THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)
There’s a fine line between watching a movie for entertainment and watching a movie for the experience of seeing it. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) lands squarely in the latter category, a movie that uses everything at its disposal to ensure that by the time the final credits roll the viewer is nothing short of an emotional wreck.
Texas Chain Saw (its title spelt deliberately wrong in the opening credit title card) is not a film to curl up on your sofa with on a Saturday night with your girlfriend or boyfriend by your side. This is a film that will challenge you, instilling a sense of accomplishment from having sat through it. The film’s prologue provides adequate warning, an introduction narrated in foreboding tones by John Laroquette, telling the viewer that this is a movie based on the events which ‘befell a group of youths’ during a drive in Texas. It states that the events became ‘one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history’, although the truth is less ostentatious.
Director Tobe Hooper first got the idea for his film when he was stuck in a busy hardware shop one day and needed a way to get through the crowds. He then spotted the chainsaws on the shelf and imagined what it would be like if their motorised teeth met human flesh. True or not, the opening spiel leaves the casual viewer with a splinter of doubt as to whether what they are about to see actually happened. For good measure we’re told ‘…they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day’, a warning that rings just as true for the viewer as the cast.
From this ominous preface onwards the story pulls no punches. To inform the audience that a cemetery in rural Texas has been the site of a number of grave robbings Hooper couples a stark shot of two rotting corpses with some throw-away radio commentary. We then meet the film’s van full of chainsaw fodder, travelling to the same graveyard to check on the resting place of Sally’s grandfather. Even at this early juncture the local surroundings and inhabitants seem out of kilter. Visual clues unnerve; the slaughter house complete with cows wandering to their death, the opening shot of the dead Armadillo, the bodies in the dry Texas cemetery.
Cue a lone hitchhiker, a fateful trip to the local garage, and an ill advised exploration of a local farm house. When Pam and Kirk dig around this quiet homestead the nightmare gets underway proper, kicked off by an unceremonious sledgehammer to the head as Leatherface makes his explosive entry in to horror cinema. The film then careens along at a hectic pace, never letting the audience up for air until lone survivor Sally is sped away on the back of a passing truck, laughing and crying hysterically.
Those that have yet to subject themselves to Texas Chain Saw may be expecting a limb-chopping bloodbath. The fact that the film was banned for twenty five years pushed its reputation as a gore-fest sky high, but the truth is there isn’t a great deal of blood spilled in the movie. The violence is suggested for the most part. Only four people are actually killed during the course of the story, and only one of them is disposed of via chainsaw, the wheelchair bound Franklin. Kirk’s demise is shot from a particularly distant camera angle and the coming together of Jerry’s head and Leatherface’s sledgehammer falls out of shot.
The most graphic scene sees Pam hung up on a meat hook to watch Leatherface slice up the body of Kirk. However, we only see this in carefully manoeuvred camera shots, first seeing the shiny meat hook, then Pam’s agonised expression as she is lifted and speared onto the spike. There are many suggestive hints at the butchery that is to follow, the bucket placed beneath Pam’s legs to collect all manner of bodily fluids, the stale blood stains on the walls, and the various instruments of dissection around the room. Leatherface’s work on Kirk is also out of shot.
This being the case, it’s easy to question what all the fuss was over Hooper’s film. As censors remarked at the time, it’s not one particular moment, or even a collection of happenings, that elevate this film to the realm of utterly horrifying. Instead the film has a complete and overall atmosphere of psychological terror.
Hooper took the approach that every component of the film should be used to pile up the misery on the audience. The soundtrack is one of the most disturbing in cinema history, consisting of a series of nerve jangling crashes, screeches, and sounds for which words have yet to be invented. It really does defy description, but is the perfect accompaniment for the raw visuals. Stylistically, the film uses a palette of sickly yellows and earthy browns, presented on grainy film stock complete with flicks and scratches. The arid conditions of the Texas countryside were the perfect sweaty backdrop, and the only ‘relief’ from the dry heat during the whole film remains the blood of those who don’t make it to the end. The scenes shot during the day exude an orange glow, dusty, dirty, and devoid of all Hollywood sheen. The scenes shot at night provide no cool relief and no dulling of rusty edges.
The set design, and the Sawyer house in particular, is a masterstroke. The property appears aged and serene from the outside, with white picket fence, peeling paint and bench swing. All that is missing is an apple pie cooling on the window sill. But the inside is a total contrast, displaying as much twisted horror as the walls and floors will allow. Taking cues from real life serial killer Ed Gein, art director Robert Burns worked wonders transforming an actual working home into a vision of the disturbed. Bringing new meaning to the word ‘armchair’, Burns constructed all manner of furniture from bones he obtained from local farmers who did not want to pay the costs of disposing of their dead farm animals.
As a backdrop for the film’s hellish final third, it made for the perfect setting. As Sally remains as the film’s ‘Final Girl’ we have to endure a prolonged and bizarre period of torture before, what we assume, will be her grisly death and eventual serving as food for the Sawyer family. Despite the potential for a gore soaked finale, the torture remains purely psychological, though in many ways this is worse. Marilyn Burns almost gives over her soul to the part, creating the most harrowed female ever seen in cinema.
It makes for difficult viewing, the nadir arriving when Leatherface produces what appears to be an emaciated corpse in a wheelchair, only for it to be revealed as the barely alive body of ‘Grampa’; the family egging him on as he struggles to hold the small hammer which will seal Sally’s fate is excruciating to watch, the hammer merely falling on to Sally’s skull and in to the rusted metal bucket that’s been placed to collect her blood. Sally’s death is such a foregone conclusion to the Sawyers they resort to poking fun and taunting her as she nears a complete mental breakdown, with only the tiniest slither of will-to-escape left.
The film itself was shot under hellish conditions and the cast and crews suffering made its way into the final product. Filmed chronologically, by the time Leatherface is swinging his growling chainsaw in the films last shot most of the actors were just as traumatised as the characters they portrayed, if not worse. Temperatures at the time were in the high nineties, which made for an uncomfortable atmosphere from the outset. With a budget of only $125,000 filming days lasted many hours.
By far the worst scene to shoot was the dining room table torture scene. Due to fact that John Siedow, who played the father figure of the family, was out of contract the following day, and John Dugan, who played ‘Grampa’ refused to sit through make-up more than once, the whole scene had to be shot in one long stretch. Estimates for this ‘day’ of shooting range from twenty-seven to thirty-six hours straight. The dining room was blacked out so that no natural light filtered through, and the room itself was strewn with various animal carcasses. Coupled with the bone furniture and dead chicken table centre-piece the mood in the room was far from pleasant.
The hot lights soon cooked the dead meat to the point where many of the cast were stepping off set to vomit. A skull table lamp caught fire adding to the aroma in the room, and poor Gunnar Hansen in the role of Leatherface was still decked in the costume he had been given on day one of filming. The budget being so tight, and worried that washing the outfit would ruin it, Hooper insisted that Hansen wear the same clothes unwashed for the month long shoot. Hansen himself admitted that his odour was far from pleasant and by the end of filming ‘no one wanted to hang with me much’.
Further anguish fed the filming. Marilyn Burns in the role of Sally received a number of cuts whilst running for her life through the Texas brush, to the point where a certain amount of the blood on her shirt at the end was her own. Allen Danziger caught a hammer in the head while filming Jerry’s demise. Most tellingly Edwin Neal (the ‘hitchhiker’) commented on the dining room experience ‘Filming that scene was the worst time of my life, and I’d been in Vietnam with people trying to kill me’. It’s little wonder that the film reeks of misery and suffering when the cast and crew went through such torment. To make matters worse, due to dubious contractual wrangling between the production companies, they received a criminally low cut of the profit the film garnered.
Despite having an immediate impact on both the box office and critics, who either loved or loathed the film, it took some time before a sequel was green-lit. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986) arrived at the tail end of the golden age of the slasher movie in the mid eighties. Tobe Hooper got back into the director’s chair to create another gruelling horror experience, but this time around an inflated budget meant the harsh grubbiness that pervaded the original was replaced with glossy gore and Dennis Hopper. Hooper’s original film featured just a tiny element of black humour, for those twisted enough to dig for it, but Part 2 upped the dark comedy level alongside the gore, making the sequel an odd accompaniment to the testing first film. Despite high anticipation for the film in the horror fraternity, the film was a box office and critical failure.
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) was released four years later and was an uninspired sequel that no one was particularly clamouring for. Hooper had vacated the director’s chair by this point, replaced by Jeff Buhr. Not even actors Ken Foree and Viggo Mortensen could wrangle the script in to anything worth watching and the film fared even worse than Part 2 with paying customers and film reviewers. The failure didn’t prevent Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994) being made, with co-writer of the original film Kim Henkel making his directorial debut. Retrospectively, the films only saving grace is that it features a young Matthew McConaughey and an even younger Renee Zellwegger. But being unknowns at the time, the two future stars couldn’t offer anything to save another run-of-the-mill chainsaw horror film, which was again too far removed from what Hooper achieved with his remarkable picture.
The Chainsaw franchise was left alone until the early noughties when the then Hollywood penchant for remaking classic horror films looked Leatherface’s way. Despite low expectations fans were thrilled when an entry in the franchise worthy of a watch was made by director Marcus Nispel. Though somewhat formulaic plot wise, and much more polished that Hooper’s original, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) was a solid scary movie with some excellent set pieces, including one standout featuring R. Lee Ermey and a van full of petrified teens. Alas, the franchise took another step backwards again in 2006 with the Jonathon Liebesman directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006), a prequel explaining the origins of Leatherface’s cannibal family. The gore factor was upped at the expense of the scare factor, the cast of heroes and heroines weren’t particularly likeable, and the plot moved from predictable point to predictable point.
In 2013 John Luessenhop directed Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013), which despite its gimmicky title tried to present a serious story that followed on directly from Hooper’s 1974 original. Despite a strong cast featuring Alexandra Daddario, Scott Eastwood, and a returning Bill Moseley, Marilyn Burns, John Dugan, and Gunnar Hansen the film was a failure thanks to a plot with too many holes and a reliance on the well-worn tropes that have dogged the franchise since the sequels started in 1986. In 2017 Leatherface (2017) was released simultaneously in cinemas and on video-on-demand. Reviews were mixed, some praising the performances of Stephen Dorff and Lili Taylor, as well as a push to move away from overt gore and returning to a more story driven plot, while others felt that the origin story was needless and added little if anything to Hooper’s original.
Back in 1975, despite making waves on American cinema screens, the BBFC did not allow the film to be released in British cinemas. James Ferman, in his first year as Head of the BBFC, stated that he couldn’t find one single scene that he wanted cut from the film, but felt that the movie was so disturbing as a whole the entire film had to be banned outright. The film had a short release on video in the early eighties, before the BBFC were tasked with certifying home video releases as well. Hooper’s film was banned again, the veto not being lifted until 1999.
In retrospect no higher praise can be put forward for a horror film than Ferman’s appraisal that the entirety of Texas Chain Saw was so worrisome as a whole that no viewer should be allowed to see it. Often times, the banning and inadvertent lauding of a horror film by certifiers gives movies a reputation that it can’t hope to live up to. Hooper’s film is a rare example of a fright film that not only matches its reputation, but exceeds it. It is a horror experience in the true sense of the word, one that oozes suffering, fear, and the bizarre from every second of its run time.
In terms of what is required from the viewer, Texas Chain Saw may well be a stretch too far for casual cinema goers. The film certainly requires the audience to be more open minded in terms of what they are going to extract from the film. Those who enjoy a film that challenges their personal limits will find no greater horror experience than Hooper’s film. And it’s an experience that the viewer will find in taking the movie on, not entertainment or fun, but a true horror experience in every sense of the word.
See also The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986), Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), The Return Of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre aka Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006), Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013), Leatherface (2017)