The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
Director: Tobe Hooper
Production: Vortex. A Henkel-Hooper production; CFI Color; running time: 87 minutes (British version is 81 minutes); length: 7,290 feet. Released November 1974.
Executive producer: Jay Parsley; producer: Tobe Hooper; screenplay: Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper, from their own story; photography: Daniel Pearl; additional photography: Tobe Hooper; editors: Sallye Richardson, Larry Carroll; sound recordists: Ted Nicolau, Buzz Knudson, Jay Harding; sound re-recordist: Paul Harrison; art director: Robert A. Burns; make-up: Dorothy Pearl and Dr. W. E. Barnes; music: Tobe Hooper, Wayne Bell; narrator: John Larroquette.
Cast: Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty); Allen Danziger (Jerry); Paul A. Partain (Franklin Hardesty); William Vail (Kirk); Teri McMinn (Pam); Edwin Neal (Hitch-hiker); Jim Siedow (Old Man); Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface); John Dugan (Grandfather); Perry Lorenz (Pickup Driver); Joe Bill Hogan (Drunk); Robert Courten (Window Washer); William Creamer (Bearded Man); John Henry Faulk (Storyteller); Jerry Green (Cowboy); Ed Guinn (Cattle Truck Driver).
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* * *
The sensationalist brilliance of Tobe Hooper's independently made, regional horror masterwork begins with its eye-grabbing, unforgettable title. It takes guts to be so blatant up-front. More guts, in fact, than are spilled in the movie. Nothing could possibly be as bloody and atrocious as the title and the poster ("who will survive, and what will be left of them?") suggest The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is going to be. Hooper goes completely the other way: there are no close-ups of open wounds (the gore film trademark), and all the limb-lopping happens out of shot. This restraint could as easily be due to dissatisfaction with the obvious fakery of low budget gore as to innate good taste and humanity. Restraint is exhibited in no other aspect of Hooper's direction. Instead of the single mummy of Psycho, which was based on the same real-life murder case, there is a whole houseful of human and animal remains. Rather than Hitchcock's delicate, suspenseful manipulation, Hooper follows the lead of fellow independent George A. Romero and feeds the audience through a mangle of unrelieved horror and violence.
Deep in the heart of Texas—a country of dead armadilloes, violated corpses and disused slaughterhouses—a group of vapid teenagers unwisely enter an old, dark house. The apparent leading man wanders down a filthy corridor towards a red room walled with animal trophies. Suddenly, without any Hitchcockian overhead shot to pre-empt the shattering shock, Leatherface, a squealing, obese killer, appears from nowhere and smashes his head with a sledgehammer. Before the audience has had time really to register what has happened, Leatherface slams an unexpected, grating steel shutter across the corridor and finishes off the still-twitching boy out of sight. After the film has been blooded by its first kill, Leatherface rapidly slaughters three more of the teenagers, using a meathook, the sledge, and a buzzing chainsaw. Fleeing from Leatherface, Sally, the heroine by virtue of her survival, is repeatedly caught in brambles and bushes that the killer easily saws his way through. This physically exhausting chase sequence tops the opening of Night of the LivingDead as a filming of the universal nightmare. The girl winds up at the mercy of the Leatherface clan, a family whose proud boast is that they have "always been in meat."
Following Romero, Larry Cohen and Wes Craven and pace Robin Wood's critical writings on the genre, Hooper sees the American family as the true locus of the horror film. His degenerates are a parody of the typical sit com family, with the bread-winning, long-suffering Gas Man as Pop, the preening, bewigged, apron-wearing Leatherface as Mom, and the rebellious, long-haired Hitch as the teenage son. Their house is a similarly overdone, degraded mirror of the ideal home. Impaled clocks hang from the eaves, an armchair has human arms, and a hen is cooped up in a canary cage. With an unlikely burst of superhuman strength that drags the film momentarily back into the sloppy contrivances of a typical "B" picture, Sally breaks free and crashes through a window. On the main road, Hitch is messily run over and Sally clambers into the back of a speeding pickup truck. She survives, but as a blood-covered, shrieking, probably insane grotesque. The film fades on a long shot of the enraged Leatherface whirling his chainsaw in the air.
Chainsaw is only defensible as a nightmare. It bristles with sociopsychological sub-texts, but is so visceral there is barely time for an audience to breathe, let alone ponder what it's all about. We sympathise with the victims not because they are particularly pleasant but because the only other choice Hooper gives us is walking out. The killers are unknowable, barely characterised monsters who resist the insight Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins make us have into Norman Bates. Hooper's achievement is that he brings back to the movies an awareness of violent death lost through the slow motion sentimentalisation of Bonnie and Clyde and the contemptible distortion of TV cop shows. Unlike the notorious and comparable I Spit On Your Grave, Chainsaw is not a complete turn-off. If Hooper and his collaborators do not make their subject palatable, at least they succeed in justifying the film with its own panache. With its surprising amount of intentional comedy, the film is an important precursor of the horror comic style of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator.
The film is also remarkable for its technical proficiency, especially by comparison with such inept precedents as Herschell Gordon Lewis's "gore" movies, with particularly outstanding sound editing, art direction and editing, and a clutch of effective, if necessarily one-note, performances. Sadly, despite the promise demonstrated in this, his first mainstream film, Hooper's subsequent career has not been distinguished: his work on Poltergeist was eclipsed by the input of co-executive-producer/screenwriter Steven Spielberg, his big-budget science fiction efforts Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars proved disastrous and his attempts to recreate the mood of Chainsaw in Death Trap, The Funhouse and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2 have been variably unfortunate.