By Aaron AuBuchon
America has always been at its own throat for one reason or another, but man… lately it’s been going gangbusters. Conventional groupthink dictates that people give lip service to unity, but in truth a lot of Americans are gleefully sharpening their knives and licking their chops, looking horny-forward to getting a taste of their neighbor’s blood and soft parts. And we act like this is some new story, but it’s not, and it hasn’t been for a while. In fact, it’s been pretty similar for the last 50 years. The culture wars that are still being fought in America today arguably got their start in the social upheaval of the 1960’s. According to author Jeffery Aaron Snyder:
“Before the ‘60s, the irreverent and unsettling sporadic messages of radical artists, academics, and politicians had largely failed to reach normative Americans, who continued to believe in God, hard work, American exceptionalism (‘their nation was the best in human history’), and ‘traditional’ gender roles.” *
The conversation in American society (and in human history) has often revolved around an us vs. them duality: colonial vs. loyalist, north vs. south, Allies vs. Axis, and so on. It all amounts to the usual good vs. evil duality, where my tribe is good and their tribe is evil. But in the 60’s the culture began having a conversation about the morality and value of simply being American, arguably for the first time. And the way that conversation often played out was to create a simple line of demarcation, a clear way to tell the tribes apart: urban vs. rural. I think that most generalizations are generally soft-headed, but to risk exposing my own mostly mushy melon, rural America was (and is) more conservative, more suspicious of change, less interested in trends, and generally far less open to talk that doesn’t place America at the center of the known universe. Urban America was (and is) more progressive, more interested in change, less interested in traditions, and generally far less open to the idea of America as a fundamental good in the world. That city people regularly make fun of country “rubes” and that country people cast a jaundiced eye towards folks from urban environments (“y’all ain’t from around here, are ya?”) are popular stereotypes. City people were seen as dangerous interlopers by rural folks, and urban people often found rural environments backwards and scary.
Filmmakers have also found these stereotypes worth exploring, digging in up to their collective armpits. Interestingly, most films that take on the city/country divide are often about people from urban environments entering rural areas, and the woe that befalls them there (see Easy Rider 1969 and Deliverance 1972 for well-known examples.) This isn’t terribly surprising, as filmmakers are almost always urban dwellers themselves, so it would be easier for them to imagine a situation where people like themselves are thrust into a rural landscape than to imagine what a person born and raised rural would experience in the city. Low-budget horror filmmakers were no different, and in the early to mid 1970’s two films would emerge that would use this theme to explore the two very different sides of the conversation, creating metaphors for what happens when city progressives are confronted with rural traditionalists in their own environment. I Drink Your Blood (1971) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) would each create an aggressively oversimplified and terrifyingly singular antagonistic “family” which not only held up a mirror to the times in which the films were created, they held up and almost perfectly reflected each other.
If there is one thing I find irresistible in a behind-the-scenes making-of story, it’s any indication that someone involved decided specifically to make a film that would be intentionally disgusting and horrible, and lucky me, that’s how I Drink Your Blood (IDYB) came to be. In 1970, notorious exploitation producer Jerry Gross contacted writer/director David Durston with one thing in mind: to make the “most graphic horror film of all time” according to Durston, who went on to detail the catch Gross put in place: no vampires, no werewolves, no supernatural elements of any kind. Gross wanted realism; he wanted a picture that went “for the jugular.” Apparently, Gross, who Durston likened to P.T. Barnum, was envious of the fistfuls of cash that Night of the Living Dead was making, and wanted some fistfuls of his own. It’s somewhat mystifying that Gross decreed that the film have no supernatural elements, as the supernatural was still pretty common in horror in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but he did, which forced Durston, admittedly not a huge horror fan himself, to dig deep for a story. Eventually he found one, based on the true (and goddamned horrifying) story of a town in Russia that suffered an outbreak of rabies after a diseased wolf burst into a one room schoolhouse and began attacking children. From there, he had the foundation of his plot, which Gross loved and told him to flesh it into a full script.
As Durston sat down to write, the papers were filled with news about the recent capture of the Manson family who were responsible for the notorious Tate-LaBianca murders, which naturally led him to think that maybe his little rabies story needed a satanic hippie cult, so that was added as well. Manson and his cadre of strung out jackasses, were perhaps the greatest cultural “I told you so” in American history. Since the first hippies popped up, there had always been folks (often rural) that were very uneasy about the new way of thinking promoted by the subculture, as Merle Haggard sang about in his 1969 classic Okie From Muscogee. When Manson and his merry band came on the scene, every single person who had ever worried that anti-war kids reading horoscopes might end up butchering a bunch of people felt they had had their fears validated and then some. Consequently the Mansonoids were perfect boogeymen, and are a firm foundation upon which Durston could sculpt his characters. What ended up on screen was a wide-eyed Satanist cult that seemed ripped from the fever dreams of the aggressively anxious. Each of these characters chewed a hell of a lot of gritty scenery, and spat back a big juicy glob of insanity that feels both ridiculous and kind of compelling. At least to me.
The film starts brilliantly, as we join a late-night satanic ceremony already underway in the deep woods. Everybody is naked (except for actress Ronda Fultz as Molly) and we are treated to a monologue of depravity by cult leader Horace (played by the stunningly athletic dancer/actor Bhaskar). From there, the ante is upped quite a bit when they actually slit a live chicken’s throat as part of the ceremony. Normally, wanton animal slaughter bothers the shit out of me in films, but Durston says that the cast ate the chicken for dinner that night, and it looked like a pretty clean kill, so I give it a grudging pass.
Lots of rural people take a great deal of pride in the fact that they understand the natural world and that they live in harmony with it. They understand the wilderness via proximity, and consequently feel that city people aren’t as connected to the land. They are of the land, and that defines part of their identity. So seeing a naked hippie death cult in the woods outside a small town committing a purposeful act of blasphemy would probably raise the hackles of people from small towns all over America. Taking it a step further, a young teenaged girl from the community tags along with a less committed member of the cult and witnesses the naked devil ceremony (where we learn that Satan is an acidhead). She is chased and attacked by the cult members and it is implied that she probably is raped, and is certainly roughed up. To my mind, this sets up the metaphorical relationship from the get-go that implies what the “city” folks represent: first they defile the land, and then they defile the (maybe) virginal white teenaged girl in the story. Why does it matter than she’s white? Because the cult is mostly not white, which has a bunch of implications that are beyond the scope of this article, generally. But the fact that the cult contains people of East Asian, South Asian and African-American heritage certainly means that they are a more heterogeneous crowd than the denizens of the town upon which they descend. At the very least, that implies something outside the realm of the rural American town, places that are often defined by their overall ethnic sameness.
Durston wrote the cult as an affront to everything that the average small-town American in 1971 (or 1991, or 2011) would deem as normal, rational or acceptable. They worship the devil. They rape. They beat up an old man. They hunt and eat rats. They are so over-the-top as boogeyman caricatures that it is tempting to dismiss them, but I find their power is in their blatantly exaggerated delivery. Because on the one hand, they are unquestionably the enemy, but they are written and performed in such a hysterical and insane way as to make you question the very thing they appear to represent. They don’t seem real, and some of that seems to be Durston showing his hand a bit: these kinds of people exist, but they are exceedingly rare, and the idea that they would end up in your little dead-end backwater is pretty silly, Mr. and Mrs. Nervous Smalltown America.
The insanity of the cult of city dwellers is a perfect mirror for the family of country cannibals in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (TCSM). Much has been made (possibly too much) about how Hooper found inspiration from his Wisconsin relatives relating the urban legends that were based on very grisly facts concerning native son Ed Gein and his enthusiasm for doing crafts with dead bodies. I feel like his story is sort of the flipside of the Manson one, at least symbolically. Manson and his family are the symbols of everything “wrong” with the city, whereas, Ed Gein is a symbol for that which is “wrong” with small towns. In this case, a small, insular community gestated and nurtured a completely macabre lunatic right in its bosom, and when his murderous, cannibalistic exploits came to light, everyone who knew him seemed stunned, even though all of them agreed that Eddie was “a little odd.” This myopia about the bad behavior of some rural folks from those around them thanks to generations of the ties that bind is certainly part of the subtext of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, though.
Demographically, TCSM is the flipside of IDYB. Instead of being a mixture of “weird” beliefs and ethnicities, the antagonists in TCSM are the opposite: a family whose gene pool seems about six inches deep, who hold onto an anachronistic lifestyle that has reshaped them into a stationary living freakshow. But exactly like the Satanists in IDYB, they were written as over-the-top caricatures; so much so that Hooper felt he was making a sort of black comedy during production. Again, here you have people that are so incredibly strange, that it feels impossible that they might be real people. That the films feel so tonally different is good to gnaw on a bit, as both had their “family” of antagonists played by actors whose writer/directors told them to play it up, but the result is one film that feels campy and sort of fun, and one that feels grimy and deadly serious. Why is that? It doesn’t seem like “better” filmmaking on the part of Hooper. If anything, it seems like maybe the tone that he achieved was more intense than what he initially wanted. And my contention that one film feels more intense than the other isn’t written on a stone tablet carried down a mountain; your results may vary. But they certainly feel different from each other, while sharing a lot of similarities.
The settings of each film bear mentioning. Both are set in areas that have been reshaped negatively by the ever-present and unending bugaboo of the rural lifestyle: progress. Both films present a small town whose denizens have chosen performative futility in the face of overwhelming outside forces. In IDYB, the little town of Pottersville is nearly abandoned thanks to the looming presence of a dam that is being constructed on the nearby river, which once completed, will drown the town. This inevitability doesn’t stop the protagonists of the film from staying on there to offer the wildly unnecessary services of animal doctoring and baking of meat pies, respectively. Hey guys, the people are gone… who is going to buy a meat pie or have a dog with a sore leg? But this mirrored the flight away from rural areas that had been happening for years and was in high gear as the baby boom came of age. Likewise, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film whose backdrop is one of an evolving world where the decisions made in urban areas trickle down to the folks in the country. In this case, a couple of things have happened: the local beef industry has selected a more efficient tool and method for slaughtering cattle, and international politics have created gasoline shortages everywhere, including the setting of the film. Both of these things are necessary for the plot of TCSM to unfold the way it does. I’ve read some articles that hold the Chain Saw family up as some sort of labor heroes whose life’s work was rendered obsolete thanks to technology, an idea that I think is silly nonsense if we choose to believe what they actually say in the film. When discussing the finer points of animal slaughter with the Hitchhiker, Franklin mentions the gun used to kill the cattle. This prompts a very negative response from the Hitchhiker. The gun is bad he says. He further says that the sledge is the only right way to murder a bovine animal, and says it with absolute finality. This suggests (to me, anyway) that the family made a decision to hold onto a technology rather than to learn the new one. They obstinately stood still in the face of change, and the world moved on. The slaughter facility ostensibly would still need people to operate the murder gun, but rather than just learning how to use it and keeping their jobs, it would seem that the members of the family chose some sort of self-imposed hardware purity and instead just went off to open a roadside gas station (which is a job, a fact that complicates straight Marxist theorizing) while simultaneously going just batshit crazy. They chose a different path. So, I think that the suggestion that they were “victims of capitalism” is dumb. They were, in my opinion, victims of their own stupid intransigence. Progress happened and they decided to stand still in its stream and instead applied their atavistic murder method to young home invaders and their friends. This actually strikes me as a perhaps unintentional indictment of unthinking, absolute tradition in the face of unstoppable change. The message seems pretty clear to me: if you don’t change with the times, you become something dark, desperate, and cancerous. Both films take place in a rural environment that is dirty, chipped, rotting, and at least partially abandoned. And the indigenous characters try to craft a new normal in that environment, continuing to do things as though nothing had changed. The difference is that in IDYB it comes across as quaintly futile and in TCSM it comes across as the watering can in their fully blossomed psychosis. But in each, outside urban forces beyond the control of the rural characters create a situation that leads the characters to try to futilely preserve a way of life that is destined to fail. Interestingly, Texas Chain Saw takes it a step further, in that the family have moved on from their time in the slaughterhouses and are now selling meats and gas from their roadside gas station. But even that evolution is stalled by the energy crisis of the early 1970’s and their gas station can’t sell gas because there is no gas to sell. In this case, they are forced to rely on their other business to make ends meet, the selling of mysterious cuts of meat from their own smoker.
Not to read too far into it, but city and country people also tend to have a fundamental horror of the consumption habits of the other group. City folks who would eat tripe soup at the local Mexican taqueria might recoil at the suggestion of pickled pigs feet in the country, while a bunch of folks from down home might happily tuck into chitlin’s, but feel revulsion at the notion of caviar. The TCSM situation seems an amplification of that general sense of otherness, the feeling that “those people” might feed you anything, the savages. The image of Franklin with that half eaten cigar of almost pornographic sausage jutting from his moist lips takes on a whole new meaning when you get a bit further into the film, and the notion that the next unsuspecting irritating brother out with his sister’s patient friends might have a stick of Franklin hanging out of their mouth is some horrifyingly next-level circle of life stuff.
Both films posit really interesting bad guys and simultaneously rather two-dimensional and often irritating protagonists. The hippie kids in TCSM mostly bitch at each other, make bad decisions, perform home invasions, etc. The salt of the earth townsfolk in IDYB make bad decisions, initiate confrontations they can’t hope to win, and manage to make a very bad situation exponentially worse. I get being very upset when your sister is (maybe) raped and (definitely) beaten during a satanic ceremony and your grandpa is beaten and dosed with acid (the trippy kind, not the dissolve-y kind) when he walks into a coven of dangerous Satanists by himself, but when little Peter decides to seek justice via rabies infected dog blood, he become at least as responsible for the carnage that follows as the cult. In fact, the horrific events of both films wouldn’t have happened without the horrendous decisions of each respective group of supposed protagonists.
Both films deal with the issue of culture clash and the idea of basic property and propriety. In both cases, the city dwellers show up and insinuate themselves into the workings of the insular community in ways that are unwanted and uninvited. The satanic hippie cult (who incidentally went by “Sadus, Sons of Satan”) take advantage of the abandonment of the town by essentially squatting in a house, while the daytripping hippies from TCSM assume that they are allowed to just walk into a rural home even after being warned against exactly that kind of behavior by a local. It makes you wonder if, when being respectively bludgeoned to death or hung on a meathook, Kirk or Pam remembered the Cook telling their group specifically not to go screwing around other people’s property. One hopes a nice “I told you so” when meeting their maker would deliver a proper level of shame. Anyway, back to the point: in both films, city folks don’t respect property rights, and in both the punishment is swift and severe. Everyone in the cult dies as a result of the rabid meat pies, and all but one of the van hippies dies as a result of their decision to go have a look where they weren’t invited.
There are other films that have dealt with these concepts (notably Hershel Gordon Lewis’ 1966 sophomore gruefest Two Thousand Maniacs), but these two are interesting for their timing and the fact that they were both produced specifically to play the kinds of theaters that are mostly found either in major cities or rural areas: grindhouses and drive ins. They were mostly oriented towards audiences that were representative of the represented demographic. Films of this sort played one of two places: gritty urban grindhouses or (mostly) rural dusty drive-ins. The audiences in each were made up of folks that would recognize the characters onscreen as either representative of their demographic, or a wild overstatement thereof.
The films are from the same era, and concentrate on things that are thematically related: consumption, otherness, insanity, and tradition. One might expect them to cause very different reactions in different audiences, which isn’t to say that all people from a population are monolithic in practice, but that some similarities might develop. My recommendation is to go have a look at them back to back and see if the deep divide doesn’t trigger some recognition in you. For me, a guy who came from a rural town of 10,000 and moved to an urban region of 2.5 million, the result is that both movies have a particular resonance in me. The urban cult in IDYB seems as exotic and interesting as it is farfetched and ridiculous. Though no less ridiculous, my run-ins with backwoods backwards rural meanness as well as the lucky masterful craft of TCSM make the murder-rubes of the cannibal family feel pretty plausible to me. I saw both for the first time when I lived in a rural setting, and while IDYB rolled off my back easily, TCSM made me wonder how many of the glaring, glazed-over and hostile eyes that bore into me at various times when I was growing up there weren’t simply irritated with how obviously poorly I fit into their tribe, but were actively wondering what my skull would look like as a bowl from which they would eat my ground skin and eyeballs.
A pole I stick in the ground a lot: I think that Freudian analysis of films is generally dumb. Symbols are only rarely shared across cultures (or even a culture), and they aren’t shared at all unless they are commonly seen, regularly defined and most importantly, fundamentally agreed upon, something that horror symbols almost never are. You can tell me all day long that a knife is a penis in Halloween (1978) or that the monster’s brief friendship with the old blind man in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is a conversation about homosexuality, but there is nothing in the text that forces me to concur. Talking about what symbols mean with any degree of certainty strikes me as the kind of clownishness that should make grown people with half a brain blush with embarrassment. It suggests a cultural sameness, a singularity of subconsciousness that strikes me as even more fanciful than astrology. On the other hand, I think that looking into yourself and seeing what art does to you personally is a fascinating exercise. What I’m getting at is that neither of these films is specifically about American cultural relationships, but looking at how you feel about them when someone frames them that way is an interesting exercise. So the question is, when you examine how you feel about the characters, plot points, and themes these movies have introduced, what’s your takeaway? And then, what does that tell you about you? The conversation I’d like to start with this article has nothing to do with me defending the symbols I describe here. It has everything to do with asking a question: based on what you see in these two movies and the time in which they were produced, what do you think?
For me, these movies are a way to look at the silly and illogical boxes into which we might allocate whole populations of our neighbors if we choose easy explanations and agree to the conventional wisdom of our ideological allies. Stylistically I Drink Your Blood and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may seem pretty far apart, but thematically they seem to me to be two sides of the same mirror that we can hold up to our society. How much of the hypocrisy is reflected back at us may well be an indication of how much our own tribalism allows us to see.
*Snyder, Jeffrey Aaron. “America Will Never Move Beyond the Culture Wars.” The New Republic, 23 Apr. 2015, https://newrepublic.com/article/121627/war-soul-america-history-culture-wars-review.