Staff Writer Kiaan Davids reviews the long lasting legacy of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its impact on the world of cinema.
With the release of the ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ video game on August 18th of this year, the persisting legacy of the franchise was continued. For a franchise that was initiated off of a low-budget independent horror film, to see such renewed interest is remarkable. However, the franchise, more specifically the first entry ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974) was not always met with such praise from both critics as well as contemporary audiences.
Deliberately or not, the inspiration for the film had come to Tobe Hopper many years prior. The 1960s and early 1970s had not been kind to the United States of America. The 1960s had started as a somewhat promising decade with the election of the young and popular John F. Kennedy as president and the growing civil rights movement. However, what had started as an optimistic period was not sustained. By 1970, America had lost a president, a presidential candidate, and several civil rights leaders to assassinations. The counterculture movement which also could’ve been an outlet for change notably concluded with Manson Murders.
The 1970s began with a similar trajectory as the Watergate Scandal and the 1973 Oil Crisis had caused mass skepticism of the government. Hooper would later say “man was the real monster here, just wearing a different face, so I put a literal mask on the monster in my film”. The effects of the various cultural and political spectacles resulted in a new movement in American cinema, one that was characterised by a gritty perspective. ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ is an ideal representation of this movement, as the independent nature of the project and graphic subject matter epitomizes 1970s American cinema.
Gone were the days of lavish set pieces, sound stages, and exceedingly high budgets. Trying to capture the exact budget for ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is like chasing rabbits, Forbes estimated the cost of the film to sit at around $140,000, CNN Entertainment would say $240,000Editors note (please find sources for these stats)whilst some sources indicate a budget as high as $300,000. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things most figures pale in comparison to what the film would make, which sat at around $30,000,000. The film’s low-budget was reflected through its production, which would oftentimes border and sometimes break the barrier of cinematic illusion.
In an interview with the New York Post, Joseph Lanza, the author of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Film That Terrified A Rattled Nation’ said that after an incident involving a malfunctioning tube of fake blood, Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface became so upset that he actually cut Marilyn Burns’ (Sally Hardesty) finger. At certain points in time, the number of takes and hours of filming would grow to become excessive. The crescendo of the film entailed a 5-minute sequence in which Marilyn Burns’ character is tied up in front of the murderous family and although just 5 minutes in length, according to Hansen, the sequence took 26 hours to shoot. Hansen would also say that “At that point, we were on the verge of mental collapse”.
Despite the clear lack of safety protocols, the film was innovative and showed signs of greatness. In terms of the overall style and look of the film, the Director of Photography Daniel Pearl stated “it was not beautifully lit. That went a long way toward that realistic feeling of the film. It was not very polished”. The constant presence of the film grain, added a visual tone that is in direct correspondence with the subject matter. Perhaps one of the most famous shots within the horror genre is the crash zoom after Leatherface claims his first victim and I have no doubt whatsoever in saying that Pearl’s use of lighting and framing is masterful. The distinct visual juxtaposition between the shot of a Cow frothing at the mouth in a slaughterhouse and Marilyn Burns’ character tied in a chair is a magnificent work of cinema.
As a result of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ being both criticized for its use of excessive violence as well as being highly regarded for it, the comedic aspect of the film has tended to go unnoticed. Speaking to IndieWire, Hooper said “There is this kind of, I don’t know, Thanksgiving-dinner-in-Texas-with-a-big-family feeling about it — where if you back away far enough from it you’ll see a family start fighting and it will become funny because it’s based in truth. It’s ironically funny.” The humor of the film is based on its subtleness for example, when Jim Seidow’s character the ‘Cook’ says “I just can’t take no pleasure in killing”, whilst it is later revealed in the film’s sequel ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’ that he wins a barbecue contest by using human meat instead of animal meat. Another instance of Hooper’s dark humor can be seen when the main group of teenagers drives past a slaughterhouse and Paul Partain’s character ‘Franklin’ explains the process of killing an animal to which Marilyn Burns’ character ‘Sally’ says “Franklin, I like meat please change the subject”.
Though ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ is well regarded today as not only a masterpiece of horror but cinema generally, this was not always the case. The film faced heavy censorship despite Hooper’s somewhat ignorant attempt to gain a PG rating. In Canada particularly, the film faced an onslaught of both criticism and censorship with The Calgary Herald reporting in 1975 that the film classifier R.W. McDonald stated the people of view the film “deserve what they get”. To many, the horror of the film was too much, whilst to some it was level with other pictures. In many cases, reactions to the film were overstated, as in the same article by The Calgary Herald there was an interview with an assistant manager at a local cinema, who said “people have asked for their money back after seeing the show, but we can’t return their money unless they get sick”. The same manager would later say that “one woman has been sick, but she was pregnant”.