Motherface: A New Look At The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Published on October 23rd, 2015 in: Halloween, Horror, Retrovirus |

By Jeffery X Martin

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Our Friday Night Movie Club met a while back and the theme was cannibalism. My wife and I were on the verge of starting a massive diet, so we thought an evening of gnawing human flesh would be funny. We kicked things off with a re-watch of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a great movie, one I tend to pull out every couple of months for a rewatch.

I thought I had looked at that movie every way possible. I’ve studied the direction and cinematography. I’ve played it in the theater of the mind, where your brain fills in the blanks and you think you see more than is actually on the screen. I have viewed it as a historical document, an integral piece of horror cinema. But I had an epiphany that night.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre paved the way for the Lifetime Movie Network. The Hallmark Channel. Martha Stewart. That’s right, gorehounds. It’s a family movie.

If you haven’t seen TCM, go back three spaces. Take care of that immediately. Regardless, let me give you an idea of  what happens in the story. Those who’ve seen it won’t mind the recap and those who haven’t need to know what they’re in for.

It’s a hot summer in Texas, the only kind they have, and five young adults are out to find some old property that belongs to the family. They all have names, but the only ones you’ll need to know are Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her quadriplegic, wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin (Paul Partain). Sally is a level-headed girl, while Franklin is one whiny-ass son of a bitch. Good Lord, he’s annoying. He’s got a voice like a cloud of mosquitoes; a drawling, high-pitched buzz that immediately threw me into a flashback of my Hee Haw-watching childhood. Sally, Franklin, and their friends are cruising around in their groovy handicapped-modified van, charting each other’s horoscopes and listening to music that is as close to Lynyrd Skynyrd as you can get without copyright infringement. It’s like a live-action Scooby-Doo, except without Matthew Lillard. I like Matthew Lillard.

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The kids decide to pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin O’Neal). He’s got a dirty, crooked smile and obviously hasn’t bathed for days, but remember: this was the 1970s. Nobody bathed in the ‘70s, except John Travolta. [Ed.—He also looks like James Franco on a bad day.] The hitchhiker proceeds to tell the kids how he used to work in the slaughterhouse up yonder. In fact, he has pictures in his wallet of his favorite dead cows. Then he pulls out a knife and slices Franklin’s arm, which elicits a terrible screech, also in that horrible Texas accent. How do you scream in an accent? Fucking Method actors. After the bloodletting, the kids kick out the hitchhiker.

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Then they promptly run out of gas. The gas station doesn’t have any petrol, but they do have some tasty barbecue. If only the van ran on tasty barbecue. Two of the nameless kids go exploring and they find a house. The house is running off a generator. Where there’s a generator, there’s gasoline. The kids need gas for the van. Hmmm… gas… van… obviously, the best thing to do is walk right into the house without being invited to ask for a can of gas!

The guy walks into the house where he meets Leatherface, a hulking brute of a man who immediately hits the kid in the head with a sledgehammer. And you know what? That’s what you get. You don’t just walk into someone’s house! I don’t care if it is the ‘70s! It was free love, not free walk-right-the-fuck-into-my-goddamned-house. Soon after, the girl walks in, and she’s all, “Where’s my boyfriend? Why is there a chicken in a canary cage? What are all these bone-mobiles hanging from the ceiling?” Once again, Leatherface has to stop what he’s doing, pick up a weapon and go get the second trespasser of the day. Should have locked the door after the first asshole wandered in. He puts the chick on a meathook (which she is not happy about) and goes back to dismembering her boyfriend.

Well? What would you do? Two fucking hippies come strolling into your house in the middle of the day looking to borrow, maybe steal, some of your possessions? Who wouldn’t bust out the chainsaw to protect themselves and their property? This is where we see Leatherface as the strong father figure in a highly dysfunctional family. He is the guardian, the gatekeeper, doing what any man would do when his family is placed in a potentially threatening situation.

Cutting to the chase, pretty much everybody dies. Yep. Leatherface is forced to dispatch them all. Franklin gets a chainsaw to the gut because well, really, there was no way for Franklin to outrun Leatherface. Not in that shitty Changeling wheelchair of his.

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Some would say Sally gets kidnapped by Leatherface and his family, but I prefer to think of it as an aggressive invitation to dinner. At the dinner table is where everything starts making sense. The hitchhiker is part of the family, as is the guy who owns the gas station where tasty barbecue could be obtained. And let’s not forget Grandpa, who looks to be around 129 years old. He can’t eat solid food anymore, so the hitchhiker cuts Sally’s finger open, gets the blood going and sticks it in Grandpa’s mouth. Why is that wrong? She is a guest in their house. It’s the right thing to do. Hell, she should have offered her wrist.

This is also when we find out that the aforementioned tasty barbecue is actually made of people. People like Franklin, who whines no more. So, they’re cannibals. You would expect people in the ‘70s to be a little more open-minded than to be repulsed by that. Sushi? Tofu? Also horrific and disgusting to the uninitiated, but now they are both normal staples of the American diet.

Leatherface has put on a different face for this dinner. He has put on lipstick and a liberal application of rouge. He has taken off the dead skin mask he uses for work and put on his nurturing dead skin mask. With no female presence in the house to take care of creepy hitchhiker boy, given-over-to-rage gas station guy and Grandpa, Leatherface has to take on the archetypal female role of caregiver. You can tell by how he acts when Sally attempts to escape and the gas station guy starts beating the living shit out of her that Leatherface is upset because, once again, dinner is ruined. This is why they can’t have nice things.

How many times have we seen this scenario? Leatherface is a single parent. Not only does he have to provide meat for the family, but also for the family business. The hitchhiker obviously needs a strong male presence in the house to calm some of his more violent behavioral traits, but he also needs a kind mother figure to remind him of his self-worth and help boost his self-esteem. Gas station guy just needs to get laid. I can only guess whether or not Leatherface is up for that kind of action, but let’s just say that so far, he seems to have a mask for everything.

Feel pity for Leatherface, if you can open your heart that wide. Think of him as Sally Field with rosacea. He’s the backbone of that family. He may do some disgusting things to keep his family together and alive, but wouldn’t you eat some hippies to protect the ones you love?

We think of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a classic horror movie. Even non-horror fans are somewhat familiar with its merits. It certainly is a well-made film. Some of the tracking shots Tobe Hooper came up with are amazing, especially for such a low-budget film. It’s gorgeous to look at. The art direction by Robert Burns is visually intense, using more bones than a museum simply for house decoration. It’s like femur Jenga. There are scenes that will shock you and scenes that will turn your stomach.

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But as you absorb all this, think of Leatherface and his lonely internal struggle. He is mother, father, and possibly wife to a strange family of miscreants. He is Judge Judy and executioner. No one is exempt from family drama, and no film brings that across as viscerally as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For when we look at Leatherface, we look at ourselves.

Especially if we look at ourselves while we’re eating ribs.

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