Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Essays, Horror, Westerns

After Sunset

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Take out the word “Chainsaw” and it could be the title of a Western. And what do you know? It is.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes place over one day, from sunrise after a night of grave desecrations to sunrise after a night of unspeakable murderous horror. Sunset comes not at the end of the film but at its center.

The Texas Chainsaw landscape

The east-to-west movement of the sun has stood, as long as there has been poetry, for two eternal kinds of motion: the adventurous drive toward discovery and new frontier, pulling what passes for civilization from central Asia to Europe, from Europe to America, and from America’s East to her beckoning West; and also the inevitable progress of every being, human or otherwise, toward that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler ever returns. Unlike the sun, we do not rise again with each new day.

Between the emphatic shots of sun (and later, moon) that punctuate The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film relies on shots that never allow us to lose sight of the unobstructed rural Texas landscape. But these are not the widescreen landscapes, the cloud-studded bright sky blues and warm golds of sun-kissed grain so familiar from the cinematized western mythos. Instead they are the bleached browns of desiccation, the pale greens of decay.

The film begins with a printed and voice-over message that what we are going to see is based on a true incident and has relevance to our lives—reminiscent of the “redeeming social value” claims so frequently made by makers of pornography and violent crime films to avoid being tarred with the brush of exploitation. After this prologue and a main-title credits sequence showing corpses in various stages of decay, we have a shot of the sun, establishing morning. Then we cut to a landscape of open road and big, empty country, foregrounded by a dead armadillo—road kill, today’s version of the parching corpses of cattle, horses, and occasionally people along the way west.

We meet our protagonists—Sally Hardesty, her wheelchaired brother Franklin, her apparent boyfriend Jerry, and their friends Kurt and Pam—on their way to a graveyard. They come to see if the grave of Sally’s and Franklin’s grandfather was among those desecrated in the bizarre night-time incident reported by the news media in the opening of the film.

They have some trouble confirming “where Granddaddy is buried,” and are referred to the sheriff—presumably the “Sheriff Jesus Maldonado” referred to in one of the news reports we heard at the beginning of the film. But the sheriff in question turns out to be sitting stone drunk under a tree (echoing the ineffectual, and often drunken, law enforcement officer of western myth); so they seek recourse elsewhere, eventually establishing that Granddaddy’s grave is in fine shape.

Some distance down the road, their attention is arrested by an overpowering smell—the stench of the old slaughterhouse “where Grandpa used to sell his cattle.”

A relative minority of westerns are actually about cowboys; they much more commonly tell of outlaws, gunfighters, lawmen, cavalry, Indians. But the raising of cattle, sheep, hogs, corn, wheat—the growing of food—is the primary occupation of most of the people and communities we meet in westerns. Add to that the transportation and processing of livestock and foodstuffs, and you put the big cattle companies and the railroads in the picture as well. Not to put too fine a point on it, an inescapable underlying theme of the western has been how we get our food: the mechanics, economics, and politics of the need “to feed a hungry nation,” as Tom Dunson puts it early in Red River.

The hitch-hiker

Sally and friends pick up a hitch-hiker—and quickly wish they hadn’t. Hitch-Hiker talks of having been employed at the slaughterhouse: “My brother worked there. My grandfather too.” Now his whole family has been put out of work by newer, more automated methods of killing.

So Sally’s and Franklin’s grandfather was a cattle raiser and the Hitch-Hiker’s grandfather was a cattle slaughterer: two necessary sides of the same business. Cattle-driving developed into glamorous legend; the realities of the slaughterhouse went the opposite way.

With this odd focus on the dying of an outdated way of life, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has begun to ask us some strange questions for a low-budget exploitation horror movie: What do the changing ways of the West cause the grandchildren of the cattle barons to become? What do they cause the grandchildren of the slaughterhouse workers to become? The dirge for the romance of a West that never was finds an unlikely metaphor in the brutal economic reality of unemployment.

Hitch-Hiker tells his less-than-enthusiastic listeners how headcheese is made. Franklin (who sounds for all the world like James Best in Ride Lonesome) admits to liking it, but allows, “I didn’t know what was in that stuff.” He teases Sally: “You’d like it if you didn’t know what was in it.” We’ll recall this comment later, when we see Franklin carrying a wedge of gas-station barbecue between his teeth, spitting out the tough bits, and eventually throwing it away altogether.

Hitch-Hiker is summarily ejected from the van after his increasingly discomfiting conversation gives way to an impromptu demonstration of the reality of the cutting of flesh and the flowing of blood. As the van pulls away from him, he waves his arms in the air, tosses his head high, as if in some kind of celebratory dance—an evocation, perhaps, of the Indian, the omnipresent Other of the western genre, the marginalized outsider, the displaced, whose haunting presence will be evoked later in the clusters of feathers and bone we see in the home of the slaughterhouse family.

Cut from Hitch-Hiker’s dance to a disk: the sun, but shrouded, tarnished, less gold than dun.

No small towns, no ghost towns, no towns at all appear in this film. Its action is limited to the abandoned home of a cattleman, the home of a family of unemployed slaughterhouse workers, a cemetery, and a gas station—successor of the stagecoach water-stop and eternal emblem of how technology both changed and failed to change the ineluctable West. This particular gas station is out of gas, leading the travelers to decide to pass the time before the fuel truck comes by paying a visit to Granddaddy Franklin’s old house nearby.

Franklin is left alone by the others, who surge eagerly into Grandpa’s old place, and now he tries to manipulate his wheelchair through the doorway unassisted. The shot is from inside the old house, camera in a shadowy foreground looking out the doorway to the overexposed background of daytime in the rural West. The walls that once stood on either side of the doorway aren’t there anymore; but Franklin must still enter through the doorway, because he’s in a wheelchair, and where the flatboard porch opens into the doorway is, for him, the only point of access to the house. But unlike Ethan Edwards in the final shot of The Searchers, he overcomes the psychological barrier to entry and gets into the house—hoping to catch up to the others, not accepting his outcast state the way old Ethan did, he rolls himself right out of the sunlight and into the shadows.

Kurt and Pam discover and explore the other house—where Kurt is quickly dispatched with a sledge hammer by the masked figure we come to know as Leatherface. Pam, looking for him, stumbles into a room full of bones, feathers, and decaying flesh—icons of American Indian ritual and décor, reminders of primitivism, and, of course, stand-ins for those perennial images of western myth, the bleached skulls of oxen and cattle.

Animal skulls also adorn the wall of the butchering room behind the metal door at the back of the slaughterhouse family’s home. Too small to be cattle skulls, they could easily be the skulls of pigs and other small animals—perhaps road-killed armadillos.

We see the sun again, now as powerfully bright as it gets in the film, flaring like a compass rose against the blue sky. But inside the house, as Pam tries to get out, it’s dark. The bright outer light slips in through the cracks where the boards of the house’s wooden siding have warped and separated. These are the details we notice just before Pam is swept up by Leatherface and hung on a meathook.

A shot of a metal windmill turning lazily against the sun again evokes the myth of frontier entrepreneurialism. With the passing of the day and the dying of the light we get another insert of the sun, this time a pale yellow disk against a sepia sky. Shortly after that, an equally full disk appears, stark blue, accompanied by an ominous chord from the film’s sparse musical score. It is night, and now the moon rules the sky.

The day-for-night shots of headlights of the gas station owner’s pickup truck are also pale disks against the dark—man has tried to make his own sun, and failed pathetically.

The slaughterhouse family gathers for dinner, with Sally—now the lone survivor of her party—as their reluctant guest, tied to the literal “armchair” they set for her at the family table. The gas station owner tells the boys to bring Grandpa to dinner. He’s confined to a chair of his own and is carried downstairs still seated in it, and placed finally at the opposite end of the table from Sally, head and foot of an image of family devolved from the remains of the country-table hospitality of western myth. This is not a table set by Martha Edwards, or Mrs. Jorgensen, or Marian Starrett.

But while Grandpa momentarily doubles Sally at the table, there’s another doubling going on here: In the film’s wider context, Grandpa doubles Franklin: both are confined to chairs; Grandpa the great hammer-wielder of legend, the king of the slaughterhouse, “He’s the best there was,” with a reputation like a gunfighter’s; and Franklin as the stand-in for his own grandfather, the cattle king, whose name he bears.

Blue disk of moon again, but all is not cool at table. Grandpa is insufficiently sentient to control his family—in fact, we might take him for dead, were he not energetically sucking blood from Sally’s finger. The bickering boys belittle their father, who is “just a cook” while they do the important work. Father is almost apologetic about how he “don’t take no pleasure in killin’.” Having thus established the hierarchy of those who raise livestock, those who slaughter it, and those who “just cook,” Father summarizes the eternal realities with homespun wisdom: “There’s just some things ya gotta do.” What more apt sentiment to stand in for the lost rugged individualism and self-sufficiency of the mythic West?

When Sally escapes, she and we are shocked: night has passed and daylight is upon us again. So as she rushes to the hoped-for salvation of the nearby highway, that’s the light of a rising, not a setting sun that illuminates the final moments of the film. Sally is still screaming, but also laughing hysterically (joy at having escaped, or emblem of madness triumphant?) as the vehicle of her salvation (not the big stagecoach of an ill-fitted, ill-fated trailer truck but the smaller buckboard of a farmer’s pickup) pulls away and heads down the road, gathering speed. A more intimate, contained apocalypse than that of The Wild Bunch, but apocalypse nonetheless.

Still, it’s not the receding truck but the enduring Leatherface who inherits the final shot, seen from low-angle, silhouetted against sun and sky, waving his chainsaw in something eerily akin to triumph. And as we remember Hitch-Hiker’s similar arm-waving gesture when the van pulled away from him, it gradually dawns on us where we’ve seen such a gesture before: the Ringo Kid, a still-youthful John Wayne, rifle in hand, all the hopes of the West and the Western still ahead of him, flagging down a stagecoach …

© 2011 Robert C. Cumbow

The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of his students in Film Genres: The Horror Film, Seattle University, Winter Quarter 2011, to the development of the ideas suggested in this piece.