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.