Tobe Hooper, 1974
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen
Sally and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin go on a road trip with a few of their friends to visit the grave of their grandfather, which has allegedly been vandalized. They also plan to stay at her grandparents’ now empty home for a few days. On the way, they pick up a strange hitchhiker who becomes increasingly manic and eventually cuts himself with a razor. They throw him out of their van and continue on the way. Once they reach the house, they separate to explore. Pam and Kirk, two of Sally’s friends, find a nearby house with a running generator and hope to buy some gas.
Instead they meet Leatherface, a large man wearing a mask made of human skin who quickly kills them both and prepares them to be butchered. Sally’s other friends find their way to Leatherface’s home and are also killed. Eventually, Sally and Franklin go to look for their missing friends. Leatherface kills Franklin and chases Sally into the house, where she will soon have to meet his family...
Texas Chainsaw Massacre is, of course, now known as one of the most famous and influential American horror films. The character of Leatherface helped kick off over a decade of masked killers and horror movies focused on power tools. Unlike later masked killers, Leatherface is fortunately not a shuffler and runs full force after his victims, adding an element of the terrifying that is certainly missing in Halloween or Friday the 13th. Chainsaw also almost singlehandedly spawned the later torture porn subgenre, but its violence and realism remain fresh today. This has never been one of my favorite films or subgenres - Last House on the Left is absent my list of top ‘70s horror films for just that reason - but Chainsaw has an undeniable power and freshness that deserves some respect, even if you could care less about hillbillies terrorizing teenagers.
The documentary style cinematography does the film a lot of favors and there are some beautiful shots. The set design is incredibly detailed despite the tiny budget and art director Robert Burns went to great lengths to make the Sawyer house look as grisly and hellish as possible. The set was notoriously difficult, between the heat, actors occasionally getting injured, and danger from Gunnar Hansen’s chainsaw, which was real. On top of that, the house was filled with real blood and rotting animal parts, which probably stunk to high hell in the hot, unventilated house. Instead of crafting realistic looking, fake remains, Burns simply went out and collected road kill and pieces of dead cattle to strew around the house.
The opening claimed that the film was based on a true story, which was not at all true. Leatherface was very loosely based on Ed Gein, a Wisconsin serial killer who also inspired Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. The film was originally going to be called either Head Cheese or Leatherface, but thankfully Hooper went for Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a great title; much better than, say, Head Cheese. The majority of the actors were unknown TV or theater performers, many of whom Hooper knew or worked with previously, such as Jim Siedow. Gunnar Hansen is great as Leatherface and he and Seidow bring some real personality to the film, balancing out the orgy of violence a bit.
About all I can say for Marilyn Burns is that she’s attractive and screams and runs around a lot. Burns as Sally is one of the first memorable “final girls” in horror history, meaning that there is one young woman who survives to the end of the film when her male (and other female) counterparts are killed off. If you’d like to learn more about “final girls,” I highly recommend Carol Clover’s seminal Men, Woman, and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film.
In the aftermath of Vietnam and the Manson family, it’s easy to see how something like Chainsaw was created. In terms of the violence and realism, this essentially picks up where Psycho began and Night of the Living Dead left off. For the most part, genre tropes are avoided. The supernatural is completely absent, there is no male hero, and much of the film takes place during the day. This is as much an exploitation movie as it is horror and a lot of early critics were repulsed by the unrelenting, seemingly motiveless violence with no redemptive qualities. Surprisingly, there is little blood and gore. People are hit with hammers, one of the girls is impaled on a hook, Leatherface runs amok with a chainsaw, and Sally is tortured - both physically and psychologically - for at least half the film, but the editing makes us believe we’ve seen more than we actually have. The film was banned in many countries and several theaters in the U.S. withdrew it. Despite this, it would up being very profitable.
While I’ve read a lot about the film as a commentary on capitalism, it is more notably a mockery of the traditional American family, which reaches its height during the fantastic dinner table scene. The conclusion is another element that makes me still love the film a little despite its issues. After his prey has escaped, Leatherface does some sort of dance of rage with his chainsaw in the middle of the road while the sun is setting. This certainly anticipates for the tone of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and leaves us with an air of the absurd and the slightly whimsical. Hooper’s subsequent films lack the serious tone of Chainsaw and are far more fun across the board, including Lifeforce, Eaten Alive, The Funhouse, Poltergeist, etc.
Chainsaw is simply one of those films that must be seen, though brace yourself for all the screaming. There are a number of DVD editions available. I’m reviewing the two-disc Ultimate Edition, which comes in a collector’s tin and has a ton of special features. There’s also a Blu-ray and a single disc DVD. Aside from numerous rip offs over the years, Chainsaw was followed by one of my favorite films, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), and Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), both of which I’ll be reviewing. There is also a truly awful remake/re-imagining, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995), another awful remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), which had a prequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006). There was yet another re-imagining, Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013), which is supposed to be a sequel to the original 1974 film.