by Mary Mackey
Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 12-14
The screen is black. We hear the sound of digging. Suddenly a flash bulb goes off, and, for an instant, something horrible leaps but of the darkness. The audience recognizes that it has just seen a mutilated female head. The nonstop screaming begins. The TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is underway.
CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a film aimed at the drive-in trade and neighborhood theaters. The audience the day I saw it was mainly composed of working people, about equally divided between blacks, whites, and chicanos. For some reason each person there had paid three dollars to watch one of the most violent films since NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. It soon became obvious that they had also paid to watch women being tortured in ways that make PSYCHO look like CINDERELLA. The question, of course, is why? Why are violent films so popular, and why are films that involve violence against women some of the most popular of all?
Siegfried Kracauer in his study of the German cinema, From Caligari to Hitler, has pointed put that “popular films ... can ... be supposed to satisfy existing mass desires,” and that they often reflect “those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness” (pp. 5 and 6). Certainly CHAINSAW MASSACRE’s popularity is due in part to the skill with which it bypasses the cerebral cortex. The appeal to subconscious fantasy is everywhere—from the first flickering frames that put the viewer firmly in the realm of sleep, nightmares, and hallucinations; to the great phallic chainsaw itself, grinding through the woods after the heroine like a straggle-toothed parody of rape. We know from the opening scene that we are about to see a film that can not be analyzed according to the kind of theatrical standard of logic, plot, and characterization that govern a work like, say, NASHVILLE or THE PASSENGER. Instead, as Michael Goodwin noted in his essay on exploitation movies, we are involved here in the aesthetic of dreams (see “Velvet Vampires and Hot Mamas: Why Exploitation Movies Get To Us,” Village Voice, July 7, 1975, pp. 66ff.)
The plot of CHAINSAW MASSACRE is relatively simple. Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin, are on a country outing with three friends: Sally’s boyfriend Jerry, and a couple named Kurt and Pam. One by one. Kurt, Pam, and Jerry wander into a nearby farmhouse, and are suddenly and brutally killed by a maniac in a leather mask who then cuts them up with a chainsaw and turns them into sausage. When Sally and Franklin come to look for the others, Leatherface attacks Franklin in his wheelchair, slicing him up alive. Then, for the rest of the film, he terrorizes Sally, chasing her about with his chainsaw. At one point, Sally escapes him, only to fall into the clutches of his father, brother, and grandfather, who torture her in even more ingenious ways. At the end of the film she escapes by running out to the highway and jumping into the back of a pick-up truck. Leatherface is left alone in the middle of the road doing a macabre dance of death with his chainsaw as the sun rises over Texas.
Some of the subconscious pleasure that the audience gets out of this film may have its origins in class differences. On one level CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a neat economic parable something on the order of H.G.Wells’ Time Machine. Five well-fed, complacent rich kids have the misfortune to meet up with a working class family that converts them into barbecue. The family, it seems, worked for generations in the local slaughterhouse until automation (the invention actually of a new, faster, more humane way to kill the animals) forced wide-spread lay-offs. The unemployed family, showing true American self-reliance, hasn't gone on welfare. Instead, the father has set up a small roadside barbecue stand, and the two sons and the grandfather have proceeded to provide the meat. The meat, in this case, is tourists—a class of people that, as far as the family is concerned, is no different than any other breed of cattle. In this film the poor in order to survive literally eat the rich.
But although every member of the party meets with violence, the nature of the violence is not equally distributed. Two of the men in the film—Kurt and Jerry—are given simple, quick deaths. Leatherface simply steps out from behind a door, and knocks them on the head with a meat mallet before they know what’s happened. Although Franklin (the most effeminate of the male characters) is sawed up alive, his death takes place in the dark and, for the most part, off screen. Something far worse and far more graphic is reserved for the women, Pam and Sally.
Pam has the distinction of dying what is probably one of the most brutal deaths a woman has ever died on the screen outside of a Mafia snuff film. Entering a neat little white farmhouse to look for Kurt, she finds herself in a room full of chicken feathers and human bones. A hen in a cage (symbolizing, perhaps, the female principle trapped and fed on by the family) swings over her head, cackling insanely. Confronted by such obvious danger, Pam’s response is passivity. While not actually pulling a full-fledged Victorian faint on the order of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, nonetheless she lies on the floor, paralyzed with fear, while female members of the audience (who have just seen Kurt get it with the meat mallet seconds before) yell, “Get up off your white ass, sister, and run!”
Naturally, under the circumstances, Pam doesn't have much of a head start when Leatherface finally appears. She makes a feeble attempt to stumble out of the house, but he catches her, picks her up around the bare midriff, and hauls her, kicking and screaming, back inside. This is a scene which, of course, we've all seen before, a scene so common that it’s almost become archetypal: the monster (King Kong or perhaps the phantom of the opera) drags the blond back to his lair. But in CHAINSAW MASSACRE the abduction takes a special twist. Returning to his specially equipped kitchen (complete with a cattle ramp and a bank of industrial deep freezes) Leatherface hangs Pam alive on a meat hook, Women have often complained that films (like, say, CANDY) have treated them like hunks of meat. But rarely has sexual objectification—to use the mildest term I can think of—been so blatant.
At this point, the CHAINSAW MASSACRE shifts from being a film about violence in the United States in general to a film which, for the most part, concerns itself with the varieties of violence men perpetrate against women. There had been some hints early on that this was to be the case. A radio news report, played behind the first few scenes, had reeled off a list of disasters, among which were the story of an eighteen year old girl chained in an attic and a mass murder in which a woman and a man were killed. The murdered man had been castrated, and his body was first identified by the police as that of a woman.
Texas itself, the location of the film, is the land of male violence par excellence. In U.S. folk mythology, Texas more than any other state embodies the cowboy ideal of the lone male who carves out a place for himself with his trusty Colt 45. It is the state where the famous tower sniper picked off students at the University in Austin, the state where John Kennedy was killed. For years, Texas was famous for being the only state where a man who caught his wife in bed with her lover had an automatic right (you might even say duty) to shoot her, while a woman who shot her husband under similar circumstances could almost be sure of being convicted of murder.
Women have never counted for very much in Texas, and in the lives of the slaughterhouse family they don't count at all. The family lives in a neat little white frame house that symbolizes on the outside all the stable values of home and family, the virtues of a rural, non-industrialized, more innocent United States. But the impression of domestic stability and order is only an illusion. There are no women in the family (unless you want to count the stuffed grandmother in the attic). Thus, the unit has no natural way to grow or reproduce. Having lost contact with the female principle, the men are out of balance with nature. They can not even farm their own land; they become hunters and killers instead.
It is no accident that the most violent genres are the gangster film, the war film, the police film, the horror film, and the cowboy film. It is no accident that such films either exclude women entirely or include them only as victims. Both Mary Shelley and Wilhelm Reich warned that upsetting the balance between the sexes leads to violence. In Frankenstein Shelley points out that when men separate themselves from women and nature, they create monsters which ultimately destroy them. Frankenstein himself laments,
Reich, in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, observes that the first thing an authoritarian regime does is to separate men and women, to degrade women, and to channel the unattached sexual impulses of the men into the violence of war.
The aggression of the men against Sally in CHAINSAW MASSACRE takes a number of forms and occupies the entire latter half of the film. To start things off, she is chased through the woods at night by Leatherface, who comes after her wielding his great phallic chainsaw, cutting a swath through the forest in a symbolic rape of nature. When Sally runs into the house, Leatherface tries to saw through the door instead of opening it. At this point, he has become man as pure killer—aggressive, deadly, lumbering forward with the dumb insistence of a natural disaster.
Jumping through an upstairs window (in a scene more than a little reminiscent of the suicide in BIRTH OF A NATION), Sally runs screaming down the road to the barbecue stand. There she encounters the father who first comforts her, propping her up (ominously) on a butcher-block while he strokes her hair like a lover and mumbles reassurances. Then, suddenly shifting character, he tries to tie her up and stuff her in a gunny sack.
Sally, to her credit, puts up a struggle. Unlike Pam, she doesn't wait around for disaster to overtake her. Grabbing a knife from the counter, she tries to attack him. But like a long line of film heroines before her, she is incapable of actual aggressive violence when the chips are down. The father beats the knife out of her hand with a broom (more about men taking on female symbols later), ties her up in the classic S-M bondage posture, stuffs her in the sack, and dumps her in his pickup. As he drives her back to the farmhouse, he alternately asks her if she is comfortable and prods her viciously with a stick in still another violent parody of rape.
Of all the men in the family, the father is probably the most disturbing because, at times, he appears to be so normal. If he can comfort Sally one minute and throw her in a gunny sack the next, then the implication is that any man could be a potential killer. As far as the female viewer is concerned, paranoia has now reached cosmic proportions.
Back at the farmhouse, Sally is tied to an armchair (that comes complete with real human arms) and gagged. The youngest son, a halfwit with a huge red birth mark on his face, begins to torment her, parodying her female postures, and imitating her voice. Leatherface, too, is beginning to take on female characteristics. He appears wearing lipstick and eye shadow over his leather mask, and a gray old woman’s wig. When reprimanded by the father for sawing down the front door, he replies in a high-pitched female voice.
To complete the family circle, the mummified grandfather is lugged down from the attic. Slitting the tips of Sally’s fingers, the men insert them into grandfather’s mouth. The old man comes alive and begins to suck an obscene parody of a nursing baby. The female force is obviously being drained to feed the male.
After offering her phallic shaped sausages (made, one assumes, out of Kurt, Jerry, Franklin, and Pam), the men begin to discuss who to “let have her.” The sexual implications of the conversation are obvious, and Sally adds to them by promising hysterically to do anything they want if they'll just let her go. One of the functions of violence against women in the cinema (and in real life, for that matter) is to reduce them to just such a state of total compliance. To the men in the audience this fantasy of having absolute power over a woman is no doubt sexually exciting, and one of the reasons for the popularity of the film.
After a bit more squabbling, the men decide to “let granpa have a whack at her.” A whack in this instance means a whack with a hammer. Grandfather, according to his proud family, used to be the best killer at the slaughterhouse. But now, with Sally’s head held over a corrugated tub like a young heifer, he just can't keep it up. Time and time again the hammer falls impotently out of his hand. During one of his failures, Sally breaks away, jumps through another window, and begins to run again. Revving up his chainsaw, Leatherface chases her out to the highway.
Just in case you haven't gotten the message about women and meat yet, the first vehicle that stops to rescue her is a cattle truck. True to form, Leatherface tries to saw his way through the truck door. The driver, a black man, runs away, throwing a wrench in the maniac’s direction. But it’s rather like shooting peas at a charging elephant. While the black man is left to the mercy of the family (his fate is never explained in the film), Sally jumps into a blue pickup truck and is wheeled off into the sunrise, covered with blood and laughing hysterically.
The violence that women are subject to in films like CHAINSAW MASSACRE serves at least three purposes:
In her classic essay on rape, Susan Griffin points out that “in our culture male eroticism is wedded to power” (“Rape: The All American Crime,” Ramparts, 10:3, Sept. 1971, p. 3). The superiority that men feel when they see a woman being dominated in some way on the screen is then, merely an extreme exaggeration of the sex roles that our culture considers normal. “Not only should a man be taller and stronger than a female,” Griffin notes, “but he must also demonstrate his superior strength in gestures of dominance.” A boy, so the myth goes, may become a man by taking either a life or a woman. And to take the life of a woman (especially, as in FRENZY, while raping her) becomes the penultimate masculine act. This is not to say, of course, that on a conscious level all men want to rape women and cut them into spare ribs. But when they see women being brutalized on the screen, over and over again, they are being given, on a subconscious plane at least, graphic proof of their physical and sexual superiority.
At the very least, male viewers are being given the feeling that they are indispensable. If the hills are full of maniacs like Leatherface, then any woman who wants to go for a picnic in the country is going to need a protector. As Griffin put it:
This brings us to the third, and perhaps most insidious effect of violence against women in the cinema. Like stories of lynchings, it is a social technique designed to frighten an oppressed group of people and keep them in their place. Any woman who has seen CHAINSAW MASSACRE is going to think twice before she goes out to the country—or for that matter, anywhere—alone. Interestingly enough, extreme graphic violence against women in the cinema has been coeval with the growth of the women’s movement. One might well see in it a kind of conservative backlash against the real threat of female independence. Violence on the screen points out over and over again the regressive moral lesson that women are basically weak, shrieking creatures who should they venture too far away from a capable male protector, will probably not just be raped (an old fear, no longer sufficient) but probably murdered in some inventively ghastly way by a psychotic sex maniac. The list of examples (SHADOW OF A DOUBT, PSYCHO, CONQUEROR WORM, FRENZY, VIRGIN SPRING, STANLEY, BOSTON STRANGLER, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, DIRTY HARRY, TORSO) is almost endless.
On the other side of the coin, things seem to be improving, if only slightly. For example, Sally, unlike most film heroines who came before her, rescues herself. Esmeralda had to depend on Quasimodo to come swinging down on a rope and save her from the pyre (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME). But no hero appears at the last minute to shoot it out with Leatherface and take Sally in his arms. By sheer dint of running whenever she has the chance, she gets away under her own steam. In CHAINSAW MASSACRE Sally breaks the old triangle of woman-rapist-protector. Five years ago in such a film, the heroine would probably have either succumbed to the saw (like Babs in FRENZY), or have been rescued by a man at the last minute (like Lila in PSYCHO).
Yet, in the final analysis, outrunning your pursuer isn't really good enough. Since violence against women in the cinema is, as we have seen, often more a matter of power than of sex, the issue at stake ultimately is not merely survival but control. Usually, of course, the control of the situation is almost entirely with the male. On the screen men act, and women react. Dr. Rotwang hunts and Maria hides (METROPOLIS); King Kong paws and Fay Wray dodges; Leatherface revs up his saw, and Sally runs screaming. In some recent films, however, the traditional balance of power has been shifting. Something like JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, for example, suggests that the old game may turn out to be more complicated than anyone had imagined. It’s still death before dishonor, of course. But these days the death occasionally turns out to be his instead of hers.
In JACKSON COUNTY JAIL, Dinah (Yvette Mimieux), leaves an unsatisfying job and a philandering husband, and begins a cross-country drive from California to New York. As we all know from seeing EASY RIDER, the space in between the two is Redneckland. Anyone fool enough to set foot into the Interior (as opposed to flying over it at a sanitary 30,000 feet) is liable to be murdered or worse.
Such is the case with Dinah. Her first mistake is to pickup a pregnant speed freak and her psychotic boyfriend. After having a brief conversation with Dinah’s avocado plant, the nice young couple stick her up at gunpoint and steal her car. Mimieux then enters a Redneckland bar to phone the police. A mistake, of course. Because she lacks a dime (obviously her mother never told her to tape mad money into the toe of her shoe), the bartender is able to coax her into the backroom and attack her. In the course of fending him off, she herself is arrested by a local police officer for (believe it or not) swearing. Once in jail she encounters a parade of stereotypes. First she meets the good sheriff who offers her candy and comforts her. Then she has a run-in with the bad deputy who feeds her wieners (after this and CHAINSAW MASSACRE, I'm giving up hot dogs for life) and rapes her.
The rape is brutal and graphic, and—despite the supposedly redeeming violence which comes next—it is obviously the high point of the film. In all the advertisements for JACKSON COUNTY JAIL Dinah is shown limp on an iron cot in the jail cell, her dress pulled up around her thighs. There is no sign that she is about to attack the deputy, though in the film attack him she does. A few minutes after the rape (and why, one wonders, not before or during), Mimieux runs amuck, picks up a heavy three-legged stool, and beats the rapist to a pulp.
The widely publicized cases of Inez Garcia, who shot the man who raped her, and Joanne Little, the black southern woman who killed the jail guard who raped her while threatening her with an ice pick, are obviously the inspiration for this scene. But the fact that Mimieux is neither black nor chicano seriously undermines the credibility of the whole incident. In the first place, it is difficult to believe that she could have ever been jailed in the first place. She is white, well-dressed, wealthy. It’s almost impossible to imagine that she doesn't have a lawyer back in California who could spring her with a single phone call. The whole film is built on the cliché, “What’s a nice girl like her doing in a place like this?” And the only reasonable answer to that question is that she couldn't have really been there.
Even setting that objection aside for the moment, the significance of Dinah’s attack on her rapist is seriously undermined by the way in which it occurs. There is no sense of any real, conscious assumption of power here. It is still the old female reaction in place of action. Dinah kills the guard in a frenzy, by accident, in a fit of momentary insanity. JACKSON COUNTY JAIL thus continues to support the old theory that nice girls (and Dinah, remember, is the nicest of the nice) are only aggressive when they are 1) defending their young, or 2) out of their minds.
Since Dinah now belongs to the latter category, she obviously needs a keeper, and the film gallantly provides one for her in the form of the ex-convict in the next cell. For the rest of the film, the convict acts as a combination guide, father figure, and guru, filling her in on the realities of life on the run. At the end of the film, when he is shot down with heavy-handed symbolism during a Bicentennial parade, the camera zooms in on Dinah sitting in a police car staring through the windows with a blank look in her eyes. The pane of glass between her and the outside world suggests that she has not escaped, but merely exchanged one cage for another, traded in her old keeper (the convict) for a new keeper (the State). Any chance of her controlling her own life in the future appears to be about as remote as Minnie Mouse pulling off a coup d'etat.
In contrast to Sally and Dinah, Claudia Jennings and Jocelyn Jones who play a pair of female bank robbers in THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE (original title: DYNAMITE WOMEN) are made of altogether different stuff. Take, for example, the way they handle the sexual advances of a horny highway patrol officer who pulls them over to the side of the road and demands that they either have sex with him or pay a stiff fine. Here we have all the possibilities of another JACKSON COUNTY JAIL: a man with a gun, a lonely country road, and two defenseless women. Only in this case, it turns out that the women are far from defenseless.
Ellie Joe (Jones) takes the officer off into the bushes and gets his pants down around his knees while her partner, Candy (Jennings) sneaks up and neatly disarms him. The two then proceed to chain the hysterical officer to a tree with his own handcuffs (in, by the way, the S-M posture usually reserved for women). They leave a burning stick of dynamite stuck in the ground between his legs. Although the dynamite never actually goes off (one of the pleasures of this film is that there is so much violence with so little loss of human life), the audience is treated to several minutes of the officer making a fool of himself as he alternately begs for mercy and trips over his pants trying to stamp out the dynamite.
Obviously what we have here is a reversal of the ordinary sex roles. Highway patrolmen in bondage are as rare in the cinema as active, aggressive women. In fact, when you inspect THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE closely you discover that—except for a few minor changes in plot—it is nothing more or less than BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID in drag. In this case, the two bank robbers are not cowboys, but women. It is this reversal of sexual expectations that gives the film its special comic flair. After all, who ever heard of women robbing banks without the help of some men? Bonnie had Clyde, and even Ma Barker had her pack of sons.
Even more amazing than their bank robbing is Candy and Ellie Joe’s friendship. On the screen women usually either compete with each other or occasionally try to kill each other (THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, REBECCA, UNDER CAPRICORN). But Candy and Ellie Joe, like Butch and Sundance, are real buddies who stick together despite great personal danger. Their comradeship is tested several times in the film. At the beginning, Candy has a chance to leave Ellie Joe and settle down with a miner in the mountains, a chance she refuses. The miner, by the way, is also a reversal of the “beautiful blonde” of ordinary gangster films. In this case I suppose he should be referred to as the “gorgeous hunk,” since his habit of running around in blue jeans with no shirt probably does the same thing for female members of the audience that a woman in a bikini would do for males.
Ellie Joe is tempted in a similar way by another reversal: the “sweet young thing.” Like the schoolteacher in BUTCH CASSIDY the “sweet young thing” pleads with her to settle down and give up her life of crime before she gets killed. In this case the sweet young thing is Slim, a nice mild-mannered guy who is played by Johnny Crawford.
Violence done to women on the screen is often used as an excuse for even more excessive masculine violence (DIRTY HARRY, STRAW DOGS). In light of this pattern it seems appropriate that the murder of Slim in this sexually upside down world is the occasion for the only really graphic violence in the entire film. The incident occurs in the middle of a picnic. Ellie Joe and Slim are sitting on the grass (in a scene that once again brings back echoes of BONNIE AND CLYDE) when two police officers jump out of the bushes and shoot Slim down in cold blood. Candy, who has witnessed the entire slaughter from the sidelines, proceeds to kill the two policemen, not with dynamite, but with a gun.
Her choice of weapons is significant. All through the film, dynamite has been associated with a violence that doesn't really hurt anyone—a female, orgasmic violence, diffuse, unreliable, and essentially harmless. But at the end, when she really wants to kill instead of merely frightening, Candy turns for the first time to that supreme phallic weapon, the gun.
The third, and ultimate test of Candy and Ellie’s friendship comes near the end of the film when in the chase Candy is wounded, and Ellie Joes has the choice of either leaving her and escaping to Mexico or staying to shoot it out with the law. But by this time we know that Ellie Joe could no more leave Candy than Butch could leave Sundance, Cisco could leave Poncho, or Tonto could leave the Lone Ranger.
Wiring a car with dynamite, she sends it smashing into the police who scatter before it explodes. Then Ellie throws Candy onto a horse, and the two of them ride off into the sunset, to Mexico and freedom. The credits at the end tell us that they are now living in Mexico with lots of boyfriends and plenty of money.A fairy tale ending, of course, about an ending that still doesn't solve a lot of my questions about women and violence in the cinema. Do we want, for example, to see women taking on masculine roles in films? Do we want an equality of terror? It’s hard to say. But after seventy years of whips, meat hooks, and chainsaws, one thing is clear. It’s a pleasure to see two women successfully dynamite out a place for themselves on the screen.