.
In another subliminal detail we hear chainsaw like sounds as Kirk and Pam approach the house, only to then find out that it’s actually the noise of a red (an important thematic colour in the film) power generator. We specifically get to see the spinning mechanism of its motor. Again this is all priming us for chainsaw death mayhem, making us subconsciously visualise and anticipate intense gore.
So what else? Well we’re given a generalized sense of violence by the multiple instances of radio broadcasts in which news readers talk about assorted violent crimes. Apart from in the opening shot of the cemetery, most of these news horror stories are deceptively passed off as just background noise and are usually only faintly audible, so their effect is to play on the audience subconsciously. There are stories about a burning oil refinery, suicides, a break out of the cholera disease, a building collapse that kills 29 ppl in which the report says there was no reason for the collapse and that sabotage is suspected (Hmmm ...). There’s a story about a couple who have been stabbed and killed, their features carved away and the man’s genitals removed (possibly Hitch and his family did this), and there’s a story of a couple arrested who chained up their 18 month old daughter in the attic. As well as conjuring up a general sense of violence some of these stories may have been included to make the audience anticipate similar fates for the characters. The story of a confined child is heard as the old guy is preparing to abduct Sally.
Then there’s the many voyeuristic camera shots of characters seen in visual slices through foliage and tall blades of grass, as if being watched by small predators or crouching psychos. There’s a bizarre, but highly effective, fast-cut editing in the freezer horror moment (the scene when Jerry finds Sally locked in the freezer), which deceptively allows Leatherface to launch an attack seemingly from nowhere at a moment when Jerry is already startled from what he saw in the freezer. It’s a much more interesting and effective piece of editing than the standard silence followed by jump scare approach, which is now so commonly used it’s become boring as hell.
Then there’s the unpleasant and unexpected close up shot of a nest of spiders which doesn’t seem to have anything directly to do with the plot, but keeps us feeling unnerved. It’s then referenced again by Kirk as he and Sally run through a field. Kirk jokes about giant spiders and man eating lizards. And a rattlesnake sound, a predatory noise association, is heard when Franklin sees the strange ritualistic bones in the dillapidated house.
There’s the subtle detail of the hanging chair in the garden lightly swinging as if Leatherface was just sat on it seconds ago ... or is it just the wind? And both Kirk and Pam trip over floorboards and thus we are quickly forced to face some form of horror in closer proximity than we would choose to. Hooper also used this forced horror approach in the basic editing. Some instances of horror involve slight jump cuts so that horrors happen faster than we’re expecting. Like when Pan is put on the meat hook or when Leatherface kills Franklin the chainsaw jumps unrealistically from silence to full throttle without being revved up.
Sally, in her drawn out ordeal of terror, is repeatedly scratched by branches and smashed glass, as she leaps through windows, and knocks her head against a tree. These all appear to be foreshadows of what she will experience later as she is hit by a lumphammer and sliced at by Hitch. She also is notably not subjected to a great deal of physical sadism or torture when confined in the house, though physical sadism is suggested by Hitch and Leatherface touching her hair while she screams and panics as if in physical pain. The old guy (it isn't confirmed if he's their older brother or father) responds by saying, "Don’t torture the poor girl". Hitch also pokes Sally repeatedly with his finger in stabbing gestures and forces her to watch Grandpa sucking her blood from her finger. The intention is to terrorise. In fact most of her reactions to the psychological torment she is enduring are exaggerated to the point of what we’d expect from a torture victim. Her offer to "do anything" for her captors sounds much like what we would expect a physically tortured person to say. And the presence of morning light when she leaps out the window during her escape suggests her capture and torment went on for much longer than the screen time shown. Eventually Sally is actually tortured by Hitch’s repeated knife slashes as she tries to run away. Again his knife slashings were foreshadowed in Hitch’s introductory scene. And by having the torture occur in this context we aren’t exposed to the gory details and Hitch’s swift retribution in getting run over by a rig downplays the sadism factor.
So what else?
The choice of chainsaw as murder weapon is clever because of its intimidating sound. The general absence of music in the chainsaw sequences is also a wise choice because the chainsaw effectively is the music, and sometimes it even comes off as a stand in for the victim’s screams, which are drowned out and lost in the buzz.
There are also Hitchcock-like hidden agenda moments, such as when Sally watches the old guy drive his truck to the garage entrance with a hidden intention of abducting her. The shot moving in and out as he creepily goes back to the garage to lock up and turn off the lights is also well done. He’s so excited about his latest victim he almost forgot to lock up the store and his trivial dialogue implies that abduction and murder is just business as usual. For me the scene of him driving the tied-up Sally to his home is as dark and disturbing as any other in the movie. There’s no gore, but the lighting makes him look like Mr Hyde and his alternate beating of Sally, while offering verbal reassurance is truly sinister. I also like the contradiction in his opening scene of him stating that there’s "no gas" at his station, which we can later assume was a rouge to strand the "kids", as he calls them, so that they can be slaughtered, while at the same time he tries to discourage them from going to visit the old Franklin House. Is this because he really doesn’t want them to be killed, as he alludes during the family dinner scene. Again this comes off as a sort of Jekyll and Hyde or Norman Bates style split personality trait.
Getting back to the visually communicated unease, Sally’s face is grabbed at the dinner table and the camera pans down to a skull, implying that death is just around the corner and it’ll soon be her skull on the table. She knows that she’ll also soon end up being part of the household furniture.
All these little psychological tricks, when incorporated together into the full movie, stack up in the viewer’s mind to create a very strong overall feeling of violence, sadism and depravity that is far more intense than what the film actually shows. There are plenty more examples that I haven’t talked about so I invite you to watch the film for yourself and consciously try to pick up on those details, especially if you’re a budding independent film maker or have a keen interest in psychology.
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DINNER IS SERVED
Watch the video version of this chapter on Youtube or scroll down and read the slightly more detailed text version.
Now let’s get to our first major hidden theme in Chainsaw, animal cruelty. Now there are tons and tons of details in the film communicating this theme, so this will be the longest section of this article. One of the more subtle examples is that Sally talks about animals on the wall paper in her old house, which we can also see in the shot. She describes that these animals used to talk her to sleep. That’s a strange piece of dialogue to include. There are other, much more consclusive, examples of the animal themes which we’ll get into in a moment, but the metaphor is generally overlooked in that the crazy family of psychos having a history of working in the meat industry is, on surface appearances, simply a plot device that lends plausibility to their activity of killing people. So when we see humans whacked in the head with lumphammers like pigs or hung up on hooks like livestock by a guy wearing a butcher’s apron, we generally just perceive it as incidental to the story, even though in the early scenes Franklin talks in detail about the horrors of the slaughter houses and as Sally is being prepared for lumphammer slaughter the family talk about Grandpa’s glory days as a livestock killer.
However, if you really pay attention you’ll find subtleties in the film that communicate a sort of reversal theme in which human characters are slaughtered for meat like farm animals with the express intention of making audiences aware of the suffering that animals go through in order to provide those tasty meats that so many of us enjoy eating on a daily basis. Notice that the camera slowly zooms in to Franklin’s face for his dialogue about the slaughter houses. These kinds of slow zooms are generally used when characters are speaking dialogue that is of utmost importance to the narrative.
There are also multiple implications that the murdered characters are actually turned into processed meat for cannibalism. Pam, after being impaled on a hook like a cow, is stuffed in a freezer to be eaten later. You don’t bury someone in a freezer. When the older guy hassles leatherface about whether he let any of the kids get away and asks where the kids are, leatherface gestures toward the freezer and toward a pile of sausages on the table where Kirk was dismembered and he points to what looks like a small furnace, where he presumably cooked the body parts. So these are most likely Kirk sausages. And I’m not sure that the brown liquid on the table is in the dinner scene. I’ll let you take your own guess at that. A few scenes earlier when Sally ran to the old guy for help and was told to wait in the store she stared at assorted bits of meat that are being barbecued. The screen time given to this strongly suggests some significance regarding the meat. So, given that the film was partially inspired by serial killer and cannibal Ed Gein, it’s most likely that this is human meat being cooked.
The knife that Leatherface uses to cut Sally’s finger is taken from a plate full of meat and when Sally wakes up at the dining table and faces the horror of this family dinner time activity, the camera pans out to specifically show what’s on her plate. It’s all meat, and a little bit of white stuff which I assume is a tiny serving of mashed potato. There are no other vegetables, no gravy. And it’s the same on the other plates. The emphasis here is meat. And Hitch points one of these sausages at Sally as if to emphasize their significance.
Based upon the various cars hidden in the yard under camouflage netting, and the many items of furniture made out of human skeletons, it’s a safe bet that this family have killed a lot of other people and have sort of created their own mini-industry of human meat for consumption. The horrors of what goes on in this household being hidden from the world parallels the hidden real world horrors of animal slaughterhouses across the globe that facilitate our meat eating habits.
When Hitch talks about how animals are killed and processed, the girls ask for him to change the subject and one even objects that she likes meat and thus doesn’t want her enjoyment spoiled. They don’t want to be made aware of the suffering that contributes to their own eating habits. And this is what’s clever about Chainsaw as an animal rights film. You can tell a person about the horrors of the slaughterhouse and invite them to go watch videos of how animals are treated to facilitate the luxury of eating flesh, but most people will try to change the topic, block the information out of their minds and will specifically avoid watching footage of the reality they don’t want to see. Chainsaw gets around this dilemma by not overtly presenting itself as an animal rights movie. But those who are really paying attention will notice that the squeals of pigs are dubbed over the close up shots of Sally’s eyes as she cries at the dinner table, even though there are no pigs in the room. Like Sally being strapped in the chair and forced to witness the dinner table horror, we are being symbolically strapped in our chairs and, with eyes forced wide open much like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, we are made to view the horrors of the meat industry. Whether we consciously realise it or not, we’re made to feel empathy for the pain and terror of animals that are mistreated and slaughtered by the millions every year for the culinary convenience of the human race. It’s a really powerful cinematic moment.
Now I’m not claiming to be a vegetarian angel myself and I’m not going to tell you that you’re evil if you eat meat or anything over dramatic like that. For one thing, nature itself is as cruel as and merciless as the meat industry. The idea that humans are evil and nature is all beautiful and nicely balance is nonsense. Nature has no qualms in wiping out large numbers of species in the blink of an eye and nature will just sit by and allow horrendous forms of suffering to occur through disease and predatory behaviour. Personally, I did cut about 90% of the meat out of my diet many years ago, not out of compassion for animals, but simply to improve my own physical health. However, a vegetarian girlfriend then showed me footage of how pigs are treated in slaughter houses, which included infant pigs being castrated with no anaesthetic. Yes, that’s common practice. This is done to prevent hormones later in the pigs development that make any meat produced taste unpleasant for the consumer. That’s right, when we eat pig there’s a good chance the animal it came from was castrated with no anaesthetic. After seeing that video I now very rarely eat pig based products, but still occasionally I do slip up and forget. On the whole I’d say nowadays I eat meat maybe twice a week and when I do I try to eat free range chicken and almost entirely avoid red meats. And I recommend it if only for the health benefits.
So back to the film analysis. On the subject of chickens, TCSM again delivers a strong message. Pam stumbles into the lounge full of furniture made of human and animal bones with bones scattered all over the floor. And amidst all this horror is a live chicken confined alone in a cage that it barely fits in, surrounded by death, depravity and feathers,and awaiting its own inevitable slaughter. In fact the chicken is the first thing Pam sees when she sits up. In this situation Pam and the chicken are kindred in their fates. When leatherface later kills Jerry he wanders into another room in the house and again a lone chicken, awaiting slaughter and confined to a cage, is clucking in fear. And in the dinner scene, Sally awakens to find a dead chicken’s head facing her on the table. It’s attached to some sort of serving tray with chicken’s feet for legs. Weird.
Poultry industry chickens are usually confined in small cages, known as "batteries". Their beaks are trimmed, often painfully and leading to chronic ongoing pain, to prevent them from pecking each other’s sore nether region after laying eggs, to prevent them pulling each other’s feathers out and to prevent cannibalism. The small cage sizes often prevent them from flapping or stretching their wings, preening themselves effectively, ruffling their feathers or scratching their claws on the ground. They’re rendered largely immobile, causing osteoporosis (a weakness of the bones). Frustrated, they often harm other chickens nearby. And they don’t get any sunlight. Some are also force moulted through 7 to 14 day periods of starvation to trigger faster egg-production and egg-laying. So yeah, it’s a swell life if you’re a poultry industry chicken.
And then there’s cows and in this instance Hitch actually explains to us some of the horrible acts that are committed and the sheer grossness of some of the resulting food products – he even shows Franklin photos of the slaughtered cows. And all that stuff he says about head cheese (a food made from the congealed and processed meat taken from a cow's severed head) – that’s mostly true as well and the title Head Cheese was considered for the movie early in the production along with the title Leatherface. Prior to this scene we’re shown cows who, like the human characters, don’t realize that intense suffering and death soon awaits them. And one shot shows the van and its occupants among the cows in our line of vision – perhaps further symbolizing their fate.
Now the flip side of showing humans slaughtered like farm animals is that those doing the slaughtering act like animals, Leatherface in particular. His speech is an incomprehensible babble of animal-like noises and some of the dubbed pig squeals may have been intended to sound like they’re coming from the psycho family members themselves. Kirk hears a pig as he looks at a selection of animal skulls displayed against a blood red wall, which is a fairly obvious representation of a sort of animal death bloodbath. There are no actual pigs anywhere about so we can only assume that the noises come from Leatherface himself or represent the agony of the animals whose skulls are now on display. The squeals also seem to be deliberately dubbed over Kirk as he flails about after the first hammer blow. They may also have been intentionally used to make Hitch represent a human-consuming pig at the dinner table. And in the DVD commentary it is revealed that the director asked actress Marylin Burns if she could squeal like a pig when depicting her moments of trauma. Most likely she couldn’t, so what do we hear dubbed over the sound track as Sally is manhandled at the dinner table? Answer, pig squeals.
Leatherface is big and fat like a pig and wears a pink shirt, which is the colour of pig skin. He wears a mask of human skin, just as humans in the real world wear clothes made of animal skins. And there’s a stitched tear in the forehead of the mask, perhaps caused by sledgehammer execution of the victim. Interesting that his own brother calls him Leatherface, even though leather comes from the skin of animals, not humans. There are also animal hides in the house, Hitch has a small bag made out of some sort of animal hide and has been running around collecting dead animals in the night. And all three family members have animal-like teeth, especially Leatherface, who licks his own teeth like an animal might do, and they all howl like wolves at the dinner table. The presumably female corpse in the attic appears to have boar teeth and I always wondered why Grandpa’s skin appeared to be so rubbery looking. At first I thought it was a mask, but perhaps the answer lies in the first POV shot when Sally awakens to find herself at the dinner table. We pan from the face of a dead chicken to Grandpa’s face. Is he intended to have the wrinkly, yellowish skin of a chicken? Maybe.
Mixed in with all this animal vs human reverse slaughter symbolism is the notion of buyer complicity in the treatment of animals. Early in the story the victims buy sausages and burgers from the old guy’s store which has a sign that says WE SLAUGHTER: BARBECUE. Presumably at this point they’re eating the flesh of other human victims, though they think they’re eating animal flesh. This is significant behaviour because Franklin and Hitch have already talked in detail about the suffering of animals bred for meat and here they are on the same day buying and eating what they think is animal flesh. Franklin also seems to make an exaggerated point of eating a sausage in one scene, which the film makers joke about in the DVD commentary as being a human penis and which the actor has stated in interviews was actually a raw sausage. Remember that one of the radio broadcasts heard in the story speaks of a couple who were killed and the man’s genitals removed.
Now I’m not a raging animal rights activist myself, as I’m generally more concerned with other social issues like education and democracy, but I don’t mind saying that as buyers and consumers of meat we do support and fund the treatment of animals that TCSM is protesting against. It’s an unpleasant truth. According to Forrest Whittaker of Slate Magazine, director Tobe Hooper stated:
"I gave up meat while making that film. In a way I thought the heart of the film was about meat; it’s about the chain of life and killing sentient beings, and it has cannibalism in it, although you have to come to that conclusion by yourself because it’s only implied."
But Chainsaw isn’t just about animal cruelty in the meat industry. I’ve already mentioned the references to the slaughtering of animals to make clothing and leather based products, but there are suggestions of other forms of cruelty too. We kill animals and stuff them as souvenirs, two of which are seen on the arms of the dead woman's chair upstairs in the house and there’s a weird pig or dog skeleton wearing some sort of fur hide. There’s the selection of animal skulls and heads on display, just as real life hunters put the heads of animals on their walls, and Hitch has a bracelet with animal bones on it. And there’s the weird moment of the old guy beating Sally with a broom, a strange choice of weapon, just as humans sometimes beat their pets or kill rats and mice with a broom. He then ties her limbs like livestock to the slaughter and stuffs her in a bag just as Hitch is collecting dead rodents in a bag. And I always thought it odd that the old guy has teeth that make him look like a rodent.
Even the basic phenomena of animals being killed accidentally on roads and highways appears to play its part in the film. We get an opening shot of a dead armadillo on a road, very carefully framed so that we see the main characters' van drive across the top portion of the screen in a way that looks like the armadillo is being symbolically ran over again. As I mentioned near the start of this video a dead armadillo is later found in the most bizarre place – on a dinner table. Perhaps Hitch being ran over by a cattle truck at the end is a symbolic reversal of animals being killed by humans in the same way. And at the beginning of the film I’m not sure what kind of truck splashes dirt in Kirk’s face and sends Franklin rolling down the hill. It might be a livestock vehicle, but either way this particular event in the story is really odd.
Franklin’s role in the story is especially important because he seems to be a sort of crossover between regular people and the psychos. He talks enthusiastically about the death and suffering in the slaughterhouses in a way that isn’t really much different to what Hitch has to say on the same subject. He also expresses admiration for Hitch’s self-mutilation in one scene. Like Hitch, he carries a knife which he picks at himself with, though not nearly as sadistically as Hitch does, and he starts vandalising the van with it, which Kirk objects to and calls him a psycho. Like Hitch, his family has a history of working in the meat industry. When Hitch got in the van one of the girls joked that he should sit by Franklin, again the two are being compared as kindred. She even tells Franklin, “You’re crazier than he was”. Both characters blow raspberries. And doesn’t it seem like a great big fat coincidence that the former home of Franklin’s animal slaughtering family is within walking distance of the psycho family’s house. After all, the psycho family do appear to basically represent the meat industry itself.
Even the moments of emotional and physical sadism aren’t as far removed from the real world meat industry as we might hope to believe. Here’s some footage of real world slaughterhouse employees tormenting and torturing animals for their own entertainment.
Undercover video on animal cruelty in UK slaughterhouses
Warning: Graphic content. Requires Youtube sign in to watch
One employee is seen electrocuting a pig’s genitals. Another guy is shown punching a pig. And there are examples of the supposedly "humane" airgun method of execution, which Franklin talks about in TCSM, either being used as torture or simply being ineffective. Remember the movie No Country For Old Men? That was a cattle execution airgun used by the bad guy, Chiguhr. And Franklin’s story of animals being skinned alive when they aren’t even dead yet is unfortunately true as well. You see the issue isn’t just about US slaughterhouses, which are bad enough. There are even more sadistic forms of animal treatment used in other countries where the laws against slaughterhouse cruelty are even more lacking. Take Halal meat for example, in which animals are killed very painfully and slowly by having their throats cut and their blood drained out of the wound, all for the sake of archaic religious ritual. And any idiots out there who think I’m disrespecting Islam and other cultures by criticizing that barbaric practice can just go read something else. You see I don’t buy into political correctness. I prefer genuine morality.
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THE HORRORSCOPE READING
Moving on to an entirely different subject, the plot descriptions I’ve read about Hooper’s first film Eggshells describe a supernatural sub-plot regarding a ghost in someone’s attic. I haven’t seen Eggshells, but I had already picked up several hints of a supernatural influence in the plot of Chainsaw.
The first dialogue scene has Pam reading from a book on star signs and talking about planetary movements. She talks of "retrogradation" – which mean backwards, decline or reverse growth – and she describes it as an omen of evil. Pam also reads Franklin his bad omen horoscope reading. "Long range plans and upsetting persons around you could make this a disturbig and unpredictable day."And then there’s Sally’s reading – a spot on prediction of her fate. “There are moments when we cannot believe that what is happening is really true. Pinch yourself and you may find out that it is.”. The magazine Sally’s reading from, American Astrology – your daily guide, was a real horoscope magazine in the 1970’s. I haven’t been able to find a copy of the specific issue shown in the film, but I think it’s most likely Sally was reading scripted dialogue rather than actual text from the magazine. However the choice of which issue of the magazine is used as a prop is an interesting one. The subtitles on the cover read:
Shocking results of food pollution
Dog lovers – your pets astro personality
Common market: menace or blessing
Unmasking the most underrated planets
It seems that Hooper chose this particular issue because of its subtitles, which appear to be relevant to some of the film’s themes, especially the stuff about food pollution and unmasking. And before the sceptical among you try to pass that off as me, uh huh, reading too much into the film, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that an awkward camera angle has been selected that specifically shows the front of the magazine, as if the film maker’s wanted us to read it. The blood red writing on the cover might also be a happy accident thematically. And what about that blood smear on the van which the characters suspect to be writing or a symbol? Could it be an attempt to paint an astrological symbol? Quite frankly, I don’t know.
We also noted near the start of this video the multiple instances of foreshadowing, in which we are given subconscious hints of the horrors that will occur later in the film. Jerry’s taunting of Franklin is also a standard horror movie doomed fate cliché. And even that opening caption and narration pretty much states outright that all out main characters are going to suffer or see horrible things they’ll never forget, thus embedding in the audience’s mind a sense of inevitable doom – a feeling that the characters’ fates are set in stone and cannot be avoided. Foreshadowing works particularly well in horror films for that very reason.
So there’s a general doomed fate paradigm in the story. Like farm animals, the characters are oblivious to larger events and universal forces far beyond their control. The tide of evil and bad luck suggested by Pam ’s book and magazine readings may have created the monsters who haunt these characters and the general spate of bad luck they have throughout the movie, from Franklin falling down the hill, to picking up the wrong hitchhiker to running out of gas, or even Franklin losing his knife – the only weapon of defense he has, not that it would do him much good against Leatherface and a chainsaw. And Sally being abducted only to have her hood pulled off by the psycho she met at the beginning of the movie is just bad luck of nightmarish proportions. All these bits of bad luck might be attributed to astrological and supernatural forces.
Other hints of supernatural influence include the seemingly ritualistic arrangements of animal parts and dangling bones at the old Franklin House. And there's a weird choice of prop seen dangling from a tree outside the psycho house. A clock or watch, a symbol of time itself, is shown with a nail rammed through it. As far as this watch is concerned time has stopped. So maybe it’s a hint that time is up for the characters too or that by approaching the house they’re stepping into some alternative realm that defies time.
Throughout the movie there also is a deliberate emphasis on the sun and moon, the only astrological entities visible to the naked eye on Earth. The sun is suspiciously shown in low exposure shots so that it looks like a big yellow and evil eye against a dark night time sky, as if hell is upon the earth – the gas station attendant specifically stares up at it. There’s also the shots of sun activity in the opening title montage with one particular solar flare punctuated by musical emphasis. The characters talk a lot about the intense heat of this particularly hot summer and the film ends with a rabid kill-crazy Leatherface swinging his chainsaw backed by the sun.
The full moon, itself associated with the supernatural, hence its cultural association with werewolves, is shown in several shots and usually obscured partially by clouds. The old guy’s head lights are even zoomed into in one shot so that one headlight appears moon like. When Sally is at the dinner table an exterior shot of the house goes out of focus and transforms into a shot of the moon, and this time there’s no clouds in the way, which is appropriate because now our howling wolf crazies are on full display for the monsters they are. And accompanying all this, the musical score features a lot of ghostly and ethereal moments.
So what’s the point of all this supernatural and astrological stuff? Did the film makers really believe in the supernatural or was it all just a means of adding a sense of unavoidable doom to the narrative? Maybe it was both.
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A WHOLE FAMILY OF DRACULAS
Vampirism is another supernatural facet alluded to in Chainsaw. After picking up Hitch, Franklin comments, “I think we just picked up Dracula”. Hitch talks about his family working in the slaughterhouses and then Franklin makes another vampire reference, “A whole family of draculas”. Not quite as audible unless you turn up the volume, when Kirk sees the old Franklin house he says that it “Looks like the birthplace of Bela Lugosi”. Bela Lugosi if of course famous for playing Dracula in 1931. And in one of the most surreal moments of Chainsaw, Grandpa (who we are led to believe is a corpse because he hardly moves, never open his eyes, and has rotten looking flesh) drinks Sally’s blood from her finger. He is very clearly presented as a sort of blood sucking undead monster. And the choice of giving Hitch a big ugly red birthmark on his face I’ve always found interesting. At least I think it’s a birth mark and not some sort of scar from a past injury. The actor Edwin Neal, who played Hitch, certainly doesn’t have any such scar. I suspect that the inclusion of the birthmark was a simple visual way of saying that there is something inherently not right about the guy; that he was born abnormal and so is to an extent a genetic freak.
But conflicting with all that supernatural and genetic freak stuff, Chainsaw, whether by intention or not, taps into more grounded social issues to do with the dark side of family life, especially dysfunctional families.
First of all there’s the traditional meat-eating family dinner and thus the family’s complicity in the barbaric meat industry. Note that Leatherface in this scene is now wearing lipstick smeared around his mouth ... The Texas Chainsaw Mascara, and yes that is just a joke. It’s like he’s the wife, the old guy is Dad and Hitch is their hyper-active, mischievous child. There’s also the comparisons between Franklin’s family and the psycho family having a shared history in the meat industry. So we could say that the psychos represent the dark side of his family. Sally is also from the same family, Franklin being her brother. At the beginning of the movie the gang are on their way to check if her Grandfather’s grave has been vandalised. It turns out the grave is ok, but her encounter with the seemingly undead Grandpa might sort of represent her seeing the horror of her own family history too. Franklin specifically mentions that their mutual Grandfather used to settle his cattle to the slaughterhouse. There’s even some weird amusement at her grandma dying. Remember that Sally meets a dead Grandma figure in the psycho house.
The Franklin character is especially interesting in himself. The actor Paul Partain was not a cripple, but his character was specifically written as such. He got the part after auditioning to play the hitchhiker, which he obviously didn’t get. The choice of having the character wheelchair bound is a curious one because it makes him a sort of social reject and a gooseberry among the two couples he’s travelling with. Was he in an accident? Is it a genetic condition? Was it just included in the story to make the character appear more helpless and easier to slaughter? Is his playing the victim persona supposed to make us want him to die? He even gets sort of ran over by his own wheelchair as he tumbles down a hill. What is all this wheelchair stuff about? And then there’s the many similarities between his character and Hitch, which we explored earlier.
Regarding the psycho family themselves, their collective depravity and insanity does appear somewhat ridiculous and over the top, but in a way the family seems to represent all the worst things that can go wrong in a family. There’s clearly a lifetime’s worth of physical and verbal abuse that’s been perpetrated by the older guy against Leatherface and Hitch. We know Leatherface could physically take the guy on, no problem, so the fear he displays is more akin to that of a systematically abused child. Hitch is also told he should never leave Leatherface on his own, as if Leatherface has the mind of an young child. His inability to speak suggests severe educational neglect and Hitch just acts like a rebellious and hyperactive kid or teenager who is also used to taking a beating, but is now partially immune to it and has become a self-harmer.
Now there’s a key element of these characters that I’d like to talk about a little as it’s something I have some familiarity with. When working with victims and perpetrators of abuse when I worked in mental health and probation, a pattern I gradually noticed is that there are generally three broad types of long term response that a person can have as a result of systematic childhood abuse and emotional neglect. The first is that the individual becomes mildly socially dysfunctional for most of their life. They have difficulty forming relationships, difficulty trusting people, they become loners and sometimes self-harmers or commit suicide further down the line. The second is that they become abusers and criminal types themselves. Their experience has convinced them that the world is a nasty dog eat dog place where everybody is a liar and nobody can be trusted and therefore the best way to live is to be a cold manipulator who takes what they want when they want it, even if it means making others suffer in the process. From this group emerges everything from manipulative status-seeking career psychopaths to petty criminals such as burglers and muggers right through to full blown sadists and serial killers. And then there’s the third group and it’s a group we don’t hear a lot about generally, and that is the people who somehow manage to maintain a sense of general right and wrong, overcome their past traumas and go on to live very normal lives. They even have families of their own in which they do not repeat the abuse they experienced and instead give the love that they were personally denied by their abusers.
Now for a while I was baffled as to why some people respond to abuse by becoming abusers while other rise way above it. Eventually I think I figured it out based on key differences regarding the context of the abuse. And here it is. The victims who overcame their abuse tend to come from backgrounds where they had access to other adult role models who were not abusers. While they may have been beaten senseless or raped by one particular adult, their general life routine included periods of non-abuse where they were able to interact with say an aunt or uncle who treated them really well or even were lucky enough to have a couple of school teachers who they really got along with. Sometimes one parent in the family may have been abusive, but the other parent who was also a victim of abuse from the same person was able to explain to the child that not all people are like that. The non-abusing parent may have supplied enough caring to counter-act the ideological effect of the abuser. And in other instances the abuse may have been intense, but only lasted for a limited period of time – perhaps a couple of months or years and, once the abusive person had left, died or been imprisoned, the child discovered that their parental replacement was a much nicer person. However, there are occasional instances in which the abused and neglected child is confined to an existence dominated by the abuser or abusers, if both parents happen to be that way inclined. They get very little in terms of external close adult interaction, and this carries on throughout all of their formative years from infancy, ensuring that the dog eat dog view of the world is so hardwired in their thoughts that they find it near impossible to be empathic. They manage to fool the world that they are normal in order to avoid prison sentences, but the urge to do to the world what was done to them is always there and eventually surfaces in the form of violence and possibly murder. Although I detest these people as adults, it's their form of isolated and ongoing neglect and abuse as children that I find the most heartbreaking. This is the kind of background from which characters like Leatherface and Hitch can and do occasionally emerge. Combine that with the family trade of killing animals for meat and you’ve got a lethal combination. So, as bizarre as the family situation in TCSM is, it’s not impossible.
Even just long-term neglect itself without violent or sexual abuse can be incredibly damaging. Children, especially infants, absolutely need to be emotionally supported. They need protection and reassurance against the basic physical dangers of every day experience, they need to feel like they are a part of a tightly-knit social unit, they need predictability in their routines, they need comforting and educational stories and playtime, they need the world to be explained to them in careful increments according to the differing levels of complexity and uncomfortable truths that they’re able to handle as their brains and minds develop. But some parents take the attitude that as long as the kid is fed and kept physically warm and doesn’t cry then they’re somehow doing their parental job well. It’s in these situations that a child can feel like an unwanted and unloved burden. That feeling that the world doesn’t like them or want them slowly breeds intense inner hostility. And when they see others in life getting the things that they are forever denied, they throw tantrums which in adulthood can take the form of serial murder.
Hooper appears to have been well aware of the generational abuse that can occur within families. It’s present in TCSM and its present in a more surreal form in the sequel. Having been chased and abused endlessly, the lead character kills her tormentor with a chainsaw and, voila - she’s now a psychopath herself.
And one last thing, in the original Chainsaw film, note the absence of any female among the family. We see a corpse dressed in women’s clothing. Was this mother grandmother, when did she die and how? Was she murdered? Single parent households in which the lone parent happens to be an abuser are potent scenarios for creating future violent criminals.
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THE SOUTHERN CRAZIES
The geographical emphasis of the film’s title suggest that the story has something to say about Texas itself. Why not just call the film The Chainsaw Massacre? Aside from the psychotic killer family, the other local community characters depicted aren’t exactly complimentary depictions of Texas folk. At the Graveyard we see backward-arsed looking farmer types, a repulsive drunk and a big guy who makes a joke comment to Jerry about stealing his girlfriend. These folks comeoff as eh, what do you call em ... idjits ... inbreds? Have they got double barrel names like Billy-Joe and Mary-Sue?
Then there’s the freakshow faced fella at the gas station who does the worst car wash EVER. Watch how he wanders back and forth in tandem with the old guy like a clunky robot that has no idea what it’s doing or whether it’s even doing a good job. And what the hell is he looking up at the sky for? Who is this guy? A cousin of the psycho family? Is he aware that he’s working for a murderer and if so, does he care? His presence in the narrative is a sort of bridge linking the crazy family to their local community, much like the gas station itself. The drunk in the cemetery also talked of having seen "scary things", but that no one takes any notice of him. Is there a collective denial in the community about there being psychos in their own back yard? Two of the radio news broadcasts suggest this to be the case. The first, which describes the graveyard crimes as "graverobbings", alleges that the crimes have been committed by non-Texans. And a later broadcast alleges the perpetrators are "jewellery thieves", which doesn’t explain the bizarre mutilations.
Now I’ve never personally been to Texas, but I’m aware that it has a really bad reputation in some respects. To what extent that reputation is earned and whether the backward elements of the population are just a very small minority or a large chunk of the population I honestly don’t know. So if you’re from Texas there’s no need to take this video as being some sort of personal attack on Texans. A lot of folks from Texas have bought DVDs from me over years and I’ve received plenty of perfectly intelligent emails from Texans. Nevertheless this is a film analysis, and it does appear that the film makers may have some grievances about the state, even though most of them, including the director, were born in Texas. But then I’m from Liverpool and I’ve got plenty of negative views about my own city and I think The Beatles are hugely overrated.
So, Chainsaw appears to depict several stereotypical features often associated with Texas and other Southern states in the US. There’s the drinking and the meat industry, there’s the genetic freak inbred appearance of some of the local community characters, there’s lots of hillbilly country music heard in scenes that feature radios. And although racism isn’t generally alluded to, the film ends with, of all things, a black truck driver running over Hitch and helping Sally escape Leatherface. She gets away in the pick up, but we don’t see what happens to the driver. Though his ethnicity could be incidental - the pick up driver appears to be white.
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WOMEN IN TORMENT
Next up we have the treatment of women in the story. Aside from the big guy in the cemetery joking that he is stealing Jerry’s girl, there’s very little in the way of sexual dialogue and Sally’s imprisonment and torment doesn’t involve any rape or direct sexual molestation. The stroking of her hair is about as close to a sexual interaction as we get.
The general avoidance of sexual behaviour from the psychos is unusual. Yet at the same time we have the female as victim, male as perpetrator paradigm that is so common to sexually themed horror. Sure, Kirk and Jerry are killed, but their deaths are fairly sudden; a lumphammer blow or two and its all over. Pam and Sally, on the other hand, each experience deep psychological torment because they are shown, in detail, horrors that Kirk and Jerry only get a second or two’s glimpse of. Is this a gender theme or is it simply because audiences are more likely to empathise with the suffering and plight of a woman than a man?
Sally is a normal looking girl, fairly attractive, but she’s not dressed provocatively. However, Pam is fashion model quality in her looks and physique. And the film makers aren’t afraid to show it. She wears tight red shorts, red being a very erotic clothing colour, and a skimpy top. She’s got a lot of flesh on show. And there are low angle shots of her arse, which is a pretty good arse as I’m sure you’ve noticed. This shot, for example, was totally unnecessary in both plot and dramatics. Did the film makers get this hot girl onscreen for cynical marketing purposes, as appears to be the case with the model quality lead girl in the 2003 remake who spends half the film bouncing her breasts up and down the screen as she runs from leatherface?
There are features that suggest a deliberate sexual frustration theme for the psychos, which is expressed in the form of violence. Franklin is made to feel like the odd one out as he’s the only guy in the van with no girlfriend. He’s taunted by Kirk that if the van breaks down he’ll have to tow them in his wheelchair. It’s a pretty funny, but mean joke. When Kirk and Pam, who are both the better looking of the two couples, make their way to their deaths they’re looking for somewhere to have a swim together, which of course has a sexual connotation, especially being that they have no swimming costumes. And on the way Kirk comments that someone should shoot Franklin and put him out of their misery. Like the psycho family, who are all men, Franklin has no opposite sex intimate relationships.
The visually sexualized Pam is the one who suffers the most sadistic death. Not only being impaled on a hook, but also left to slowly freeze to death in the ice box. It could be one of those typical the whore must suffer and die features common in slasher movies. Note that although Sally has a boyfriend, Jerry, hardly any interaction is shown between them, and that the old man keeps referring to the gang as "kids" – as if they’re pre-buescant. Does he deliberately desexualize them? Note his special concern about the presence of the girls when he sees them at the gas station.
One last note on this topic. I’m not sure what the two-headed corpse arrangement seen at the start of the film is supposed to represent, but it appears that one figure is holding another figure either in a cradling or domination position. The legs are also spread wide open. Is this intended to be a sexually charged image? I don’t know. The radio show describes it as a work of art ... and all art communicates something.
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THE HOT COUNTRY
At one point in the Chainsaw DVD commentary Tobe Hooper claims that the film was inspired by the Watergate scandal, which was a political event. Personally, I don’t see any direct connection in the film plot to the Watergate event, but there are other suggestions of a general political paradigm.
The various radio show news broadcasts combine reports about the grave vandalism with reports about other types of violent crime, suggesting a wider trend of violence. Combined with this are other radio stories about a cholera break out, a burning oil refinery and another oil story about international violent conflict over oil. Franklin's horoscope reading also includes the statement “The events in the world are not doing much to cheer one up”. It might also be deliberate that a Gulf Oil sign is quite specifically made visible outside the old guy’s gas station when the gang first arrive there. Look at the specific framing. Company logos are something film makers generally try to avoid when filming to avoid copyright infringement, but not so here. There’s also the Coca-Cola machine, which could understandably be incidental, and there’s a Coca-Cola logo on the main sign, near the words WE SLAUGHTER. Is there a deliberate corporate emphasis here? I doubt it, but who knows.
The horoscope reading suggestions of a more universal trend toward evil, rather than just a Texas based mentality, loosely tie into the subtext of social and political problems across the world, and particularly across the US – remember that US flag shot at the end of the sequel? In Chainsaw this wider trend toward violence is partially communicated by weather related details. As Sally is sat in the gas station, not knowing she is about to be abducted and just before she stares at meat being grilled, a radio broadcast describes that “scary weather” is on the way (at least I think that’s what it says). If accurate, this scary weather phrase is strange. We’d expect it to mean an intense storm and heavy rain, but it refers instead to hot temperatures. This ties in with the multiple instances of the sun itself being filmed, including the opening title montage of sun storm activity and the shots of Jerry walking in the forest, in which the sun blurs out into a giant blob. And we get long shots of shimmering heat in which road surfaces or the exterior of the Franklin House appear wavy.
Characters also complain a lot about the heat too, especially Franklin who moans about it as we hear radio news broadcasts about the world going a little bit crazy. Intense heat is also something we associate with hell and evil.
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GRIT IN OUR EYES
Although there are part of TCSM that are very nicely shot such as the zoom shot of the sun as Jerry walks through the woods at dusk, the dead armadillo laying on a road and the moving-under-the-bench camera movement as Pam approach the psycho house, much of the film looks cheap and grainy ... and I like it that way. The 2003 remake was all shot nice and slick with good quality lighting and smooth camera movements, but the film didn’t have any emotional power. It didn’t feel real. It was too pretty.
Prettiness in cinematography is today over valued. It’s very suitable for say - romantic comedies, kids films - you know, movies that contain an unrealistically rose-tinted worldview. But when a movie is dealing with harsh reality or hellish darkness pretty cinematography that is all smoothly lit with totally smooth camera movements can be completely inappropriate. Perhaps an ethereal ghost story might be suitable for more gentle cinematography, but movies about serial killers and violent gangsters are better having a rough and ready documentary look about them. And this means allowing some technical imperfections too, which Chainsaw has plenty of. Take the scenes of Sally chased at night. There’s not much visibility in most of the shots, but that’s good. Sally is supposed to be running in blind terror. Only she and Leatherface need to be discernible in the darkness. And the psycho home interiors are so full of filth and horror that there’s really not much point trying to make it look pretty with nice camera shots. Handheld shakiness, poor lighting and even unpleasant and uneven compositions are perfectly ok in a scene that depicts depravity.
The same principles also apply to sound and music. Good quality recordings of dialogue are of course essential for any story to be listenable, but the overuse of music to try and influence audience emotion in horror can be self-defeating. And then there’s the types of music. In Chainsaw there are no overlays of popular music while the good guys drive around on the summer motor way. There's just the incidental country music heard over their radio. When overlaid music isused it always has a certain creepiness. Some of it is so basic and loosely structured that it sounds more like a mix of unpleasant sound effects than actual music - quite appropriate for a movie featuring insane characters. It almost sounds like a tribalistic companion piece for the stargate and hotel room music near the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The general fear of making a movie that isn’t pretty is one of the key reasons most modern horror films are so ineffective. Only with the “found footage” plot structure used in films like The Blair Witch Project are the film industry and the audience techno-snobs willing to indulge a film in which the conceptual ugliness of the subject matter is matched by the grittiness and realistic imperfection of its technical presentation, which is ironically is most easily achieved through a cheaper production. Removing that everything has to look pretty barrier would be a step forward if the genre is ever to be reinvigorated. Instead we get artificial ugliness put into horror movies through excessive over-editing, and particularly the boring over-use of visual and auditory jump scares. It might work with a few teenagers who are fairly new to the genre. Meanwhile the rest of us twiddle our thumbs waiting for a decent new horror flick.
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THE MIND MINCER
Now I want to explore a core theme of TCSM that is sort of admitted in its opening narration and captions, but is just as important as the animal rights themes and delves into an even more universal facet of the human psyche. First I’ll outline the concept ...
A philosophical and emotional challenge experienced by all humans is that we each need enough awareness of the more extreme dangers of the world to be able to protect ourselves, yet at the same time we each require a corresponding ability to block out our awareness of suffering and danger because to retain that awareness is distressing and thus emotionally and physically incapacitating.
Throughout our psychological development each of us goes through a long and complex series of what I’ll call “exposure phases”. By that term I mean the progression of an individual’s general awareness of hostility and danger. So as a baby we fear very basic things like bright lights and sounds or scary facial expressions. Having eventually become familiar with those dangers and having developed a certain amount of behavioural efficiency in avoiding them, a toddler then gains awareness of the dangers of things like parental abandonment, hot surfaces that must be avoided, and the dangers of physically falling onto hard surfaces. Later on, in the more complex social world of nurseries and schools, we experience another exposure phase in which we learn to fear peer rejection, bullies, thieves etc. This carries on throughout our lives with a common later stage being the unrealistic dashing of many of our personal ambitions and aspirations by a world that is much more ambivalent than our schooling systems taught us it would be. And a later exposure phase is the onset of mortality awareness as our physical health very gradually degenerates, we begin to look old and we become accustomed to the idea that death will be sooner rather than later and that all the kings horses and all the kings men can only do so much to delay the final moment.
These complex exposure phases reveal the fragility of human consciousness. They each involve a moderate, but sustained increase in our general anxiety which lasts until we overcome it by imprinting upon ourselves the unconscious ability to defend against those dangers. After the complex imprinting is complete our anxiety level is reduced. By this mechanism an adult can, in a single day, cross a road many times and in each instance risk death or incapacitating injury, but without having to worry about it. Every time we walk up and down a flight of stairs we risk falling and breaking a limb, but we barely think about it, where as our early child hood attempts probably felt like walking a tightrope.
The examples I’ve given are mostly exposure phases that pretty much everybody successfully goes through, but some are so challenging that many people don’t progress through them at all. The dashing of our early life ambitions and onset of mortality each qualify in this respect and those who are unable to deal with these things can develop forms of unhealthy denial. They might continue pursuing certain unrealistic aspirations to no avail and thus waste their true potential in other areas. Or those in denial of mortality might join religious groups or movements in which the price to be paid is that they become psychologically or even financially controlled by the leaders of those movements. Like I said that is “unhealthy denial” because it actually causes us more danger than it protects us from. Another example of unhealthy denial is the loyalty many people feel toward certain political and ideological movements or their trust of government institutions. There is a whole heap of documented information currently available that absolutely demonstrates that political establishments across the globe, including those here in the west, cannot be trusted on many issues and must be vigorously watched and ideologically and financially fought by the general public lest those governments become too corrupt and too powerful. People who are emotionally dependent on the idea that our leaders are on the whole caring and responsible, rather than cynical and exploitative career psychopaths, go into intense denial when provided with proof to the contrary and will sometimes even try to destroy the messenger in order to avoid uncomfortable truths. The issue of animal cruelty in the meat industry, which we explored early in this analysis, is another type of exposure phase that causes a lot of people to go into denial. They can’t be bothered seeking out animal products from more humane sources or significantly reducing their meat consumption, so they just pretend that what they don’t see isn’t happening. However, all exposure phases involve a certain amount of necessary denial – the suppression of danger awareness based on our newly acquired and automatic efficiency at avoiding those dangers. That’s healthy denial.
Ok, so you might be wondering what’s this all got to do with TCSM. We’ll get to that in a moment, after I outline the general role of fiction entertainment in terms of exposure phase development. Film and television plays a strong role in how we psychologically develop in the respect that it allows us to become aware of life’s dangers via a safe context. On TV screens we are often shown forms of human suffering and death that would be traumatizing if witnessed in real life. Most people never actually see a person get shot or run over by a car, but we each see these things hundreds or even thousands of times in movies and on TV. Children’s programming is also a really good example of exposure phase progression. Cartoons for toddlers present a version of the world that is soft and colourful and protective and in which suffering only happens in very mild and short-lived forms. Cartoons for pubescent kids are more hard-edged visually and often involve violent conflict and even death for incidental characters or occasionally death for a really nasty bad guy. But still everyone lives happily ever after, core friendships are maintained and when people are injured or die the suffering is minimalistic compared to the agony that would be experienced in real life. In less obvious forms this paradigm extends into action movies for adults.
And then we have the horror genre and its assorted variations. Horror movies are something we tend to avoid showing kids because it can psychologically damage them by exposing them to far greater forms of danger than their delicate minds and emotions are able to quickly adapt to. And the law usually protects kids in this way as well. But horror has an interesting quality in that it sometimes shows us forms of danger that don’t really exist. There are no vampires or werewolves in reality, for example. Not many people are going to feel emotionally traumatized by watching say An American Werewolf In London or The Thing or Hellraiser even though those films show us forms of suffering that are far in excess of anything most of us ever get to see in the real world (for those interested I have analysis' of all three of those horror films available for purchase - see my STORE PAGE for details). The dangers are fictional and arguably cathartic; by showing us intense suffering in an unrealistic form it might be argued that such horror movies psychologically prepare us for other types of dangers in the real world.
But with the lurid topic of Chainsaw we’re dealing with one of the most challenging exposure phases of them all, our awareness that out there in the real world are sadistic and murderous psychopaths, generally known as “serial killers”, who pose great danger to ourselves and others should we ever be unlucky enough to encounter them. We also are exposed to serial killer dangers through news media too, which sometimes I think should just be called "horror media" because of the obsession with human suffering from the editors who decide what stories are newsworthy. But with fictional depictions of serial killers we’re usually shown much more graphic detail of the suffering inflicted than we would be shown in news media. Horror movies get away with this because, even when the suffering is an enactment of a true story, we are emotionally cushioned by the fact that the people on screen are just actors pretending, the blood is fake and the injuries are just make up effects.
TCSM however rides a difficult line in terms of showing the audience things that some people are not ready to emotionally deal with and possibly never will be. One poster for Chainsaw featured the caption “WHO WILL SURVIVE AND WHAT WILL BE LEFT OF THEM?”, which implies that some survivors could lose a finger or two or even a limb or be emotionally traumatized for life. And the same question could be asked of the film’s viewers. Who can make it to the end of the film without feeling deeply disturbed by what it shows them? If it were a completely fictional story that had say supernatural monsters or aliens in it then we could all just pass it off as silliness, but pretty much everything we see is physically and even psychologically possible given the right context.
Cannibalism has been common in many parts of the world and was practiced by serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrei Chicatillo. Cannibalism, graverobbing and the creation of masks, clothing and furniture out of human and animal parts also occurred in the real life case of serial killer Ed Gein. The details of Gein’s activities cover a lot of what is shown in Chainsaw, with the exception of Sam’s meat hook death and a few other sadistic acts. Gein wasn’t a sadist. He was primarily interested in dead bodies. He also didn’t run around with a chainsaw.
Gein was also a lone killer, but in Chainsaw there’s a whole family of Ed Gein types, so we could surmise that the idea of a family of Gein type sickos is impossible, but unfortunately documented history proves otherwise. There have been plenty of examples of serial killer teams. Sure the word "serial" means lone, but the phrase "serial killer" has become a catchphrase regarding individuals who engage in recreational killing either alone or in partnership with others. One such example is the Snowtown Murders in Australia, which were committed by John Bunting and his gang of sadist followers. Throughout the 1990’s, Bunting psychologically manipulated a group of people into helping him murder people on the assumption that the victims were paedophiles or equivalent degenerates and thus deserved to be punished in the most brutal manner possible. They would target a victim, usually based on hearsay evidence that they were paedophiles, abduct them, chain them down in a bath tub then commit all manner of sadistic atrocities before killing them. What is really scary about the Snowtown Murders is that Bunting’s accomplices would have been extremely unlikely to commit murder without his ideological influence. And a lot of people in the community knew that murders and torture were going on and nobody reported it to the police. Given that example, I’d say the family of murderers scenario shown in TCSM is quite possible.
In fact Chainsaw doesn’t even reach the lowest depths of human depravity in terms of what it shows us. If you’ve ever read any of the generalised books on the topic of serial murder, especially those written in association with law enforcement personnel who have worked on such cases, then you’ll likely be aware that there are many recorded accounts of serial murder that are so depraved and sadistic that even horror film makers dare not show us fictionalised re-enactments of those events. Like children who must be protected from being made aware of certain types of suffering and danger, we too as adults are protected by film censors from being shown things that could emotionally damage us. There have been serial killer cases in which victims have had their genitals mutilated while alive and conscious or had fingers and toes cut off or the victims have been partially skinned alive or tortured relentlessly with everything from electric shocks to needles to cleaning detergents. Sometimes these deplorable actions have been committed against children and young teenagers, even by close family members (as was the case with Fred West), and in some cases the torture carries on for days or weeks. Some of these acts are actually committed by children such as the torture and murder of two year old James Bulger by two ten year olds here in my home city of Liverpool. Some people have been held captive for years and tortured and raped regularly. And other cases such as Albert Fish or the aforementioned Snowtown Murders contain such horrific forms of depravity or sadism that I’m simply not inclined to give the details here. But I will quote author Robert Bloch who based his novel Psycho, since made famous by Hitchcock’s film adaptation, on the activities of Ed Gein. When asked why the public are so fascinated with Gein, he replied “Because they are ignorant of the activities of Albert Fish”. And it’s not just serial killers either. There have been gangland killings and murders committed in war time that are every bit as gruesome and cruel as serial killer cases. The New Mexico State Penitentiary riots involved the horrendous torture and murder of inmates held in protective custody. And the execution of gangland criminal William Jackson was truly depraved. If you think you can stomach it and are curious then you can go read about these cases for yourself.
Remember Pam's reading of Sally's horoscope, “There are moments when we cannot believe that what is happening is really true. Pinch yourself and you may find out that it is.”
Yes there are people who can inflict unbearable and sustained physical pain upon others and openly enjoy doing so. Survivors or witnesses to such occurrences are often traumatized for life, as Sally no doubt will be after finally escaping Leatherface and Hitch. And even hardened law enforcement officers are sometimes emotionally broken by the worst cases. In the aftermath of the Toolbox Killers (a sadistic pair of rapists who set out to rape, torture and kill at least one girl of every age from 13 to 19) being imprisoned Detective Paul Bynum committed suicide, explaining in his suicide note that he believed the killers, if ever allowed to go free, would target him and his family. A prosecutor involved in the same case was, for years afterward, plagued with nightmares of trying to save any future victims if the the killers were ever released. In order to prevent these kinds of emotional breakdowns of investigators, the FBI takes its own agents through a sort of designed exposure phase in which they make them watch and listen to video and audio recordings of victims being tortured by real life serial killers who made recordings during the act. How many of us could stomach it?
It can be an unbelievably cruel world out there and The Texas Brainsaw Massacre (sic) provides us with a glimpse into the darker possibilities. In a way the film itself, and other serial killer movies, can be thought of as an exposure phase. Still to this day, first time viewers of Chainsaw are emotionally challenged by its content. And it’s good that some movies do this because the darkest depths of the human condition are worth exploring so that as a society we can be prepared to prevent the most appalling crimes and deal with them culturally when they do occur. I’m not saying that all of the worst depths of human depravity should be shown outright in movies or that video and audio recordings of real life murders should be available for public viewing. It’s one thing reading about these horrors, but to actually see and hear recordings of such events I don’t think is something the average human mind should be subjected to, especially considering that serial murders are actually very rare. Some forms of denial are worth keeping and left to those responsible for investigating such crimes.
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We’ve explored some pretty dark stuff throughout this analysis, especially in the section about comparisons with real life serial murder, so rather than end on a down note of, “Oh my God. It’s such an evil world”, I’m now going to lighten the tone and hopefully cheer you up a bit.
Serial murder is very rare. Sources I’ve read estimate approximately 150 serial murders in the US annually, which means that in a given year the average US citizen has less than a 1 in 2 million chance of being the victim of a serial murder. In other countries the statistics are even more of a relief being that the US has by far the highest recorded number of serial killers. The number of cases peaked in the 1980’s and has massively decreased since.
But the best way to lighten this topic up here is to simply point out that Chainsaw is, in parts, a very funny movie. And that’s not just me talking. I’ve watched the film maybe half a dozen times and usually with someone else, and the people I’ve watched it with were generally freaked out but also did a fair bit of laughing. Some of the Adams family shenanigans are pretty funny, such as the old guy chastizing Hitch and Leatherface about the demolished front door to the house. Even Grandpa’s blood sucking I’ve noticed triggered a giggle or two. And in the end chase scene I’ve see viewers burst into fits of laughter at Hitch’s death (being run over by a cattle truck) and Leatherface taking a spanner in the face and near hacking his own leg off.
A lot of the time real life crime cases have very funny details too. Like when the police phoned serial killer and compulsive liar Fred West on his mobile to tell him to come home and get arrested. He then disappeared for several hours and gave the excuse that the paint fumes in a house he’d been decorating had made him dizzy so he had to sleep it off in his car. Yeah right. Or how about when Richard Ramirez, aka The Night Stalker, returned to his home county not realizing he’d been identified as a serial murderer and his photo and name widely distributed in news media. Upon seeing himself in a newspaper he tried to escape, but a gang of locals chased him, caught him, whacked him over the head with an iron bar and handed him over to the police. Take that Ramirez. One cuckoo land pedophile I worked with in a probation hostel many years ago was caught because he actually gave a rape victim his contact phone number so she could give him a ring. Talk about being disconnected from reality. And in case you thought old women were safe to be around, a 68 yr old woman in Russia has recently been charged with killing and eating over a dozen people, the press here in the UK have called her the "Granny Ripper", though I like the nickname Grannybal Lecter personally. Or how about just calling her The Old Bat? Sometimes you've just gotta laugh at the insanity of our world to stop yourself being driven crazy by it.
As a dark, but funny, alternate ending in Chainsaw imagine if Sally had made her escape from Leatherface here, only to then turn around and see that the driver of the pickup truck was none other than the old guy who abducted her earlier. And here’s one last great piece of trivia for your amusement ... The house where Chainsaw was filmed has since been cut up into chunks and reassembled in Kingsland Texas, where it has since been converted into, of all things, a restaurant. What are the odds?
Thanks for reading. If you want to check out more of my articles and videos on film analysis or psychology then be sure to browse my film analysis page and my other psychology related videos and articles. Until next time, I’ll finish with a quote from Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, spoken after he was sentenced to death ... “See you in Disneyland !!!”
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