Death in the cinematic universe of Tobe Hooper is seldom mundane. People meet their end via meathooks, chainsaws, a soul sucking alien succubus, and homicidal aligator. The departure of Tobe Hooper last week at the age of seventy-four was not mundane either, it came as a surprise as death always does when an artist universally admired passes away. Film is a time capsule medium, capturing: hours, days, weeks, and years. The medium preserves, a look, a feeling, all encased in celluloid like a mosquito in amber.
As such it’s always surprising when the artist who creates these piece of time and light passes away. The iconography of Hooper’s magnum opus The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is unmistakeable, the ambivalent Texas sky, the dilapidated farmhouse, the howling of the chainsaw, the screen door wail of Hooper’s sound cues. The movie taught the genre how to be nasty again and did it with relatively little gore. The most effective visual is one that suggests more than it reveals. Humans desire ambivalence in visual arts. Perhaps it’s because we are storytelling animals that we gravitate towards scenes that sketch action rather than underline it. There’s always a certain deflation when the monster comes out into the light, but when there’s a suggestion, a shadow, a strobe of light, our minds conjure images, concretize what’s only suggested. Chainsaw much like Halloween later in the decade does this perfectly. We see Leatherface slam the girl on the meathook because the logical cause and effect of the scene tells us that’s what’s happening, but Hooper doesn’t show the puncture wound or much of the gore.
That Hooper chose wisely to work with the MPAA to get a rating that would give the movie a wider release shows not only a savvy director, but a skillful one in control of the tone and effects of even a low-budget feature. Any tribute would be remiss without actually talking about the movie. There’s an element to Chainsaw that takes it beyond the concept of a powertool killer and an adaptation of the Ed Gein story. For those unfamiliar with the Gein story, he was a Wisconsin farmer famous for robbing graves and making furniture and other trophies from the skin and bones of the corpses. Along with these horrible acts, he murdered at least two women. Gein became the American Sawney Bean, the head of a murderous cannibalistic family who killed travelers in Scotland around the 14th century. Combining these stories, Hooper mined a very deep vein of fear. Our literature is rife with stories of confronting the wilderness of “savages” who attacked “innocent” settlers, brutally murdering them. Obviously these settlers didn’t view themselves as murderers or thieves though colonialism would eventually eradicate millions of native americans, taking their tribal lands. From our earliest writings, fear of the deserted places of this country have always been endemic to our understanding of the geography of the United States. Hopper takes this fear and emphasizes the roving, hippie culture of the sixties, pairing it with the Manson-like family of the Sawyers. Perhaps if this was it, the movie wouldn’t be so intriguing, but the film is more than just grotesque horror. The movies offers us a glimpse of disability, both mental and physical. Franklin (Paul A. Partain) is wheelchair bound. Often set as comic relief, Franklin’s plight is one of accessibility. He boils with frustration attempting to pee on the roadside and being foiled by a Semi that blows by and knocks his chair down the hill. Even when encountering the hitch hiker at the beginning of the film, Franklin, is unable to get out of the way of the drifters knife. Going to his grandparent’s house, Franklin cannot navigate the rocky fields or free himself when he’s stuck downstairs in the parlor of their abandoned house.
Perhaps the most horrific death belongs to Franklin, who being pushed by Sally (Marilyn Burns) as they search for the others, cannot escape the guttering noise of the chainsaw as Leatherface appears and runs him through. Franklin is trapped in his body, unable to live, not because he’s unaware of what’s happening, but because he can’t move freely.
There’s a powerful symbol with Leatherface’s mask. Leatherface is mentally disabled, yet he wears the faces of his victims, not because this coheres to any cannibalistic ritual, but because these faces represent normalcy. The job of butcher is an accepted position within society. Again, Hooper craftily leaves us hints that the gas station run by the character simply known as Old Man (Jim Siedow) is selling the meat of Leatherface’s victims.
The desire to butcher and sell is the normalization of behavior, a tacit need to connect with humanity in a social and economic way. Perhaps the most memorable scene is the family dinner towards the end of the movie. The Sawyer clan is gathered around the table with Sally, the only remaining protagonist, who is the special guest. The dinner mimics a family style meal, the withered Methuselah of Grandfather (John Dugan) gathered at the head of the table. In a Hollywood movie this scene would be an indicator of the span of the family, generations gathered to air the family business. Besides Sally, there are no women present. This absence shows a lack of the generative potential of the Sawyer clan, a group of murderous men whose family tree is literally being eaten away. Yet the gesture of the dinner matters, the desire to gather in a traditional family setting, to create a familial bond by killing the last remaining victim is aping how families interact over meals. The main symbol of the movie the chainsaw is a tool meant to fell trees, much like Poe’s crumbling house of Usher, giving us an indicator where the Sawyer family line is headed.
Leatherface’s fury at the end of the movie leaves the audience with the arrested feeling that this insanity will continue a little longer. Sally’s escape in the bed of pickup truck, shows us the enraged Leatherface, swinging the chainsaw wildly. The reference back to Franklin is unmistakable. Franklin’s anger at not being able to navigate the world is mimicked by Leatherface’s inability to place the world in a context which connects the family with normalcy. Leatherface’s rage is not only about an escaped victim or a dead brother, but the anger of not being able to cloak himself in the flesh and blood of his victims, the inability to wear their normalcy as the Sawyer family’s own.
Chainsaw is great for many reasons, but perhaps the most endearing one is its enigmatic style. The movie is both a documentary style exploitation and a cinematic marvel of simplicity and beauty. Hooper’s sweeping dolly shot of Pam (Teri McMin) walking towards the Sawyer house is one of the most beautifully constructed moments in film. The ragged last scene, showing the rage of Leatherface and Sally’s madness is so seamless in the way it conveys the contrary emotions of victim and assailant it can go unnoticed. The movie is a grindhouse beauty, a largely bloodless gorefest and a classic film that still feels dangerous even all these years later. Some may say Hooper never directed another great movie. Sometimes one great movie, if it’s like Texas Chainsaw is more than enough.