Bernard Heine, Big Jake, chainsaw, Clarence, Evil Dead, Film, film review, horror, Hostel, John Goodfellow, Leatherface, osteotome, phallocentrism, phallus, Spongebob Squarepants, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper
I don’t usually watch the show Clarence on Cartoon Network. To be honest I much prefer the program We Bare Bears and I’m finding myself truly envious of this generation. Their cartoons are fascinating and visually stunning. Nevertheless I managed to catch the end of a Clarence episode and I was disturbed by one scene. Clarence and his friends hop into his father’s car and a young man is chasing after them with what appears to be a small chainsaw. There’s a brief exchange before the scene cuts back to the boy who waves the chainsaw around in the air to a setting sun, and watching the scene I recognized the echo of a familiar body language. I didn’t believe my instinct at first, but after a moment’s reflection there wasn’t any other conclusion: they had re-imagined the closing scene of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
If you don’t believe me, perhaps this might convince you:
The reality of a chainsaw ripping through human flesh is an idea many people are more likely to try and ignore than actually contemplate, unless you’re Tobe Hooper. Before I continue though, I’d advise the reader to avoid Google Searching “Chainsaw injuries” on “image” search unless they’re genuinely interested to observe the kind of damage the tool can make. For the record I did and, despite my pathetic squeamishness, I managed to look at three or four images before I brought to a state of intense vomiting following by unconsciousness.
The reason for this introductory thought that just caused you to put down that avocado wrap, is that for whatever reason the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre film has been bothering me.
I admit before I go any further that I have not watched the film in its entirety. I got to the scene when Leatherface, the horrifically yet accurately named anti-hero of the film, places the girl on the meat hook and I had to change the channel. My what a little wuss-bag I am. There was a period in my life though when such images did not disturb me as much as they currently do. When I was a young boy my favorite activity was going to Hastings, a retail outlet that used to rent movies back when that was a thing, so that I could look at the horror movie covers. It was all VHS tapes back then, if I can date myself and not appear a tiresome fossil, wrapped in hollow plastic squares that were often dented, cracked, and pointy at certain corners. I knew that certain titles were more “scary” than others, and titles like Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, and Scream promised small snippets of images of people dying, covered in blood, and perhaps a brief glimpse at the maniac that had created the chaos in the first place. I can’t really explain why I did this, for who can really explain the kaleidoscopic chaos that is children’s motivations. Somewhere between “I want chocolate” and “Puppies are cute” my mind went “I want to see dead people and scary stuff” and damn it I knew where to look. The reader may object and say I was raised by shitty parents, but I’d remind them to remember how easy it is to control/monitor their children at all times and then decide whether to damn my parents.
In their defense these images didn’t really scar me that much, and to be honest I was more horrified by the machete wielding John Goodfellow in Big Jake. Greg Palmer inspired more horror than Jason Voorhees, but then again I never watched Jason in any film until I was in my teenage years.
There was a fascination with death when I was a kid, because it was such an abstract concept. Death was something that happened to older people, stupid people in movies, or people living in other countries. Call me whatever you will I recognize how that all sounds, but I will argue for many kids that mindset is pervasive. Death is not a tangible reality because the world is new and different and often because adults have a real tenacity to keep the realities of death from us.
In my horror studies I would eventually come across the name Leatherface, and not long thereafter the title of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It may have been because of the 2003 remake, which, I haven’t watch and don’t care much to see (poor Jessica Biel, when will her agent put her in something that wows us). I always go to the originals of any narratives, it may just be a purist instinct on my part, but it seems important to get the foundational film to see where everything has evolved from. My actual first impression of the film was the few quick snippets I watched on AMC, though I quickly remembered that, at the time, AMC censored their films and so when the film was shown on IFC I watched the film quickly switching back and forth between horrendous scenes of unimaginable terror and Spongebob Squarepants squeaking his boots.
The plot-line of the film begins with an eviscerated corpse. A radio plays describing a series of vandalizations of cemeteries across the state while the camera slowly pans out showing a body perched on a grave marker that’s been assembled from three or four different people. The grave belongs to the grandfather of the two protagonists Sally and Franklin Hardesty who, along with a group of friends who hardly warrant names let alone explanations of characters, make a trek to the family home to investigate. One of them happens to be reading a book on astrology and reads the following gem:
Pam: Hey, listen to Franklin’s horoscope. “Travel in the country, long-range plans, and upsetting persons around you, could make this a disturbing and unpredictiable day. The events in the world are not doing much either to cheer one up.”
Jerry: That’s just perfect. And now read Sally’s.
Pam: [reading from the American Astrology book] Oh, no. Capricorn’s ruled by Saturn. “There are moments when we cannot believe that what is happening is really true. Pinch yourself and you may find out that it is.”
Perhaps it’s just a generational thing, but at this point the viewer usually screams out “You stupid idiot turn around and go back! You gonna die!” It’s a sad truth that horror movie actors rarely listen to their adoring fans. It only gets worse from there as they decide to pick up a hitchhiker who offers them an invitation to dinner, reflections on the meat industry, cuts open his wrist with a knife he steals from Franklin, and is kicked out of the VW van managing to mark it with his blood. Before I continue the reader should get at least a taste of this wack-job to understand what kind of film we’re dealing with here:
Kirk: So, where you heading, man?
Franklin: You work at that place? The slaughter house?
Hitchhiker: Uh… no.
Sally: How’d you get stuck way out here?
Hitchhiker: I was at the slaughter house.
Franklin: I got an uncle who works in a slaughter house.
Hitchhiker: I used to work there. My brother did too. My grandfather too. My family’s always been in meat!
Franklin: [quietly to Sally] A whole family of Draculas!
Franklin: Hey man, you ever go in that slaughter room or whatever they call it? The place where they shoot cattle in the head with that big air gun?
Hitchhiker: Oh, that gun’s no good.
Franklin: I was in there once with my uncle.
Hitchhiker: The old way… with a sledge! You see that way’s better. They die better that way.
Franklin: Well how come? I thought the gun was better.
Hitchhiker: Oh, no. With the new way… people were put out of jobs.
Franklin: Did you do that?
Hitchhiker: [digs through pouch for a few pictures] Look!
[Hands them to Franklin]
Hitchhiker: I was the killer!
Franklin: [looking at the pictures] Damn…
Despite the morbid forebodings implied in this dialogue there is a real beauty to the film, for there are few movies that accurately capture genuine paranoia through camera angling. There is always a sense, while watching the movie, that the viewer who is watching these teens move about is also being watched and so when Leatherface finally bursts into the film in the infamous hammer scene the viewer is forgiven for the shriek they are likely to make, or at least the one I made. The contemporary horror scene has produced an inundation of “jumper” films, movies that are designed to terrify and leave the viewer with paranoia, but what is lacking in many of these films is the landscape. Part of the success of this feeling is Hooper’s ability to capture the Texas landscape, and if it weren’t for the fact his film is about chainsaw wielding cannibals, the film might have won an award for cinematography on its own.
The teens return to the house even after being warned by one of the cannibals, and one by one they’re steadily picked off by Leatherface and literally turned into sausage meat prompting that truism if one is to enjoy sausage you should never find out what’s actually in it.
At this point the reader is most likely either disgusted or annoyed. Why should I care about a disgusting movie about teenagers being slain by cannibals when every other fucking horror movie is about that? The reason the reader should care is not so much just the film, which is worth the reader’s time, but the lasting impact of phallocentrism this film spawned.
The original inspiration for the film, if you trust the folklore of cinema folk, is that Tobe Hooper was waiting in an ungodly long line at a supermarket and he thought to himself, “Boy if I had a chainsaw I could cut right through all these people.” The borderline psychosis aside, this thought, coupled with the real life serial killer Ed Gein, eventually lead to the film that has inspired numerous remakes and other horror masters since. The problem with this idea is that it’s rooted in false understanding of the actual tool’s purpose. The original chainsaw that appeared in the 1830s was the brainchild of Bernard Heine and was originally called an osteotome. The tool at that time was designed to cut through bone, however as the design was appropriated by the lumber industry, this facet was eventually fazed out. The chainsaw still possess the horrific ability to mutilate flesh, however the contemporary chainsaw is manufactured to cut through the lignin, a chemical found in wood that gives it its characteristic sturdiness. In actual fact the chainsaw can’t cut through all the meat, tendons, and bones found within the human body.
Human beings however, possess an extraordinary ability to ignore facts.
It doesn’t matter that the chainsaw can’t completely severe off an arm or cut a body to shreds, because no matter what the chainsaw will leave behind, as my father explained it to me in his matter-of-fact-accuracy “a nasty cut.” The terrifying roar of the engine seems often the hungry grumble of a primordial beast, and the resulting ripping and tearing of flesh is enough to send many people into a tailspin. Looking over the years through films like Hostel, Evil Dead, the scores of TCM remakes and pre-quels and post-quals, and the even larger sea of atrocious and sometimes hilarious zombie films, the chainsaw is seen as the ultimate weapon either by the tormentor or victim and there at least seems to be the lasting impact of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Looking back at Leatherface in the closing scene, waving his chainsaw about while screaming that he couldn’t kill Sally before she hopped into the back of the truck, there’s real impression of the phallus. I’m not the first, nor will I be the last person to observe this. Scholars that work with horror films have noted this fairly obvious symbolism, and so the chainsaw, and the people who weild it, have become contesters fighting for possession of the phallus. The chainsaw penetrates its victims effectively removing them of power and so the struggle of the anti-hero in the horror film is ultimately to retain his power (for few, if any, of these characters are ever women) by penetrating and cutting. The chainsaw is phallic symbol seemingly potent with endless promise of power and so film makers, eager to capture some of the buzz(oh like you never made a bad pun), at some point place the tool into their film promised that the audience will react with appropriate terror.
The conflict of this imagery is that is ultimately proven false, at least in the first film. Leatherface and his brother, the lunatic hitchhiker from earlier in the day, chase after Sally after a botched attempted to crush her skull so their “grandpa” can drink her blood. The brother is crushed by a passing eighteen-wheeler and Leatherface, while chasing Sally and the driver of the truck, is knocked back when the drier throws a monkey-wrench at him. Please don’t ask me what happens to the driver because I honestly don’t know. He’s one of those little plot holes that always manage to appear in horror movies without offering much explanation. During the stumble the chainsaw lands on his leg cutting into his flesh making him slow enough for Sally to hop into the bed of the next conveniently placed truck that appears before they drive away.
Leatherface tried to capture and kill his prey, but ultimately he couldn’t really handle the phallus. His final “dance” is ultimately a tantrum as he waves his dick around in the air, desperate for power; recognizing his own inferiority.
Looking back to the reference in Clarence, I’m able to appreciate the lasting cultural significance of Tobe Hooper’s movie. Yes it’s revolting, repugnant, and filled with meat that’s probably past its expiration date (too soon?), but the film contributed something to the collected creative unconscious, and not just mass produced costume packs for children with horrible parents. The chainsaw remains a potent weapon, whether accurate or not, that is sure to inspire a terror that lies deep in the DNA of our species. The chainsaw is that creature in the dark that steals upon those huddled together for safety until its roar is heard and one more is dragged away. The chainsaw is that monster that man has created for himself, used first as a tool, but now a weapon. The chainsaw blades rip and tear, devouring flesh.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre created a mythology of violence, but also gave people a reason to not eat Barbeque in Texas which is unfair, because everybody knows that the only human flesh you’ll find in meat is at Chili’s.
The reader may recognize that I didn’t really review the film for it’s plot. I apologize if you’re disappointed, but my concern here was more to observe the lasting impact of the movie. You can probably find other reviews online…maybe…I don’t know…why are you still here?
**Writer’s Second Note**
Allright I found one, we can achieve catharsis