by Steve Habrat
When I sit down and reflect back on the horror films that have scared the daylights out of me, there is one gritty and uncompromising masterpiece that really stands out among the others. That particular film would be director Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cannibalistic nightmare The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a horrifying and skin-crawling trip into a rotting and withering Texas wasteland that is just a little too unshakably real. Made for a measly $300,000 dollars and inspired by the brutality of the evening news, the dishonesty of the US government, and real-life serial killer Ed Gein, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would go on to become a massively influential slasher movie and give birth to one of horror’s most notorious boogeymen—Leatherface. While the name alone will turn off many squeamish viewers, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t your typical exploitation horror film. There isn’t a massive fixation with blood and guts, but there is a burning desire on Hooper’s part to stuff the film with rusted atmosphere and stomach churning anxiety that has been baking in the smoldering Texas sun. You practically expect the film to reek of gasoline fumes, sweat, and decomposing road kill. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre emerged from one of the most unforgiving eras in the history of horror and has remained one of the cruelest genre efforts of the 1970s, right up there with such spine-chilling classics as The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Jaws, and Dawn of the Dead.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with Sally Hardesty (Played by Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Played by Paul A. Partain), Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry (Played by Allen Danzinger), and mutual friends, Kirk (Played by William Vail) and Pam (Played by Teri McMinn), venturing out into the backwoods of Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather after reports of grave robbing and vandalism in the area. After checking on their grandfather’s grave, the group decides to head over to the old abandoned Hardesty farm. Along their way, they pick up a local hitchhiker (Played by Edwin Neal), who claims to live nearby the old Hardesty farm. After cutting both himself and Franklin with a razor, the group kicks the man out of their van and leaves him out in the Texas sun. The group thinks their problems are over, but while exploring the abandoned farm, they discover another secluded home that they believe is also abandoned. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that the home isn’t abandoned at all and one by one they fall victim to a deranged group of cannibals led by the hulking chain saw–wielding Leatherface (Played by Gunnar Hansen).
Hooper kicks off The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with narrator John Larroquette reading from a text crawl that explains what we are about to see is based on true events. We then have a pitch-black screen cut with brief flashes of what appears to be a decomposing corpse. During your first viewing, you won’t be entirely sure, but you will swear that rustling and grunting sound effects that accompany the dark are the sounds of furious digging and scraping. Then a radio report kicks in with news of a local grave robber and the macabre creations that the individual has been leaving in the local cemetery. Hooper then cuts to a close-up of the face of a gooey corpse, pulling his camera back to slowly to reveal the body of the corpse has been tied to a massive headstone. If you look carefully, it almost looks like the corpse is grinning at the viewer. As the camera continues to slowly pan back, Hooper is revealing an amber wasteland and his elevated corpse is warning us that death rules over this nearly abandoned and decrepit part of the great state of Texas. It also seems to be conveying that madness will be the king for the next eighty-four minutes and you are a poor sap at its mercy. With this monument to madness on full display, the radio reporting on strange disappearances and morbid local activity in the background, and Hooper revving up his clank-roar-and-bang score, we are pinned to our seats, stomachs uneasy about what carnage is to come and what redneck monsters this dried up abandonment will spit out. The first time I saw, it nearly paralyzed me with fright.
After this massively effective opening sequence, it could have been very easy for Hooper to cater to exploitation audiences hungry for plenty of blood and guts, but he keeps a good majority of the violence off the screen and lets our imaginations fill in the nasty stuff. Instead, he continues to pump in the rotting atmosphere of a once delightful small town full of happy memories now gripped by unemployment, hopelessness, and insanity. It is the ultimate American nightmare. Every single character is suspicious or just plain spaced out under the burning sun and every home or farm is sinking away into the cracking landscape. When Hooper lets Leatherface Sawyer out of his house of horrors with his chain saw buzzing, the terror hits highs you never thought possible. He lumbers around the inside of Sawyer household while screeching like a banshee and plopping his victims on meat hooks. When he dashes through the night after scrappy victim Sally, who basically becomes our heroine, it actually feels like Hooper was creeping through the trees and filming an authentic chase between these two (Someone call the authorities!). You may have to lean forward to fully see what is going on, but in a way, the pitch black highlighted with streaks of blue keep your imagination buzzing just like Leatherface’s chain saw. This pitch-black chase reminds the viewer how removed from society these people are, that the Sawyers are the ones that live on the path that is just off the beaten path, far away from modern society.
Since the sets, atmosphere, and monster are all so good, you barely even notice some of the amateur acting that plagues the first portion of the film. The only one of the kids that really stands out is Marilyn Burns as Sally, who must have been without a voice for a month after all the screaming she does in the final twenty minutes. Once you see the horrors she is staring down (I don’t think that is animal meat on her plate), you will not blame her for all the screaming. Then we have Edwin Neal, who plays the kooky hitchhiker who used to work at the local meat packing company. He is just plain crackers as he slices his hand with a razor and then giggles over it. To make things worse, he is the brother of Leatherface, a hulking, mentally challenged killer who likes to wear masks made of human flesh. Hansen plays him with plenty of gusto and he is made all the creepier through the several costume changes he undergoes. He switches from butcher, to housewife, to formal dinner attire and one is creepier than the next. Also on board here is Jim Siedow as the old man who runs the gas station. He seems like a harmless old man at first, but it is soon revealed that he has ties to Leatherface and the hitchhiker. To make things worse, he is cooking up some seriously nasty BBQ in the back of the gas station.
Like most of the other classic horror films of the 1970s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre doesn’t shy away from making a political statement. Hooper has stated that “the film you are about to see is true” gimmick at the beginning of the film was a response to the lies told by the US government during Watergate and the Vietnam War. You could also view it as a cheap exploitation trick to lure in audience members hungry for some major depravity. Hooper has also said that he was inspired to make the film after repeatedly seeing jaw-dropping violence and graphic coverage on the evening news. There is also plenty of inspiration drawn from Ed Gein, which is especially present in the Sawyer family homestead that is complete with human bones fashioned into furniture and even human skin covering the light over their dinner table. Overall, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most starkly convincing horror films I have ever seen. It is raw, in your face, and unforgettable, begging to be seen again and again to spot the tiny details thrown in by Hooper. But the true terror lies in the idea that there is nothing overly fantastic here. Sometimes, a simple backwoods cannibal wearing human skin as a mask and wielding a chain saw is one of the most terrifying things out there.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez introduced mainstream audiences to exploitation cinema or “grindhouse” cinema with their sleazy double-feature experiment Grindhouse. Their experiment failed to resonate with audiences, at least at first, but in the wake of Grindhouse, there was a growing interest in exploitation cinema from the mid 1960s until the mid 80s. Glorifying sex, violence, and depravity, “grindhouse” movies were “ground out” in dingy old movie palaces or rickety drive-in theaters while a wide range of colorful audience members smoked dope, pleasured themselves, mugged other audience members, heckled the screen, and relieved themselves in soda cups to avoid a trip to the creepy bathrooms. Ranging from spaghetti westerns to European zombie movies to cannibal films to blaxploitation flicks to all out pornography, exploitation had many forms and a good majority of them were absolutely awful. However, there were more than a few stand outs that managed to hold up over the years and earn respectable cult followings. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s ten best grindhouse films of all time. Take comfort in the fact that you can watch them in your own home, far away from the junkies of 42nd Street!
WARNING: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC IMAGES
10.) I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
Israeli director Meir Zarchi’s stunningly graphic rape/revenge flick has become one of the most infamous grindhouse films ever made. The film notoriously enraged critics upon its release and even caused Roger Ebert to write one of the most scathing film reviews of his career. I Spit on Your Grave is trashy, sleazy, mean, brutal, and harrowing, with plenty of sex and violence to fuel a dozen exploitation pictures. So what makes it so awesome? Folks, when this poor woman unleashes her fury, it will have you simultaneously cheering her on while covering your eyes and reaching for the barf bag. I Spit on Your Grave was remade in 2010, but the polished presentation and evidence of a studio budget failed to pack the punch of the gritty original.
9.) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one seriously scary movie. Believe me, folks. It may also make you want to take a shower, become a vegetarian, and never go anywhere near the Texas border. Wielding a nerve-frying sense of realism, this grim and grimy tale about a group of young friends who come face to face with a family of murderous cannibals led by Leatherface was inspired by the heinous crimes of real life serial killer Ed Gein and famously spooked the horror-hating critic Rex Reed. Surprisingly, Hooper adds little gore to the mayhem and instead relies on the thick Texas heat, dilapidated brans, abandoned meat packing factories, and rusty family-owned gas stations to keep us on our toes. Wait for the final fifteen minuets, with a gut-churning family dinner, star Marilyn Burns screaming herself horse, and Leatherface doing a dance of death in the middle of a highway.
8.) Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)
Sexploitation king Russ Meyer’s snarling Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is one of the funkiest films you are ever likely to see. It has just about everything an exploitation fan could want: ass-kicking go-go dancers, drag races, fist fights, big breasts, sadistic backwoods males, and switchblades. It is like a living, berating cartoon that wouldn’t hesitate to rip your throat out. It is precisely this pulpy, comic book touch that makes Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! such an essential grindhouse thrill ride. The action is breakneck, the fights are bone-snapping, the races are smoking, and the go-go dances will have the male viewers hot under the collar. The middle section of the film begins to sag, that I will admit, but the curvy Varla and her no-nonsense attitude keeps the entertainment level as high as it will go.
7.) El Topo (1970)
The film that started the midnight movie craze, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo is a work that you can’t even begin to fully understand or truly put in words. It’s a spaghetti western that really isn’t a western at all. At times spiritual, at times existential, at times beautiful, but almost always brutal beyond belief, El Topo follows a lone gunslinger named El Topo (played by Jodorowsky) on his quest to confront a handful of cunning warriors lurking out in the desert. At the time of its release, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were very vocal about their love for El Topo, and over the years, it has caught the attention of David Lynch, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Marilyn Manson, and Bob Dylan. There is no doubt that El Topo will shock, swoon, and appall all who see it, sending the viewers away to discuss and debate the surreal string of images that Jodorowsky springs on them. You truly won’t believe your eyes.
6.) The Streetfighter (1974)
You can’t have a list of the best grindhouse films of all time without including this wickedly savage Sonny Chiba classic. The Streetfighter is a mess in the plot department, but you’re not here to for a mind bending story. No, you’re here to watch Sonny Chiba, who seriously makes the best facial expression ever while throwing down with a sea of bad guys, rip some guys balls off, rip another dude’s vocal cords out, and sock a guy in the gut so hard that he barfs (trust me, there is a hell of a lot more). It’s great and it is even better if you watch it with a group of friends that howl every time someone memorably bites the dust. The Streetfighter ended up being the first film ever to receive an “X” rating for violence and even by today’s standards, it would make most splatter directors blush. It stands proudly as one of the greatest kung-fu films ever made.
5.) Halloween (1978)
Believe it or not, John Carpenter’s icy tale of the Boogeyman in suburbia was indeed a grindhouse movie. Made by an independent studio and on a shoestring budget of $325,000, this terrifying slasher pic is widely considered to be the most successful independent feature of all time. Halloween is the ultimate example of less-is-more and it inspired a slew of holiday-themed slashers that emerged in the wake of its popularity. There is so much to love here, from the spine-tingling score to the seemingly supernatural Michael Meyers, and plenty to give the viewer nightmares for a week. Halloween was followed by a number of sequels, two of which are worth checking out, and a gritty, ultra-gory remake in 2007 by shock rocker-turned-director Rob Zombie. There have been countless imitators, but the original Halloween remains the scariest slasher film ever made.
4.) Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975)
One of the more extreme and sexually graphic films on this list, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, was one of the original women-in-prison grindhouse films. Directed by Don Edmonds and shot on the leftover sets of Hogan’s Heroes, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS has earned its reputation through its borderline pornographic sex scenes, prolonged sequences of torture, its surprisingly serious approach to the silly material, the grim ending, and Dyanne Thorne as the sadistic Ilsa. Seriously, wait until you get a load of Thorne’s Ilsa. If taken for what it is, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS is pretty entertaining even if you’re constantly closing your eyes or watching with your jaw on the floor. In October, I actually had the pleasure of meeting Dyanne Thorne and she was a gigantic sweetheart even if she was dressed in her Nazi uniform. For those looking to cut their teeth on the savage stuff, make sure you get ahold of the blood-splattered Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. It is the real deal.
3.) Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1974)
Would you believe that director Bo Arne Vibenius, the man behind Thriller: A Cruel Picture, once worked with Swedish art house director Ingmar Bergman? If you’ve seen Thriller: A Cruel Picture, you probably can’t. The ultimate rape/revenge film, Thriller would chew I Spit on Your Grave up and then spit it out, place a double barrel shotgun to its head, and then blow its brains clean out. The tagline warned viewers that Thriller was “the movie that has no limits of evil” and it really meant it. Following the beautiful young Frigga (played by bombshell Christina Lindberg), who is abducted and forced into a life of drug addiction and prostitution before she snaps and goes on a killing spree, Thriller: A Cruel Picture is about as rough and tough as a motion picture can be. Vibenius unleashes graphic sequences of sexual intercourse (complimented by a shrill static sound effect to make the viewer cringe) and slow-motion shots of Frigga’s tormentors tumbling through the air while gore spills from the bullet wounds. He also gouges the eye ball out of a real corpse. So, do you think you have the stones to go up against Thriller: A Cruel Picture?
2.) Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Ruggero Deodato’s “found footage” gross-out Cannibal Holocaust was so realistic, that when the film premiered in Milan, Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity. Certainly not for everyone, Cannibal Holocaust has become the most controversial movie ever made and it lives up to its reputation. Featuring strings of unblinking violence with barely a cut to be found, real footage of animals being killed (this aspect of the film particularly disturbed me), and the most repulsive sex/rape scenes every filmed, Cannibal Holocaust is the film that goes all the way and doesn’t even consider looking back. Believe it or not, Cannibal Holocaust is a shocking reflection of the violence lurking in even the most “civilized” human beings, something you’d never expect from a film that seems content to wallow in depravity. The film sparked a number of copy cat cannibal films that emerged out of Italy throughout the 80s, but none could match what Deodato created. Deodato has since stated his regret in making the film, but Cannibal Holocaust has earned a fairly respectable cult following. It is certainly not for the faint of heart.
1.) Zombie (1979)
Legendary Italian horror director Lucio Fulci has been widely considered to be the “Godfather of Gore” and he certainly lives up to that reputation with Zombie. Released in 1979 and marketed as the sequel to George A. Romero’s zombie epic Dawn of the Dead (the films have no connection), Zombie is about as fun and icky as a zombie film can get. It is gratuitous with its blood and guts as well with its nudity (breasts are flashed for seemingly no reason at all). Zombie certainly lacks the sophistication of a Romero zombie film and absolutely no one expects it to make a profound statement about society, but it does get the zombie action right. Rotten corpses claw out of the grave, freshly infected shuffle through rickety tropical ghost towns looking for victims, a zombie battles a shark (yes, you read that correctly) and ghouls rally together at the climax to infiltrate a bordered up makeshift hospital. And boy, does it feature some nasty looking zombies. A midnight movie of the highest order, Zombie is balls to the wall insanity. Fun Fact: Zombie‘s trailer promised queasy viewers a barf bag with their ticket!