THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
(Directed by Tobe Hooper)
(Written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper)
(Starring Jim Siedow, Marilyn Burns and Allen Danziger)
Plot: A group of road tripping teenagers stumble upon the most deranged family in Texas, who have this nasty tendency to murder and partake in cannibalism.
Sometime during the mid-late 90’s, I had my first experience with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Even at such a young and tender age (I would’ve been somewhere between 10-13 years old), I had quite the blood-soaked tooth. I adored slashers, both the good (“Friday the 13th”) and the bad (“Friday the 13th Part 5”), because I judged a movie based on how gallons of gore it contained instead of actual quality. It was with eager anticipation that I finally was going to view one of the most iconic slashers of all time, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, which made the following hatred I felt for the film that much more powerful. I expected one of the goriest movies ever made, but the little bastard kept cutting away when it got to the good stuff. The bloodiest part was a non-fatal razor wound! I gave the middle finger to the franchise and went back to partying with Jason and Freddy. I even probably did the Freddy rap. But when 2003 came around, I saw the trailer for the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake and was mesmerized by how cool it looked. I sincerely believe that has to be one of the best trailers of all time. I decided to revisit the franchise and shockingly, I found myself now embracing the original. As a young adult, my tastes had refined to where I can appreciate finer films, such as “Bride of Frankenstein”, “The Exorcist” and “Dead Sushi”- because fire breathing, killer zombie sushi is the highest form of art. But the point is, “Terror Toons” had proven to me that gore does not always equal good, so I had to evolve. I ended up developing a taste for atmosphere and slow burn suspense, stuff which bored me in the past, but would only enthrall me in the future. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” does have its share of flaws, but it also has to be one of the most unsettling and brutal exploitation films I have ever seen, which is quite the accomplishment for a film that contains little on-screen bloodshed.
The movie opens with a shot of a visibly rotting corpse and this one scene more or less represents “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” itself. Instead of having the appearance of a traditional zombie or skeleton, it has enough meat on it to upset your stomach- while not enough to make the corpses original appearance discernible. It’s a very disgusting looking prop, but what overshadows it is the feeling of atmosphere that washes over the viewer. You can practically feel the heat beating down on the body, the dust blowing over it and I felt like I could even smell the decaying flesh. The news clip which plays over this visual, mixed in with the ominous cymbal tapping, creates a heavy feeling of dread. Yet one cannot deny how dementedly gorgeous the cinematography is as the camera slowly pulls back, revealing that the corpse has been positioned in a way that suggests the grave robber is a bit of an artist. The tomb stones in the background were a nice touch too. I believe the voice over refers to it as a ‘morbid display of art’ and that is the perfect description for the introductory visual. The opening shot alone causes me to shiver and I am left baffled as to how I didn’t love this movie as a kid. God, I was an idiot at that age…Maybe I should place the word ‘bigger’ somewhere in that sentence…
Now take everything I said in the above paragraph and apply that to the rest of the movie. If anything, those feelings and observations were magnified during the finale, where the infamous dinner sequence takes place. Except then, everyone’s insane mannerisms mixed in with quick cuts and close ups causes an intense feeling of madness to unfold onscreen. Much like how its heroine is freaking the fuck out, I started panicking along with her and praying she’d get out of their soon. Even though they weren’t confined in any tight spaces, my claustrophobia really started to kick in. This was Tobe Hooper’s big directorial debut and he would subsequently become known as the most disappointing horror director of all time. He was very talented, but it seemed like he was more comfortable than directing parts within a whole instead of the actual whole film (example, “Lifeforce“). But here, everything just seems to click. His use of shadows, creepy imagery and even the actors facial expressions work together to create a wonderful horror flick. Hell, even the strange performances by bit actors somehow adds to the atmosphere. His direction is deceptively minimalist, but the impact each scene leaves is long lasting. This also contains some of my favorite jump scares, as whenever Leatherface strikes during the first half, I’d violently flinch. The simple score works perfectly within the context of the events. It wouldn’t make for a great CD soundtrack, but it meshes with the visuals seamlessly, while also burying itself under the viewers skin. Paraphrasing the review from “Arrow in the Head”, the colorful hippies make a nice contrast with the grim landscapes. For a low budgeted movie, the cinematographer sure was able to accomplish a lot in what had to be a short amount of time. Sure, the flick is rough around the edges on a technical level, but that works brilliantly with the rawness of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.
The story is rather typical for this kind of film, although there is a lot more to it than I remembered. I suppose I could criticize how contrived the whole scenario is. Bunch of kids go to see if the grave of their Grandpa has been looted and somehow run into the guy doing the looting, his chainsaw wielding brother (who lives nearby the house they’re visiting) AND their Father at three different intervals? What a coincidence! Characters also have the tendency to do stupid things in order to get themselves killed, which is lazy regardless of how one attempts to justify it. I’m a common slasher flaw though, so it doesn’t bother me that much. I will criticize the protagonists though. While the acting is strong, especially from Marilyn Burns, which helps deliver the films brand of fear (you feel what they do). The characters themselves are mostly interchangeable and unlikable. The only one who stands out is Franklin and that’s only because he’s obnoxious. Still, I guess there’s a realism about them that made me feel bad whenever they’d die. The villains, however, were wonderfully realized. The leader likes to cook human flesh, claims he hates killing but cackles like a mad man whenever someone is being brutalized. The hitchhiker is batshit insane, robs graves, loves photography and has a few sweet moments mixed in with disturbingly psychotic episodes. There’s an old dude who can barely function, but likes sucking blood. Then we have Leatherface, the icon of the franchise, who isn’t just a monstrous, chainsaw wielding murderer. He’s also a mentally challenged drag queen whose moans are just as funny as they are scary. Leatherface might be the most interesting and colorful slasher villain ever, although the sequels would ruin his characterization. Ugh, I can’t believe that the guy who relished in murdering innocent teenagers would become a good guy in “Texas Chainsaw 3D“- which uses clips from the original. God that movie sucked, but its treatment of Leatherface made it worse.
I will say that even though the editing is usually great, a handful of scenes felt padded. This is a very short movie, so at times they would have to stretch out a shot or an event so it could have a normal running-time. Occasionally I did get impatient and for some reason, the scene where Leatherface is licking his lips bugged me due to the above observation. But it’s a minor issue, one that I only point out because I have to at least pretend like I am a real fake critic. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a low budgeted flick that probably works because it was low budgeted. There is a crudeness to it that just fits. Compare that to the 2003 remake of the same name, which was all clean, polished, and dull (in comparison). This is a movie that proves you don’t need explicit gore to be disturbingly violent. It is a film that makes you want to take a bath after viewing it, because you feel like you’ve just been rolling around in a murky slaughterhouse- yet in a good way. But if you just want nonstop gore, maybe you’re not ready for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre“. If you have not viewed this cult classic and think you might want to give it a look, please keep this in mind. It’s reputation as a gore film has been grotesquely blown out of proportion. Unfortunately, director Tobe Hooper was never able to achieve the same level of success. Nor was the series ever as successful as other horror franchises. I’m pretty sure this is the only horror franchise that has more reboots than it does sequels. In fact, with the exception of two entries (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning“), even the sequels like to pretend they only follow the original. But even if they showcase clips of the original (“Texas Chainsaw 3D”), they don’t even come close to comparing. On a final note, there are some black comedy elements too. Was it just me or does it look like Franklin is eating a cooked penis? When you think of where he got that ‘sausage’, it becomes a distinct possibility…
Violence: Rated R. It’s violent, but the violence is more psychological than anything.
Overall: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is very disturbing, but it’s important to remember that this is not especially gory.