Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973) needs little introduction in terms of the effect it had culturally on horror film-making nor it’s notoriety, certainly in England, largely based on what was perceived to have been seen, rather than what was there for all to see.
Regardless, the sound of the film is generally overlooked, a ‘will-this-do?’ coda to discussions focused around power-tools, chickens in small cages and meat processing – this is unfortunate as the sound design, let alone the music used, is something of a tour de force.
The signature theme of the movie is, of course, the saw itself. The sound is uncompromising and unmistakable… plus you and the characters can hear it coming a mile off. As such, the sensible decision was made to not clutter the ears with unnecessary noise – pictures are painted with subtle uses of song and, more jarringly, with more agricultural instruments but sparingly to allow the shocks and terror to build in the mind rather than have the dots joined up for you. ‘Texas…’ is one of the most famous films to use the already-discussed technique of alerting the audience at the beginning of the movie to the fact that the sequences they are about to view are based on true events. The slow crawl of the text against the sonorous tones of the voice are round about the last chance the audience get to relax before the film starts – the warning, bizarrely, considering the mania that follows, rang loudly true, American audiences at least being more than aware of the antics of Ed Gein less than twenty years previously.
The title sequence beyond this is also more than worthy of investigation. The on-screen blackness punctuated by torch-lit glimpses of ‘surely not?’ gruesomeness are pitched against electronic screeches which we will soon learn mimic the screams onscreen. It’s a disconcerting sound as it’s completely unnatural yet we fundamentally know what it means, we’ve already been warned once, here’s your second chance. What the blackness and white-noise roar finally gives way to bright Texan sunshine [and an un-Godly statue] the first sound we here is of static of a radio and snatches of local drawl offering information about the abomination we have just seen; this immediately gives a certain authenticity to the film, no fanfares, no slow build of strings – just the sound of real-life.
Before Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell progressed to using synthesizers, they manipulated normally recognisable sounds to the point of perverse parody; percussion was abused, a double bass was attacked, the sound of the tortured strings treated and reversed, violin bows scratching at anything but strings. Objects nearby were dropped from a height, the crashing sound turned inside-out so that although you were aware of something in the gloom, you are unable to picture it or determine from where it came.
Diegetic sound is prevalent throughout the film, most obviously the voices and saw but also the appalling, frantic scribbling of harvest spiders in the corner of a room, caged chickens, the clatter of shuttered doors – we know the sounds but struggle to associate them with anything good. The character of Sally spends the latter part of the movie ceaselessly screaming, behaving, frankly, as any of us would. The camera cuts to close-ups of here eyes, the faces of her captors – the screaming never stops. We are trapped in her nightmare. With her friends murdered with oddly quick efficiency, the sound of her screams alert us to the fact that her fate is going to be far more drawn-out.
The songs used in ‘Texas’ are somewhat enigmatic. The most famous, ‘Fool for a Blond’, can at least be attributed conclusively, to local musician, Roger Bartlett. It is recorded ‘as live’, again, lending a credence to the film telling the story as it really happened in Wisconsin. The lyrics have little to do with the movie, save for the fact that the lead actress has blonde hair. This achieves the effect of again rooting the story in reality; hideous events may be happening in front of us but elsewhere, life carries on as normal. You’ll be relieved to know I aren’t going to say the song has a good hook [although it has]. The song’s jauntiness and light-hearted observations are clearly at odds with the film’s content.
Other songs also feature; efforts by Timberline Rose, Los Cyclones and Arkey Blue have pieces played but only briefly; the aim is for it to create atmosphere, not to give light relief nor explain what’s happening onscreen. Arkey Blue enjoyed another two minutes of fame recording ‘Two Many Pills’, a song regularly featured in compilations of country songs themed on dodgy landfill.
Of the others, we know little; nearly forty years on, all attempts to locate the remaining musicians have failed; this has had two effects. One is that the songs remain mysterious, timeless and can only be identifiable alongside the film. The second reinforces the latter statement – the sound was recorded only on mono tape, the music cannot physically be separated from the actors speech which overlays it. It is unfeasible to believe a soundtrack could ever happen, the film can only ever exist as a whole. For a film without a hummable title or end theme, the sound of Texas Chain Saw Massacre is unmistakeable, challenging and timeless.
Daz Lawrence, MOV!ES and MAN!A
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