The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

In the summer of 1973 a young film maker took his crew and a group of actors to an old farm house in rural Texas to make a PG-rated horror film.  Despite the lack of sex, blood and general profanity, the movie would become infamous as one of the most frightening movies of all time, banned in numerous countries and spoken of in hushed whispers in movie theaters and video store aisles everywhere.  This is the true story of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Well, about as true as the movie itself - probably a bit more.  The story of the movie has been told in numerous horror film documentaries and books over the years, as it went from being a gritty thriller denounced as the ultimate in violent trash to a spot on the list of the 100 films to see before you die - and hopefully not at the hands of Leatherface or his kin.  The strange thing was that it was supposed to be PG, and in all honesty the lack of much blood or full-on shots of death or dismemberment in this movie is pretty tame for PG in the 1970s, where full-frontal nudity would sometimes pop up.  It was a tribute to how well Tobe Hooper could produce a feeling of dread that such a film could stand the test of time and influence so many others down the line. 

After graves are found desecrated in a rural cemetery Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) join her boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger) and another couple, Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) to make sure their great grandfather's grave hasn't been disturbed.  They decide to make a visit to the old family home as well before heading back, and pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) that they quickly abandon once he proves a bit unhinged.  Reaching the home with little gas, Kirk and Pam head over to another house to see if they can borrow some.  Unfortunately, they are greeted by Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), one of a clan of brothers living off the grid who use passersby for decoration and meals.  

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre looks hot and uncomfortable from the beginning, with the credits superimposed against stock footage of sun flares.  Depending on what part of the country one is from it is easy to imagine being cooped up in August on a long road trip in a van without air conditioning.  From the beginning Hooper also has viewers on edge, with the group of supposed friends barely getting along. One wants to sympathize with how Franklin is treated, especially since he seems left behind often by the others, but his behavior also makes him unbearable.  When I first saw the film a good portion of what happened before they found the house was grating because of Franklin, but now I admire how great Paul Partain was, especially when Franklin and Sally have an argument while wondering where everyone else went.  He portrays a person who has been isolated most of his life out of no fault of his own, and his inability to connect is just one more obstacle in his life.

He is not the only one who brings a great performance to a movie where it wouldn't be expected.  Gunnar Hansen, though he portrays one of the most iconic killers in cinema history, also wanted to make sure the mentally challenged Leatherface was played sympathetically.  Jim Siedow, who plays the old man who tries to be the public face of the family and keep everyone in line, often goes from being a kindly grandfather type to a raving maniac in the same scene.  Marilyn Burns, this movie's final girl, portrays Sally as someone stripped down to just her instinct to live. 

From all accounts no one had a good time making this.  Hooper ended up being hated by Edwin Neal, and the temperature in the house they filmed the dinner scene in was topping 120 degrees.  Mixed with Hooper's penchant for using real bones and carcasses, it was an unbearable miasma of rotting carcasses, rancid food and body odor.  Marilyn Burns got hurt numerous times doing stunts or running through think stands of trees.  Part of the problem was Hooper's lack of experience when making this film.  He really only had one feature film behind to his name previous to this.  Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl both seem to be making it up as they go along, but they manage some wonderfully artful shots - the last scene of Leatherface that closes out the movie being among them - that bely a knack for capturing an image.  What I think audiences most connected with is that it seems like the Texas summer heat was literally burned into the film stock, as was the creeping insanity of the actors.  The anger and friction come through, imbuing the movie with a sense of fear and hatred that becomes palpable.  

Because of this The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with its human and animal bones adorning furniture and the age-old fear of cannibals living on the fringes of society, has a reputation for violence greater than what is ever shown.  Almost everything is implied, including what should be the most gruesome deaths.  Despite this, watching the film makes me feel the same way I do after spending five or six hours on the road in the middle of the Arizona summer taking photographs.  By the end I'm in need of a shower, but so exhausted from the trip and the heat that I just want to pass out on the first soft surface I find as long as there is air conditioning blowing on me.  It is one of my favorite horror films, and I have seen in numerous times.  Still, it leaves me drained after watching.  I can just imagine how non-horror fans, particularly critics and censors, felt having to sit through this at the time. 

It is also something that Tobe Hooper never recaptured.  He was able to use the fact that he didn't have to make things bloody to make the television version of Salem's Lot a lot scarier than would be expected, and Lifeforce will always remain one of my favorite science fiction films.  Still, even the sequel to this was more of a funhouse ride, with the humor amped up and Leatherface more of a killer in the mode of Jason Voorhees.  There have been sequels and remakes, as well as many ripoffs, and some have been enjoyable.  None of them ever manage to capture what the original did, and most likely never will.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Time: 83 minutes
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Gunnar Hansen, Jim Siedow, Edwin Neal, John Dugan
Director: Tobe Hooper



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