It is somehow fitting that Tobe Hooper listened to Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Lou Reed’s Berlin on autoplay while he was working on the story for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974. They are both classic pop albums, from the golden age of classic pop. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has the surface veneer of some multihued future world where rock and roll and electric boots consume the black and white memories of nostalgia. It is deceptively and superficially hopeful. Berlin, on the other hand, reflects on all the promises of the future unfulfilled, a place full of junkie strewn dead-end streets where everything is broken. Both albums, nevertheless, are littered with corpses, and one can easily see how their subliminal body count could subconsciously inspire a young, horror filmmaker.
With The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tobe Hooper tapped into the end of the ‘60’s malaise, in much the same way George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead did in 1968 and, to a certain extent, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout did in 1971. The false hippie idealism which suggested that levitating the Pentagon or placing flowers in the barrels of rifles would stop the war or lead to world peace was crushed by the Nixon administration who made it possible for the National Guard to murder anti-war protesters on the campus of Kent State in 1970, and who prolonged the Vietnam War out of political exigency while telling the public they were trying to end it.
By 1973, when The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was filming, everything was bad. The film briefly alludes to the oil crisis (the filling station is out of gas), unemployment (mechanization of the slaughterhouse is putting people out of work), growing lack of community trust (“You don’t want to go fooling around other folks’ property”/”That’s the last goddamned hitchhiker I ever pick up”), and the endless stream of violence, horror, and harm spewing from society as reported by the radio broadcast droning on under the film’s opening credits. As Walkabout made clear, nature is brutal and unforgiving, but human nature has unquantifiable reserves of evil.
Night of the Living Dead appeared in theaters at an opportune time, as the Vietnam War was escalating and civil unrest had become an omnipresent feature of life. By the time The Texas Chain Saw Massacre appeared in 1974, all hope and promise had been squeezed out of social movements, and the stability of community standards had become fragmented. Nevertheless, things were pretty much business as usual; the children had lost the revolution, and the adults were still in charge. Nothing to see here, folks, just keep it moving…
From the very beginning of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it is obvious that terrible things are going to happen. The film begins in darkness with the sounds of what might be somebody shoveling dirt, digging a grave, perhaps. His breathing is heavy. There are flashes of decomposing body parts, glimpsed just long enough on the screen to jar something in the back of a viewer’s brain. Underneath the opening credits is some sort of undulating Rorschach test in blood or rotting flesh, it is hard to tell which, but it probably doesn’t matter anyway.
Naturally, the opening credits end with a dead armadillo, belly up, roasting in the sun, in a sense welcoming us to Texas. One gets the feeling thatThe Texas Chain Saw Massacre could not have been made anywhere else at any other time, much like Butthole Surfers or Roky Erickson could not be from anywhere else but Texas either. As such, the cinematography takes full advantage of the wide open spaces of Texas, which are later contrasted with cramped, claustrophobic quarters.
Although The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was roundly criticized, if not openly vilified, upon its release in 1974, with even Johnny Carson finding it necessary to call it “…the most vile, despicable bunch of trash,” it found a core audience and grew in notoriety as time went on. Despite the film’s obvious attraction as one of the strangest things released in 1974, it still holds up remarkably well because it was an expertly crafted film, even if its low budget might suggest otherwise.
For example, the soundtrack is pretty remarkable. Most of it was constructed by Tobe Hooper himself experimenting with broken instruments, self-produced sound effects, and other manipulations. There are additional notable sound effects, as well, such as the electric generator that runs in the background ceaselessly at the Sawyer family compound. After a while, it simply becomes part of the background instead of the annoying noise that it is.
And then, of course, there is scream queen Marilyn Burns’ incessant shrieking throughout the end of the film. How long is she screaming for…30 minutes? Longer? Whatever…it is amazing. Relentless and amazing.
The cinematography and shot framing is something else that many people tend to overlook, maybe because most of what Tobe Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl achieve is so subtle that it is easy to neglect. Look at how the camera pans around the gas station as Pam and Sally buy sodas, or the placement of Pam and Kirk when they knock on the door of the Sawyer house, each facing the opposite direction, one up and one down, or how the camera swoops under the porch swing when Pam goes to investigate Kirk’s disappearance, or the framing of her face when she reaches the screen door of the house as if forewarning us that, yes, heads are gonna roll. There are numerous other little setups like this that fly by unnoticed because there is just so much going on in this film.
And comedy? Normally, it is impolite to laugh at someone in a wheelchair, or a beautiful girl being slapped with a broom, or even a pretty girl being poked with a stick. Somehow, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre makes these sadistic moments so ridiculous they are actually laugh out loud. I’m sure in some other universe, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a comedy.
For many people, this is the only film that they know Tobe Hooper by. Perhaps they might know that he directed Poltergeist, although Steven Spielberg somehow seems to get all the credit for that. In addition, film critics continually write about how Hooper never artistically followed through on the promise he displayed with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Bullshit. That is simply lazy journalism and uninformed opinion. Whether people had the chance to see his large body of work or not, or whether particular works were to somebody’s specific sense of taste or not, Hooper’s efforts in television and film were always entertaining, usually darkly humorous, and highly individual and singular, budget be damned!
Hooper’s immediate follow-up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive, begins with an attempted anal rape on a hooker wearing a Shirley Temple haircut (or wig) by the man who would be Krueger (Robert Englund) in a few years. If one were seeking career advice, it might be suggested that this is no way to open a film if you want a commercial breakthrough into the mainstream. If you are going to maintain an independent career, however, and follow your own vision of how you want your films to be perceived, then this is a perfectly acceptable beginning.
Any interview with Austin, Texas native Tobe Hooper shows what an unassuming and humble person he is in real life. One can picture him as the college professor that he began his professional career as, but it is interesting to note that he was also a documentary filmmaker in the 1960’s, who shot and directed a film for PBS on folksingers Peter, Paul, and Mary. As Hooper continued on with his career following The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the delight he felt engaging with the creative process was always tangible on the screen. As Marilyn Burns, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ s Sally Hardesty, said immediately before her recent and sudden death on August 6th, 2014, “It’s crazy what a bunch of kids will do when they want to make a movie.”
Oh, and John Larroquette was paid exactly one (1) marijuana joint for his voiceover narration at the beginning of the film.
Now you know.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.