'The period from the late 1960's until the mid-1970's has gained almost mythical status in the annals of Hollywood… It is remembered as an era in which Hollywood produced a relatively high number of innovative films that seemed to go beyond the confines of conventional studio fare in terms of their content and style…" (King, 2002: 13).
In the above quotation King refers to a time in which film began to push limits (2002). Throughout the 60's taboo subjects began to appear onscreen, the interest in counterculture films and the introduction of exploitation films saw a rise in sex and violence in Hollywood cinema. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre subverts from traditional narrative cinema in both form and content, presenting an aesthetically disconcerting use of camerawork and a narrative packed with violence and excessive bloodshed. With reference to Naomi Merritt and John Muir I will explore the ways in which the violent narrative can be seen to reflect social issues happening in America at the time.
The 60's for film is marked as a breakdown of classicism in "formal innovation and narrative exploration" (Slocum: 2004:16), creating a new style of cinema seen across mainstream Hollywood. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre subverts from traditional modes of filmmaking with its use of extreme close-ups and vast distance, which creates a visually confusing experience. Towards the end of the film as Sally is captured by the murderous family, her terror is presented by various extreme close-ups. Sally is tied to the dining chair as the family mock her distress, prolonging the imminent attack. The camera alternates between cuts of Sally’s face in extreme close-up as she screams, and shots of the family’s laughing faces. Rapid cuts show various sections of Sally’s sweating face. At this point it is unclear as to whether the camera is mobile or whether the movement is from Sally. However, the mobility in the shot and closeness of the camera creates a visually confusing sequence as we see portions of Sally’s face from various angles, intensifying her horror. The chaotic, intrusive shot style magnifies the actresses’ performance, emphasising the intensity of her screaming. Jarring notes accompanied by the sound of pigs squealing, echoes her sense of panic, whilst likening her to a distressed animal. We then get an extreme close-up showing only Sally’s eyeball which is wide with horror. The intrusive camerawork both obscures the audiences’ view and presents great detail. The intense shooting style attacks the viewer with extreme, repetitive shots accompanied by the jarring soundtrack creating a chilling experience.
In contrast to extreme closeness we also view events from remote distance. Midway through the film Pam and Kirk decide to find a nearby waterhole. As they run through grassy fields the camera watches from afar. As they continue to run the camera moves closer, yet as it tracks from behind trees and bushes the pair are only partially visible, and at one point cannot be seen at all through the blades of grass. The characters, who provide the only action in the scene, are obscured from view. This style of shooting continues as the pair come across the murder house, the distance placed between the camera and the characters, combined with the obtrusive foliage, separates the viewer from the characters creating a voyeuristic sense of viewing. The visually confusing style moves away from traditional modes of filmmaking, as the viewer’s vision is repeatedly obscured. This technique is noted by Donaldson as she states that the film is "characterised by a mixture of extremes", the "intense close-ups and remote long shots" (2010: 1) create a noticeably unusual style of camerawork which works to visually confuse the audience. The extreme close-ups give the viewer little, if no vision of the scene’s surroundings, and long shots separate us from the characters at times when they are the focus of the action. This type of camerawork shows a step away from the continuity shooting of classical cinema, in its noticeably diverse shot style which sets out to be aesthetically disconcerting.
The end of the Production Code and set-up of the MPAA in 1968 meant that films were no longer rated by a system which aimed to make them suitable for general audiences. In the "long 60's" and onwards film content continued to become more diverse, and thus rated as suitable for only certain viewers. The rise in diverse narratives onscreen and social issues in America in the 60's can be seen as contributing factors to a rise in violence in Hollywood cinema.1963 marked the assassination of JFK in front of mass public and on television, in 1964 the airstrikes on Vietnam took place to much public outcry, and 1968 saw the murder of Martin Luther King. Waves of international anti-war and anti-capitalism protests swept the country, which, combined with the Watergate scandal of the early 70’s, saw a loss of faith in political power. Overall the 60's was a time of great social and political unrest for America, which is reflected through the “paranoid, cynical, end-of-empire” (Douthat, 2008: 2) cinema of the time.
Naomi Merritt explores The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in terms of social commentary, and refers to the film as a “horrific parody of American values”, which “plays out the tensions borne of the historical and political circumstances of the period of the film’s production”. The theme of cannibalism can be seen to present commentary on American conventions as well as reflecting the sense of unrest felt across the country. The “deliberately nihilistic” (Douthat, 2008: 3) film presents a narrative in which the value of human life is obliterated. The violence carried out by the ex-abattoir workers and their cannibalistic tendencies draws parallels between human and animal life. Pam is hung from a meat hook and later placed into a freezer, echoing the process carried out by butchers . Pam’s body replaces the animal carcass in a twisted reversal, in which the meaning of human life is disregarded, as the characters are slaughtered like animals. The final attack against Sally, showing her bound at the dining table where she is intended to be killed and sold as “barbecue”, explicitly presents this link. The reversal in roles between Sally and a butchered animal decreases the value of human life in a sadistic cycle in which people feed on others. The set-up of the family meal time is parodic of American values, showing Leatherface serving the meal dressed as a woman, taking the role of the mother figure who would traditionally care for the family. This twisted parody of everyday American life draws a link between events onscreen and the audience at home, remodeling traditional values into a barbaric vision where the consumer is to be consumed. The excessive bloodshed and theme of cannibalism presents a devaluing of human life, which can be seen to reflect the violent social and political issues involving America, in a time where the importance of political aims seemed to be placed above human life. The mockery of American values shows a loss of faith in the system as waves of unrest swept the country in the lead up to the film’s production.