Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre may just be the most visionary horror film of the last half century – a primal showdown between hippies and hicks, between the vanguard and rearguard of the post-war counterculture, that set the scene for both the slasher and splatter revolutions but also, a generation later, the torture and found footage revolutions as well. The opening act brims with a taste for revulsion that is utterly splatter in spirit, even if it doesn’t dwell on actual violence so much as a fascination with the abject limits of the human body, figured right from the start in the flashes of gore and sinew that unfold over the credit sequence, in what will become a staple for the franchise, a preview of viscera to come. From there, Hooper introduces backroads Texas through a discomforting continuity between the human and animal world, whether it’s an armadillo lying belly up on the middle of the blacktop, or the odour that drifts over the highway from a rural slaughterhouse. Beyond this, the first scenes of the film bubble with a general haptic discomfiture, epitomised by the first local Texans that we see – a group of old men lying contorted in a sea of used tires, where they sprawl, laugh and gesture maniacally for Hopper’s camera to mirror their angularities.
Yet if these opening moments of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre anticipate the blooming of splatter horror, they’re intercut with a languorous and beautiful sense of suspense that speaks to the inchoate slasher aesthetic as well. Indeed, these vistas of grotesque abjection only ramify so vividly because they’re set against an extraordinary taste for 70s naturalism, with many of the opening shots feeling like they could easily be transplanted to a moodier and more melancholic New Hollywood drama. As Hooper moves from one gorgeous tableau to the next, and leans ever deeper into his balletic tracking-shots, we enter the realm of Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Rain People – films that captured the dissolution of the counterculture through a peculiarly plangent sense of the road. It’s not hard to see, in these moments, how Hooper could go on to craft the languorous and luxurious atmospherics of Salem’s Lot, which is possibly the most immersive King adaptation ever committed to camera.
This alternation between incipient splatter and slasher aesthetics quickly constellates around the limitations of the counterculture, and the blind spots of the hippie movement. We’re introduced to the Texas boondocks by way of five twenty-somethings who are taking a road trip across it – Sally (Marilyn Burns), Jerry (Allen Danzinger), Pam (Teri McMinn), Kirk (William Vail) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain). Sally, Jerry, Pam and Kirk are the very stuff of slasher films – they are lithe, attractive, confident, precocious and ready to seize pleasure wherever they find it. Franklin, however, doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the group, despite the fact that he’s Sally’s brother, and the two of them hail from this part of Texas. For Franklin is a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair that tacitly differentiates him from the libidinous bodies of the counterculture, reminding the audience that you don’t have to be old or rural to fall victim to the unequal distribution of sexual liberation. Being disabled means being castrated within the lifeworld of the hippies, who accept Franklin, but also mock him behind his back.
Franklin’s alienation from the group climaxes when they arrive at his and Sally’s old house. The four able-bodied hippies make their way upstairs, and start to canoodle, leaving Franklin at the bottom of the staircase, where he expresses his frustration through a series of grotesquely aborted gestures, from mocking the giggles he hears floating down the stairwell, to banging the wall, to blowing his tongue in a perverse way. At this moment, it feels like Franklin himself could turn into the antagonist, so it makes sense that he and Sally form the main connective tissue (pun intended) between the hippies and the hicks who eventually consume them. In fact, Franklin draws the hicks out from their hiding hole and, accordingly, is most anxious about them, since he doesn’t have the same sense of bodily invulnerability as the other members of the hippie group, who quickly leave him and Sally alone at the house as they seek out a neighbouring pool and property to take their canoodling to the next level.
Yet while The Texas Chain Saw Massacre brilliantly dissects the contradictions of the counterculture, it’s equally attuned to the way in which this incompletely distributed sexual liberation produces an insatiable rage from those it has passed by – the rearguard of the counter-culture. Like Ti West’s X trilogy, fifty years later, the film and franchise are largely driven by this rage, capturing a fear that persists to this day that progressive sexual politics will invade the Texan heartland. Our first hint of this rearguard comes in the form of a hitchhiker the hippies pick up in the first act, in the midst of a detailed discussion of astrology. The hitchhiker, played by Edwin Neal, immediately ruptures this New Age ambience by embodying the splatter abjection we saw in the credit sequence, to the point where he plays as a one-man montage study in revulsion. He shows the hippies photos of animal carcasses, explains the process for preparing cow heads for consumption, deliberately cuts himself (he’s already covered in blood), photographs the hippies in the same positions as these animal cadavers, sets the photographs alight, and eventually hassles them so much that they throw him out of the car, albeit without thinking of him as any more than a different kind of freak.
Between the hippies and the hitchhiker, Hooper evokes both the contradictions of the counterculture and of those who opposed it, and this mutual incoherence produces a cascade of plot points that leaves only Sally and Frank alive – a disabled man and a bombshell blonde, an offence to the sensibility of hippies and hicks alive. This raises the stakes of the film, as splatter style intensifies into torture horror, and slasher horror intensifies into found footage, both of which occur as Sally and Frank are taken hostage by an insane local family comprising the hitchhiker, an old man played by Jim Siedow, a decrepit grandfather played by Jim Siedow and, of course, Leatherface, the chainsaw-wielding twenty-something, hick cognate of the hippies, played by Gunnar Hansen. The torture elements are perhaps the most iconic part of the horror that ensues, and remain stomach-curdling up to the present day. Not only does Hooper have a real taste for disgust, for the small details that embed horror back in your own body, but he perpetually cuts them with close-ups of Sally and Franklin themselves at the very pinnacle of terror, their eyes registering imminent violence they are powerless to prevent.
Yet the found footage sequences are perhaps even more resonant and prescient, largely working against the way in which Leatherface has been received as a figure of gore in popular culture. Just as the phallic posturing of the chainsaw reflects a profound emasculation at even the hint of the counterculture, so the iconic chase sequence, in which Leatherface pursues Sally through the Texan scrub, seems to disembody him, until he exudes the strange digital corporeality of early 00s horror. This is partly because he’s so kinetic, utterly unlike the slow steady movements of subsequent slashers, moving so fast that he’s always a little closer than expected, or else suddenly emerging with no apparent warning, before vanishing back into the undergrowth just as quickly. Watching him is like witnessing the conservative heartland body politic continually straining and failing to assert itself in the face of sexual liberation, eventually falling back upon a virtual existence that segues into the closing fantasy sequences.
In other words, Leatherface reflects a white heartland masculinity that has been utterly disabled by the counterculture, which creates an unusual affinity with Franklin, who also occupies a uniquely dissonant position at the heart of the final showdown. As a paraplegic, he can’t lay claim to sexual liberation, at least as the film conceives of it, and yet he is too embedded in the counterculture, albeit incompletely, to lay claim to his and Sally’s Texan family home either. Conversely, the hick family adorn their house with collected and curated body parts, in an aesthetic of sadistic disability that provisionally welcomes Franklin into the fold, but dictates that he and Sally have to be ceremonially consumed in order to purge all trace of their shared complicity in the counterculture. Hence the extraordinary final tableau, in which Leatherface, the hitchhiker and the old man (none of these figures are ever given names) bring down their decrepit grandfather, who licks Sally’s finger, as if ingesting the lifeforce of the liberated generation. The three men then place a hammer in their grandfather’s hand, so that he can break Sally’s head open, but he keeps dropping it, and nodding back, in the climactic image of a heartland phallic imperative that can no longer maintain itself without the infrastructure of morbid violence and cultic torture to sustain it.
Over the course of the franchise, these family lineages grow more complex and parodic, in response to the increasing contrivance inherent in maintaining the patriarchal continuity, authority and tradition of the rearguard white heartland. But Hooper’s film ends on a more austere note – with Sally escaping, and Leatherface leaping and whirling in Joker-like mockery to the audience, dancing along the very cusp between liberation and backlash, much as he seeks to ward off the fear of effeminisation by wearing women’s clothes during the closing domestic scenes. In this shot, Hooper not only critiques the counterculture, and those who rejected the counterculture, but creates a new kind of grindhouse hickcore counterculture, one forever associated with Texas, that exists at this same cusp between sexual liberation, everything it had to disavow, and everything that disavowed it, in his undisputed masterwork.