Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hanson, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Teri McMinn, William Vail, Allen Danziger, John Dugan, and Ed Guinn
In no way can a movie like Tobe Hooper's 1974 cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre be called entertaining. The movie is violent, despairing, relentless, and it puts you through one hell of an emotional wringer. This is, of course, what the movie wants to accomplish. As a straight-up exercise in terror, and I couldn’t see it as being anything but that, the movie is a staggering achievement. It is scary. It is upsetting. And there is no light at the end of it. The movie is a very good example of what it is, but it's also perhaps the most unhappy experience you'll have watching a horror movie.
The story takes place in Texas (of course) and opens up with five youths (one of them a paraplegic) driving through the country side in a beat-up looking camper van. They pick up a dirty, creepy looking hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) along the way, who takes their picture and tries to sell it to them for two dollars. The guy creeps them out, and when he pulls out a shaving blade and cuts the paraplegic on the arm, they promptly get rid of him (or do they?).
The kids make a quick detour to a dilapidated farm house where two of them grew up. One of them notices strange and creepy charms and totems hanging up around the house, but thinks nothing of them. One couple goes out to a nearby swimming hole, finds it dried up, and spots a nearby farmhouse. The guy goes to ask if the owners can lend them some gasoline for their van. He knocks on the door, it opens, and he takes that as his cue to go on inside, where he learns the hard way that just because a door is open doesn't mean that you should walk through it.
That's the basic set-up of the story. There's very little room for character development because (and I'm just making an assumption here) the movie is less about the characters and more about the horrifying situations they find themselves in. There's a terrifically frightening scene in the film where one of the kids finds his friend's body locked up in the freezer (what happens after his discovery is positively nightmarish).
The scene where the stocky psycho killer Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) makes his first kill is gruelingly effective, and the shot of his victim convulsing on the floor after getting whacked in the head with a hammer is just plain disturbing. The climactic dinner scene, where “final girl” Sally (the late Marilyn Burns) is strapped to a chair and mercilessly taunted by her captors, is harrowing and downright painful to watch.
Special mention must also be made of the scene where Sally first encounters Leatherface and is chased through the woods. For much of the chase, the scene is shot so that only Sally is in the frame. There are very few wide shots of Leatherface coming up behind her. For the most part, it's just Sally running through the woods, a shot that is scored with the rev of a chainsaw. This approach is a much scarier one. We know Leatherface is after her. What we don't know is how far back he is. Is he close? How close is he? For much of the scene, Hooper denies us the slim comfort of even knowing that. All we know is that he's close enough that we can hear his chainsaw, and it's getting louder and louder by the second.
Made on a scant $83,000 budget, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is surprisingly very well made. The cinematography is often time luminous, especially during the scene where Sally and her wheelchair bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) venture into the woods at night to look for their missing friends. The expert editing by Sallye Richardson and J. Larry Carroll ratchets up the tension in ways that'll have you squirming in your seat, especially during the aforementioned dinner scene. The discordant musical score by Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell is incredibly unnerving.
The production design, set decoration, and art direction are especially well done. The farmhouse the killers reside in looks picturesque and homely on the outside, but on the inside, it's a genuine house of horrors. There's one room one unfortunate soul stumbles in that's filled with caged chickens, lots of feathers, and furniture decorated with human bones and skin. The inspiration for the set is no doubt what the police were said to have found in serial killer Ed Gein's house, as he himself was said to have decorated his furniture with the remains of his victims. The house here is certainly not as gory as Gein's no doubt was, but it is still pretty darn horrifying.
The movie sparked a lot of controversy during its release because of how violent it was. I wonder how those who spoke out against it would react to the despicable remake directed by Marcus Nispel. Compared to a lot of horror films today, the movie is really very tame. We see very little blood spilled, and even during the film's most gruesome moment (when Franklin is murdered and Leatherface is sprayed with his blood), the lighting is so dark that you really can’t see much gore. That’s not to say the movie isn’t violent, just that it isn’t the geek show that so many have claimed.
The performances turned in by the young victims are natural and convincing. They may not receive much development in the film, but the dialogue they've been given is (appropriately) mundane. There are no sharp witty one-liners and no quotable lines of dialogue. They speak just like normal people, and Hooper's matter-of-fact approach to their scenes of interaction give the proceedings an almost documentary-like feel.
Looking back on the film, the scenes that stood out to me the most involve a young woman dangling from a meat hook and screaming while Leatherface chops up her boyfriend with a chainsaw; the scene where Leatherface and his family hold a woman's head over a bucket while their zombifie-looking grandfather tries bashing her head in with a hammer; Sally laughing hysterically in the back of a stranger's pickup truck, escaping her tormentors, but left with emotional scars that are certainly never going to heal; and the very last shot of Leatherface madly swinging his chainsaw around, angry about the one that got away.
All of it is effectively executed by Hooper, and while the movie certainly isn’t for all tastes, there is no denying that given what it sets out to do, it does a damn good job at it. Certain critics and viewers are able to look at this film and get some sociological message out of it. I may be a few cans shy of a six pack to do that, but as an exercise in pure terror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is staggering achievement. It may not be a fun movie to watch, but given that it involves a serial killer dispatching people with a chainsaw, it’d be a foolish thing to expect it to be.
Rated R for violence, disturbing images, language
Final Grade: **** (out of ****)