of My Bone, Flesh of My Flesh
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre twenty-five years later
From Gadfly September/October 1999
You can see nothing.
Then a noise. Scraping. Digging. A breath. Snapping. Crackling. Crunching.
Then a blinding flash — a hand, but something wrong with it. . . Then darkness again. Gurgling, rasping, then another flash, and this time in the split second of light you see fingers, a bubble of purple flesh, a foot. Seconds later, human teeth, eye sockets, rotting hands wrenched into a claw, closer, closer, closer —
Darkness like dirt in your mouth.
Then a painfully slow fade in. Close-up of a corpse, sitting atop a cemetery monument, its gnarled maw gaping to the sky. Slow pull out to a wide shot, the cadaver's mangy hair blowing against the simmering yellow Texas sun.
Then the words on the screen tell you: This really happened.
"IT'S JUST TOO HORRIBLE. HORRIBLE BEYOND BELIEF."
"There once was a man named Ed
Who wouldn't take a woman to bed.
When he wanted to diddle,
He cut out the middle,
And hung the rest in the shed."
— Popular limerick, Wisconsin, ca. 1958
It's the first day of deer-hunting season in Plainfield, Wisconsin, November 16, 1957, and Bernice Worden is missing. They find the store she operated empty, the cash register gone, and streaks of bright red blood on the dull tile floor. The last receipt entry is made out to one Ed Gein.
Sheriff Arthur Schley and Captain Lloyd Schoephoerster receive the call from Worden's son and head out to the filthy, dilapidated Gein farm. In the twelve years since Eddie's domineering mother Augusta died, the farm has decayed all around the shy, quiet bachelor.
Schley enters the summer kitchen, his breath pluming ahead of him. It is night, there is no electricity, and Schley scours the walls with his flashlight. He bumps against something. He turns around, points his beam at it.
A putty-white carcass swings upside down from two pulleys, a sharp stick rammed through ankle tendons. Head ripped off and torso sawed open from neck to anus. Its body cavity wet, red, empty.
Bernice Worden is gutted like a deer.
"It's just too horrible," mutters Schley outside. "Horrible beyond belief." Bernice's heart is in a bag, her soggy entrails wrapped in newspaper, her head in a feed sack. Nails are jammed in her ears and joined by a cord, as if for mounting.
With Eddie in custody, officials break into the ancient house and begin sifting through the mountains of trash.
"Horrible beyond belief" would prove to be a gross understatement. In the kitchen, baked beans thickened in soup bowls carved from human craniums. In the bedroom, bedposts topped with grinning human heads. Four chair seats taut with woven human skin, their undersides bumpy with fat. A lampshade of skin. A knife sheath. A waste basket. Women's lips dangling from a shade-pull. Women's skin lashed over a coffee can to make a playable tom-tom.
A cup full of noses. A Quaker Oats box with lumps of human head. Nine pickled "masks" precisely peeled off women's heads with hair still attached. Some crammed with paper and mounted like hunting trophies, others stuffed into plastic bags.
Turns out, Eddie liked to dress like a woman. Not in their clothes, but in their skin. Along with the masks, there was a bracelet and belt fashioned from gouged-out nipples. There were skin leggings, which Eddie cinched around his own legs. Rolled up on the floor was a "mammary vest"; a woman's chest, breasts included, that could be strapped over his chest. Inside of a shoe box, nine salted vulvas, one painted silver and topped with a red ribbon. Eddie would put these inside of women's panties and wear them outside, cavorting in the moonlight.
Scraps of fifteen different women were in Eddie's house. However, he claimed he had only murdered two. The other body parts?
From the grave.
"THE MOST HORRIFYING MOTION PICTURE I HAVE EVER SEEN."
The grisly case of Eddie Gein, who simultaneously desired and loathed women reminiscent of his mother, inspired the landmark 1960 film Psycho, as well as the shocker classic Silence of the Lambs. But in the fall of 1974, a film came out that — for sheer, relentless terror — devours them both.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre opened at the Empire Theatre in San Francisco. Half-way through the movie, people began to stagger out of the theater and a legend was born. After winning "Outstanding Film of the Year" at the 19th Annual London Film Festival (where it returns this year for its 25th Anniversary celebration) and screening at the prestigious Cannes (where Rex Reed called it "the most horrifying motion picture I have ever seen"), it was banned in the U.K., Germany and Sweden for over twenty years. Britain's chief film censor, James Ferman, damned it as "psychological terrorism" and Harper's magazine spat that it was, "a vile piece of sick crap . . . Nothing but imbecile concoctions of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it."
This "vile piece of sick crap," though, has a bad habit of not dying, grossing some thirty million dollars to date. Year after year, it has been re-released, until finally being bought by New Line Cinema, which is unleashing it again this year on October 1. In the haunting words of director Tobe Hooper, "It just kept coming back, and coming back, and coming back. . ."
Massacre has the sick grandeur of an age-old myth and the brutal simplicity of a Grimm's fairy tale: Once upon a time, there were five children. They heard about a mean ogre who was stealing bodies out of graves and they wanted to check their kind old grandpa's grave. Soon they discovered a spooky old house. But instead of gingerbread, it was made of flesh. And one by one, the children were lured there. And one by one, the family of ogres inside ate them.
It's the kind of movie that makes your eyes water, your ears bleed. It's the kind of movie you remember as blood-drenched, although there's barely a drop spilled. It's the kind of movie where you swear you saw the rusty meat hook sink into the girl's soft back, when it really wasn't shown.
"KILL THE BITCH."
When Tobe Hooper was a child, he would awake in a filthy sweat, thinking that the Man was there. The Man whom Tobe's relatives in Wisconsin whispered legends about, the man who yanked flesh from graves and boiled chopped-up children on his stove. Many years later, Tobe would co-write a story called "Leatherface," about "a family of Ed Geins." In the baking Austin summer of 1973 he would film it.
Sally, being played by a girl named Marilyn Burns, was tied to a chair. The youngest son of the crazed ex-slaughterhouse family, Hitchhiker (being played by Edwin Neal) drooled and snorted, shoving Marilyn's head over a tin washtub. He handed his one-hundred-and-eight-year-old mummified Grandpa (John Dugan) a small sledgehammer.
"Kill the bitch," chortled Neal. Gunnar Hansen, who was playing the other brother Leatherface, tried to focus his bloodshot eyes on the screaming girl. Only he didn't see Marilyn the actress. He saw Sally. And he snarled to himself, "Yes, kill the bitch." For a brief moment, he meant it. For real.
The mood on the set was explosive. They were on the last of twenty-seven straight hours of their fourth and final week of shooting. The temperature was 105. To re-create night, the windows were hung with thick, black drapes. High-temperature film lights hammered down on the actors (the low speed 16mm film required four times more light than today's stock). Under the lights, animal flesh and bone festered and burned, raising a sickly stench. For fear of disrupting continuity, the sausage at the center of the table hadn't been disturbed in eighteen days — injected with formaldehyde and threatening to burst. Outside, a doctor applied nausea medicine to vomiting crew members.
It was dementia. And the film fed off of it, teetering a treacherous edge of pretend and real. Tobe was on the phone to the MPAA constantly. "How do I get a PG rating and hang a girl on a meat hook?" he pressed them. Hansen, who had instantly won the role of Leatherface by showing up to auditions and "filling the doorway," was basing his savage imbecile on people he mimicked while infiltrating a retarded campus. Neal, who had stumbled into the audition by accident, was basing his spastic madman Hitchhiker on his schizophrenic nephew. The eighteen-year-old Dugan, playing the one-hundred-and-eight-year-old Grandpa, had been instructed to reverse the clock and play Grandpa as a wiggling embryo. But all such direction had long been forgotten. Surrounded by carcasses, mania and sleep deprivation, they were a family bound by lunacy.
Hansen tripped while running through the forest, a buzzing chain saw ripping into the dirt beside his head. Marilyn was brutally beaten with a broomstick for eight continuous takes, then made to sprawl across the floor seventeen times, annihilating her knee.
There was only forty feet of dolly track. A crew member would remove the first section, rush ahead of the camera, and replace it just in time for the camera to run over it again. The film is full of these unsettling, elegant tracking shots, lurking low to the ground and creeping slowly behind the weeds, as if leading to a horrifying revelation that never comes . . . and when it does indeed come, it is not with elegance, but instead the blunt impact of sledgehammer to skull.
The first thirty minutes are a disquieting drone. A radio report is buried deep in the soundtrack, monotoning a list of atrocities including collapsed buildings, mutilated bodies and chained-up infants. Instead of a musical score, a chilling collection of rattles, clangings, chicken gobbles and moth wings.
Then one of the teenagers, Kirk, ventures into the mysterious house, hoping to buy some gasoline from the inhabitants. He quietly walks up to a wall adorned with twisted artworks of bone and feather. Then a large form blocks his view. A leather mask. A rising hammer. Kirk's head is cracked open. Kirk flops to the ground and his body lurches and spasms, feet drumming against the floorboards. Leatherface takes hold of Kirk's arms, drags him inside. Suddenly, Leatherface squeals, and slams a huge metal door, sealing us off with a deafening crash.
Quite suddenly, things have changed. For the first time, we think: Oh my God. What just happened? What have we gotten ourselves into? Is there a way out?
There is not.
There are no camera tricks, no editing deceptions. With numbing simplicity, Leatherface comes out, squealing like a pig, runs after Pam, wraps his arms around her kicking body. Carries her back, impales her on a meat hook. Picks up a chain saw. After he kills Jerry, it somehow gets even worse. Leatherface sits down, fretting, peeking out the window, as if thinking, "Where are all these kids coming from?" His skin mask making his face unreadable and immovable; only his tongue lolls around behind the tanned flesh. His anxiety making his brutality all the more mortifying.
Sally, the remaining survivor, screams for the entire last thirty minutes of the film (one third of the running time). The effect is draining, bewildering, you plead for her to stop screaming, but she won't. She can't. Soon, it is all you can do to stop screaming with her.
"EVERYTHING MEANS SOMETHING, I GUESS."
"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the shed,
All creatures were stirring, even old Ed.
The bodies were hung from the rafters above,
While Eddie was searching for another new love . . ."
—Anonymous, Wisconsin, ca. 1958 By early 1958, jokes such known as "Geiners" were sweeping across America. ("Why did they have to keep the heat on in Ed Gein's house?" "So the furniture wouldn't get goose bumps.") This was utterly significant; they not only presented the sole way of processing such unequivocal dread, but also solidified Gein's place in folklore. He was no longer a fifty-two-year-old bachelor with intense psychosis, but instead an avenging demon of mythic proportions, forever immortal in every child's nightmares.
In much the same way, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has entered the popular unconscious to such an extent that it effects even those who have not seen it. Not only because of its omnipresent influence on today's movies, but also the way it represents and overthrows cultural bias and assumption.
America is a culture of violence, feeding off the mass mobility, migration and depersonalization of both urban and extremely rural areas. In the 1400s, the typical serial killer profile was that of an aristocrat. In the 1890s it was the new bourgeois, and by the 1970s it was becoming the failed bourgeois, incensed over the success of others, even the current definition of "success." In Massacre, the one thing that the cannibal family was good at — killing — has been nullified by slaughterhouse machines. They stand as the shadow counterpart to the more traditional "family" of the teens, who are easily recognizable as two couples and two siblings. In the jumbled cannibal family, however, the grandpa is the baby, the son is the mother, and the brother is the father. They try to play the civilized game (their capitalist attempts include selling human meat as "BBQ"), but fail. Massacre represents civilization versus wilderness; the rural getting revenge for the urbanite sins — business, familial and sexual.
Their sexual vengeance is the most troublesome. Conspicuously without a mother, the symbolically emasculated Leatherface fills the void with three female masks — the "killing mask," "old lady mask" and "pretty woman mask," which, in a deleted scene, Leatherface slathers with rouge and lipstick. Throughout Sally's torture, rape is never an option. Instead, cannibalism is their form of sex. Being eaten is in itself erotic, the ultimate tier of "pleasures of the flesh." Even language binds eating and sex: "consummate/consume" ("consommer" means both "marriage" and "meal" in French); "appetite," "hunger," "a nice piece of flesh," etc.
Like fairy tales, horror films function as lessons to help us come to terms with good, evil, separation and death. Massacre, being structured like a fairy tale, begins with a bright blue sky, yellow grass, green van, white house, and red generator. By the end, though, when Hansel and Gretel are supposed to return to the land of light, something has gone awry. At the end of Massacre, like a fairy tale, Sally leaps through a window at night and hits the ground in daylight. But it is an altered, bleached version of day, quite unlike what we began with. And although she escapes, Leatherface remains, swinging his chain saw. The bad guys are still at large, and the good guys have still lost. What happened to our fairy tale?
There are monsters, but they have no meaning, not even names. Instead of magical objects coming to life, we have life becoming trivial objects, like flesh-covered furniture, draining life of all its value. There are no heroes, just victims. There is no good, just evil. There is no Eucharistic sanctity to their cannibalism; instead, it is pointless and gratuitous, children eaten with all the ceremony of a sledgehammer, a hook and a freezer. The only lesson taught is that there are no lessons, no reasons, no rationale. There is nothing logical the children can do to escape the ogres, no magic passwords, no treasures, no battles. Religion, astrology, voodoo and common sense are equally ineffective. Just a stumbling toward apocalypse. Just chaos.
When asked if she believes in the zodiac, Sally responds, "Everything means something, I guess." She is wrong. Everything means nothing.
"IT'S ABOUT MEAT."
Eddie Gein's story had a fairy tale ending. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Eddie was sent to the Mendota Mental Health Institution in Madison, where there are no bars on the windows. No fences. No guards. He would receive mail from women "fans," begging for locks of his hair. For the first time in his life, he had a television set. A clean room. Three meals a day.
A full year after he was put away, another body was found on his farm. Then someone wanted to turn it into a "murder museum" and, soon after, a mysterious blaze broke out. Even though Plainfield had only six hundred inhabitants, and everyone in Wisconsin knows where the Gein farm is, the fire engines "got lost" on their way there.
The fire chief's name: Frank Worden.
Although released some seventeen years after the Gein affair, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre re-affirmed our ability to be repulsed and shocked, an ability we lost with the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the atomic aftermath in Hiroshima, and the concentration camp atrocities of World War II. But when asked if his film was a metaphor for the bloody humiliation of Vietnam or the machinations of Nixon's gang of criminals, Tobe deadpanned three words.
"It's about meat."
Part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art, Massacre is our barely concealed collective nightmare and hidden lust for a world of destruction and negativity. While Psycho and Silence of the Lambs are "safe" in the sense that they supply reason, motivation, and prison bars to contain their madness, Massacre is unbound; a tornado from hell that could rip any of us apart at any moment.
Worst of all, in 1979, a man named Pervis Smith was arrested in Milwaukee. He had beaten an old woman to death, gouged out her eyes, and attempted to peel the skin off of her head. Smith had formally been institutionalized, where he claimed to have been taught the finer points of constructing a "human suit." His tutor?
"Little Eddie" Gein.
For every Eddie Gein caught, you wonder how many more escape, eyes burning, mind swirling, hands laboring away at some indescribable task.