Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Paul A. Partain, Gunnar Hansen
Tagline: Who will survive and what will be left of them?
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, terror, thriller, slasher, gore, psychological thriller, torture, teen, cannibals, serial killer, masked murderer
Scare score: B-
Plot overview: While driving through the vastness of central Texas to go see an old family home, siblings Sally (Burns) and Franklin Hardesty (Partain) and friends Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn), and Jerry (Allen Danziger) find themselves the helpless victims of a family of insane serial killers.
Shortly before its 40th anniversary coming up this October, I found that last night was the perfect night to watch this true horror classic. With visionary direction by co-writer Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, Salem’s Lot), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has quickly and surely won its way into being one of the most iconic horror films out there, with one of the industry’s most successful killers, Leatherface (Hansen). Made on less than a $300,000 budget, this modestly produced movie in many ways redefined the horror genre, spawning a franchise and leaving a mark that still scares audiences 40 years later.
All that being said, I want to state that I do appreciate this movie, but I don’t love everything about it. I think the sort of wrong-turn (although the victims are right where they want to be), inbred, rotten deep America is all strangely beautiful, and with a chain saw thrown in for fun, what’s not to love?
Well there’s the production quality, for starters. It’s tough with a low budget film and the fact that this was 1974 for us to have really clear images. On the other hand, one of the absolute best things about this movie is the ‘special effects,’ that is, props, sets, general gore. There are really gross visuals throughout the film that I’m sure shocked audiences at the time, as many of them still might today. Did you know that when the family feeds Grandpa (John Dugan) a taste of Sally’s blood, it was actually Marilyn Burns’ blood?? That’s wild. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let’s start at the beginning.
Based on a true story. Okay, so this movie doesn’t actually include the words “based on a true story,” but nonetheless it is one of those countless films that claims to be the real-life account of what happened to real people. In fact, I know that the original movie and the 2003 remake have very much convinced audiences and popular culture that a Texas chain saw massacre did, in fact occur (it did not, although a large amount of Leatherface’s backstory [grave robbing, bone furniture, mask of skin] is based on true facts about serial killer Ed Gein). If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that Horror Buff hates horror movies that claim to be based on true stories, regardless of how it helps them in the box office.
After that exciting little beginning, the intro to this film is extremely long. Like, we’re talking just under half the movie until we see a chainsaw. Sure, it sets the tone (as an exposition should) of where our characters are and why, and throws in some honestly freaky footage of a vandalized graveyard. More importantly as far as thematics are concerned, we just see a lot of images of old, drunk, weathered men sitting around not doing much. This sort of stagnant culture is important, perhaps as a cause of how Leatherface & family came about.
The best thing about this long introduction, which does virtually nothing to introduce us to our cast of teenagers (who, aside from Sally and Franklin, then become unimportant sacks of meat, such as Leatherface must view them), is that it presents us with some truly fantastic acting by Edwin Neal in the role of the hitchhiker. Audiences have already been creeped out and even disgusted by the scene at the graveyard at this point, not to mention subjected to nauseating talk about animal slaughter, and then suddenly this unstable hitchhiker appears and really freaks us out. Is this scene too bizarre? Are the reactions of our 5 personality-less teenagers unrealistic? Does it matter? The whole time, we may sit there and think “Oh no, I would never let that guy in my van” or even about how we would kick that guy straight out the first time he talks about death or whips out a razor, but it doesn’t matter, because we are already stuck in the van with him and his craziness will run its course before we can get him out. We are suffocated in that scene, by the Texas heat, by Franklin’s whining, by Edwin’s violent lunacy. It’s fantastic.
By now I’ve waited long enough to bring up what is the absolute worst thing about this movie: Franklin Hardesty. I have a hard time deciding whether it’s Franklin I hate or actor Paul A. Partain, but I think I’m certain that it’s just Franklin, a useless, helpless, dramatic, and loud whiny brother that serves no purpose in the film except to be annoying, and occasionally babble on about creepy subjects such as death threats and animal slaughter. Franklin cannot pick up on social cues. Franklin’s disability prevents him from having fun with the other personality-less teenagers. Franklin pees in a coffee bean can. Franklin sticks his tongue out at no one and pouts instead of cursing or throwing things like a normal human (as if cursing would have spared them the R rating). Franklin is the worst character I’ve ever encountered in a [horror] movie and sincerely it hurts this movie because of it. What is the point of Franklin? I would love an educated answer. Luckily we only have to endure him for 52 minutes. Oops, spoiler alert.
Once that’s over, it’s back to the fun stuff. The most horrifying thing about this movie is the overall sense of helplessness of the victims and nonchalance of the antagonists. There is an enduring sense of vulnerability in the film that only increases as the teens we are never actually introduced to are hacked away, as we run out of gas and lose the keys, as the sun sets and it seems that everybody is in on the terror in this town. There is decay here: moral, physical, human decay, right around the corner from the Hardesty’s family home where they played as children. A place of innocence has turned into a place of total evil, filled with forgotten locations and deranged people who become butchers in America’s heartland. This is one of those films that makes every small town scary, every long drive risky, every hitchhiker on the road a potential killer. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre continues being relevant and important as more stories break on the news about serial killers on the loose and women being found locked in suburban basements. Leatherface is just a man in a mask, and although his mask his made of tanned skin, how many others are out there wearing masks we can’t see so easily? This movie begins on a sunny summer afternoon, and ends in a shocking and senseless bloodbath illuminated under the broad Texan sunrise.
The second half of the film presents us with pretty constant terror and some gore. By gore, I do not so much mean people getting visibly hacked up (we don’t see that) so much as tons of footage of bones and body parts, Grandma (a la Psycho, with which this movie shares many similarities) and Grandpa (probably the grossest thing in the film); the list goes on. Aside from any Halloween movie, I think that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre might boast one of my favorite chase scenes. Sally is relentless in her attempt to break free from the horrors at hand, and she does a valiant effort, resulting in a really great chase scene through the bushes and bramble at night, with chainsaw-wielding Leatherface close behind. This scene is just plain enjoyable for everybody, except perhaps Sally.
Things go from bad to worse when Sally finds out that Leatherface is not just some isolated serial killer, but that what seems like the whole town (all 3 residents) are in on the killings. Is there no escape? Jim Siedow also gives us some good acting in his easily despicable role as the proprietor of the gas station, aka Leatherface and the hitchhiker’s daddy. I love Leatherface’s stern impassibility earlier in the film (especially the shrieks he makes), although once daddy comes back home, we see a different, weaker, frightened side of the big faceless killer that only adds to his pathos. One of my favorite lines in the movie is when the soulless proprietor is abducting Sally and makes a comment about the electricity bill – just another example of this psychopathic apathy that should really rock us as humans. Such clever writing.
All that being said, I still have a debate in my head about whether or not this is a boring movie. The last time I had seen it before this week was about 5 years ago in college, and aside from wanting to rip my ears and eyeballs out because of Franklin, I remember thinking that not too much happened here. After watching it this week, however, I found myself fairly entertained by the events of the film. I guess it’s safe to say that once the action starts, it doesn’t stop coming. Even if the film feels somewhat lost at times, as uncertain as where to go as our final girl Sally, it’s still worth the enjoyable acting we get from the family of deranged Texan cannibals. If you can make it through the long exposition, you’re in for a pretty fun ride of disturbing events and visual content that have made this movie so legendary.
Final critique: This movie is simply a must-see. Coming from the genius of Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel, this film rocked audiences 40 years ago and, along with multiple reboots and remakes, continues to rock us today. If you can get past the grainy quality of the film, this movie is a wild ride; well, at least the second half is. Not recommended for audiences that scare easily or get grossed out by gory or disturbing images, because along with the eponymous chainsaw, the props in this movie are half the terror.