Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1976) used a familiar milieu for most American audiences: the Western frontier. The ” Wild West ” has reached iconic stature as the place where “ America ” was truly born. This is the site of origin for many important economic institutions, such as the cattle industry and other businesses. The people that drove these institutions were blue-collar workers; the ” salt of the Earth “. Though they were not wealthy, they enjoyed a level of admiration encapsulated in fiction such as the Western genre. Aside from romanticism, the working class also enjoyed some financial stability and pride as skilled laborers, such as butchers and craftsmen. As our nation became more industrialized and capitalistic, the need for such skills lessened and the legend of the American west became distanced from what it later became. The people that once had a degree of pride became nothing more than human debris of a time long past, their skills viewed as at best useless, at worst, weird. The antagonists of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are the derelicts of this cultural shift.
Before i go further, a little plot info (be warned, this post has lots of spoilers) : The Texas Chainsaw Massacre focuses on a group of teens visiting a dead grandfather’s estate. During the visit, they come upon a family of cannibals who live in a house nearby. They are picked off one-by-one by the family’s brutish muscle: the horror icon dubbed ” Leatherface “. Watch the trailer here.
The film establishes the conflict between pre and post-industrial Americans with its youthful protagonists. Their motive for venturing to Texas is already based on a wariness of the region: they fear that a family member’s grave has been disturbed by vandals who have been mentioned on the news. The Hardestys and friends are typical Hollywood teens: well dressed, attractive, and most likely upper or middle class. A sharp distinction is made between them and the Texans they meet upon arrival; most of them are old and weathered.
One of the teens, Franklin, is established as the middle ground between these two demographics.
Franklin is overweight and handicapped, distancing him from his “Hollywood attractive” friends. What is especially notable is that he has a thick Texan accent, marking him as the only character with overt Texas roots. He is also the only character who is given significant background, even though it is only alluded to. When they decide to pay the Hardesty home a visit, a repugnant smell permeates the van during the drive. Franklin is the only one not to react in disgust and is actually elated once he realizes it is his grandfather’s slaughterhouse. Whereas the others reaction to this site with repellence, Franklin recognizes its historical significance, especially in regard to his family’s livelihood. The harmonica plays over his dialogue, evoking a familiar music motif of Western nostalgia. Franklin’s attempt to communicate the grandeur of the slaughterhouse is inter-cut with shots of cows, drool dripping from their mouths and herded together.
None of the nostalgia he holds is communicated to the viewer and the ominous music tells us the cattle represent something dreadful. He seems especially excited about the violence employed to kill a cow, which was rendered unnecessary with the invention of the cattle gun. He mentions the advent of the cattle gun, which is a device that makes killing cattle significantly easier. This speaks toward the greater context of industrialization. Franklin associates pre-industrialized labor with productive uses of violence. Franklin finds this violence awe-inspiring as it requires a power lost to most “ civilized ” Americans.
The introduction of the hitchhiker contradicts the nostalgia that Franklin attempted to communicate. Before he is picked up, the teens already regard him as weird-looking and Franklin connects him to the slaughterhouse in regards to his potential bad odor. He sits at the back of the van as all of the teens sit near the front, putting them in opposing shots. Despite his earlier sentiments, Franklin is the most openly derisive of the hitchhiker, calling him names like Dracula. Franklin and the hitchhiker discuss the slaughterhouse, and we find out that the hitchhiker and his family also worked there. As the hitchhiker says this, a shot focuses on Franklin, who’s eyes widen in subtle surprise. His site of nostalgia is decaying as he realizes the ghoulish hitchhiker is the product of the slaughterhouse’s industrialization. Whereas the Hardestys subsisted off the slaughterhouse and then eventually moved away from the town (given what we’ve heard from Franklin) , the hitchhiker’s family had no such luck and became unemployed once they were rendered obsolete. The working class guys that Franklin had such respect for are now at the bottom of the food chain. The hitchhiker was specifically a cattle killer, and the violence that made him so effective at his job no longer has a productive use. He cuts his hand and Franklin’s arm without provocation before being kicked out of the van.
Franklin later stares at his own hand while remarking with awe that it “takes a lot to do what he did”. The admiration he had for the slaughterhouse workers is still present, albeit with a new element of fear.
Once the teens come upon the cannibals’ homestead, we get an introduction into how they now use their ” frontiersman ” skills for survival. The most obvious application in the film is butchery.
The importance of the meat industry is established in the beginning, and thus foreshadows the threat of the primary villain, Leatherface, who is the family butcher. Leatherface is introduced in a butcher’s apron and is shown to have a “slaughter room” that uses butchering implements. His methods reflect the earlier description of slaughterhouse’s methods: he kills the first teenager with a hammer before he even knows what is coming. In addition, he wears an apron and puts one of the girls on a meat hooks, furthering the butchery parallels. The titular chainsaw throws in an element of forestry as well, which doesn’t fit the whole ” butcher ” theme but makes up for it by being scary as shit.
Rather than simply eating people, the family also employs an economy that is signature to the settlers of the past. The hitchhiker references the production of head cheese while talking to Franklin. He emphasizes how the process boils down the edible parts of the head, a body part mostly ignored by most people. Such a desire to utilize every part of an animal is an indicator of a strong survival instinct. This economy isn’t just for animals: Leatherface’s iconic mask and the family’s lampshades are made of human skin.
In one scene, a girl stumbles upon a room where all of the furniture is made of human bones.
The use of such methods marks a regression to a more primitive culture. The accessibility of modern craft materials for most Americans makes these creations archaic and unnecessary. Also, creepy. Since most of these skills have no viability in a capitalist model, the family uses them for the basic necessities of living.
Ironically, the family still embodies certain aspects of Capitalism, albeit in its most primal sense. Many say that Capitalism creates a “dog eat dog” society. People fight to gain as many resources as they can, even if it means the consumption of a neighbor’s resources.The industrial revolution made many skilled workers feel as if they were reduced to nothing more than material resources to be used by the upper class. The family manages to turn the tables on the upper classes who thrive from such a system by reducing them to resources as well through cannibalism (an inverse of Jonathan Swift’s ” A Modest Proposal”.) They herd, kill, and eat human beings as if they are cattle. When any of the teens enter the family’s house, livestock noises are heard with no diegetic source, which links them with farm animals awaiting slaughter.
From a practical perspective, cannibalism allows the family to sustain themselves physically. From a metaphorical perspective, they get to take revenge on the upper classes.
Despite their derangement, they also recognize the importance of financial gain: whatever human meat they don’t eat is sold as barbecue.
They are shut out of the modern day economy so they resort to more drastic means. The hitchhiker attempts to solicit a small amount of money from the teens after taking their picture, but they refuse. In an indirect fashion, the teens are implicated as part of a system that keeps the family from surviving through socially accepted methods. Despite the miniscule amount of money he asks for and his obvious poverty, they do not even consider giving to the hitchhiker. The hitchhiker specifically marks their van after this encounter, which could imply a cause-and-effect relationship between their lack of generosity and their deaths.
Because their class of people will not give them access to financial opportunities, they are forced to use them as resources instead.
While the family momentarily subsists through their methods, their way of life is merely the last throes before the end. The backbone of any society is the family. Family facilitates regeneration of both culture and actual people. Once the family is rendered sterile, there is no future. In the film, it is apparent that the cannibal family has no females. Their grandmother is a corpse in the attic, so whatever feminine influence they had has been long deceased.
The three family members we see for most of the film are all said to be brothers, meaning that there is no strong patriarchal force either.
When we are introduced to the patriarch of the family, he is a decrepit old man who needs to be fed and moved about by his grandsons.
They sing the praises of how amazing he was at killing their victims, once again making a slaughterhouse parallel by referencing his prowess with the hammer. Like Franklin, they cling to a nostalgia for a strong working class that they fail to notice has decayed. They try to get the old man to kill the final girl with his once mighty hammer strike, but he is unable to even lift the hammer without their assistance.
His phallic hammer has been rendered impotent. Their delusion that he can accomplish the feat shows how ignorant the brothers are of their family’s predicament. The old man can no longer perform his “ fatherly duties ” and the mother is dead, meaning there is no future for this family and their way of life. These men who have seemingly been in complete control over their environment throughout the film are revealed to be pathetic children unable to acknowledge that what they hold dear had already been lost. Despite being a horror film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in many ways as much of an ode to to the twilight of the frontiersmen as any Western.
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