The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) (2x)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Produced by Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper, Jay Parsley, Richard Saenz
Written by Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Cinematography by Daniel Pearl
Edited by Larry Carroll, Sallye Richardson
Music by Wayne Bell, Tobe Hooper
I was 12 years old when The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released and my friends and I knew we somehow had to see it. The title alone was enough to scare the crap out of us. I grew up in the South where we all knew what a chainsaw was capable of doing. I am convinced most of our fourth grade vocabularies didn’t contain the word “massacre” before hearing about this movie. Although we were too young to see the film, we couldn’t escape it. Newspaper ads claimed “By far the most horrifying film ever made!” Radio and TV ads were brief, containing voiceover narration such as “What happened was true,” and “the most bizarre and brutal series of crimes in America,” followed by lots and lots of screaming. The film was highly controversial and was (at least for a time) banned in at least 11 countries. As far as I know, it never came to my hometown theater, which meant I’d have to travel to Jackson, Mississippi (about 35 miles away) to have any chance of seeing it. Although those chances were slim, I was both excited and terrified by the possibility of one day watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It was several years later when I finally saw the film, thanks to the wonders of VHS rentals. By that time (probably around 1982 or so) I had seen several horror movies and was probably somewhat desensitized to the typical violence, gore and mayhem of most horror outings. I remember being impressed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but not exactly in awe of it. (Oddly enough the two scenes I most remembered were the hitchhiker cutting his hand with a knife and Leatherface slamming shut the door to his “workroom.”)
Then I rewatched the movie two nights ago. Maybe there’s something different about watching it at age 55 as opposed to age 20, but I can tell you: it did a number on me.
For those of you who don’t know the story, the plot is simple. After hearing reports of the desecration of a local cemetery, a young woman named Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her paraplegic brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) and their three friends ride in a van through central Texas, making sure their grandfather’s grave remains undisturbed. The remainder of the plot is a typical horror standby: they pick up a hitchhiker, the van runs out of gas along a rural road somewhere between a questionable gas station (that, of course, has also run out of gas) and a creepy old house. That’s really all you need to know.
From here on in, I’ll get into SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you should if you consider yourself a horror fan on any level.
What you first have to understand about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that it was released at a time when many of the modern horror tropes and conventions hadn’t yet been established. The Friday the 13th films didn’t exist. Neither did the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the Evil Dead movies, Halloween, The Silence of the Lambs, Saw, or any of their sequels, so try to block those out of your consciousness. (It’s hard, isn’t it?) What horror movies had people seen by 1974? Psycho, The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left and Night of the Living Dead were the big ones.
Other than possibly Spider Baby (1967), most audiences hadn’t seen a “family” of people this messed up before. Also director Tobe Hooper’s low-budget, documentary-style filmmaking (at least on this picture) make the film feel realistic as if he’d just jumped out of his own car and started rolling the film. (Watching it on DVD rather than Blu-ray only adds to the atmosphere.) The movie was actually shot (at least as far as I know) in real buildings in central Texas. All the while what’s running through your mind is “This could really happen…”
One of the most terrifying moments in the film occurs when Pam (Teri McMinn) stumbles into the house of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and realizes that she’s wandered into some globally strange stuff. Pam runs out of the house filled with bones, feathers, skin masks, and blood, and makes it through the screen door. For just a moment she’s outside in the brightness of the sun, illuminating the dirty white exterior walls, giving her a look at pure light and freedom, only to be snatched up by Leatherface’s massive arms as he pulls her back into the house as easily as you’d scoop up a kitten. You know that Pam is going to remember that sunlight and the freedom it promised and how close she came to being a part of it for the remaining minutes of her life.
The film is even more disturbing now. Why? We’ve always known about crazy people; they’re nothing new. Even here, the “family” is a group of crazies, but they’re limited to a pretty specific geographical area with a limited zone of mayhem. They’re staying (mostly) at home. But in 2017 the craziness is everywhere. Just look at what happened in Las Vegas this week and what continues to happen over and over and over. And generally we understand the people who commit these acts about as well as we understand the Chainsaw “family.” (We probably understand the “family” more.) If you stayed away from the Chainsaw area (and other areas like it), you were relatively safe. But now the madness is everywhere. And even when we often know there’s something wrong about the people who commit the madness, we (and by “we” I mean everyone – individuals, those in authority, everyone) either do little about it or look the other way. That’s terrifying.
Yet it’s not my purpose to go on a political tangent. Let’s stick to the movie.
If you doubt the absolute horror of the last 30 minutes of the film, think about this: Imagine you’re alone in a room with four or more people who hold to a very different worldview than you do. This worldview could include politics, religion, ethics, you name it. And when you think about it, that’s exactly what’s happening. As Sally is tied down to a chair, Leatherface and company think the situation is a comedy; Sally thinks it’s the most horrible nightmare imaginable. It’s a clash of worldviews, ideals, philosophies. Choose your term; there’s no bargaining with them. If you decide to scream, they just scream louder, drowning you out.
That final half hour may be the most harrowing half hour in motion picture history. I do not exaggerate. I didn’t clock it, but I’d bet that Marilyn Burns is screaming for 29-and-a-half of the final 30 minutes. She’s also struggling, yanking at her ties, and running/screaming/gasping for breath, all the while subjected to physical and mental torture. The close-ups of her bloodshot eyes alone are enough to give you nightmares for weeks. I never saw this film in a theater, but I wish I could’ve seen and heard 1974 audiences during the film’s final five minutes. Or maybe I’m glad I didn’t.
Yet the film is not without its comedic moments. I felt the main weakness of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, the first of many sequels, prequels and remakes) was in its overuse of comedic moments and satire. The (very) dark comedy is certainly present in the original, but you probably won’t feel much like laughing. If you could separate the horrible insanity of the “family,” you might find it almost hilarious.
There’s much, much more I could say about the film. Volumes have been written on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, its themes, cultural impact, influence on other films, and more. Just go online and take a look for yourself. You’ll find those who consider it a horror masterpiece and others who think it’s the lowest form of trash imaginable. I’d easily place it in the Top 10 horror movies of all, maybe even the Top 5. I’m just not sure I necessarily want to see it again. (But I would love to see the special features on the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray). If you want to know the director’s thoughts, here they are, from Tobe Hooper himself (who passed away earlier this year) in an Esquire article:
“The film was, to me, a part of what I felt like we were moving into in the future. An example of that is that in the van the news is on the radio a couple of times and the news has these horrible stories on it about things like an office building in Atlanta collapsing. These things really weren’t happening in the ’70s, but now they are—and three or four times a day. So it was a reflection of my feelings about the political environment, especially here in Austin, where I had a beard and sandals. It was coming from a part of my reality.”
Thanks to Cole and Ericca at The Magic Lantern podcast for inspiring this review!
Photos: Ultra HD, DVD Beaver, Comic Vine, Syfy, Yell Magazine, Sensible Reason