The 70’s and 80’s really are the golden age for horror films. As such, we saw a plethora a Hollywood formulas take shape. The horror gods gave us Slashers, Zombies and Demonic Possessions. On the contrary, some of the best films smashed these formulas to pieces. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does just that. To label this film a slasher would be be lazy. This film broke the mold on how a depraved and insane a horror movie could. Rather than using gore as a crutch, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes a descent into psychological horror. To this day, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains one of the greatest horror movies of all time.
There is something about finite resources that makes magic happen. We see blockbuster films fall to earth every year. Some of these films burning hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. It is difficult to explain, money seems to be the antithesis of creativity. The director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper, was able to unlock a masterpiece largely because of his limitations. This results in stark realism that stick with the view long after they left the theater. The late Robert Ebert famously said, “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.”
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – A Cast of Unknowns
Low-budget horror movies enjoy one major advantage. The films simply can’t afford big name actors. If it wasn’t for low-budgets, The Evil Dead’s Ash Williams (Brice Campbell) may have just another Burt Reynolds movie. Ben (Duane Jones) from Night of the Living Dead could have been played by Sidney Poitier. Low-budget directors never get distracted with worrying about the draw at the box office because they simply can’t afford it. Directors like Tobe Hooper must look deep to find actors that will help their vision come to life.
In the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all of the actors are unknowns. This allows the cast to feel authentic as they run into a literal buzzsaw in Texas. The story begins with young group of friends on trip through Texas. Sally and Franklin Hardesty, Played by Marylin Burns and Paul Partain. They need to check on their grandfathers grave after recent reports of grave robbery. They bring friends friends, Pam (Teri McGinn), Jerry (Allen Danzinger) and Kirk (William Vail) to travel in a van to the cemetery.
Little do they know that they are traveling head-long into a depraved family of former slaughterhouse cast-offs that have resorted to eating human flesh to survive. Edwin Neal plays a crazy hitchhiker that make the first contact with the travelers. The Hitchiker is one of three brothers. Jim Siedow, the eldest brother is referred to only as The Cook. Gunnar Hansen is the gigantic baby brother known only as the infamous Leatherface. Finally, John Dugan plays Grandpa, a debilitated shell of a man that once rules the killing room floor at the slaughterhouse.
Plot Summary by John Larroqutte
As read by John Larroquette: “The Film which you are about to see is an accounts 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 Chainsaw Massacre.”
The crimes of Leatherface and the family are undoubtedly influenced by the crimes of Ed Gein in Wisconsin in the 1950’s. The being said, the character of Leatherface brings several facets to the table that make his character much more terrifying. This character is not really evil. Leatherface is the product of being mentally disabled and being raised in a family of psychopaths. Leatherface provides for his family by protecting the home and preparing meat. Likewise, it is completely unclear as to whether or not Leatherface knows that his crimes are even wrong.
Leatherface hulks around as a massive juggernaut. His huge stature dwarfs anyone that he comes into contact with. He dispatches two healthy young men as if he crushed ants beneath his massive feet. Moreover, he squeals and grunts as if one of the animals that he slaughters. Attempts to reason with Leatherface are futile as he fails to distinguish human beings from livestock. Finally, he wears the skin of of his victims. Each face brings another personality. During the course of the film, Leatherface wears three distinct human-leather masks. Each of them brings new a new perosonality.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Power of Suggestion
An often told tale about this film outlines an absolute bloodbath. Likewise, I can remember the first time that I saw this film. Approximately 10 years old, is was stricken by the unbridled brutality of the film. I distinctly remember not fully understanding exactly what I saw. Consequently, I pondered whether I could watch it again the following day.
Gathering my bravery, I watched a second time with a keen eye for gore. To my amazement, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre shows almost no explicit gore. Sure, there it sprinkles blood as if a rare and costly seasoning, but does not levy the gore that one would expect of a film of its title. Through unmitigated brutality, both physical and psychological, this film twists one’s perception about what really happened.
Being that this film is light on gore, it triggers the question as to why? Was Tobe Hooper so genius that he would intentionally tamper the gore to create an artistic illusion? Unbelievably, his goal was actually a PG rating. In hind sight, that sounds ridiculous, but apparently that was the goal. Regardless, necessity is the mother of all invention. Hooper’s quest for a PG rating coupled with a shoestring budget likely created a catalyst for horror greatness. Through sheer brutality and suggestion, Hooper created a bloodbath with nary a drop.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Scenes that Define a Classic
Apart from the aforementioned things that make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre what it is, the film contains genuinely innovative scenes that continue to inspire filmmakers. Two men, Daniel Pearl and Robert Burns, deserve to be recognized for their achievements. Again, this exemplifies the power of the low-budget. Low-budget crew share a common trait, they are often young and motivated. These creative souls relish the opportunity to make their visions real and they find a way on limited resources.
The Death of Kirk
Actually a compendium of scenes, the following may be the one of the most quintessential sequences ever filmed in modern horror history. It begins with Kirk and Pam hearing a generator in the distance. Needing gas, Kirk and Pam investigate to see if they can get help. They come upon a farm house hidden in plain sight by itself in the middle of a field. Pam takes a seat on a swing as Kirk approaches the house.
Yelling through the screen door, Kirk hears animal noises inside. Opening the door, and trotting towards a gallery of animal skull and trophies mounted on a blood red wall, he stumbles to his knees. Looking up, he sees a mountain of a man, face clad in human leather, bringing down the full force of the sledgehammer into his skull. Kirk’s body convulses. Leatherface grabs Kirk’s body like a throw pillow and pulls him into doorway. He shuts the huge metal door with a deafening slam.
Pam Approaches the House
Outside, Pam sits quietly on the swing, completely unaware of what transpired. Concerned, she yells for Kirk, but there is no answer. In a camera shot that will live in horror history, cinematographer Daniel Pearl begins a slow tracking shot that slithers under the swing following Pam as she approaches the house. Thus, the house looms larger and more foreboding as closes in on the porch. She climbs the stairs and looks cautiously through the screen door. Calling for Kirk with no answer, she cautiously opens the door to see if he is inside.
Window Into Hell
Once inside, she wonders into a curtained room to the left of the hallway. Tripping over the threshold she stumbles into a ghastly chamber of horrors. Robert Burns, the art director, creates a lurid masterpiece of the macabre. The room is littered with totems built of skeletal remains, both human and animal. Lampshades made of human skin and furniture made of bones decorate the room. The camera scans the room for what seems like minutes as Pam’s mind unravels. Each angle reveals more of the cannibal ornamentation. Pam finally panics and scrambles for the hallway.
Seized by a Juggernaut
Struggling to get to her feet, Pam finally regains her equilibrium and dashes for the door. Behind hind her, Leatherface explodes from the metal door and charges Pam like a lion charges a fawn. Pam burst through the screen door to daylight just before being seized by the behemoth. As Leatherface envelopes Pam, the mask of flayed human skin looks curiously like a an ear-to-ear grin. Pam’s feet dangle and kick helplessly in vain. Effortlessly, Leatherface drags her to the kitchen kicking and screaming before firmly planting Pam on a meathook and proceeding to disincorporate Kirk with a chainsaw. Not a drop of blood is spilled, the effect it terrifying.
Meet the Family
In another groundbreaking sequence, Sally Hardesty runs for her life. Leatherface closes on her when she dives through a gas station door. She believes she found sanctuary, but what she really found was Leatherface’s older brother, The Cook. He quickly subdues her, throws a burlap sack over her and drags her back to the house. When the bag is removed she finds herself, bound, gagged and tied to the chair. The family moves her into position at the dinner table at a dinner table, dead center in the heart of a cannibal carnival. Conspicuously, the arms of her chair are human.
They, cut, beat and terrorize her until she falls unconscious with fear.
When Sally comes to, she erupts into bellowing screams. To the left sits the crazy hitchhiker with his giant blood colored birthmark running the length of his face. Quietly, behind him sits The Cook. He is as crazy as the rest of them, but commands enough respect to manage the others. Grandpa sits at the head of the table, drooling and barely functional. Finally, on the right sits Leatherface, this time wearing the former face of a beautiful woman, cheeks pink with rouge and eyes punctuated with eye shadow. The howling and taunting escalates.
In another nod to Daniel Pearl, the camera dives into the bloodshot eyes of Sally as she slides into insanity. Her head rocks and tilts as she screams uncontrollably. It overloads the senses. The shot cuts to each of the family members taunt her mercilessly. This sequence provides the strongest exhibit of what it must be like to tumbling into total insanity. Again, Daniel Pearl delivers an iconic horror scene.
The Legacy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Art lies in the eye of the beholder. This film garners significant controversy because it speaks to foundational fears. It teeters on the ledge of exploitation, but precipitously straddles the line between torture porn and genius. It begins slowly, but methodically gathers momentum until it culminates in a unstoppable force of terror. Mind you, it is not for everyone. You must understand this art to appreciate it.
Unintentionally, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre provides a metaphor for the risk to society when isolated people struggle to survive. It hearkens back to stories of the Russian famine where families resorted to butchering their own children in order to survive. It reminisces of the Donner Party and the twisted depths that they would go to survive. There exist pockets of abandoned degeneracy, inbred and perverse, that exist today in America today.
To this day The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues to top horror movie rankings. Always in the top 5, usually at number 1, this film is considered by fans of to be the classic exemplar of the genre.
In 1986, Tobe Hooper would get around to directing a sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Knowing that the original could never be topped, he created a much different experience in the sequel. This has proven to be a shrewd move. The sequel pales in comparison to the original, but has become a cult-classic in its own right, albeit for much different reasons.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre stands at the top of a mountain of quality horror films, and serves as my all-time personal favorite.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) - A Definitive Classic - Malevolent Dark
Director: Tobe Hooper
Date Created: 1970-01-01 00:32