Chainsaws in popular culture
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Chainsaws, the common logging and woodworking tool, are also a common sight in popular culture.
Chainsaws have appeared in countless films being used for their intended purpose, but this rarely if ever is given a prominent role in the plot. More prominent however is portrayals of chainsaws as weapons or torture devices.
Despite chainsaws having been around since the 1930s, they were not seen used as a weapon in film until the 1960s, possibly due to Hays Code censorship restrictions on portrayals of graphic violence.
Among the earliest films to portray chainsaws as weapons are Dark of the Sun (1968) and The Wizard of Gore (1970). Wes Craven's 1972 film The Last House on the Left, would be referred to as “The original Chainsaw Massacre” in advertising campaigns during later re-releases.
In 1974, arguably the most famous and influential chainsaw use in a film was seen when Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released. The film, loosely based on famous murderer Ed Gein (though unlike the killers in the film Gein did not use chainsaws), would etch the chainsaw into the public mind as an object of gruesome terror, even though actual chainsaw to flesh contact was only seen once in the whole movie. It would be followed by a direct sequel, two standalone sequels and in 2003 a remake which would receive its own prequel. Following its release, many horror films, especially lower budget ones, began to incorporate chainsaw gore scenes, a trend which continues to the present day.
1987 would bring the next most famous horror film use of the chainsaw with Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II, where instead of being used from villains, this time is the hero the one who uses the power tool to fight the evil and set right what is wrong (The previous film also contained a chainsaw, but it was ultimately not used for violence). In the film's greatest sequence, protagonist Ash Williams attaches a chainsaw to his stump to replace a severed hand (which he had removed with said chainsaw), marking a point where the protagonist quit running from the spirits and chooses to fight. The chainsaw hand would have appearances in the film’s sequel, various spin offs and would be parodied often, symbolizing the will to fight things that (until the moment when the hero gets the mighty tool of power) were utterly undefeatable.
Due to the high level of gore associated with the chainsaws use as a weapon, appearances as such outside of the horror genre were uncommon. One notable one was in Brian De Palma's 1983 gangster film Scarface. The scene in question depicted a Colombian gangster dismembering another gangster to extract information.
Due to television’s higher level censorship chainsaw violence is rare and usually only described with both the attack and the damaged body left unseen. An example of this is an episode ("Born Again") of The X-Files revolving around the ghost of a police officer dismembered with a chainsaw by corrupt colleagues, all flashbacks skip over the actual murder.
One notable exception is the series Dexter in which chainsaw attacks are occasionally seen, most notably in dreams and flashbacks regarding the protagonist’s mother’s death. This is due to the larger amount of content freedom given to programs created for pay-television, of which the series is one. Dexter Morgan, also uses a chainsaw at some points.
Chainsaws have made appearances in cartoon series, usually as a source of comedy. These have ranged from more young adult audience fare (The Simpsons, Family Guy) to even children’s series, for instance the series The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy contains a chainsaw wielding character based on Evil Dead’s protagonist Ash. In the anime and manga adaptation of Kuroshitsuji, a chainsaw was prominently featured as Grell Sutcliff's personalized Deathscythe.
CSI:Crime Scene Investigation has used chainsaws in one storyline, highlighting their potential for serious accidents. What was apparently the massacre of two victims by a third perpetrator was then revealed to be an inexperienced operator who had caused a kickback accident that killed both him and a bystander.
The first chainsaw appearance in a video game was unsurprisingly the 1982 Texas Chainsaw Massacre Atari game. However this game, with antagonist Leatherface chasing down victims on a highway for points would see low sales and limited exposure due to many stores refusal to sell it, along with fellow horror film adaptation Halloween.
Though chainsaws would be used as weapons in the 1970s/1980s horror film inspired cult Splatterhouse game series, and used by enemies in some beat-em ups (such as the Robocop arcade game) the next major appearance would not be until the 1990s. In 1993, pioneering first person shooter Doom was the first game including a chainsaw as a weapon for the player; giving chainsaws in horror games the same cult position they held in horror cinema, ans setting them as the tool that can defeat terror, turn horror against itself, and rally the courage of heroes. Some of the horror games to use chainsaws would include the Resident Evil series, Dead Rising, Dead Rising 2, the Silent Hill series, Manhunt, Dead Space, Left 4 Dead 2 the Gears of War series, MadWorld and, of course, the Evil Dead spin off games.
Largely in reference to Scarface, chainsaws would also appear commonly in organized crime themed video games. These include the Grand Theft Auto series (starting with the Scarface inspired GTA: Vice City), 50 Cent: Bulletproof, Saints Row 2, and of course the Scarface game.
Though less common, chainsaws (or more specifically fictional chainsaw inspired weapons) have also made appearances in some sci-fi war games. Prominent examples include the chainsaw bayonets in the Gears of War series, the "Ripper" chainsaw-knife of the Fallout series, and the much larger, epic tools of evil-slaying and destruction called "chainswords" seen in based on the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Another incarnation of chainsaw-based weaponry can be seen in the popular Facebook game Battle Stations where it exists as a large-scale ship-mounted melee weapon.
Some real-time strategy games, for instance Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos have units which use chainsaws to fell trees thus fulfilling its intended purpose. In these games said units can almost always use those chainsaws as weapons as well and apart from this few video games portray chainsaws in any context other than a weapon.
The newest game, Lollipop Chainsaw, also utilizes a chainsaw as a primary - and possibly only - weapon of the game that Juliet is able to use.
On PlayStation All-Stars Legends, Noodle's guitar transforms into a chainsaw to attacking Ratchet, Clank, Jak, Daxter and Sly Cooper in a boss stage based on God of War and Twisted Metal.
Object of comedy
Although the original portrayals of chainsaw violence worked on its capacity to inflict gory damage upon a human body or sadistically produce pain, its prominence in low budget B-movies has since produced a separate image of the chainsaw as a comedic, often campy expression of over the top terror.
This image is often drawn upon in cartoons, comedy series and comedy films. It has appeared occasionally as part of the post-Scream wave of self-referential horror, for instance David Arquette's The Tripper.
One of the most famous stereotypes of comedic chainsaw portrayal is that of the chainsaw wielding lunatic in a hockey mask (seen for example in the Simpsons episode "Cape Feare"). Ironically, horror cinema’s archetypal hockey mask killer Jason Voorhees has never actually been portrayed wielding a chainsaw in a film, though chainsaws have been used against him in some films.
The band Arrogant Worms have a song called "Malcolm", in which the title character "solves his problems with a chainsaw and he never has the same problem twice".
The Portland Timbers soccer team's mascot, Timber Joey, cuts off a slab of wood from the team's victory log using a chainsaw after each Timbers home goal. The players who scored the goal get to keep the slice of wood.
Relation to reality
Despite their substantial ability to inflict damage on living creatures, real life chainsaw attacks and murders are uncommon. This likely is due to their heavy unwieldy weight, loud noise, risk of user injury and high price compared to other potential close quarters weapons, although those very same drawbacks make them weapons with a formidable value of intimidation.
The chainsaw is also seen many times as the iconic weapon against zombies, inspired partly from the example above of the Evil Dead series.
One real chainsaw murder is referred to in interviews with Brian De Palma as having been the inspiration for the chainsaw scene in Scarface. The real case, which De Palma apparently saw crime scene photos of while researching the film, involved multiple victims and bodies stuffed into metal drums. DePalma described the murder as part of his appeal that Scarface should be passed with a R certificate on the basis that its graphic content was based in reality as screenwriter Oliver Stone had gleaned from months of research with both police officers (some of whom testified in the films defence) and actual drug traffickers.
- Last House on the Left DVD
- "'Left 4 Dead 2': Chainsaws here!". USA Today.
- Bouzereau, Laurent. Ultraviolent Movies. Kensington Publishing Corporation.