The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Like a Sledgehammer to the Head
“That's where they kill them. They bash' em in the head with a big sledgehammer!… They don't do it like that anymore. Now they get this big air gun that shoots a bullet into the skull and then retracts it.” –Franklin
That is the way that paraplegic Franklin (Paul A. Partain) describes the slaughterhouse process to his friends as they travel through the Texas countryside. The comparison between the sledgehammer method versus the air gun is supposed to take in consideration the more humane way to slaughter cattle. But unlike that air gun, there is nothing humane about what happens in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Director Tobe Hooper takes the “sledgehammer” approach with the audience and bashes our heads with its raw violence.
The film follows a group of young friends who travel to Texas to visit the graveyard of Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin’s grandfather, which might have been victim of vandalism and grave robbing. As they head to visit their grandfather’s old abandoned house, they stumble upon a family of cannibals who begin to slaughter them one by one.
And that’s what the film builds up to; nothing more, nothing less. Although there are signs of resentment and issues within Sally and Franklin, there is little depth within the characters. The film treats them as mere cattle headed to the slaughter. Just by reading the opening crawl, which falsely implies that the film might be based on real-life events, you know that nothing good will come to them. So the hour before they meet their tormentors becomes a long hour of dread and fear, much like what would be if one were to watch the inside of a slaughterhouse.
The cannibal family is formed by gas station owner (Jim Siedow), hitchhiker/grave robber (Edwin Neal), and their grandfather (John Dugan). But the main killer of the film, and the most popular, is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a deformed, mentally unstable, cross-dressing, chainsaw-wielding serial killer. From his first abrupt appearance, the character hits you in the head, both literally and figuratively, with his grotesque appearance and his blunt approach to killing. This is not the wise-cracking Freddy Krueger, or the methodical approach of Michael Myers. Leatherface presents a more in-your-face, raw approach to killing. In my opinion, his first two kills are two of the most iconic scenes in horror films. And there’s nothing remotely contrived about it, just “wham!”, like a sledgehammer.
The character has become so iconic that it has joined the above-mentioned Freddy, and Michael Myers, along with Jason, in the pantheon of “Horror Monsters of the 70’s and 80’s”. The image of a chainsaw-wielding maniac, with a human skin mask running through the woods has also become a synonym for horror. And that scene is indeed one of the most disturbingly terrifying of the film. As Leatherface chases Marilyn through the woods, it becomes such a relentless run for life. The incessant sound of the chainsaw, mixed with Marilyn’s terrified shrieks, in what seems like an endless chase can be the subject of many nightmares. At least I know it was for my brother.
As for the final dinner scene, it is one of the most bizarre and awkwardly comedic scenes I’ve seen on a horror film. Film critic Kim Newman noted how the scene parodies a “typical American sitcom family”, with each of the members of the family taken a stereotypical role: bread-winner, housewife, rebellious teenager. The nature of the scene just adds to the crudeness and disturbing aura that permeates the whole film, capped by the sight of the near-dead “Grandpa” sucking on Marilyn’s bloody finger or the family trying to make him hit her with a hammer.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is clearly not a film for everyone. Not because of its violence which, to be honest, might seem visually tame by the modern standards of Saw and Hostel. But its low-budget approach, simple plot, and below average acting by some of the cast, might not be down everyone’s alley. But to me, most of those traits are what makes it so effective and disturbing. And that is what a good horror film should be. Not like an air gun to the head, but like a sledgehammer. Grade: A
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