For our podcast episode about this very film, click here.
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Teri McMinn, Gunnar Hansen
Run Time: 1 hour 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
I would like to make a small request, if I may. Look at your phone/computer's calendar. Or, if you're reading this through a small rectangular wormhole from the year 1975, look at the calendar on your wall. If it doesn't read October 1st, you forgot to flip the page. Because it's October 1st! The month of Halloween has begun, a momentous occasion in the horror community.
To celebrate the month leading up to horror's yearly zenith, I have decided to take a look at one of the few slasher franchises almost completely unmined by yours truly, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, of which I have only seen the first and the last. Out of 7 entire films. It's a right shame is what it is. Today is the 40th anniversary of the original film and it's due time to celebrate.
Especially considering how convoluted and bizarre the chronology of the films has become (two sequels, a remake, a prequel, then a re-sequel), the implacable call of weird horror history is drawing me and my neurotic, completist soul to this new terrain. By the end of the month, we will have explored a key thread in the tapestry of slasher history, beginning today with the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a magnificent proto-slasher that laid the groundwork for the genre along with Hitchcock's Psycho and that same year's Black Christmas.
And this guy's chest hair.
"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."
This is the narration that opens Texas Chain Saw, utilizing what is now a hoary gimmick - namely, a false claim to reality. Rest assured, the events of this film hold no truth, save for a broad inspiration from the macabre antics of Ed Gein. This method of storytelling has since been beaten to the ground, but combined with the grubby documentary realism of the cinematography, this opening propels the viewer into full suspension of disbelief, opening them up to the full scope of the atrocities committed onscreen.
The overall feeling of "I shouldn't be watching this" never goes away, setting in from the very opening shot (a series of close-up photographs of a grisly display in a cemetery) and never letting up until the credits roll, displayed in yellowing, dirty, scratched print the entire way through. But what of these five youths in question, you ask? I'm glad you asked. Although 1974 is perhaps too soon to be calling the buxom young characters Meat, Texas Chain Saw practically never looks at them in any other way, so neither shall we.
Our Meat for the evening is a group of college-aged kids taking a leisurely drive through Texas - there's Kirk (William Vail), a strapping lad with a neckline that plunges into the depths of Hell itself; his girlfriend Pam (Teri McMinn), an astrology obsessed girl about town; and Jerry (Allen Danziger), a living museum of 70's fashion. They are here to accompany Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) on their journey to a recently defaced rural cemetery to ensure the sanctity of their grandfather's grave.
The Meat couldn't really care less about this journey - they're just along for the ride to snooze in the deceased man's old farm house and take a dip in his swimmin' hole. And any other swimmin' holes they can find, if you catch my drift.
Jerry gets it.
Much like The Evil Dead would do in 1981, Texas Chain Saw specifically avoids fleshing out its characters too much, turning the film into a sort of urban legend tale - something one might have heard from a friend of a friend, but it's totally true, they swear. This is the final nail in the coffin as far as realism is concerned, sweeping you up in its heady embrace when the true terror begins to occur.
This doesn't take long, as the teens pick up and quickly kick out a mad hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), then arrive at the decrepit farmhouse, which is now filled with spiders and gloom. One by one the youngsters wander off into a nearby home and are picked off in swift, brutal fashion by one Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a massive, cerebrally stunted man wearing a mask made of human skin.
Maybe he's born with it. Maybe it's homicide.
In about as short a time as it takes to say "I love your chainsaw, it really matches your complexion," the kids are whittled down until only Sally remains, forced to endure the torments of Leatherface and his unspeakable family, insane laid off slaughterhouse workers who have turned to eating human flesh for sustenance.
I mean, it's either that or spinach so there's no contest.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in a nutshell, is a brutal, nihilistic, dirty, angry, repellently tactile film. It is an unscrubbed, grubby, decrepit, immoral piece of work that emanates oppressive Texas heat. And it's a masterpiece of 70's horror, no two ways about it.
Although it's taut and tense from frame one, once the killing begins and Sally is captured, the film relentlessly sledgehammers the viewer, WHAM WHAM WHAM whether it be with brutal, senseless violence, rapid, jarring editing, or a soundscape that erupts from the depths of hell itself. In fact, the toneless, half-diegetic non-music that comprises the "score" of Texas Chain Saw is meant to emulate the sounds an animal might hear inside a slaughterhouse.
Talk about a DEAD and breakfast, amirite?
The cinematography is rough, smudged, gritty, and jagged, sometimes abruptly slamming into hauntingly beautiful wide shots of the open terrain or captivating, kinetic close-ups from off-kilter angles that just beg you to feel the weight of the world. Perhaps the only semblance of true professionalism in the film (the entire thing from top to bottom feels like it was created by neophytes, but it bristles with frenzied energy that defies classical cinematic criticism) is the acting, none of which is as amateurish as one would expect from this kind of operation - the film was largely funded by mob money in the hyper-independent terrain of the South.
I mean, it's not like Allen Danziger or Paul Partain were huge Oscar snubs, but the heroine and especially the villainous family at the core of the film bring a deranged energy the likes of which are utterly singular, never to be repeated in the annals of film history. Chief among these performances is that of Gunnar Hansen, Leatherface himself. A man with his massive size (he positively eats up the frame) could let his bulk do the bulk of the acting for him, to coin a nifty phrase.
But Hansen throws his all into Leatherface. Much like Kane Hodder after him, his physical performance along with the grunts and squeals that accompany his presence aren't just tossed off. He is acting underneath that stiff mask of flesh. It's no small achievement that the most sympathetic character in the entire film is the one chainsawing paraplegics to death, but his frenzied vocalics and eager body language conjure up images of a clueless child at play, flawlessly hammering home one of the movie's core themes: nobody is purely, inherently good or evil, and that makes the world infinitely more terrifying.
My thoughts exactly, man.
All this but not a word about the gore. That's for a good reason. Truth be told, there's not much gore at all to be beheld in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Ask literally anyone who's seen the movie in a theater and they'd disagree. But the fact of the matter is that just about every single painful, traumatic, or flesh-piercing event in the film is offscreen, relying entirely on implication and almost never showing the blood actually being shed.
The other elements of the movie work so well in tandem with one another that they inspire feelings of disgust and shock in the viewer without resorting to actually showing them anything, something which most horror films from 1980 on seem to have forgotten how to do. But the magic of Texas Chain Saw is that - though it is equally goreless as other classics like Psycho or Hallowen - it still retains every ounce of power it had during its opening weekend, never allowing the passage of time to weather its effectiveness.
The film is so experiential and jarring that it shakes you out of your Hanes no matter how many years have passed, even though the complex political climate that fueled the film's subplots has largely dissipated. But that's the genius of the thing. Even without the many political avenues that channel the story (including the economic crisis in Texas, anti-slaughterhouse themes, and the plight of the working man, each of which could be the subject of an entire essay on their own - and not to undercut my own endeavors here, but Tim Brayton's discussion of the film and its place in 70's culture is top notch), it is still pure and brutal, providing an unforgettable jump start to the nascent slasher genre.
So many times I have tried to convince myself this film isn't a work of art. It's too repetitive, the kids are too dumb, the look of the film is too unpolished. But every second you spend in this gruesome hellscape drags you deeper and deeper inside its world, smashing you over the head with its infectious power and rendering you incapable of feeling anything other than the stinging, bitter, open nerve that is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
If exposing the ugliness of the world and shattering perceptions of what cinema can be is not what the horror genre is about, then I don't want to be a part of it.
TL;DR: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a gritty, grimy masterpiece of horror that drags you through the mud with its brutality and sharp wit.
Body Count: 5
- Kirk is hit in the head with a hammer.
- Pam is impaled on a meathook.
- Jerry is smashed with a hammer.
- Franklin is chainsawed in the gut.
- The Hitchhiker is run over by a truck.
Word Count: 1799Reviews In This Series
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Hooper, 1986)
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Burr, 1990)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Henkel, 1994)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Nispel, 2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Liebesman, 2006)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)
Leatherface (Bustillo & Maury, 2017)