AUGUST 18'TH, 1973
Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) heads out on a road trip to find her abandoned childhood home in what I can only describe as Defilement County, Texas. Along for the ride is her wheel-chair bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) as well as her friends Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn) and Jerry (Allen Danziger).
After a harrowing encounter with a crazed Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), their van runs out of gas, prompting Kirk to investigate a nearby farmhouse for help. This inadvertently stirs up the Sawyer clan, a crazed group of homicidal rednecks who's chief guard dog / pet ogre, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), decides to pick off the interlopers one at a time.
What follows is a spooky little cinematic romp that pairs nicely with such family-friendly fare as Hocus Pocus, The Addams Family or Caspar for a pleasant Halloween movie night.
WHY THE LAST STATEMENT IS A DIRTY, DIRTY LIE
This movie wastes no time establishing a mood of total, abject horror. After John Larroquette's oddly incongruous voice over narration, director Tobe Hooper segues into a pitch dark screen where the only sounds we hear is a shovel moving earth and heavy breathing. Periodically the scene is illuminated by the flashbulbs of a still camera, giving us macabre half-glimpses of a recently unearthed corpses. This suggests that the sick bastard exhuming these bodies is also taking pictures of them, which, in my book, rates about a "12" on the ol' Creep-O-Meter.
Stifling darkness gives way to daylight but Hooper grants no reprieve. Instead he gives us a flinch-inducing close up of the grave-digger grim handiwork: two skeletal cadavers artfully poised atop a grave marker. The orange color filter and drippy condition of the bodies gives the viewer the impression that the bodies are melting away in the punishing heat of the mid-day Texas sun. Ewww...
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a perfect example of a movie that actually triumphs thanks to its low-rent feel. Witness the scene where Sally and company find and explore their old homestead. Kirk notices a huge pile of cellar spiders getting phreaky in the corner of an abandoned room, so Tobe Hooper and his cinematographer Daniel Pearl zoom in on the vile image with child-like glee. You can almost hear them giggling "Hey, get a load of this! Gross, huh? Here...lemme get closer!"
Moments later, Franklin discovers this weird bone fetish altar thingie in the house and sees a matching totem hanging overhead. This serves as an ominous visual precursor for what's to come. After Pam and Kirk's plans to go swimming fall through, they notice a windmill and the top of a roof in the distance. The unmistakable sound of a gas generator gives them hope that they may not be stranded for much longer.
But as they get closer to the property, that feeling of foreboding continues to grow. You start to wonder what sort of person would tie a bunch of rusty old junk onto the tree limbs, and, better yet, why? The inordinate number of abandoned cars lying around seems rather odd. What's even stranger is they're all covered up with camo netting.
When they reach the house, we get another omen when Kirk finds a molar and uses it scare the shit out of Pam. Oblivious to the horrors that lie within, Kirk ventures into the house to ask for help. As he inches he way down the hallway toward the crimson-hued back room, we notice that the walls are covered in animal skulls and taxidermy projects. By the time Leatherface makes his iconic first appearance and "greets" the interloper, a part of us isn't completely surprised.
The triumphantly-ghastly production design by Robert A. Burns really gets showcased when Pam goes into the house to look for Kirk. She stumbles into the ironically-named "living" room and the camera takes a bone-chilling inventory of the human detritus scattered around. We see piles of feathers, scattered bones, a live chicken crammed into a tiny cage, chairs re-enforced with tibias, hanging skulls with a horns driven through the mouth and similarly-charming bric-à-brac.
On more than one occasion, the production's gritty, bargain-basement-style sensibilities makes you feel as if you're a witness to something you shouldn't be seeing. A snuff movie, of sorts. Just check out the scene where Jerry manages to delve deeper into the house than any of his predecessors. He makes his way into the revealed back room, hears thumping noises coming from the deep freezer and then opens it up to find Pam lying there like a frozen fish fillet. What happens next will challenge the integrity of even the most hardened horror hound's bladder control.
The film's mercilessly creepy mise en scène results in one of the most shocking scenes in the film. With everyone else missing, Sally pushes her wheelchair bound brother Franklin through the pitch-dark woods to try and get to the mansion. All of a sudden, Leatherface and his roaring chainsaw pop up from out of nowhere and instantly Franklin is put on frappe. This is just another example of how the film's "faults", in this case sub-par lighting, actually contributes to the shock factor.
THE SOUND OF HORROR
Also piling onto our wits is the movie's dissonant, schizophrenic score, which is rife with cymbal crashes and echoey drums. This sets the tone right from the opening credits. It's the perfect soundtrack to such gruesome visuals and running news reports about chronic grave desecration.
More memorable musical stings can be heard as the characters explore the abandoned house, when Pam stumbles into the living room and during Jerry's approach to the Sawyer homestead. The dinner scene at the end of the film is made even more bone-rattling due to the industrial-style soundtrack. Hell, even the "music" that plays over the end credits sounds like rusty farm equipment being thrown down a bloody metal sluice.
A METHOD (ACTING) TO THEIR MADNESS
Sure, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is totally on-point with its visual and auditory horrors, but the film's population of Grade-A weirdos is what really makes the movie pure nightmare fuel. Not the least of which is Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker. With his prominent birthmark, antiquated camera, sassy varmint purse and a head of hair that looks like it was combed with a greasy pork chop, its no wonder Franklin takes one look at him and remarks "I think we just picked up Dracula."
I think Edwin Neal is the number one reason why no-one ever picks up hitchhikers anymore. Prior to this, most horror movies used monsters, werewolves, ghosts and zombies to try and frighten people, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a completely different animal. It's easy to discount supernatural threats as pure fantasy, but viewers can't help but ponder the cold, hard fact that there are people in the world that make the Hitchhiker look like Ryan Reynolds.
Indeed, Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker is particularly effective because you get the impression that the character's weird and abhorrent behavior makes perfect sense in his own fevered brain. Never before had movie-goers seen such a harrowing, convincing and sustained depiction of good, old-fashion human mental illness on screen.
In any other movie, the Hitchhiker would be more than enough to terrify the average popcorn-muncher, but he's quickly overshadowed by one of the most genuinely-scary movie villains in film history. His introduction to the screen is burned into my brain for all eternity. As Kirk is creeping through the Sawyer mansion, we actually hear him before we see him "thanks" to a series of muted pig squeals and grunting noises.
Kirk trips and stumbles headlong into a room at the far end of the hall. Suddenly the doorway is dominated by a hulking brute clad in a filthy short-sleeve dress shirt, a blood-splattered butcher's apron and a sharp little hipster tie. Oh, and in case you missed it, he's also wearing a mask made entirely of human flesh.
After Leatherface brains Kirk with his mallet like a prized heifer at the slaughterhouse he proceeds to deliver a few more shots just to quell his death-throes. He then picks up Kirk's lifeless body, hurls it off-screen and then slams the metal door shut behind him, exhibiting super-human strength and pure, mindless rage. Between his porcine vocalizations, horrifying appearance and overwhelming might, actor Gunnar Hansen is the physical embodiment of a nightmare.
The other kills in the movie are equally traumatizing. After hanging out in the "living" room, Pam realizes that she's made a horrible mistake and heads towards the exit. Just as she enters the hallway, the metal door whips open revealing Leatherface who lets out a guttural bull-moose call and then gives chase after her. What happens next isn't so much gory as it is inconceivably awful.
What makes Leatherface infinitely more interesting than Micheal Myers and Jason Vorhees is that he's inherently human. After Jerry gets pasted, Leatherface actually starts freaking out. Still emitting a chorus of hoots and grunts, he runs over to the window in a panic, frantically looking around to see if anyone else is outside. He then collapses into a nearby chair, holds his head and starts rocking back and forth.
Clearly he's trying to figure out where all of these meddling kids are coming from and whether or not they'll stop coming. He's genuinely scared. He knows that if one of these strangers gets away and calls the authorities, the jig'll be up for him and rest of his unconventional fam jam.
And, for the record, only one actor had been and forever will be Leatherface and his name is Gunnar Hansen. In my humble opinion, every other depiction of the character, from Bill Johnson's hyperactive, eye-rolling, two-stepping goofball in the direct sequel to Andrew Bryniarski's neck-less goon in the remake, has missed the mark by miles. Only Hansen succeeded in making the character real for me and, subsequently, absolutely terrifying.
As for the rest of the characters in the movie, most of them are just walking flank steaks except for Sally, played to frantic perfection by Marilyn Burns. Based solely on her performance here, Marilyn belongs with such hallowed company as Faye Wray and Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the greatest Scream Queens in cinema history. I'm sure the harsh shooting conditions inspired a lot of method acting on her part. Her palpable misery and mental deterioration is so realistic that it's almost impossible to watch.
After eluding Leatherface, Sally manages to run back to the gas station we saw earlier in the film. For a second, the audience breaths a sigh of relief, particularly when the station's elderly attendant shows up. Almost immediately, however, things don't sit quite right. Sally begs him to call the police but instead he tells her to stay put while he goes to get his truck.
We're baffled as to why he voluntarily goes outside after Sally tells him that a chainsaw-wielding lunatic is lurking just outside the door. He's gone for what feels like an eternity, partly because Tobe Hooper chooses this moment to serve up a lingering shot of the gas station's BBQ cooker. The blood-red light and the sight of abstract-looking meats sizzling away inside the oven is accompanied by disconcerting news reports on the radio about grave robbing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put two and two together here.
Eventually the gas station manager reappears and when you see that he's holding a bag and some rope your heart just wilts. What we witness next makes Jim Siedow's Cook one of the most reviled and repellent characters in cinema history. As if beating Sally senseless isn't heinous enough, he alternates between comforting her with reassuring words and then roughly jabbing at her with his broken-off broom handle. Between the perverse script and Siedow's creepy portrayal, it's one of the most convincing depictions of mental illness I've ever seen in a movie.
YOU DON'T JUST WATCH THIS MOVIE, YOU SURVIVE IT
Just a quick side note here: many people who have seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will claim that it's one of the goriest films ever made. These same people will also swear that Janet Leigh got "totally" stabbed in Psycho's famous shower scene. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, most of the violence in Chainsaw is implied. If you get queasy while watching it, it probably has a lot more to do with the unflinching, realistic depiction of gonzo human behavior then it does with graphic violence.
Unlike any other film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is flat-out grueling to watch. Just seconds after thinking "Well, it can't get any worse!", it invariably does. Old faces show up, Sally is dragged into the most harrowing and dysfunctional family meal in cinema history, the last remaining member of the Sawyer clan re-appears with a penchant for blood and her final attempt to save herself seems doomed from the start.
The less said about these final scenes the better. Just suffice to say that you'll be tempted to question the sanity of both Tobe Hooper and his writing partner Kim Henkel. Without reprieve, the viewer is clobbered with a series of twitchy, microscopic closeups, perfectly conveying Sally's wide-eyed terror. Watching this for the first time, you'll begin to feel your own wits unraveling along with our heroine.
As it turns out, the movie's tag line ("Who will survive and what will be left of them?") is just as effective as Alien's "In space, no-one can hear you scream". At the end we're left staring into Sally's blood-covered face frozen in a rictus grin of hysteria, her involuntary screams slowly degenerating into peals of maniacal laughter. Physically she may be safe, but it's clear that her sanity, like ours, is in tatters. The very last shot is of Leatherface, spinning around like a whirling dervish of impotent rage. The implication is chilling: we've physically survived the experience but the Insane Clan Posse is still out there.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has but one raison d'être and that's to scare the ever-lovin' fertilizer out of you. This isn't a horror movie with training training wheels like the Paranormal Activity films. While watching this flick you'll constantly be wondering 'What sort of damaged brain comes up with sick shit like this?'
But that's the most chilling twist of all. Chainsaw was inspired, in large part, by the real-life crimes of necrophile / cannibal Ed Gein. The brutal fictions depicted in the film are nothing compared to the real-life cruelty being inflicted by people on other people every single day. Like many films of that era, including Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust and Night of the Living Dead, this movie is Hooper's attempt to reconcile the constant parade of real-life horrors in the news. It's art imitating life, people, not the other way around.
It's not often I say this but watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre changes you. Above and beyond feeling as if you've been smoked in the back of the head with a vulpine hammer, you're forced to confront the truism that truth is infinitely stranger then fiction. You're forced to wrestle with the troubling concept that dark things happen in our world that make the ghoulish goings-on depicted in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like Frankenweenie.
For being the archetypal definition of a true horror movie in every sense of the word, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earns a perfect score.