Desolate Madness: A Retrospective on ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Franchise Part 1
Leatherface is one of my favorite horror icons. I know that compared to his murderous colleagues he isn’t as colorful. He never uttered a memorable quote, some glorious cringe-inducing one-liner before dispatching some one-dimensional teen — in fact, he never uttered a coherent sentence in any of the movies. He doesn’t look as stoically cool as Michael Meyers, standing there in the darkness with his white-faced William Shatner mask. He doesn’t have an impressive body-count compared to the likes of Jason Voorhees.
Even the character’s signature traits doesn’t sound as interesting as all the others. So his weapon of choice is a chainsaw and he wears faces as masks? Big deal. How can that be as exciting as say a dream demon who can kill you in your sleep? An unstoppable killer zombie with a serious case of oedipal complex like Jason? A force of pure evil like Michael? Or an adorable little doll possessed by a serial-killer through the magic of Voodoo?
But the thing I find especially intriguing about Leatherface, if we’re talking about the original Tobe Hooper’s incarnation, is his innocence. Even though his murderous antics were inspired by real-life serial-killer Ed Gein, Leatherface (real name Jedidiah Sawyer) does not seem like your a-typical psychopath. His evil originates mostly from his ignorance, his mental-handicap, the substandard IQ that probably reign higher than 65. The lack of wit and the savageness that can originate from it, like a wild animal, shows that there’s a purity about him. He might walk around in a blood drenched apron but there’s nothing meticulous about his wickedness. Simply put: he doesn’t know better.
None of his horrific acts are committed out of some sadistic glee. He doesn’t get his kicks from murder. He isn’t fully aware that what he’s doing is wrong, similar to how a guard-dog might maul an innocent child for trespassing. Tobe Hooper himself called Leatherface a ”big baby” who only strikes violently when he feels threatened. Unlike his murderous counterparts, he truly seems to be the product of nurture instead of nature — though a case could be made for Jason Voorhees, as his brand of carnage could have been avoided if his mother wasn’t so nuts and if he hadn’t been teased and left to drown by the camp counselors.
Leatherface could have been a different soul had he been born in a less demented household. He’s in the spell of his deranged family. He does their bidding, collecting the meat so that his older brother Drayton (an unnerving but also sometimes hilarious performance by Jim Siedow) can cook it for his special brand of barbecue-meat. Leatherface is their loyal dog and all he wants to do is please his masters.
But he isn’t deprived of genteelness — though the 2003 version definitely makes him more vicious. We can see glimmers of this in the original, in his conflicted and worrying pose after he struck down Kirk (William Vail) with a hammer. Whether he’s simply worried about the intruders treading on their land or whether he did the right thing in the eyes of his family, we see he’s not just an empty vessel of savage butchery. He’s painfully human.
Leatherface is even portrayed as a sort of gentle giant in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 where he takes a particular liking to the film’s heroine, Stretch (Caroline Williams) and even lets her live, hiding her from his Drayton and his brother Chop-Top (Bill Mosely, who also played Drayton in Texas Chainsaw 3D). We also see the sexual repression of Leatherface, as he doesn’t understand the urges inside him — it also introduces how he conflated his sexual prowess with his amped-up chainsaw. Leatherface’s innocence continues in the much maligned Texas Chainsaw 3D where he becomes a sort of anti-hero at the film’s climax.
But he’s scary too. You don’t want him chasing you. You don’t want to hear his amped-up chainsaw in the distance. There’s no reasoning with him. He’s someone who doesn’t really understand the world around him. You don’t want him staring at your face — while he’s wearing it. This begs the question: why does Leatherface wear the faces of his victims? Theories abound. If you believe the recent prequel, it’s to hide his facial disfigurement — not a big fan of this explanation. In the 2003, it’s to hide his degenerative skin-disease. It could be a gruesome symptom of his multiple-personality, becoming a different person each time he wears a skin-mask. Perhaps it’s something he feels he needs to do in order to become the mindless killer. Perhaps somewhere Jed does feel guilty for his violent acts. It’s to make sure that the screams of his victims don’t get to him. Hiding the mask is him subduing his conscience.
Or perhaps there’s nothing behind the mask at all. The masks are there to hide the terrifying void inside. As Gunnar Hanson stated: ”if you would take the mask off, there would be nothing there…”
Whatever the reason, this fascinating character would be imprinted in the nightmares of many people. He would appear in eight more films in the course of four decades. Like his fellow murderous peers, it’s a classic character of horror cinema. He will never really go away.
In the first of several articles, I will delve into the fascinating horror franchise of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In this article I will delve into where it all started and why this film can still disturb us to this day.
”It’s Only a Movie…”
Despite what you would expect from a film called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s not an ultra-violent film. There’s implications of gruesome dismemberment, even cannibalism, but it’s not a mindless exploitation film. In fact, there’s hardly any gore at all.
The lack of on-screen carnage wasn’t an aesthetic choice. It was because director Tobe Hooper wanted a PG rating which would increase its chances of distribution. When the MPAA saw the finished film however, they were so horrified that they gave the film an X-rating. After cuts were made, the film received an R-rating.
On its release the film garnered rapid controversy. There was moral outrage, walkouts and disgusted critics. It was banned in several countries. It would even become one of the notorious ‘video-nasties.’
Right now there are many PG-13 rated films that have a lot more on-screen violence and gore than TCM. But despite the lack of on-screen carnage, the film still made viewers uneasy. Even though modern viewers might be better acclimated to the dread imposed in this film, I believe that in comparison to other slasher classics such as Halloween or Friday the 13th that TCM will the only one capable of truly shocking them.
So what’s the secret?
Part of it is brilliant filmmaking. It’s the rawness of its presentation. It’s the brilliant use of sound, natural light, and uncomfortable close-ups. It’s an incredible intense film.
We know it’s just a ‘movie’. We know that despite the implication in the opening narration by John Larroquette (in his first ever on-screen credit), that this is not a reenactment of a horrific true crime. We know that’s not a real skin-mask, we know it’s fake blood. But even so, there’s something uncomfortably real about how this film ‘feels’.
And that’s because the true horror of TCM lies not in the traditional entertainment of the slasher genre. It lies the unbridled madness of its all too human monsters. It’s about being stuck in their world. Being their subject for amusement, for consumption.
And the reason of why it all feels too real is that some of its madness, even though most of it was naturally simulated, was touched upon and experienced, perhaps a little too intimately by its cast and crew.
A True Example of the Hardships of Independent Filmmaking
Filmmaking outside the Hollywood establishment is a different enterprise entirely. There are no corporate forces holding the creative forces at bay. Yes you can stick it to “the man” but this also means that things are going to be a lot harder. You cannot throw money at any problem. You have to be really creative. Things will go wrong. Sometimes, things can go terribly wrong.
If you’re an actor working outside the system, there’s no guarantee of comfort, financial gain or even complete safety. If you read Lloyd Kauffman’s hilarious and earnest tell-all book All I Need to Know About Filmmaking I learned from the Toxic Avenger, you will learn a lot about what it means to be an independent filmmaker. How the system has been safeguarded against too many outsiders trying to change the way things work. How hiring certain actors or crew members means dealing with intrusive unions.
The story of the making of TCM is a perfect example of what independent filmmakers can go through. Made for a slim $140,000, Hooper and Co. went on to create an unnerving little horror film that also dissected the warped American landscape of the seventies.
The two-week shooting schedule turned into four grueling weeks, during one of Texas’ greatest summer heat waves. These were sixteen hour days in 80 to a 100 degrees. The main setting was inside a farmhouse which could not be ventilated. Since they used low-grain film, they needed to compensate the scenery with more light, which increased the already unbearable humidity.
As you can expect, this caused a lot of agitation among crew-members. For one, many of the actors didn’t have many clothing items. Gunnar Hanson, who played Leatherface, had only one shirt which he wasn’t allowed to wash because it was dyed. Eventually he began to smell so bad that people avoided sitting next to him.
The process of turning young twenty-something John Dugan into an old man took sixteen hours. As any performer whose been accustomed to walking around with heavy make-up can attest to, especially during a heat wave, it’s anything but pleasant.
But the most notorious detail during the making-of were the rotting props used to create the appropriate macabre farmhouse. Art-director Robert A. Burns lathered the walls with animal blood acquired from slaughterhouses and collected dead animals around the countryside, which began to rot during the long hours of filming.
These tough conditions especially took a toll with its cast, no more than Marilyn Burns, the sole survivor of the teens encountering the Sawyers, but also the main subject of torture in the infamous dinner sequence…
Marilyn Burns is one of cinema’s greatest scream-queens. One needs no more evidence than her performance in TCM. But knowing what she endured during the making of the film certainly solidifies it.
One painstaking detail is that some of the blood flowing from her body in the film is real. She cut herself running through undergrowth as they were filming a chase scene between her character and Leatherface. But it’s the scenes where her character receives physical abuse from the Sawyers where Marilyn really took the method approach.
Jim Siedow recalls how he was encouraged to really strike her when his character was subduing her. This method approach was not only suggested by Hooper, but by Burns herself. Initially he felt uncomfortable with it, but eventually, with a glint of shame in his eyes, he got into the intensity of the scene. After they were finished with the scene, having done numerous retakes, Marilyn, bruised and bloodied, began to faint.
In the dinner scene, the long hours, intense heat, and rotten flesh got to the performers. The madness they shared was palpable. Hanson recalled how he really felt that he became Leatherface and that he was really going to kill Sally (Burns).
Watch out for the scene when Leatherface wants to feed grandpa. In this particular sequence Leatherface cuts Sally’s finger so that he can put it into grandpa’s mouth. This simple effect scene was more difficult than initially suspected, partly because Gunnar could hardly see from his mask and the fake blood wouldn’t come out of the tube. So Burns actively pushed her finger towards the blade, and the blood you see is all hers.
It’s hard knowing this and not feeling a greater catharsis when her character survives her harrowing ordeal. The shooting of TCM might have been a creative highlight for many of the performers involved, but it was also living nightmare.
Edwin Neal, who plays the hitchhiker (also known as Nubbins), recalls that after his character gets run over by a truck, there was supposed to be a shot of his body with a broken jaw on the road. Neal had to lie there for hours while they were filming around it and prepping the scene. The heat wave was still in full effect and Neal got burned by the blazing highway, yet he stayed there anyway because, just like Burns and all the others, they were fully committed to their part. Unfortunately for all of Neal’s efforts, this particular sequence got cut from the movie. Neil even stated that filming TCM was worse than Vietnam.
The Chainsaw Dance
The most frightening aspect for me in TCM is that you’re basically watching people with severe mental-illness being isolated in their existence, and having it let loose because there’s no guardian, no one to stop them from reveling in their madness.
And that’s what’s really scary about TCM: desolate madness. Somewhere down the line, they began feasting on human flesh. Perhaps it was inspired by their grandpa, the lifeless patriarch. Perhaps it was their twisted revenge on their loss of economic security in their town. Perhaps it’s their revenge for Sally and their clan, people who seem to have it all.
Nubbins was free to enact his sadistic urges. Drayton lets is happen so that he can cook his ‘meat’ — his enjoyment of the whole sadistic affair is debatable, as you can see that he’s slightly conflicted with it, and Leatherface does whatever his family wants from him. In order for Leatherface to do what he does, he must wear the faces of his victims.
Every one of them lives in their own world. There’s nothing for these characters to do but to dive even deeper into their own unique brand of madness. There is nothing for them to do in this town. They are bored. They must kill time. The low-budget aspect of the film only sells these ideas even further. Everything is run down and used.
Looking at these people, to their sweat-drenched faces and dirty clothes, you can already imagine how they smell. They live quiet lives, minuscule lives. There’s nothing grand about their existence. Nothing feels scripted. In many ways it feels like a found-footage film should feel.
We are watching unbridled madness on screen. Hooper directed these performers into the darkness. For a few brief moments, Burns really felt the terror of the Sawyers and for a few brief moments, Hanson really believed himself to be a Sawyer.
The successful result was partly a happy accident, due to the conditions on set and the lack of funds for a more comfortable filmmaking experience. I don’t think this movie would have been as effective if we couldn’t feel the dread of the characters. It wouldn’t be as successful if the cast and crew didn’t go mad themselves while making this film.
And then there’s the sudden and powerful ending. It always stuck with me. The film ends with the survivor Sally laughing hysterically. Even though she made it out alive, we know she’s never going to find any mental solace. While she’s being driven to safety, we watch the film’s central monster, Leatherface, wave his chainsaw in a macabre dance.
The last few seconds of the film is devoted to pure madness. It’s Leatherface’s frustration of having failed, it’s the prospect of being discovered, it’s him relishing in his fantasy of this big powerful monster. And then it just stops.
But Leatherface would return again. It would take twelve years, but he would return, right alongside original director Tobe Hooper…
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Comment down below!
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