The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

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“Two siblings visit their grandfather’s grave in Texas along with three of their friends and are attacked by a family of cannibalistic psychopaths.” — IMDb

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre — somehow only Tobe Hooper’s second feature film ever — is as notorious as it is brilliant. It has been highly influential on a number of other filmmakers — Wes Craven counts it as one of his five favorite movies, Ridley Scott called it one of “only a few really, really great [movies]”, Rob Zombie has sung its praises many times. There’s really no other way to say it — it’s legendary, and for good reason.

It’s just one of those movies that could never be truly duplicated — it’s a stunning combination of the talent and inspiration of Hooper, the setting, the 1970s aesthetic and film quality, and, in many ways, the circumstances, more bad than good. The film was shot with a budget of around $300,000, which led to gruelingly long days shooting in Texas’s summer heat in order to keep equipment rental costs down. The iconic dinner table scene, for example, was shot in a marathon 26-hour session, which led to the actors truly — physically and mentally — being on the verge of breaking down.

The plot is surprisingly simple. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) is traveling with her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), and three friends, Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn), to visit the gravesite of her grandfather to make sure it hasn’t been defaced in a recent spate of grave robbings. They decide to also visit the old Hardesty homestead and, while exploring nearby, wind up running into Leatherface and his cannibalistic family…

** SPOILERS! **

There really aren’t enough good things to say about this movie — it’s just such a goddamn treat when all of the horror movie stars align to produce a film of this caliber.

It’s as politically and socially relevant now as it was in the 70s. Hooper talks about being influenced by how he felt about the world around him, as any director is — it was made in the wake of the Vietnam War, amid the investigation surrounding the Kent State shooting, at the height of the Watergate scandal. The opening text claiming that it was based on a true story (it wasn’t) wasn’t just done as a marketing ploy (though it worked, and continues to be one reason why it is still so hotly talked about even today) — Hooper thought of it as a response to “being lied to by the government”. The few times you hear the news on the radio, it is just tragedy after tragedy: grave robbings, buildings collapsing, cholera outbreaks, suicide, murder. While this wasn’t quite the case back then, it rings eerily true now.

The raw, gritty style of the film really makes you believe at times that you’re watching IS real. It’s visceral. It’s unpolished in the best way. You can feel the searing heat, the sharp twigs scratching your face as you run, gasping, through the woods, the chicken feathers brushing against your skin as you lay, horrified and confused, in a room full of animal flesh and dry bones. It’s part of the horror of the entire experience — it doesn’t feel like a movie at all.

Leatherface is absolutely terrifying, if for no better reason than he is not some kind of supernatural beast — he’s a man. He’s strong and powerful and capable of chasing you endlessly while squealing like a stuck pig and wielding a heavy power tool… but he’s human. He seemingly has a mask (made of other humans’ skin, no less) for every emotion and occasion (he wears three throughout the film), but under it all he’s no different than his victims except for his willingness to kill.

It’s filthy and gruesome but, surprisingly, there’s a shocking lack of gore. The real fear comes from what is implied, and from the relentless mental torture. This was done intentionally by Hooper, and not for the reasons you might think — he kept the amount of blood down in hopes of getting a PG rating so it could reach a wider audience. But it’s one of the reasons this movie stands out so much in my mind — it scares the hell out of you on a much deeper, much less knee-jerk level. I mean, I first saw this movie when I was maybe 14 and to this day I can’t hear a chainsaw buzzing at night without a chill going up my spine.

On top of that, it has some incredibly well thought out and downright beautiful shots. The colors and contrast are vibrant. The cinematography is powerful. The shot of the open gas station door while Sally waits; Leatherface dancing, almost childlike, in the golden light of the setting sun after Sally escapes; the camera panning low while the house, stark against a stunning blue sky, looms over Pam; Leatherface’s first kill, punctuated by the slamming of the sliding metal door; the van initially pulling up to the derelict homestead; even the closeup shots of Sally’s bloodshot eyes as she desperately scans the room during the infamous dinner scene, unable to believe what she’s seeing. All fantastic.

Speaking of the dinner scene, the whole thing is just unreal. Again, there’s no need for blood or gore — the psychological torment is palpable, both between the brothers’ own family drama and their utter disregard for Sally’s life (not to mention Grandpa, for which there is no explanation whatsoever). I can’t think of another actress who has so convincingly and chillingly screamed in terror, and you get the sense that every single person at that table is going insane, both in the film and in real life. It is madness.

Oh, and a special shoutout for the music, which manages to be disturbing in a way that gets under your skin thanks to an almost industrial sounding, discordant array of clanging and chiming. It’s perfect.

Seriously, one of the best horror films ever made, no question about it.

Rating: 9/10 | Director: Tobe Hooper | Writer: Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel | Music: Tobe Hooper, Wayne Bell | Cinematography: Daniel Pearl | Starring: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, John Dugan

 

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