Everything’s bigger in Texas… and a hell of a lot crazier.
Cast of Characters:
Sally Hardesty – Marilyn Burns
Jerry – Allen Danziger
Franklin Hardesty – Paul A. Partain
Kirk – William Vail
Pam – Terry McMinn
Hitchhiker – Edwin Neal
Old Man – Jim Siedow
Leatherface – Gunnar Hansen
Grandfather – John Dugan
Narrator – voiced by John Larroquette
Director – Tobe Hooper
Screenplay – Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper
Producer – Tobe Hooper
It all began when, after hearing reports of grave-robbing in Muerto County, Texas, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), and their three friends Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Terry McMinn) travel to the grave of the Hardestys’ grandfather. Afterward, while on their way to visit the old Hardesty family home, they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who shares a strong interest in slaughterhouse work with Franklin. Seems innocent enough, but the camaraderie turns bizarrely nasty after the hitchhiker attacks Franklin with a straight razor, prompting the five to kick him out. Problem solved, right? No more bizarre and nasty, right?
Nope. It’s about to get a whole lot more horrifying.
While visiting a rather shady looking gas station, the owner (Jim Siedow) informs the five that the pumps are empty and they have yet to receive their fuel delivery, so to kill time, the group decides to head on down to the Hardesty homestead. Little do they know that nearby their family’s old, abandoned home lives a flesh-stitched mask-wearing madman, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), who revels in the macabre and will turn their typical summer afternoon into a never-ending nightmare.
Alfred Hitchcock scared people out of the showers.
Steven Spielberg scared people out of the beaches.
Tobe Hooper (who’d later collaborate with Spielberg nearly a decade later on Poltergeist) scared people out of an entire state.
Though it is much more steeped in psychological horror, and its title antagonist is a more complex character than the monsters we’d get in the ensuing decades,1960’s Pyscho is still considered by many, me included, to be the premiere, proto-slasher film. Eight years later, George A. Romero would spark the genre’s next step in the evolution of horror with Night of the Living Dead. Come the seventies, in between Romero’s zombie frachise, two filmmakers would take Hitchcock’s precursor to the modern-day slasher to the next level – Wes Craven’s 1972 exploitative commentary on Vietnam and the banality of evil, The Last House on the Left, and Tobe Hooper’s 1974 grisly, Ed Gein inspired (same as Hitchcock’s Psycho) portrait of the American Gothic’s underbelly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Craven’s debut may have its flaws, namely the few scenes of the bumbling cops (understandably a statement on the authority of the day, but tonally, it still could’ve been handled better). Nevertheless, it’s an effectively horrific tragedy on the depravity of man, and was at the time a promising sign of better things to come from the late, great horror auteur. Hooper’s film, however, took Craven’s descent into hell and perfected it.
Of course, the influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a case of for better and for worse. A plethora of inferior efforts would follow, chief among them all the sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots attached to Hooper’s film that tried to replicate this film’s brilliance and failed miserably. And let’s be honest, even if we exempted this franchise, most of the slasher genre is bogged down by a lot of crap. Let’s, however, not overlook the greatness this film inspired – John Carpenter’s Halloween, Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and Scream, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, The Blair Witch Project, Mary Harron’s American Psycho, James Wan’s Saw, and Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects.
Hooper doesn’t waste any time in establishing the film’s mood and atmosphere, zealously adhering to the adage “hit the ground running” and never once letting up. Following a calm, matter-of-factly yet unsettling opening narration, spoken by John Larroquette (Stripes, Cat People, Night Court) in his first credited gig, the film cuts to black with intermittent flashes of terrifying images that are accompanied by Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper’s simple yet hauntingly iconic “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!” score, a maddening composition that straddles the line between music and discordant noise. The tone is set immediately, and even when things appear to be calm, such as when we’re first introduced to Sally and her friends, Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel layer those moments with an undercurrent of unease. Through various supporting players that pop up or a spoken line of dialogue, we’re given effective foreshadowing of terrifying things to come.
And when those terrifying things do arrive, Hooper goes pedal to the metal all the way to the end, culminating in a final 30 minutes that is unbridled, maniacal horror.
Much of the film’s effectiveness lies in its presentation. Similar to Craven’s desired vision for The Last House on the Left, Hooper abandons all form of polish and sheen, instead opting to mire his film in a raw and filthy aesthetic. In fact, Hooper takes grindhouse filthy to the next level, as if he just finished watching Craven’s film, then turned to Henkel and said, “Hold my beer.” Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson’s editing cuts, zooms and fades in jarring fashion, and Daniel Pearl’s debut 16mm cinematography gives gritty a new name. The texture is grainy and dirty, and the color saturation has more personality disorders than Kevin Wendell Crumb. Wes Craven himself said the film was so intense, it felt like a snuff film, and from a visual standpoint, it’s hard to deny that, but that’s part of the film’s power. It’s rare to find a film so hideous, so ugly-looking work so beautifully.
If there were no rhyme or reason to any of it, this film would appear to be the work of amateur hacks (the set design and makeup effects of the decomposed corpses are enough evidence that Hooper and Co. had no intention of cheaping out, despite the low budget). However, Hooper has taken a surreal and totally absurd nightmare and grounded it down into docu-style realism. Even at its craziest, Hooper expertly executes it in such a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner that implausibly insane become true genuine terror, and the tension generated from it all is unbearably palpable.
Contrary to what many moralist critics said of the film at the time of its release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t as excessively violent as its name might suggest. The bloodshed is actually somewhat minimal, certainly not enough to merit being banned in a number of international countries and earning an unfounded title of “one of the most violent and gory films ever made”. Not that it is completely void of any blood, but the film is brutal in tone and not so much onscreen violence.
While this film is hardly an actor’s showcase, the performance by the cast of kids are uniformly solid. The one standout is the one that needs to be the standout and that is Marilyn Burns, whose excellent turn here has earned her a place in the Scream Queen Hall of Fame next to Janet Leight (Psycho), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween) and Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street). When all hell breaks loose around her, Burns raises her performance to another level of primal, wide-eyed terror. Teetering between fear and madness, she sells every heart-wrenching, harassment-induced scream with conviction, earning both our sympathies and our investment in her survival as she frantically evades Leatherface’s wrath (even after multiple viewings, Sally running from Leatherface’s chainsaw is still a nail-biter). Long after the end credits have rolled, her screams will still linger in your head.
I’d be remiss to not mention Leatherface, who is considered to be one of the most horrifying slasher monsters of all-time, next to Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. Hooper wisely doesn’t over-exploit his antagonist, opting to use him sparingly until the pulse-pounding, nerve-wracking third-act, and Gunnar Hansen serves his role well, displaying a presence that’s realistically menacing (unlike the current trend today of casting villains that look like souped-up WWE stars). Alongside Hansen, Jim Siedow and Edwin Neal match Leatherface’s madness without the masked monster’s imposing stature (far from it in Neal’s case as he looks as if a stiff breeze could knock him over), relishing every howl and scream of theirs with demented glee.
Though Leatherface lacks the personality, high-concept and subtext of Krueger (before he became a joke in the sequels) and Dr. Loomis’s frightening backstory of Michael Myers, he doesn’t need either characteristics, and further attempts in the franchise to explain or rationalize his behavior have backfired horribly. Leatherface and his family too, for that matter are evil for no other reason than that evil simply exists and sometimes it’s beyond any comprehension or rationality, or even worse, beyond rectifying, the latter best communicated through its harrowing, open-ended conclusion. It’s a grim, bleak statement on mankind’s inherent evil, and one not without its sources of real-life inspiration from the ’70s – Vietnam, the counter-culture movement, the Manson family, Zodiac killer, etc.
“I just can’t take no pleasure in killing.”, one of Leatherface’s relatives states bluntly. “There’s just some things you gotta do… Don’t mean you have to like it.”
As great as this film is, Tobe Hooper’s career never reached the heights of acclaim that genre contemporaries of his like George A. Romero, Wes Craven and John Carpenter have received. Not that he was a one-hit wonder clinging to Leatherface’s legacy. He’d go on to work with Spielberg on Poltergeist, and his underrated films The Funhouse and Lifeforce have garnered more appreciation over time. But with a film this good and so incredibly well-crafted by Hooper, it’s unfortunate that his overall career prior to his passing earlier this year (coincidentally, a month after Romero passed) couldn’t have been more close to consistent as those three.
Still, he gave us this masterpiece of the genre, one inspired by Hitchcock and Romero’s greatness and one that would subsequently inspire later greatness, and that can never be taken away.
Stash Tier: Diamond Stash