Tobe Hooper: the Kids and the Chainsaw

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The recent death of director Tobe Hooper has me, and millions of others, thinking about his landmark third film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

In 1974, Massacre presented three major innovations. One, it was both set and made in Texas, and wore its non-Hollywood pedigree on its bloody, tattered sleeve. Two, it was (or seemed to be, which I’ll get to) gratuitously violent in ways that just weren’t common at the time (Herschel Gordon Lewis was the closest, and he was far from mainstream). And three, the topic I want to address here, it introduced the idea of “a group of teenage friends” to horror, an idea that still haunts (not in a good way) the genre today.

Yes, these are supposed to be teenagers, not 30-year-old accountants on their day off.

Yes, these are supposed to be teenagers, not thirty-year-old accountants on their day off. Welcome to the Fifties.

There have always been teenagers in horror and scifi; one look at a list of typical Fifties drive-in fare establishes that. But those teens were also kept locked in the Puritanical mores of the Production Code: they were chaste teetotalers, about as much fun to hang out with as those missionaries who ring your doorbell at dinner, and if they were delinquents, it was because they were misunderstood. They were, in other words, the teens your parents wanted you to be. But Hooper and cowriter Kim Henkel took their teens not from prior horror films, but from the movies that followed in the wake of Easy Rider. These were sexually active, drinking, drug-taking teens; in other words, figures of real identification to 70s youth.

Not the clean-cut, clear-eyed teens of the fifties by a long shot.

Not the clean-cut, clear-eyed teens of the fifties by a long shot.

And yet there’s one other aspect to this choice, one that I haven’t seen discussed much when the film is brought up. Simply, these “kids” (for lack of a better word) are blanks. There are names, and and some basic history, but ultimately they just don’t register as characters. Which is okay, because this movie isn’t interested in horror or suspense. It’s selling sadism.

Consider the famous scene in which Pam (Teri McMinn) is impaled on a meathook and slowly writhes there while Leatherface carves up her boyfriend. The horror here doesn’t come from gore (the budget was too low for real effects), or suspense (everything either happens so fast it barely registers, or goes on and on as we watch). It comes from the sadistic pleasure of watching this character suffer, while another character is treated like a literal piece of meat. Do they deserve it? Who knows? If they did, we might be entirely on the side of the villains, and if they didn’t, the scene could easily become unbearable (which is almost does anyway).

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Pam on the meat hook.

But we don’t particularly care about Kim, Kirk, wheelchair-bound Franklin or his sister (and final girl) Sally, because as I said, they’re blanks. Neither do we “care” for Leatherface and his extended, grotesque family. It’s like watching a car wreck, in the best possible sense: we’re not threatened, but we are aghast at the blood and gore, and our emotional involvement extends only to being thankful that it’s not us.

This is not a criticism, by the way. Faced with the logistics of making a low-budget film far from Hollywood, with a crew of locals and beginning actors, Hooper and company played to their strengths. The Texas heat is palpable, and you can almost smell some of the scenes. The gore might not be seen, but it’s implied so intensely that many people think it’s an incredibly gory film. And the actors walk the superfine line between performance and simply being, so that when they start dying we can watch the car wreck as it unfolds, and have the experience Hooper clearly meant for us to have.

Unfortunately, many lesser filmmakers, to this day, have taken the wrong lesson from this. When I look at a horror film synopsis and it begins with, “A group of college friends…” or “A group of partying teens…” or any variation of that, I move on. Experience has taught me that these “everyday” kids will be obnoxious “movie” teens whose order of demise can probably be predicted before the opening credits finish. They’re not characters any more than they were for Hooper, but they’re also not in the service of anyone with a vision or even a fresh idea.They’re a cynical attempt to connect with the “youth market,” then as now the primary consumers of horror.

We wouldn’t have the modern slasher genre without Tobe Hooper, and it’s certainly not his fault that it became the dreck it did a mere decade later. Hooper himself certainly moved on to bigger budgets and ideas. But there’s a primal power in his breakthrough film, one that everyone who sees it feels. It’s a deliberate car wreck designed by an artist.

*A glorious exception: Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, which flips all the standard tropes.

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