Mumblegore is a relatively new term that has blossomed with the low budget, yet character-driven, indie horror films that have been released in the past decade. It was born out of the Mumblecore genre, introduced in 2002 with films such as Funny HA HA (2002) by Andrew Bujalski and Puffy Chair (2005) by the Duplass Brothers.
Mumblegore takes that genre into the realm of horror, with films such as You’re Next (2011), The Sacrament (2013), and V/H/S (2012) as prime examples. Due to lower budgets and almost no studio pressure, these films are much more experimental. A few directors and writers have been credited with the birth and rise of this strange subgenre. Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S), Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), and Ti West (House of the Devil, The Sacrament) are just a few of the people working to create strange yet terrifying stories that push the boundaries of horror.
I want to expand the definition, which is my goal with this column. I will try to venture outside of those well-known directors and scour the corners of the Internet to expand the idea of mumblegore.
In the 14 months I’ve been writing this column, I’ve written about recent releases from indie filmmakers that deserve more attention. I’ve waxed poetic about the emotional depth of mumblegore and the creativity displayed by filmmakers who barely have a budget. However, this month, I want to pay homage to what I consider the original mumblegore film: Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
With a budget of $140,000 ($700,000 in 2020 money), Hooper was able to create one of the most disturbing and terrifying films in horror history. But it did not have overnight success, just like Teeth, Creep, Lace Crater, and more. It was a struggle to get this film a distributor due to its graphic content and indictment of the United States post-Vietnam War. When the film finally secured a distributor, that didn’t alleviate its problems. It was banned in several countries, it was rated R which was practically a death sentence for a film’s commercial success in the 1970s. Essentially, this was a labor of love. This wasn’t all about making money — it was about creating a monster that is entirely plausible.
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Like many mumblegore directors, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made a lot out of little. In fact, despite its reputation, there is minimal gore in the film. In an interview with Esquire, Alexandre Aja, director of High Tension, said,
“It’s the editing, the rawness, the craziness of what you see that makes the experience so intense. Your mind creates what you don’t see in the movie and fills in the gaps to see all the ‘massacre’ that Hooper doesn’t actually show onscreen.”
There is barely any blood in a film with “massacre” in the title. Like Aja stated, we are meant to fill in the gaps, and what is scarier than your own imagination? That pile of organs you thought was sitting on a table? You projected that onto the screen. The blood pouring from freshly opened wounds? Barely a drop to be seen. Again, like contemporary mumblegore, subtext and imagination take the place of practical effects, letting us become more intimately drawn into the film. We are like Sally (Marilyn Burns), terrified of what could be behind a door or what terrors befell her friends. Yet, that disgust is a creation all of our own, with Hooper as our muse.
“With a budget of $140,000 [… Tobe] Hooper was able to create one of the most disturbing and terrifying films in horror history.”
The fear experienced while watching the film is built mostly through the intimacy of the camera work, which mimics that of found footage, which wouldn’t become popular until decades later. Every frame feels shaky, moving like someone is just holding a video camera and letting everything play out naturally. That realism through camerawork alone makes the film feel too close to home or like you are watching a snuff film. The handheld camera aesthetic is unnerving, as if this was a tape just found in someone’s basement. Everything and everyone is covered in a thick layer of dirt, blood, sweat, tears, and maybe a little bit of vomit. This is not a glamorous horror blockbuster, but a micro-budget horror film that revels in messiness.
Then, there are the performances, steeped in intense emotions ranging from pure terror to unbridled rage. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film of extremes, with barely a moment to catch your breath Hooper and the crew were still able to create moments of pure fear through unhinged performances for Leatherface (Gunnar Anderson) and his brother, as well as Sally’s role as audience proxy whose screams of terror cut you to the bone.
The infamous dinner table scene perfectly illustrates how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre creates nausea and terror without pouring gallons of blood on its performers. The set up is simple: Sally is tied to a chair at the head of the table, while Leatherface and family sit next to her, ready to enjoy a simple meal of sausages and bread. But terror saturates the scene, not only through Sally’s screams for mercy, but through the brother’s horrifying cackle and mockery of her pain. For a moment, it is like looking into Hell itself. There is no mercy in anyone’s eyes, in fact, they seem to enjoy the suffering, feeding on it like the meat on their plates.
Anderson’s performance as Leatherface is the cherry on top of this scene. His physicality is awkward, like a man seeing a woman for the first time. The camera switches to Sally’s POV as he slowly approaches her, cocking his head to the side like a curious dog while he observes her screams. This almost innocent curiosity is scarier than the outright cruelty, as if Leatherface has only known women as dead and is excited to play with her hair, all while his brother maniacally laughs in her face. However, it is important to note that transphobic tropes are used to encourage that fear, as Leatherface is now dressed as a woman, with a human skin mask crudely covered in blush and blue eyeshadow. Unfortunately, this man-dressed-as-woman trope is supposed to be scary, weaponizing the idea of the trans body to make a cannibal even more horrifying, especially as he is placed in contrast with Sally, the sexualized hippie woman of the 1970s.
As if performances and effective editing weren’t enough, Hooper declared this was based on a true story, which was a bit of a white lie. Like Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used true events as inspiration; there was no actual redneck family lurking in the depths of Texas countryside, and there was no real man wielding a chainsaw who murdered teenagers. Instead, Hooper drew from the curious case of Ed Gein, a serial killer who collected body parts and wore human skin. While horrifying, Gein didn’t actually murder that many people. Instead, he harvested body parts from the local graveyard and used them to make garments. Understandably, his story in itself is a horror movie and provides the perfect backdrop for a family of serial killers with a taste for human flesh.
“The infamous dinner table scene perfectly illustrates how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre creates nausea and terror without pouring gallons of blood on its performers.”
With $140,000, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the film that launched a movement, one that inspired indie filmmakers to delve into their own creativity to tell their stories, no matter how scary or gross they may seem. Money, while crucial for funding these projects, should not be such a barrier for voices to be heard. With one film, Hooper inspired a generation of indie filmmakers who would go on to create what we now know as mumblegore.