The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974.
Directed by Tobe Hooper.
Starring Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow and Gunnar Hansen.
While on a road trip through Texas, a group of friend stumble upon an isolated farmhouse that houses a horrific secret. The teens soon find themselves at the mercy of a psychopathic family of cannibals, eager to make their new victims their next meal.
Last year, the horror world bid farewell to Tobe Hooper, a fine director whose career sadly burned a bit too bright too quickly. However, Hooper did leave us with a fine and eclectic collection of horror films that range from the gator chomping likes of Eaten Alive, the Spielberg infused spookiness of Poltergeist or the big-budget sci-fi lunacy of Lifeforce (which I reviewed last October and I still advise you to check out, it’s glorious).
I think we can all agree though that if there is one film that Hooper will forever be remembered for it’s the film that put him on the map. That film is the controversial horror classic that is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
To me, the thing that marks Texas Chain Saw (as I’ll refer to it here on) as a prime slice of cinematic horror is its choice of setting.
Following the lead of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (my review of which you can read here) as wells as other grittier horror films of the 60s and 70s, Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel ditch the Gothic trappings of cinemas horror past and instead brings the horror into the (then) modern world and sets it largely in the bright trappings of daylight.
The film’s clever choice of setting is complemented by the film’s gritty visual style with the sometimes grainy nature of the film stock serving to give the film a distinctly dirty feel to it, almost like you’re watching a film found by police detectives as evidence at a crime scene. The set design only adds to the macabre and dark nature of the film, with the cannibals home being a literal “house of horrors” filled with furniture made from the remains of bones and flesh, almost like you’ve stumbled into a section of Ikea curated by Ed Gein.
It’s bone-chilling stuff, to say the least, or at least it would be chilling if it weren’t for the hot Texas sun which looms almost as large as the hulking Leatherface (more on him later). You can almost feel the suffocating heat of this horror house seeping through the screen and you can imagine the foul stench that would fill your nostrils as the sun cooks the decayed and bone infused furniture.
While Texas Chain Saw largely follows and arguably created some of the traditional slasher film formulae, the film, like many of its era, is also laced with social and political commentary. The film’s now infamous and misleading opening declaring “the film you are about to see is true” (narrated by future sitcom star John Larroquette) meant as a commentary about the political climate of the mid 1970s which had been dogged by the effects of the Watergate scandal and the cover-up of American atrocities in Vietnam.
The film’s violent nature is also meant as a commentary on the overall violent nature of America at the time and the media’s apparent glee in showing audiences all the grisly details. I feel that this aspect of the commentary is something that, in my view at least, is reflected in Hooper’s decision to keep much of the graphic violence off-screen, an ironic decision given how controversial the film would become mainly because of its supposedly violent content.
While largely off screen, the violence is still disturbing and brutal, particularly in Leatherface’s introduction the film in which he brutally kills a teen with a massive hammer. The brutality of the scene only made worse by the horrible squishing sound with every hammer blow as it strikes the teen. It’s a horrifying scene that not only lets you know what you’re in for but it also serves as one of the most frightening introductions to a horror movie villain ever created.
On the acting front, the film’s cast does a solid job throughout, although many of the teens who meet their grisly ends don’t leave much of an impression. However, Paul A. Partain’s turn as the wheelchair-bound Franklin does allow for some welcome moments of brevity and you do manage to feel sympathy for him in his somewhat isolated condition. Kudos should also go to Marilyn Burns for her physically gruelling performance as Sally, with the actress really being put through the grinder, especially during the now infamous and nightmarish dinner scene.
The real stars of the film though are the cannibalistic family tormenting the teens, with the clear stand out being the late Gunnar Hansen’s turn as the now iconic killer Leatherface. Hansen manages to take what could have been a one-note monster and manages to inject an air of quiet humanity into this monstrous creature. As Hooper has said, the film represents a “bad day for Leatherface” and you can see that in Hansen’s performance, such as in one scene where the masked maniac sits with his head in his hands because he’s so exhausted and perplexed by the sudden arrival of teens he now has to kill. It’s a clever subtle little touch that I feel makes Leatherface a far more fascinating character than some of the more famous slasher killers that often hog the limelight.
Gritty, grisly, gripping, tightly plotted and moving at a pace as quick as a chainsaw blade, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has more than earned its reputation as one of the greatest horror films of the 1970s, if not of all time. Suffice to say this one comes highly recommended.
Scare Rating: ? ? ? ?
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★