The Texas Chainsaw Legacy: An American Love Affair with "True" Crime

This article was originally published on Donner, Party of One and is reprinted with permission

In 1974, Tobe Hooper terrified audiences with an all-too-real work of fiction. Almost 30 years later, audiences still want to believe it really happened.

It is an unfortunate fact of modern movie marketing that "based on a true story" has become the brightest badge a film can wear. It is as if, in an ironic twist, Godard's rebellious dictum "cinema is truth 24 times a second" has been taken so literally by mainstream audiences that they are now desperate to believe that anything on the silver screen could represent reality. Even the success of high-octane escapism can spike dramatically if it claims to be "based on true events", regardless of whether the alleged events are known to the public in any specific terms. The history of this seduction is too vast to encapsulate here, but examples are so plentiful that one can seemingly always be found within temporal spitting distance. Bryan Bertino advertised his 2008 home invasion horror The Strangers as “inspired by true events”, but rather than referring to a specific situation it seems to simply refer to the fact that people really do invade one another's homes; 2012's The Possession, a jewish iteration of The Exorcist, claims to base it self on a true story, though it is actually based on a museum curator's account of his spooky professional experience rather than a supernatural assault on an innocent family; the 2009 sci-fi thriller The Fourth Kind insists on its veracity with an opening oath sworn by lead actress Milla Jovovich that the film is a mix of Unsolved Mysteries-style reenactments and REAL FOOTAGE of the REAL ALIEN ABDUCTEES. Why anyone would choose to construct a movie in this way is anybody's guess, and The Fourth Kind is hardly a portrait of success, but the fact remains: filmmakers have some reason to believe that basing a film on a "true story" will put butts in seats. Why is it that we might value verite more than pure fantasy? Is it conditional? That is: not all audiences might reject an almost 100% synthetic entertainment juggernaut like AVATAR in favor of a difficult and compelling Henry Lee Lucas biopic, but that said, are there particular cinematic situations in which we prefer to believe that we are being presented with the truth? If so, why?

A lot has been made of the real-life inspiration for Tobe Hooper's trailblazing 1974 horror classic THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. To be totally fair, several powerful movies claim as their muse the murderous rural grave robber Ed Gein's untoppably outrageous ten year crime spree in the perfectly-named small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Though he committed his last murder in 1957, Gein's fabulously perverse criminal career continued to seduce cinematic luminaries from the debut of Psycho to the release of Silence of the Lambs (to say nothing of the endless catalog of great and terrible exploitative biopics and Nth generation ripoffs thereof). The effete momma-worshipping bumpkin was himself an artist, creating furniture and corpse couture from the fruits of his boneyard harvests and his plus-sized female murder victims, selected for Gein's most famous project: a skin suit resembling his late mother. Ed Gein's body count did not rise above three, but the depravity of his crimes remains unequaled by more prolific serial murderers, and moreover, the almost fantastical nature of his activities remains irresistible to filmmakers of all stripes. Witness in particular: the seven movies (so far) that make up the undying franchise of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Ironically, however horrifying these real world roots may be, Tobe Hooper had a much more sophisticated motivation for invoking the "based on a true story" gimmick in his name-making 1974 nightmare. Texas Chain Saw was dreamt up at a time when American media was submerged in a stew of graphically violent journalistic broadcasts and delirious streams of state-sponsored disinformation, be it about Watergate, the 1973 oil crisis, or the true nature of the violence in Vietnam. Hooper, who came from a documentary background, wryly opened his offal-laden opus thusly, with a voiceover by John Larroquette that begins:

"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin."

that concludes:

"The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

...that day being, as the subsequent time stamp tells us, August 18, 1973. Over the course of subsequent decades of interviews, documentaries and DVD featurettes, Hooper has explained that he used these tantalizing trappings of "true crime" media (the use of the full names of victims, the reference to our national criminal history, the specificity of a place and time) with the intention of criticizing authorities who routinely deceived Americans about the state of their union. Lest that be too subtle a point, Hooper did not stop at this Dragnet motif; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an absolute masterpiece of realism that currently resides in the MoMA. The refusal of gothic romanticism, the vividness of the heat and filth and decay, the unnervingly convincing performances, and the even more convincing violence, produce an atmosphere of suffering that sent first-run audiences running out of theaters to vomit and compelled an initial ban in at least 12 countries, including the UK where the intensity of the film's focus on "abnormal psychology" denied it even an X certificate at first, with Secretary of the British Board of Film Certification (or BBFC) James Ferman calling it "the pornography of terror". The snuff film sensational of TCSM was underlined relentlessly in advertisements with brazen tag lines like "What happened is true. Now the motion picture that's just as real", and more simply, "...it happened!"

What “happened”? The aforementioned Sally Hardesty (the indomitable Marilyn Burns, whose bloodshot green eyes are indelibly etched into the memory of every audience member), her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (a perfectly sullen Paul Partain), and three bohemian pals trek into the heart of Texas to find out whether their Grandpa Hardesty's remains are among those that grave robbers used to craft the gruesome sculptures discovered in a desecrated cemetery. This inauspicious start to their trip spirals ever downward after they pick up an unhinged hitchhiker (Ed Neal as the epitome of the hippyphobia held over from the Manson Murders) near a slaughterhouse, who launches into a display of bloodletting and pyrotechnics inside their van before being vigorously ejected. Low on gas, patience and mental endurance, the travelers regroup at a remote gas station to munch on some suspect barbecue, and decide to relax by visiting the ancestral Hardesty home in the hills. This journey into their own past plunges the five youths down a terrifying path into the psychological bedrock of America, fittingly located deep in the heart of Texas, and personified infamously by a hulking mental defective who wields a chainsaw and wears a mask sewn together from dead men's faces (monolithic Gunnar Hansen, of course, as Leatherface). Sally and her hippy friends run afoul of a perverted version of the red meat-eating heartland nuclear family: a multigenerational family made entirely of men, who instead of breeding, kill, who instead of driving cattle, put human beings through our own farming system. It is a scathing parody of the straight-laced capitalist idealism of the 1950s, and although TCSM's release is separated from that era by fifteen years, the film arrived at an emotionally opportune moment, with the revolutionary dreams of the '60s dying and our collective faith in government stained by scandal at home and violence abroad.

In keeping with this criticism of the American family unit, the film climaxes with the Chainsaw family dinner, with Marilyn Burns as the guest of honor and main course. This turned out to be such a powerful idea that it would go on to be repeated in nearly every entry in the franchise with Rocky Horror Picture Show-like obsessive faithfulness (one can only speculate on the meaning of the fact that the latter cult classic from just a year later also prominently features a sham family dinner with a cannibalistic entree). The sequence is truly unforgettable, with the patriarchal Cook (blue collar ghoul Jim Siedow) spouting hypocritical rhetoric about how he believes in the meat industry but takes no pleasure in killing, while Leatherface and the Hitchhiker prepare Sally for a traditional hammer blow to be dealt by a grandfather who appears to be hundreds of years old. When asked why he repeated this dinner sequence in the first sequel, Tobe Hooper glibly observed that in normally tense domestic situations, it seemed like the family dinner is the event most ripe with potential for trouble and trauma. The difference between, say, a Cleaver family and the Chain Saw family dinner brings the satirical aspect of Hooper's masterpiece into laser focus.

Tobe Hooper has often expressed disappointment with the public's failure to recognize the humorous elements in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. To be fair, despite the falsity of the film's true crime stylization, the oppressively realistic fashion in which every agonizing moment is portrayed makes it hard to mentally remove oneself to a distance at which one can appreciate the irony. It is worth noting that a variety of documentaries on the actual making of the film, with titles like Family Portrait and The Shocking Truth, have made a mission out of recording every detail of the film's troubled production: costumes gone unwashed for continuity purposes in 100 degree heat, 19 hour shoots dragged out to avoid having to create the same makeup twice, mutilation by broken glass and thorny woods, set dressing composed of sickening piles of animal byproducts literally rotting before the eyes of actors under the hot lights, real bludgeonings performed to preserve the film's realism…it seems not enough can ever be said about the harrowing process of producing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which comes out sounding like a true crime unto itself. In any case, the atmosphere of real terror and torture easily overwhelms the viewer's sense of humor. After twelve years of stewing on this, Hooper returned to direct The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

Despite the original's profound impact on audiences and filmmakers alike, Tobe Hooper lit out for new artistic territory, resulting in a sequel that is the mathematically perfect opposite of its predecessor. In 1986, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 announced itself with a simultaneously revolting and hilarious poster featuring its villains arranged in the exact pose used in posters for the previous year's hit, The Breakfast Club. The film itself is a florid, festering fantasy composed of the American nightmares of the 1980s. Ravenous Disneyland-style consumerism, the struggles of the grassroots business owner, the cruel abandonment of devastated war veterans, and the vibrant hedonism of new wave pop music form the fabric of the movie, which burns with feverish light and is absolutely drenched, frame for frame, in rivers of gore. Where the original Chain Saw leaves so much to the imagination that it continues to surprise viewers who only know it by reputation, Chainsaw 2 is a move so gory that guts literally pour out of the walls.

Chain Saw was a major target of the BBFC's Video Recordings Act of 1984, which was the legislative result of widespread paranoia about uncertified movies making their way into the homes of the corruptible public, but little brother Chainsaw 2 is really the prototypical unrated horror movie of the 1980s: sexually disturbing, pornographically violent, and willfully, unapologetically tasteless. However, despite its dizzying delirium, this sequel insists on the original's true crime trope, with a matter-of-fact voiceover explaining Texas' history of chainsaw violence since the star-crossed date of August 18, 1973. This time around, the divergence from this officious mockumentary motif into the madness of the rest of the film is so dramatic that no viewer could ever mistake Hooper's humorous intent.

Ambitious young radio DJ Stretch (squeaky cowpunk Caroline Williams) gets her first crack at a real career in journalism when a pair of coked up frat boys call her station between the Cramps and Oingo Boingo only to get chainsawed to death live on the air. The event attracts the attention of Lieutenant Lefty Enwright, an uncle of the Hardesty kids, who has been on the trail of Texas's relentless unsolved chainsaw murders ever since the 1973 massacre, independent of the local law who scorn him. Lefty is played with psychotic aplomb by Dennis Hopper, an actor who has himself come to embody the dark disappointments of children of the 1960s in the face of the grim realities of the '70s; his vigilante cowboy spends most of the movie in an apoplectic rage as with two chainsaws he carves his way through the bowels of the earth toward the villains who have deprived him of his kin.

That brief description barely hints at how truly, imaginatively insane is TCM2. Backing up: When Stretch offers to help Lefty draw the chainsaw murderers out of hiding, she finds herself trapped in their new home. Drayton Sawyer, known to us previously as the Cook (returning chili champion Jim Siedow) now houses his clan in a vast system of catacombs underneath a defunct frontier-themed fun park where, with government compensation bestowed upon the absent Hitchhiker's chrome-pated brother Chop Top (cult favorite Bill Moseley) for the near-beheading he received in 'Nam, the family maintains an apparently successful man meat barbecue business. Lost in a world of subterranean smokehouses and elaborate skeleton dioramas that would make Tim Burton green with envy, Stretch has to hide from the Cook and skirt the romantic attentions of a sexually frustrated Leatherface long enough for Lefty to come and rescue her. Leatherface is played this time around by Bill Johnson, who somehow manages a startlingly wide variety of emotional and comedic gestures behind the man-sourced mask: surprise, indecision, shame, childish attempts at deception, embarrassment of his backwards family, all actually worthy of the John Hughes joke and often very funny.

Leatherface's "parents just don't understand" clowning is an effective part of Chainsaw 2's parody, but as the screenplay is penned by L.M. Kit Carson of Paris, Texas fame (!), the humor runs much deeper than the dysfunctional family gag; Chop Top's plan to sell out the barbecue business and turn their dwelling into a theme park called Nam Land, versus Drayton's howling lament that "the small business man always gets it in the ass!" points to a more sophisticated joke about Reaganomics and other grim socioeconomic realities of the decade. Even the dinner scene in this sequel resembles not so much a traditional domestic scene as a "family style" chain restaurant, with the gimmicky skeletal tableaus, neon lights, and a skull full of chives next to a bottle of hot sauce at each place setting. As with many small businesses, especially those whose success is based on a secret recipe, head of household Sawyer insists on the importance of kinship: in dissuading Leatherface from favoring Stretch, he intones sagely, "Sex? It's...well, no one knows what it is...but the saw is family!"

This motto survives into the third installment, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, as a tagline, and also an almost Ed Hardy-esque engraving along the length of the titular character's blade. Unfortunately, the most interesting thing about director Jeff Burr's 1990 film was an astonishing Aurthurian trailer in which the mythical Lady of the Lake delivers unto Leatherface this engraved chainsaw. After that, the real point of interest is an early appearance of Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen, in a cowboy hat and bandana, plays the patriarch of a new family unit fostering Leatherface. In keeping with the cartoon trappings, the character is named Tex, suggesting an incarnation of the lonestar state's archetypal aspects. Michelle (Kate Hodge) and her prissy med student beau Ryan (William Butler) find themselves the targets of Tex's demented family of newcomers. It is unclear what this new saw clan is up to exactly, other than terrorizing hapless young lovers, but the focus of the film is less on the tragic victims, or even the eponymous villain who spends much of the film squealing and cowering in fear, and more on the introduction of the macho militaristic hero Benny, played by Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree. Accidental witness Foree is conveniently fresh from a woodland survivalist exercise, making him an exceedingly well-armed adversary who is fully prepared to launch into the melee accompanied by musical stings of speed metal.

This GI Joe-style marauder is interesting insofar as his presence highlights the schizophrenia inherent in the American dream. Who is an American hero? Is it this Rambo-style vigilante? Is it the drawling, handsome renegade cowboy? Is it the young people full of promise, thriving in a land of boundless opportunity? Not enough is made of the Deliverance-inspired inbred subhumans to comment, but as the now-traditional true crime-style opening monologue suggests (now rife with all sorts of invented police activity and court records, along with the canonical date of August 18, 1973), there is some motivation to insist that this is all "real"; perhaps not in the way that the first two films use officious-sounding lies as a counterpoint to the surreal proceedings, but more to underline the resonance of these American stereotypes. The movie might not be mistakable for non-fiction, but there is something salient about the idea that if one were asked to invent a story about the worst event in the annals of specifically American crime, it might look a lot like this.

4 years later, original Chain Saw co-writer and producer Kim Henkel returned to take up the mantel with his only directorial credit to date, a fourth installment in the franchise tagged "The Next Generation". Anyone who was alarmed by the esteemed Viggo's appearance in Leatherface may not survive the shock of a maniacal Matthew McConaughey terrorizing a squinty mouth-breathing Renee Zellweger, pursuing her on robot legs through the woods to his deranged family's death cabin. Years before these two would become the king and queen of the endless prom that is the rom-com demimonde, McConaughey played the psychopathic tow truck driver Vilmer Sawyer who, together with his oversexed realtor girlfriend (Tonie Perenski, who may as well be in an episode of Married...With Children), a Hitchhiker stand-in whose defining quality is being able to quote endlessly from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations in every situation, and of course Leatherface, who appears almost exclusively in drag. The latter fact might be the least disturbing for the in-the-know audience member who, if they don't remember that one of Leatherface's multiple masks from the original film sported women's makeup, may have seen the admittedly incredible key art for the film, which includes an airbrushed pair of lips to which the owner holds a tube of lipstick in which the stick is actually a running chainsaw, or more explicitly, noirish images of Leatherface in a Cher wig exposing long bare legs in thigh highs and stylish pumps.

It is hard to say if these factors are an homage to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, or an attempt to force cult favoritism by inserting these well-vetted attributes of the traditional cult classic; the film itself, while unimpeachably imaginative, is insufficiently joyful in the offing. Renee, sort of a blond Dawn Weiner in a heaving and flopping homecoming gown, finds herself trapped in the woods with her predictably mean or slutty or stuck-up pals at the mercy of Vilmer and his family, who, though they mostly seem concerned with who will order them pizza and when, are threatening none the less. Leatherface scribe David Schow brought to the third movie a weird penchant for gadgetry, ranging from Leatherface's beloved Speak'N'Spell to the tracheostomy to a hook hand; for this iteration, Henkel himself pushes it over the top and shoves it over the edge, with Vilmer sporting cybernetic legs that are operable by remote control. "Baffling" doesn't begin to describe this idea, and it is not the strangest notion in the movie. Please forgive the present author for spoiling the very end of this unusual film, but not to mention it would be to ignore the franchise's crowning achievement in juxtaposing its "based on a true story"-ness with the far reaches of insanity as it could never transpire in the real world. When all seems lost for Ms. Zellweger, and the Swayer clan is poised to prevail upon her life, a sober, besuited fellow named Rothman shows up and admonishes them in a thick "european" accent. After revealing himself to be Illuminati, exposing a belly full of Hellraiser-worthy gothy epidermal piercings, and making off with Renee in his limousine, he explains in detail that is at once too much and not enough that the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as she and others have lived it, was never meant to involve wholesale slaughter of the innocents, but rather to provide the chosen victims with a taste of true terror, presumably on some existential level that would gift to them a profound and transformative experience. Seriously. That is the note on which the original Chainsaw canon concludes. It is possible that this requires more space than would possibly be allowed here to properly address it…and it is equally possible that there is really nothing intelligent one can possibly say about it.

And now, a few words about the latter day Michael Bay-produced part of the franchise, wherein the similarities to the core canon end with Leatherface, Texas and chainsaws. It is something of a relief that the entries made by Bay's production company Platinum Dunes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its prequel, tagged The Beginning, do not attempt to retread (and inevitably fail in emulating) the trail Tobe Hooper blazed in 1974. Instead, Hooper's believable young victims are replaced with a cast of high, hardbodied nubiles who traverse a thoroughly romanticized '70s southern gothic landscape from which all that is missing is gauzy cobwebs and hooting owls. This Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski), an inhuman hulk without a shred of either Bill Johnson's humor or Gunnar Hansen's studied mental disorder, is the ward of the Hewitts, a hard luck southern family worthy of Walker Evans, headed by the inimitable R. Lee Ermey. The police-impersonating patriarch has sworn a kind of Scarlett O'Hara-style oath that despite the wholesale demise of their town's economy, including the family's employing slaughterhouse, they will never go hungry, and a van full of horny hippies (in the 2003 remake) or a gang of draft dodgers (in The Beginning) is just as viable as a vat of headcheese.

Ermey has historically devoted his boundless energy to reprising his blackly comic roll in Full Metal Jacket, and the 2003 and 2006 Platinum Dunes contributions to the Chainsaw catalog are no exception. Ermey's Sheriff is a Korean War POW who exacts a brand of torture based almost exclusively on cliches about boot camp degradation; similarly, the 1974 Chain Saw's visions of insanity bred from poverty and war are mostly replaced here with urbanite fears of obesity, mental retardation and antiquated forms of familial discipline. The caricatures on display are almost worthy of a South Park bit, but have none of the bite; in Hooper's Chain Saw, naive bohemians are forced to confront darkness in their ancestral heartland, where Dunes' directors (Marcus Nispel and Jonathan Liebesman, respectively) opt for traditionally conservative slasher film mores and the inverted xenophobia of city kids versus country folk without apparently learning the more salient lessons of the earlier films.

Hooper's original may have virtually invented the slasher movie, but the director is not guilty of providing the genre with its fire and brimstone morality under which all sexual freedom, substance experimentation, and even the pettiest of other crimes are promptly punished by the villain as if he were the right hand of god and not an incarnation of evil. Hooper's characters were the arbitrary victims of running low on gas, and more simply, being Americans examining their own roots. There is no sex, on screen or implied, no laughing at the local color, no doing or dealing drugs, as with the legions of homages and imitations that came after, including the Platinum Dunes productions. Despite the fact that the Dunes films are more like typical exploitation films, they still pursue the true crime aesthetic with extreme aggression, expanding the ritual opening monologue into a meticulously detailed capitulation of legal records and police reports, including Blair Witchified "footage" of the police department's walkthrough of the Hewitt horror house, the screen streaked with fake celluloid flaws and cigarette burns. Is it the sad state of affairs that in a world in which we still fail to successfully teach every person that, for instance, no woman is ever "asking for it", that the slasher genre's moral code is now taken for the reality of American crime?

In 2013, the gorehounds at Lionsgate brought forth a concept whose time had certainly come in the form of Texas Chainsaw 3D. Although director John Luessenhop's film is situated very strangely in the Chain Saw archives, offering itself as a direct same-day sequel to the 1974 original, it is otherwise a fairly simple affair whose primary aim is to modernize production of the classic story. After opening on the immediate aftermath of the first Massacre, we flash forward to modern times in which TC3D somehow manages to bring the Chain Saw mythology full circle, even though it does away with the formal true crime affectations of the other six films. The story concerns young Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario, whose tough girl alienation is undermined by a terminally tiny belly shirt), who abruptly discovers that her birth surname is Sawyer when she becomes the recipient of an inheritance from a grandmother her apparently adoptive parents never let on she had. Outraged by their deception and obsessed with their mysterious reasons for hiding her origins, Heather sets off with her friends to check out the family manner. The lavish Texan domicile, in perfect allegorical fashion, has a hidden basement with a still-living tenant - Heather's cousin Leatherface.

The rest of the proceedings are a standard procession of petty crime and brutal punishment, punctuated with the occasional 3D-enabled thrill like Leatherface chopping a van in half with Trey Songz in it, but there is something sensible in compelling the audience to relate to an actual relative of the murderous Sawyers. It is certainly more clumsily literal than Sally Hardesty stumbling upon proverbial skeletons buried beyond the back acres of her grandfather's land, but it is a worthy twist for the tale: that the Sawyers don't simply spill our blood, but possibly their blood courses in our veins. In other words, the truest essence of true crime: that there is nothing to fear but ourselves. As the Chainsaw legacy grows further away from its indie auteur roots and is more widely and expensively embraced by the mainstream, its original intention to satirize the alleged authenticity of the mass media's voices of authority may be lost to the march of time. However, the franchise's time-honored association with the true crime aesthetics has continued to offer a variety of interpretations of the truth according to our mythology about our society and ourselves. It will be interesting to see what the rumored 2014 sequel, if it indeed comes to light, may have to say about who we are in the future.