One of my favorite movies is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It is one of those films that a lot of people try (and fail) to duplicate. Though many might consider it a type of gore fest or, as Roger Ebert called it, a cinematic equivalent of a geek show, I feel it is a Hobbesian meditation on chaos and man’s natural state. I know some of you are laughing right now. And that’s fine. But let’s take a step back and see how this notorious film has made its way into cinematic history.
I could start with the Romans—feeding Christians to the lions, the violence of their drama in comparison to the Greeks—but let’s speed things up the twentieth century. For all intents and purposes the slasher genre was born in 1960 with Hitchcock’s Psycho. Yes, there were obviously other films before, but let’s skip the Duryea Motor Wagon and go right to Ford’s Model T. Psycho broke all the rules. I know I’m not the first to say this, but I don’t think a lot of younger people realize how radical it was on its debut. This was the first big film to feature a killer whose motivation wasn’t money or revenge or really anything logical. And it scared everyone because it was true. Based on Robert Bloch’s novel which was inspired by real life killer/grave robber/ necrophiliac Ed Gein, Psycho shoved an unwanted dose of reality onto the movie going public.
Fourteen years later Tobe Hooper arrived with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While Hitchcock worked with beautiful black and white (echoing German expressionism), Hooper used color in raw, natural light. A lot of people say the film is “almost like a documentary,” and I know what they mean but politely disagree. Hooper’s film is hyper stylized. But it is stylized to get the best of both worlds: every image is pretty much storyboarded but you remember it being gory and realistic. There is actually little blood throughout. Just enough to suggest more. Lots more.
The plot is about as simple as it gets. Some young people are driving through Texas and they get murdered by a cannibalistic family. That’s it. But what makes the film brilliant is (among other things) how the cannibals are portrayed. Remember, this is an entire family, not just one disturbed man running a motel. Hooper never gives any reason how this household has turned insane. He never lets us know what is going on with Leatherface. But the acting gives a few clues. Gunnar Hansen, who plays Leatherface, wears various masks for various family roles—be it the butcher or the motherly caretaker. At times Leatherface seems as afraid of the young travelers as they are of him. It is all nuanced and subtle.
Lesser horror movies try to make the audience feel safe. The ghosts are able to rest in peace. The monster is destroyed. The werewolves return to human form before they die. The madman is killed by a final girl. But The Texas Chain Saw Massacre leaves you out on the side of the road with no closure. How did all of this happen? Who knows. It just happens and there is nothing you can do about it. Coincidently, the only other horror movie to have the same type of gall was also released in 1974. Black Christmas is often cited as “the best horror movie you’ve never seen.” In a lot of ways Black Christmas has been more influential—especially when you consider how Halloween and Friday the 13th clearly built upon that film’s storyline and structure. But all of those movies focus on a type of claustrophobia whereas TTCM captures a sense of isolation. All of the film is out in the middle of nowhere Texas. No one is around for miles and miles. No one is coming to help. This is why, in my opinion, the film endures so well. It is a cynical and mean spirited film that stands by the idea that we are all alone leading lives that are brutish, nasty, and short. It is the cinematic standard of American gothic.
I started playing guitar when I was thirteen. I’d tried playing the saxophone because I’d grown up listening to Charlie Parker, but I never really got the hang of it. All it did was make my lips bleed. Then one day I was listening to some surf rock and thought maybe I’d try my hands at the guitar instead.
I started lessons on a beat up used acoustic. The kind of guitar you find on the wall in a Mexican restaurant. I think my mom had found it for me at a thrift store. It wasn’t easy to learn on. The thing wouldn’t stay in tune. The strings were old and I didn’t know how to replace them. But I studied. After a while I was able to play “Jingle Bells” and a few blues riffs. Then I got my first electric. It was a no name electric that came with a little practice amp—nothing special—but to me it was a gift from the rock gods. I was done with that acoustic and not looking back.
My hands got used to stretching out to make bar chords and after a while I was jamming with the tunes on the radio. I started practicing all the time. And then I got good. Real good. I’d become obsessed. I’d sit on the edge of my bed practicing pentatonic and modes. I read every issue of Guitar World. At night I poured over catalogs of expensive Les Pauls, Flying Vs, and Stratocasters. I was going to be the next Eddie Van Halen or die trying.
But then something happened. Or, more like, didn’t happen. I was never able to find anyone to play with. It sounds a lot more sad when I say it aloud. But that was the truth. I lived in a small town. I didn’t get along well with the other kids at my school. And the students who played instruments wanted to play Christian rock. Still, I played alone; practicing my triads and arpeggios.
It wasn’t until my first year of college that I really got to play in a band. And on top of that I was the singer. Double Duty. We didn’t play the shredding metal I'd grown up on, but instead a mixture of blues-rock with folk style lyrics. A steady beat with a good old twelve bar shuffle. The drummer dubbed ourselves Extended Forefinger. Maybe not the best name but we were easily the best band on campus, and whenever we played a show everyone was shocked at just how good our little trio was.
And we were loud. I mean dinosaur loud. This one goes to eleven! Everyone else liked to play acoustic Tom Petty covers, love songs, college dorm room jams. We came to rock out, and everybody knew it when we took the stage. After a show or a practice session, my ears would ring for hours. We tried using cotton balls. I eventually bought some professional ear plugs. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we did some permanent damage.
At the last show we played people went nuts. Some people jumped up on stage. Others began moshing to our rockabilly rhythms. After we played our last song there was a near riot as we were escorted away like victorious boxers after a grueling match.
I have never been in another band since then. Part of me is sad about that. I had tons of fun making friends while playing Chuck Berry songs. And I’ll never forget that fistful of glory we all took away after our first show. We closed our set with a cover of "Roadhouse Blues" that still makes me want to pump my fist in celebration. But the truth is that I don’t thing I could handle all of that again. It was such a pain hauling huge amps all over the place, checking volumes, making sure there are enough outlets, finding a place for a drum set. It was all pretty exhausting. And loud.
I still play guitar. But these days it is mostly old rockabilly and some country/western tunes. Maybe a bit of jazz. The funny thing is that I’ve kind of come full circle, and now I prefer handling an acoustic.
My father and I went to Europe for Christmas last year. Dublin. Paris. London. Two weeks of planes, trains, taxis, museums, and good beer and wine. Though we didn’t have enough time to do everything we wanted, we were able to cram in as much as we could and call the trip a success.
My father had never been to Europe. He had spent several years in Vietnam, courtesy of Uncle Sam, but that wasn’t exactly a vacation. I had done some graduate work in Germany but that was it. This was his and my big “Innocents Abroad” type of adventure, consequences be damned! As my father and I started planning the trip he said, “Will, you’ll probably get to go back to Europe someday. I won’t. I want to see everything.”
We had bad jetlag when we got to Dublin. It was cold and drizzly. Our room wasn’t ready so we went and got a big Irish breakfast before we crashed. But when we woke up we found Dublin to be a wonderful and walkable city. The next few days were filled with pubs and Guinness. My father was the man who introduced me to the works of James Joyce, so we made it a point to explore his old haunts, including the Martello Tower on Sandycove Point where the first chapter of Ulysses is set.
Up next was Paris. This was a city I had wanted to visit for almost all my life. There is, of course, a history of American writers in the city of lights. Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and James Jones. All of whom I had read. And now I was there walking the streets, recalling passages of A Moveable Feast in my head. Paris lived up to the hype. Versailles, the Louve, Shakespeare and Company. Cafes and wine. At one point Dad and I got separated on the left bank. I wasn’t worried. I knew that he knew where to meet me, so I just had to wait for him to find his way back. I plugged in my earphones and listened to Sidney Bechet as I roamed the streets. There was a park with a small Christmas festival going on, and I went and bought myself some roasted chestnuts which kept my hands warm. It was nice to explore on my own, not looking for anything in particular. Just enjoying the culture and the crowds. People shopping and eating and walking along the Seine. I imagined myself returning to an apartment on Île de la Cité where I’d find a beautiful woman, a hot meal, and a bottle of rosé. She’d have Erik Satie on the record player, and we would discuss Proust and D.H. Lawrence over the Blanquette de Veau. But I wasn’t traveling with a wife or a girlfriend. I was seeing the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo with my father, a sixty-seven year old man with flat feet. And I was having the time of my life.
Traveling with your parents as an adult has various rewards. For one you can communicate with your parents on a more mature level than when you were ten and were more interested in comic books than national parks. Vacationing with children can be frustrating, the youngsters are impatient get bored easily. If they’re real young they need naps and probably won’t remember most it anyway. But when parents and offspring are adults you skip all of those problems. You also get the joy of seeing your parents’ faces when they witness something amazing, just as they got to see your face when you first visited Disneyland. And ultimately you learn about each other as individuals, preferably over a nice Bordeaux.
Every spring I hike Enchanted Rock outside Fredericksburg. It is about a two hour drive from where I live but it is a beautiful ride over the Devil’s Backbone and across the hill country. Spring in central Texas is always green and lush with fog in the morning and a bright sun in the afternoon followed by cool, purple evenings. Everyone is outside before the summer comes to bake the landscape. I know most people will hit the river. But I like the rock.
It’s called Enchanted Rock because of all the superstitions the Indians had about it. There is something rather other-worldly about it. The rock is just a giant dome, looking like a bald man’s head sticking out of the ground. There are ghost stories that go back centuries with rumors of human sacrifices. Jack Hays, the famed Texas ranger, fought his way out of a Comanche ambush there, too. And at dusk the rock glows, giving it a cool and haunting aura.
It might be warm when you begin the hike but by the time you reach the peak you’re cool and soothed by winds. It can be hell on the calves so you might want to try walking backwards. It might sound silly but trust me. It works.
The breeze is strong at the top and you should sit and enjoy it—don’t listen to the music on your iPod. There are caves you can explore but be careful. It is easy to bang your head if you’re not wearing a helmet. And it can be pretty tight in there. Not for the claustrophobic. I like to hike around and near the caves on the rocks and around the patches of prickly pear that dot the terrain.
Every now and again someone takes a nasty spill. Usually it isn’t too bad. Just a scraped knee and a bruised ego. One time I saw a woman in her early twenties trip as she was trekking back. She smacked onto the granite wall with all her weight. She didn’t have time to brace herself. Her face bounced off the rock and fell again. The woman’s boyfriend rushed to her. He helped her up. The woman’s mouth was a red snarl of meat. She cried but didn’t whimper. I didn’t get a good enough look to tell if she’d lost a tooth. The boyfriend held her as he guided her to the bottom and to their car. Everybody watched, wanting to help but not having anything to offer. As I descended I came to the spot where the woman collapsed. Across the grey and pink granite was a messy, bloody kiss—a modern sacrifice for ancient Gods.
Writer living in the hill country of Texas