Less than two months after the passing of George A. Romero, horror cinema lost another heavyweight: Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist, and other films. Hooper’s legacy is as cemented as Romero’s and the two share one common trait: both Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Masscare were shot on shoestring budgets and grossed millions. They become two of the most influential films of third wave American horror cinema. Romero’s zombies and Hooper’s Leatherface are now pop culture icons.
Over the last year, I revisited The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in preparation for a horror literature and film course I’m teaching in the spring semester. It is unlikely that I will teach the film, but its influence is impossible to escape. In any collection of essays on horror film, there is analysis of Hooper’s breakthrough.
What struck me most about the film upon my re-watch is the use of sound, or lack of sound, and how Hooper established an apocalyptic setting immediately. The beginning of the film finds a group of teenagers in a van. As an audience, we don’t know their destination. They laugh and joke with each other, even as the car radio only gives news reports of violence, including robberies and murders. It’s a subtle thing, but pay attention to the juxtaposition the next time you watch the first few minutes . Then, the teens pick up a hitchhiker, who, for no apparent reason, knifes one of them in the hand and laughs maniacally about it. All of this happens before they even meet Leatherface! Hooper didn’t use a traditional soundtrack for the film, which only intensifies the news reports, the roar of Leatherface’s chainsaw, and the flies buzzing around his house.
The scenery is dry and desolate. The sun is blazing, especially in the final scene when Leatherface does a mad, frantic dance with his chainsaw, after Sally (Marilyn Burns), the lone survivor, barely escapes. This is the perfect horror movie for its time period, during the height of Nixon, the cultural wars, and Vietnam. By the conclusion of the film, no traditional order is established, a clear break from the conventional horror movie trope. The bad guy is not defeated, and Sally hardly escapes. The last shot of Leatherface wielding his chainsaw under the scorching sun is a good metaphor for the turbulent times. Things aren’t going back to the way they used to be, so to speak.
Poltergeist, meanwhile, was one of the first horror films I saw. It produced one of the most iconic American horror images, little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) pressing her hands to the screen of TV static and warning her family, “They’re hereeee.” Poltergiest isn’t as unsettling as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it often feels like a Steven Speilberg movie more than anything else (he did write the screenplay). It employs one of his classic tropes, something threatening the all-American family/burbs. Instead of a shark gnawing on victims at a seaside town, we instead have poltergeist terrorizing a middle-class family who built their house atop a Native American resting ground. I always thought of Poltergeist as a PG horror movie, but it does have some great, subtle scares. My favorite is when the mother, Diane (JoBeth Williams), is in the kitchen and turns around to find the chairs stacked in an uncanny manner. This scene doesn’t involve any blood, guts, or gore, but it works so well. Hooper knew how to show restraint. Even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has very, very little blood and guts.
There are plenty of great American horror films that have been released over the last 3-5 years. I mentioned a few of them via another post. It Follows, Get Out, It Comes At Night, Green Room, and The Witch are all worth watching. What I like about these films is an idea taken from Hooper’s body of work: sometimes, less is more and the visuals and sound, or lack of sound, can scare an audience a lot more than buckets of blood.