Tobe Hooper’s classic American nightmare, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), is without a scintilla of doubt one of the titans of horror cinema and its reputation set in stone for all eternity as an emblem of screen terror. But guess what? Hooper’s masterpiece is also really funny. Not to get all crazy revisionist on you, the director always insisted the first one was packed with gags. It’s just that, well, nobody was paying attention.
Missing the LOL factor is understandable because Hooper’s dry-as-the-Texas-desert sense of humour is a whole new definition of deadpan and weird. Here are some keen pointers to help you out.
The title is kind of a joke
If you look at photographs taken during the actual shoot, on the production slate, where the title goes, it reads: ‘Leatherface’. In the run-up to release, in late 1974, it became known by the nom de splatter: ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’. (You can go with TCSM, too, if you’re an über-fan and/or love acronyms.) But in truth, there are five or six instances of claret sprayed in the entire film. It’s hardly what you’d call a gore feast. So, no, Roger Ebert, the film isn’t as “violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises.” The name change totally worked, though, as it attracted an audience and became one of the highest grossing flicks that year.
Franklin is responsible for the group’s demise
Franklin Hardesty (brilliantly played by Paul A. Partain) is the most annoying character in horrordom. Given his physical circumstances, the viewer is immediately to sympathise with the pudgy wheelchair-user, but he’s just so goddamn irritating! Who doesn’t cheer when Leatherface carves him up? Kirk, Jerry, Sally (his sister) and Pam can’t stand him, either. But study the plot in closer detail, and Franklin is pretty much the reason everybody dies. He tells Kirk and Pam about the ‘swimming hole’. This leads the unlucky pair to a date with Leatherface. After that, it’s Jerry’s turn to go wandering where hippies fear to tread down the ‘old trail’. Franklin’s subsequent yelling, and honking the camper van horn repeatedly, attracts the attention of the hulking dead-skin-mask-wearing, chainsaw-wielding freakazoid. Franklin, supposedly the guy who demands audience sympathy because he can’t use his legs, turns out to be a massive douchebag with blood on his hands. Funny.
Pam’s astrology book
In the first act Pam reads aloud from her copies of ‘A — Z Horoscope Maker and Delineator’ and ‘American Astrology — Your Daily Guide’. How close horoscope is to ‘horrorscope’ is moot. The pages might as well tell the gang: ‘You’re all going to die horrifically at the hands of a cannibal maniac. Yep, there’s a bad day coming’. She notes, with some dismay, that Saturn is in retrograde and this will produce a malefic influence on the world. Their fate is written in the stars. ‘There are moments when you cannot believe what is happening is really true.’ Hooper was totes laying it on thick.
The cutting humour
It is little remarked upon about just how frickin’ amazing and skilful the editing of TCSM is. (Same goes for the sound design. It’s spectacular.) Sallye Richardson and Larry Carroll did a remarkable job. The tension between comedy and frights is deliriously constructed. Shots work like punchlines or serve to create deadpan contrasts. The close-up, for example, of the dead armadillo, lasts seventeen seconds. Pam’s entrance into the most macabre living room in screen history is a symphony of pans and zooms. There’s also a chicken in a birdcage. So, as you’re unnerved by repetitious shots of armchairs (made from real arms — in the world of the film, not in reality) and worried for Pam, sharing in her discombobulated state, you’re also thinking: What sick and twisted mind puts a chicken in a birdcage? Comic genius, that.
Sally Hardesty is the worst runner ever
Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty is the ultimate Final Girl and every other contender is cast automatically in her shade. Sally, however, is terrible at fleeing from imminent danger. Made in the 1970s, when flared trousers were all the rage and not a crime against fashion/humanity, the laws of physics and aerodynamics will tell us such apparel will be of no use when being chased in the woods by a killer with a chainsaw. Her inability to run in either a straight line or reasonably fast is a comic mockery. Instead of sprinting — like you would in real life — she opts for a wavy-armed trot and yelling combo. She also likes to fall over twigs and even hits a hanging branch like it’s a clever reinterpretation of the old banana skin sketch. Again, Hooper is pulling our leg. Yet it undeniably heightens the tension to unbearable levels because it’s so ridiculous.Barbecue, Texas Style
If a gas station owner entices you to a choice selection of his finest barbecue, a variation on the Central Texas cuisine, it’s for the best that you throw it out of the window as you drive off down the highway. Leave it for coyote chow. A marvellous joke hiding in plain sight can be gleaned from the sign above the shop door that reads: ‘We slaughter.’ Only in Texas would such a sign not be a portent of doom. Alas, the staple food of the Lone Star state that he offers to the group, it turns out, is less an act of good ole Southern hospitality and is in fact made from human flesh. We see Franklin munching on a sausage, clasped in his mouth like it’s a stogie, and spitting out a bit of gristle. It’s been inferred by Hooper that the poor dude is feasting on a penis. Now, what was it that Freud said about cigars?