New Year’s night, the last weird hours of a house party, I walk in on two friends staring at a window. From downstairs there is the pulse of unrecognised music, muffled by plaster and carpet. Up here, it is quiet and almost morning but still dark outside and the yellowish light in the room reflects back at us in the black glass. ‘Man,’ says one. ‘Man… your curtain. It’s made of tanned human skin.’ The noise from downstairs surges as a door opens. The two friends rear upward, in unison, transfixed by some synthesis of sound and vision. The next day they will tell me that that was when the moon exploded. One of them will shake his head, almost affectionate. ‘I swear I could see old Leatherface.’
It seems that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is embedded in our subconscious, lurking in the synapses and still causing redneck death trips in suburban English bedrooms. Perhaps for this reason, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 psychedelic horror withstands reissues, reappraisals and deluxe treatments without losing its bite, even if - as it is released on Blu-ray with three hours of extras - we might question the necessity of yet another attempt to polish this exhilaratingly lo-fi vison. However, there is one area in which the remastering process has done more good than harm: in bringing to the fore Tobe Hooper and sound recordist Wayne Bell’s stunning soundtrack.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was scored with the same mix of pragmatism, rawness and experimental sensibility that imbues its cinematography, editing, and particularly art direction. Its haunting qualities are much admired, but little has been written about its formal construction aside from anecdotes about some of the junkyard/household items used as sound sources. This instrumentation is cited as yet another example of Hooper’s DIY attitude; in fact, it also demonstrates an understanding of 20th-century avant-garde music, with which the director was apparently familiar. The sound design might have been done on the cheap, but the clever interweaving of diegetic and non-diegetic sound in the film, which reaches its apex as the whirr of the title’s notorious power toool melds with the ominous low-pass filter of an analogue synthesiser but in fact occurs throughout, results in a sonic experience that is all the more noteworthy for the inexperience of its composers.
Hooper and Bell weren’t the first sound designers to use electronic music to illustrate fear, but their use of real sounds alongside electronic textures creates masterful shifts in perspective that illustrate, for me, the disorientation of being trapped in the ultimate nightmare. These are not the glacial synth melodies or demonic disco pulses of giallo soundtracks, nor terrifying sounds from outer space; this is everyday sound turned bad. In the opening credits, a lone cymbal (which sounds wonderfully cheap, like a dustbin lid), a scraped tuning fork and some heavy reverb set the scene; a growling oscillator announces the first murder; but we first encounter a full sonic attack when Pam - soon to meet her fate in the deep freezer - enters a room festering with chicken feathers, bone totems and a caged, chattering hen. Skeletal percussion and metallic tones clatter and jangle at increasing volume as outside an electricity generator whirrs and tin cans swing from a tree. We hear both ritual music of a particularly sinister intent, and the eerie presence of machinery gone diabolical. Pam is trapped in a place of death whose spells are both ancient and modern, and we can hear as well as see that she is not going to escape.
While other horror movies use harsh sonic textures sparingly, for dramatic effect alongside melody, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s soundtrack is unusually, relentlessly atonal. There are some expected cues: extreme shock is often signalled by high-end, painful electronic sounds. In other places, though, the composition is subtler, as in the grotesque dinner scene, in which Leatherface and his grim family bicker and gibber as they terrorise their victim, Sally. The scene is awkwardly choreographed, frenetic and almost slapstick, but a low, droning hum and white noise, layered with echoing, modulated percussion, convey a slow, dreamlike and horrendous aspect that is close to nauseating.
While roughly within the context of electronic composition of the mid-20th century, Hooper’s hands-on, DIY approach results in a wonderfully punk take on concrete music that would be echoed, many years later, in the visceral, atmospheric and very likely horror-influenced records of bands such as Michigan noiseniks Wolf Eyes. Most of all, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s feral electronics are a perfect match for the film’s deeper message - that, as Suicide were to opine a few years later over their own rough-edged synth sequences, ‘America, America is killing its youth’.