Cultural Chaos in the 1970s Part 1: ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ Demonizes Rural America
By Michael Crosby
The year 1974 was truly a watershed moment in the history of the horror genre. America was going through tremendous cultural changes, many leaving behind scars that reverberate even today.
A little over 10 years before, America was a post-WWII bastion of middle-class success powered by the labor unions and a burgeoning economy. But it wouldn’t last forever. America was soon wracked by an explosive chain of cultural upheavals: the assassinations of J.F.K., Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam… This upheaval led to a new generation dealing with a drug war, a Manson Family, a sexual revolution and a feeling that, for the very first time, they were not going to have it better than the ones before them.
By 1974, the horror genre experienced its own upheaval. Gone were the safe days of castles and vampires and here was the primal shock-rock cabaret of Alice Cooper, the pea-soup spewing antics of The Exorcist (1973), and the newsreel brutality of The Last House on the Left (1972).
The times, as they say, were a-changin.’
That’s when a group of young filmmakers based in Austin, Texas, managed to turn an $80,000 budget and a haphazard production into one of the most successful and influential horror films ever made: Tobe Hooper’s stunning and disturbing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
Without rehashing the film’s production and release history (massive amounts of media have covered the subject over the past 45 years), let’s look at how The Texas Chain Saw Massacre works on a cultural level which was integral to its success.
The film works on several levels culturally, surprising for such a low-budget effort that its Neophyte creators would’ve been happy just to have it played at drive-ins much less the heights it eventually obtained. Beyond the obvious theme of the hippie teenagers versus a previous generation of nihilistic and oppressive reprobates, the film is a stunning example of the modern Southern Gothic.
The Sawyer family, who falls in the latter category, is holding on by a thread. Their once-thriving slaughterhouse that powered the local economy has long-shuttered its doors. Their only other business is a combination gas station-BBQ stand with barely any customers. Jobs are scarce and automation has killed off the rest.
On the other side, the idea of the rural South as other is still a terrifying prospect for some, particularly when some are from urban or suburban areas.
Much of the film’s power derived from this culture clash between kids from the urban cities and the dispossessed clan from a dried-up, rural Texas town. Director Tobe Hooper particularly teamed with cinematographer Daniel Pearl, is cognizant of that fact, and plays it up to compelling effect in the film. Though shot in 16 millimeter and blown up to 35 for theatrical release, recent Blu-Ray editions have shown the original gorgeous photography. Although Hooper never took advantage of the widescreen 2:35.1 format, many argued that the format would have robbed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre of its gritty documentary feel. The realness of it. And it’s that realness which delivers the impact between the two clashing cultures.
Here’s a perfect scene of that clashing culture as exploited by Hooper and Pearl.
After their friends had their deadly encounter in the Sawyer house, Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger) go looking for them. It’s a throwaway sequence necessary for the purposes of advancing plot, but what makes it so terrifying is the evident filmmaking skill.
As the audience, we know Jerry’s doomed when he leaves solo to search for his friends. That puts us in his corner. At the same time, we’re terrified for Sally and Franklin who are left behind and alone. But it’s the placement of the scene — and the cinematography — that really puts over its execution.
Everything in this scene works.
We’re already afraid of Leatherface; we’ve seen what he’s capable of earlier in the film. Any audience member from a densely populated area is already horrified by this landscape by this point. Every city slicker trope entering an impoverished and backwoods region has been magnified.
Hooper wisely chose to keep his camera behind Jerry in close-up. It gives us that feeling of hiding behind our parents as they investigate the noises that scared us in the middle of the night. Pearl’s use of light, filters, and shadows intensifies this feeling. It is clearly sundown in this scene. Jerry’s dark outline burns against the dark orange hues of the sunset. Jerry’s slow descent towards the decaying farmhouse touches a new level of this fear within us.
We know where Jerry is headed. We know what awaits him behind that door. We can’t look away. We embrace the fear.
A Texas filmmaker from birth, Tobe Hooper knew exactly what he was doing when he created this film. Created before the age of smartphones and GPS trackers, Hooper’s film was a personification of a local who you may have stopped and asked for directions.
“Ye city slickers lost, I reckon? Took the wrong road? Out of gas? Headed over to the old Franklin place? Ya don’t wanna go messin’ around that old house. Some people won’t like it. And they don’t mind showing ya.”
Michael Crosby was a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He passed away on December 5, 2020, and we miss him dearly. His articles remain on this site in his honor.