The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
After the sad loss of Tobe Hooper this year, I realized that, much to my horror-watching shame, I had seen the mainstream film he’s best known for but not, alas, the film that cemented him in the pantheon of horror masters. I’ve avoided The Texas Chain Saw Massacre mostly because I am not a fan of chain saws or cannibalism or hillbilliesploitation. But could I truly call myself a horror fan if I didn’t at least make the attempt? So, out of respect for Mr. Hooper and his undoubted contribution to the genre, I finally filled this gap in my lexicon.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre deals with five hippie-esque youths taking a ride through Texas one hot summer day. They’re there to investigate the possible vandalism of the grave of Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) Hardesty’s grandfather. Assured that their grandfather still dead and buried, the group decide to visit the old home of the Hardestys. On the way, they pick up a creepy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who tells them about how his family used to work for the local slaughterhouse (foreshadowing!), and pass the local gas station/barbecue joint, where the proprietor (Jim Siedow) tells them there’s no gas to be had. The group arrives at the homestead and then make their way (severally) across to the neighboring house, where they think they might be able to barter for some gas to fill up their van. And it’s there, in a deceptively attractive farmhouse, that all hell breaks loose.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is nothing short of a feverish nightmare, right from the start. It opens with shots of desiccated corpses and just gets more profane from there. The Texas heat melts the screen, the five leads are plenty weird even before being pursued by cannibalistic hillbillies, and there are ample moments in which to shout “Don’t go in there!” Of course, they do go in there, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a film. Leatherface’s (Gunnar Hansen) introduction is shocking and explains why he’s right up there with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers. For its extremely low-budget, the film is incredibly effective in the first two acts, ramping up the tension before unleashing a surprisingly bloodless hellfire on the viewer.
At the same time, I found it difficult, at least on first viewing, to really get into The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s one of those films that was shocking in 1974, and has its own nightmarish brilliance even now. There are genuine scares, and several scenes that had me peeking through my fingers. But by the time we get to the final act, I was getting a little tired of hearing Sally scream and Leatherface squeal. There’s little explanation as to how this family of cannibals have managed to operate for as long as they evidently have, where the women are at, or why they, uh, began eating people in the first place. For once I wanted a little more exposition, or at least some dire warnings from townspeople that the hippies ignore. The brutality of the film is intense and effective, yes, but the deaths needed more build-up and, preferably, less screaming.
Yet I cannot discard The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s an admirable work of horror and incredibly influential. Hooper’s undoubted talent as a director elevates it from pure schlock – it’s exploitative on many levels, but it’s also so artistically shot and constructed that it’s impossible to dismiss. Did I like it? No, not really. But I don’t think I’m really supposed to. I certainly don’t ever want to eat sausages again.