Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a horror film released in 1974 that was directed and co-written by Tobe Hooper. The film is presented as a true story, depicting a group of five youths in rural Texas who stumble across a murderous family of cannibals. The film stars Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow and Gunnar Hansen. Despite the low budget and cast of relative unknowns at the time, Hooper resorted to shooting many hours in uncomfortable conditions which resulted in a high level of tension on set. The film proved hugely controversial upon release with many audiences unable to see the film due to it being banned in many countries. Nevertheless, the film was popular with audiences and earned a massively profitable $30.9 million in the US alone, but critics were more divided at the time. Today, the film is now regarded as one of the best pure horror films ever made and it went on to create a franchise of sequels, spin-off and prequels. It is not to be confused with the 2003 remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Marcus Nispel.
What's It About?
In the sweltering heat of rural Texas in 1973, Sally Hardesty and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin are travelling with their three friends Kirk, Jerry and Pam in their van. They are concerned that due to a spate of disturbing grave robberies in their area, their relative's remains may have been taken. Having checked everything to make sure things are OK, they then travel towards an old farmstead that used to belong to the Hardesty family. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker who quickly disturbs the group with his behaviour. After cutting his hand with Franklin's pocket knife, burning a photo he took and then slashing Franklin's arm with a razor, the group kick him out of their van before speeding on their way.
Discovering that the nearest gas station has no fuel, they then decide to turn back but the owner of the gas station, upon learning that they are heading to the Hardesty farmstead, warns them not to wander onto someone else's property. Nevertheless, the group arrive at the farmstead to find it abandoned and in a sorry state of decay. With Franklin still freaked out by the hitchhiker, Kirk and Pam decide to walk to a nearby swimming pool to cool off but find another property powered by a diesel generator. Deciding to ask for some spare gas, Kirk wanders to the neighbouring house unaware that he is about to stumble into a nightmarish and unfathomable world...
Trailer (remastered version)
What's to Like?
When a film becomes as cherished and as revered a horror film as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre then you know it's for a good reason. On the face of it, it doesn't sound too revolutionary - it ticks too many clichés such as the group of friends picked off one by one by an unstoppable killing machine and it actually features surprisingly little gore on screen. Despite the exploitative title, only one person actually dies as a direct result of a chainsaw. The film's brilliance lays in Hooper's inspired direction that creates an apocalyptic atmosphere from the start and quickly descends into a terrifying and brutal alternative society where we are the interlopers and the murderous cannibals are the norm. Before Leatherface makes his first appearance some forty minutes into the film, the film cleverly uses sound effects and suggestion to put the viewer ill at ease such as the radio news reports and the strange arrangement of corpses defiled at the cemetery.
But from the moment the hulking Leatherface bursts out and makes the first kill, we're thrown head-first into a genuine nightmare. Hansen's performance as the almost mute killer is perfectly pitched, giving him an inscrutable manner beneath the mask that makes any attempt at understanding him impossible. Almost as scary is his family of fellow nut-jobs led by the manic Neal as the clearly deranged hitchhiker and Siedow as the more subtle psychopath leading them. Between the unsettling performances of these actors and the sets filled with furniture made from human skin and bones, the film is legitimately difficult to watch at times and never more so than when Burns' screams fill your ears as her character goes from one horror to the next. As feisty females in horror films go (think Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie in Halloween or the character Nancy Thompson from the Nightmare On Elm Street series), Sally is the most overwhelmed with no means to combat the nightmare she finds herself in and Burns' portrayal is one of the most convincing.
- Hansen was given some freedom to develop the character of Leatherface so he played him as someone suffering from mental illness and who never learned how to speak properly. In fact, the one scene where Hansen felt Leatherface would speak - when he was explaining the state of the door to the Proprietor - Hooper reshot the scene because 'there was too much intelligence in the character'. He also wore special boots to make his 6'4" frame even taller but it did mean he kept bumping into door frames, something not helped by his vision which was partly obscured by his mask.
- The climatic dinner scene was shot in the middle of a summer heatwave and the stench of the rotting food and cast made filming unbearable, made all the worse due to a lack of air conditioning. Many of the cast and crew were physically sick during the shoot while Neal called the experience the worst time of his life, including his time under enemy fire in the Vietnam War. The long filming hours also had an effect on the cast's behaviour - Hansen later admitted that during that scene, there wasn't much in the way of acting.
- The film was eventually distributed by the Bryantson Distributing Company, a short-lived company that was actually a front for Mafia activity for the New York-based Colombo crime family. Among other films the company distributed in the Seventies was the pornographic Deep Throat, trippy sci-fi Dark Star and Sylvester Stallone's movie debut The Party At Kitty And Stud's.
- After being released in cinemas for over a year in London, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) banned the film outright until finally giving it an 18 rating in 1999. The ban also including the word 'chainsaw' in any film's title, meaning any of its imitators were also immediately banned.
What's Not to Like?
I can think of few films that deliver its shocks and scares with as much brutality as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Despite those claiming that the film has a political statement about life in the US at the time, the film's sole purpose is to frighten and haunt its audience and it does so with ruthless efficiency. I'm not a big fan of horror films in general but this low budget, indie effort works so well. It is remarkable that it is as effective as it is without the trapping of many horror films today such as supernatural forces, countless splashing of gore, visual shots of grim injuries and endless jump scares. There are some jumps, of course, but the film works best as a slow-burning descent into utter madness. If modern horror is your thing then you might not fully appreciate this.
But the worst thing about the film is just how uncomfortable you are watching it, which is testament to how well this film works as a horror. It reminded me a lot of George A Romero's Night Of The Living Dead from 1968 which also overcame its budgetary limitations to deliver such a genuinely unnerving horror classic that it established the rules for all zombie films ever since. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has become synonymous with extreme cinematic violence and terror, despite the fact that there is actually little violence shown on screen. Hooper was a maestro at directing horror as he understood that a great film shouldn't be climax after climax after climax but reliant on building tension. It's no wonder that I have such a distain for modern horror films with their endless sequels, lack of imagination and constant references to earlier (and better) films. Compared to this, almost nothing else can compete with this original and shocking horror.
Should I Watch It?
Can you really call yourself a fan of horror films if you haven't seen this by now? Shocking, visceral and unflinching in its aims, this film remains a genuinely scary experience for filmgoers old and new. It creeps under your skin and stays with you long after it ends, playing of our primal fears of the unknown and the unfathomable. It may seem like your standard teen slasher film but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre transcends to become a bloody and unnerving cultural landmark.
Great For: hardcore horror fans, genuine psychopaths, inspiring cosplayers
Not So Great For: the unwitting viewer, the squeamish, my mother
What Else Should I Watch?
In terms of horror films, I can think of few other films that disturbed me as much as this. Perhaps the closest would be Clive Barker's Hellraiser with its characters made of decaying flayed flesh and visions of Hell itself. But a horror film only really works if it manages to nail whatever it is you find scariest - for some of you, having Freddy Kreuger invade your dreams with his Wish-version of Wolverine's claws will be the most frightening thing imaginable. But there are no shortage of horror films that spawned their own franchises from those already discussed to the likes of Friday The 13th, The Evil Dead and more recently Saw.
However, as you may have guessed, Hollywood's horror efforts don't do much for me. No, I prefer my spooks with more of a Japanese twist - for me, their horror films do more to mess with your head than your heart-rate and personally, that works better for me than a film that's essentially a glorified ghost train. The original Ring remains one of the most unnerving films I've ever seen, so much so that I am still too afraid to watch the sequel. Similar scares are available in the underrated Ju On: The Grudge and Dark Water but gore-hounds will be drawn to the more twisted efforts of Takashi Miike such as Audition. It starts off normally enough but runs completely off the rails in its final few moments and left me feeling with the same sensation of rusty nails being dragged down a blackboard and frankly, a little bit sick.
Paul A. Partain
The old man
Kim Henkel & Tobe Hooper
Releae Date (UK)
21st November, 1976
© 2021 Benjamin Cox