Based on a 'True' Story - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
On 8th August, 1973, a deranged serial killer was shot dead by one of his accomplices and it brought to end one of the worst periods of serial killings in Texas. On 18th August, 1973, Sally Hardesty and her friends suffered an unreal ordeal at the hands of a deranged family in the same state.
The former brought to end a real-life horror called the ‘Houston Mass Murders’ where several boys were assaulted and murdered by a serial killer, Dean Corll and his teen accomplices, Elmer Wayne Henley and David Brooks. The latter is a work of fiction known as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a slasher-horror movie which had a ground-breaking impact on the slasher genre.
The link between the two was pointed out by one of the writers of the movie, wherein he referred to the ‘moral schizophrenia’ that could be made out from the statements of Elmer Wayne Henley. When Dean Corll was alive, Wayne and Brooks had acted as his agents luring several of their own friends to his den and also participated in acts of violence. After his crimes were figured out, Henley decided to assist the cops. He was soon joined in by David Brooks and the two helped the police discover bodies of several young boys. The internet is littered with photos and videos from the time, which show the duo sitting on the beach (can be easily mistaken for two youngsters relaxing after a good day’s work) and actively helping out the authorities in locating the graves of their victims.
While they became ‘celebrities of the macabre’, they gave the sense that they were doing the right thing. (According to the writer, Henley supposedly said ‘take it like a man’ when referring to his actions after getting caught) It seemed unreal to see them helping the authorities as if they were innocent witnesses to these crimes, rather than someone who was deeply involved in them.
It was this identity dilemma which seeped into the cannibalistic Sawyer family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Incidentally, the Sawyer family also comprises of three individuals, who are shown to share a familial bond much like the close bond that was shared by the trio from Houston Mass murders.
Three of them have different roles in the murderous enterprise: The Hitchhiker, supposed to lure the victims, is the first one to meet Sally and her friends, invites them to his place (“You…You…You could have dinner with us, my brother makes good head cheese! You like head cheese? My Brother makes it real good…”) and foreshadows what is about to occur by taking their photos. (This act is reminiscent of the very first scene of the movie) While the Old Man is the dominant member of this household, the hitchhiker is able to take a stand against him towards the end of the movie when he chides the Old Man for not doing any of the killings.
Leatherface is the butcher and executioner, who is encountered upon by the group one by one. His acts bring out the horror aspects of the movie to the core. He runs through his victims with his infamous chainsaw and even impales one of his victims on a meat hook while she is still alive. (While there is a lot of gore which happens in the movie, some of the more gruesome scenes take place off the screen) At the same time when inside the house with his elders, he is shown to be a submissive lackey to the others. He is shown doing a lot of domestic work of the house and being shouted at by the Old man for being incompetent at his job. (You… You Damn Fool! You ruined the door!) When he is being beaten up and questioned by the Old man, he cowers in fear and whimpers out his responses.
The Old man is the ‘front’ as well as the cook. Perhaps the most interesting of the trio, he is the first one to advise Jerry, Franklin and Kirk against going “…messing around some old house” but later takes Sally back to the house of depravities after she had come to his gas pump seeking shelter from the violent Leatherface. He seems to have taken up this profession of serial-killing as a sort of family inheritance and doesn’t really like it. He states “I just can't take no pleasure in killing”, and later is clearly disturbed as Sally screams in terror, but forces himself to laugh at the ghastly scene, unlike hitchhiker and Leatherface, who seem to be enjoying her ordeal.
The last half an hour of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most unsettling sequences in slasher movies. Sally, the final girl, spends most of the time as a helpless victim lying in the Sawyer home being prepared to be offered to Grandpa Sawyer. The dread which we experience lies in the anticipation as to what would happen next. We have witnessed some brutal deaths and odds seem to stacked up against Sally, who is tied up in a deserted house with these monsters.
The dinner-table scene towards the very end is an indication of the ‘twisted normalcy’ that revolves around the lives of Sawyers. When Sally wakes up, she realizes that her ordeal isn’t anywhere near being over, she pleads with the Sawyers (“Please! You can make them stop.”) but they mock, hoot and laugh at her.
Eventually, the Old man silences the other two and tries to straighten them up. (“You think this is a party?”) As they close in on her, Sally continues her prayers and The Hitchhiker gets irritated at the fact that she continues to plead with the Old man. He tells her “He’s just a cook”, this is enough to rile up the already uneasy Old man, who responds with “Shut up, you Bitch-hog!”
The characters end up revealing their differences, with an argument over who does more work in the murderous enterprise. The quarrel finishes with the Old man’s acknowledgment that he doesn’t find any pleasure in what he does. (“There’s just some things, you gotta do. Don't mean you have to like it”).
There are two major takeaways from this final sequence: Firstly, the economic value of the enterprise is hinted at. Perhaps from their debauched perspective, it is looked at as an activity which could provide stability to the family in times of economic crunch. In an earlier scene, the Old man mentions as much to a gagged Sally, when after he has put her in his truck, he returns to his station to switch off the electricity. (“Sorry to keep you waiting, young lady. I had to lock up the shop and turn the lights off. The cost of electricity these days is enough to drive a man like me out of business.”) Also, at several times the activity of killing humans is made comparable to the culling of animals at the slaughterhouse, whether in some of the gruesome deaths or when the Old man discusses the efficiency of their ‘Grandpa’.
Secondly, the character of The Old man is a remarkable depiction of an ‘unsettled individual’. While, The Hitchhiker and Leatherface are on face depiction of violent, mentally disturbed murderers, the Old man in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a study of a man who is at war with what he is doing. Towards the end, he tells them to stop torturing the girl and then almost in the same voice tells her to remain calm as they prepare ‘Grandpa’ to bludgeon her to death, adding that it won’t hurt a bit.
This ‘matter of fact’ way they go about killing their victims and calmness displayed by the old man, at times talking like as if he were a guardian to the girl, is a shocker for the audience. At the same time, it serves as a reminder that evil that lurks amongst us, it doesn’t wear any shape or sign to demarcate itself from the other. This also represents the ‘moral schizophrenia’ which the creators referred to and sought to build into their characters.
The chilling aspect about the movie was the ‘normalization’ of crimes in the eyes of Sawyers. This is not a sudden event, which has turned them into cannibalistic killers. It is a gradual process which desensitizes them to violence and encourages them to sadistically torture a fellow human being. And we can see for some, like the Old man it is a constant struggle in the movie. However, such individuals continue with the same. They begin to identify with such values, a form of self-condemnation where they think they have travelled ‘too far down the road’ and the fear of getting caught by the authorities prevents them from taking a step back.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre failed to find takers amongst many critics at the time it got released.
The opinions for such movies often change later because the masses could connect with the realities of the film and keep it alive through constant discussions on fan forums, tributes and screenings. The critics of a later day take a different line, praising the movie as being a trendsetter or ‘ahead of its time’. The question that remains with us then is why do so many of the critics get it wrong in the first place?
Such a response is a product of the sanitized spheres within which many live the life in today’s world. They would like to extend the safety net of their ‘better lives’ to works of art and entertainment in forms of books, cinema and video games. However, the same can breed a naïve response which seeks to brand every single work which deals with troubled issues as exploitative, in case it follows a narrative structure which doesn’t conform with the mainstream values.
We like to live life with a certain level of certainty. We’d like to believe that the world is a largely a nice place. It might have its faults but generally, the spirit of humanity prevails. However, sometimes we come across events so shocking, senseless and perverse, that it makes us question those beliefs. People are left to ponder as to how a person could do this to a fellow being?
The choice before the person dealing with such a subject is manifold, they can take different interpretations and depictions of the same event. For example, Ed Gein’s crimes are an influence on both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, two widely differing yet very successful movies.
As long as they can remain honest with subject matter and are able to bring out truths which the viewer can connect with at a base level, they are bound to create works which click in every age.