CINEMA CLASSICS: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Our ghoulish month continues with Tobe Hooper’s hardcore classic. 

Who made it?: Tobe Hooper (Director/Producer/Co-Writer), Kim Henkel (Co-Writer), Vortex Productions.

Who’s in it?: Marilyn Burns, Alan Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen.

Tagline: “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”

IMDb rating: 7.5/10.

Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or, to use its actual on-screen moniker, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) is a pretty definitive horror movie. Few filmmakers before or since have managed to produce a work as triumphantly brutal as Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece. It is a journey into the “mad and the macabre” that functions more as an endurance test than a piece of digestible slasher entertainment. Chainsaw earns its stripes because it is so determined to scare you witless; even in the baking Texan sun, the forecast for our characters is grim. Like The Blair Witch Project (1999) decades later, we’re told right off the bat that our protagonists won’t survive. It instills a feeling of despair that doesn’t let-up for a punishing eighty-three minutes. It’s a testament to Hooper’s unwavering command of the material that it seems a lot longer than it is.

As the opening crawl informs us, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her “invalid brother” Franklin (Paul A. Partain) are visiting their grandfather’s old house with friends Jerry (Alan Danziger), Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn). This road trip into Texas is fraught with problems, least of all a spate of grave robberies that led to their journey. Little do they know that they will end up in the clutches of the grave-robbers themselves, led by a chainsaw-wielding killer and his family of cannibals…

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came from humble beginnings. Funded on a scant $300,000 budget loaned from an Austin politician, Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel could never have anticipated the impact their little horror movie would have. Their inspiration also sprang from the unlikeliest of places, with Hooper’s holiday encounter in a shopping mall providing the core idea:

“There was these big Christmas crowds, I was frustrated, and I found myself near a display rack of chainsaws. I did a rack-focus to the saws, and I thought, ‘I know a way I could get through the crowd really quickly.’ I went home, sat down, the zeitgeist blew through, and the whole damn story came to me in what seemed like thirty seconds.”

That might have given them their weapon of choice, but the story was also informed by a tale that had terrified them as youths, that of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, who had dabbled in grave-robbery before murder, and had a taste for human skin lampshades and wearing people’s faces. The same sicko had also helped to inspire Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the prototypical slasher movie that Hooper had clearly studied. Massacre popularised the “body count” formula that John Carpenter would later perfect in Halloween (1978).

Shot on the grainiest of grainy 16mm, Chainsaw looks every bit the film you’d expect a bunch of no-holds-barred horror fans to pump out on a dime. And while it is pure exploitation schlock through and through, there is a method to the madness. Hooper and his collaborators weren’t fools, and it is perhaps because of their lack of experience and studio interference that they were able to form a film as deeply disturbing as this. When you watch it, there’s no sense of control or safety. When Wes Craven saw Chainsaw, he famously said that it “must have been made by crazy people.” But despite the rough-around-the-edges aesthetic, this is actually a beautifully-shot and constructed picture depicting events that are unbelievably horrific. Whether by design or sheer luck, there are countless shots and moments that linger in the memory long after Sally’s screams have died. It’s THE textbook example of how to push an audience as far as they can go, and Hooper begins tightening the screws immediately. Before the characters even fall afoul of the cannibals, we are subjected to a stifling Texan heat that almost seems to leap off the screen. There’s also the infinitely annoying presence of mentally-challenged Franklin, whose dialogue is delivered with such a pitch-perfect whine by Partain that we can’t wait to find an escape. A reprieve signalled by the sound of an electric saw…

While I’ve made it abundantly clear that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an assaulting experience, it shouldn’t be added to the pile of grimy fare like The Last House on the Left (1972) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980). People have been known to dispute this at length, but there is very little on-screen bloodshed in Chainsaw. It’s all conveyed through fantastic editing and well-composed shots, making you believe that an unlucky character is actually being slammed onto a meat hook (one of the moments that may never lose its power). Even when the saw is let-loose, there’s only the odd splash of blood here and there. Hooper relies on the ingenuity of cameraman Daniel Pearl and composer Wayne Bell, who delivers an ideally cacophonous score that seems as deprived of humanity as the killers. The filmmakers have your privates in a vice without having to resort to gratuitous gore shots, making Massacre a perversely moral barrage of cruelty.

Keeping us invested in the nightmare is the late Burns as Sally, who is without a doubt the best actor in the film, and one of the more memorable slasher heroines in cinema history. We never learn too much about her, and she doesn’t have a “story arc” per se, but she certainly takes a beating with commitment. She can also scream with the best of them, which she does often and at length. But then you’d probably illicit a similar response if you were being chased by “Leatherface,” the saw-wielding behemoth played effectively by Gunnar Hansen. He’s the classic silent killer hidden beneath a mask, which, in this case, is actual human flesh. That makes him sicker than Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees combined, and Hansen goes about his business with a chilling efficiency.

His cannibalistic co-stars are just as indelible, with Jim Siedow cackling to blood-curdling effect as the demented “Cook,” and Edwin Neal effortlessly selling insanity as the “Hitchhiker.” It isn’t hard to fear for Sally when the family finally have her in their grasp. The truly stomach-churning sequence around the dinner table, in which the fiends mercilessly taunt her over a meal of body parts, sees Hooper getting lost in the hysteria; the soundtrack and photography get so vitriolic that the film passes the point of no return. And that’s before they wheel-out their ancient Grandpa (John Dugan) to finish her off, who is so old that all he can do is suck greedily on her slashed finger. The sight of this weathered man trying desperately to hit a screaming woman over the head with a hammer, and failing miserably, would be darkly comical if the sequence didn’t go on and on… and on.

It’s therefore a release for the audience when Sally breaks free of the farmhouse, only to be chased by her captors in the film’s wildly OTT finish. The infamous final shot of Leatherface swinging his chainsaw in a frenzy is the ideal cap to an unrestrained work of demented art.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre premiered on a wave of publicity following the ad copy’s insistence that the film was based on true events. For years, it would be brought back as a “Midnight Movie” or reissued to much success, making somewhere in the region of $30 million by 1975. However, the producers and actors weren’t seeing a penny, as the mob-controlled distributor, Bryanston Pictures, made off with the profits before declaring bankruptcy some time later. Hooper endured many court battles before New Line Cinema acquired the film, but by that point, Chainsaw was a hit around the world. It also caused controversy wherever it went, remaining an outlawed title in the United Kingdom for over twenty years.

Four decades after it first horrified cinema-goers and critics alike, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has yet to be diminished by changing trends and techniques. It is still a relentlessly disturbing experience because the idea that a man could appear out of the darkness to kill you is never going to lose its unsettling quality. Tobe Hooper tapped into a vein of sheer nihilism that no-one has ever been able to top. For that reason above all, it deserves your sweat-soaked, nerve-shredded respect.

Best Scene

You’ve never had a meal as foul as this…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The chainsaw used in this film was a Poulan 245A, with a piece of black tape covering the Poulan logo in order to avoid a possible lawsuit.
  • The actress whose character, Pam, was hung up on a meat hook was actually held up by a nylon cord that went between her legs, causing a great deal of pain.
  • During the dinner scene towards the end of the film, when Leatherface cuts Sally’s finger, he actually does cut her finger because they couldn’t get the fake blood to come out of the tube behind the blade.
  • The script was entitled “Leatherface.” At various points before the film’s release, the title was switched to “Head Cheese” and finally The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
  • Tobe Hooper allowed Gunnar Hansen to develop Leatherface as he saw fit, under his supervision. Hansen decided that Leatherface was mentally-retarded and never learned to talk properly, so he went to a school for the mentally-challenged and watched how they moved and listened to them talk to get a feel for the character.
  • After getting into the old-age make-up, John Dugan decided that he did not ever want to go through the process again, meaning that all the scenes with him had to be filmed in the same session before he could take the make-up off. This entire process took about 36 hours (five of which took to put the make-up on), during a brutal summer heat wave where the average temperature was over 100 degrees, with a large portion of it spent filming the dinner scene, with him wearing a heavy suit and necktie, sitting in a room filled with dead animals and rotting food with no air conditioning or electric fans. Everyone later recalled that the stench from the rotting food and people’s body odour was so terrible that some crewmembers passed out or became sick from the smell. Edwin Neal claimed: “Filming that scene was the worst time of my life… and I had been in Vietnam, with people trying to kill me, so I guess that shows how bad it was.”

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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