A text-crawl and voice-over narrator informs us that the story we’re about to see is true. As we stare at the black screen, the high-pitched, eerie whine of a camera flashbulb, followed by a split-second flash of light, illuminates extreme close-ups of what appear to be rotted body parts. We can hear muffled talking but there’s no way to pinpoint what’s going. As we gradually come to make sense of an overheard radio broadcast that mentions grave-robbing, the image fades into a shot of a recently disinterred body, posed jovially on a tombstone like a Halloween decoration ready to greet trick or treaters. We then smash cut into the opening credits sequence which consists of blown-out, blood-red images of body parts and out-of-focus solar flares, as crashing cymbals and insane percussive elements provide the score. Welcome to a perfect vision of Hell: writer/director Tobe Hooper’s landmark feature debut, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
40 years to the day that it was first unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences, TCM has lost absolutely none of its horrific, spellbinding power. Although filmmaking technology has grown by leaps and bounds in the four decades since its creation, modern films would be hard-pressed to approximate even one-tenth of the raw, visceral, feral power that this ultimate “meat” movie still possesses. Hooper’s TCM is a film that would not only come to define and revolutionize its era but would leave a lasting mark on the entirety of the cinematic horror genre. Like Romero’s legendary Night of the Living Dead (1968) would do six years before, TCM took traditional notions of fright cinema into the woods and shot them in the head, leaving the bodies to be reclaimed by the soil. It’s no hyperbole to say that traces and threads of Hooper’s modest little cannibal film can be found running through nearly all of the horror films that followed it, in one way or the other: if nothing else, any horror film that came after was constantly trying to one-up and out-do the sheer intensity of TCM, whether through a heightened reliance on gore effects or by trying to imitate the relentless drive of the film. Despite its endless army of imitators, however, one thing remains abundantly clear: there is no other film quite like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
By this point in time, the basic plot of the film should be just about as familiar as a Grimm fairy tale: five friends, led by Sally Hardesty (the recently deceased Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), head to their grandfather’s old homestead, deep in the isolated heart of rural Texas. Their grandfather was buried in the defiled cemetery that we’re introduced to in the opening and Sally and Franklin want to make sure his body is still lying where it’s supposed to be. Along the way, the happy group stops to pick up a strange hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), a cackling, bat-shit crazy piece-of-work who manages to cut both himself and Franklin before getting bodily ejected from the van. The group are shaken but determined to laugh it off: after all, Saturn is in retrograde and this is just the kind of crazy shit you expect to happen.
After stopping to get directions from an odd but friendly gas station owner (Jim Siedow) who sees them off with the classic horror movie warning to be careful since “old houses are dangerous and you might get hurt,” the group heads over to the dilapidated farmhouse. As Franklin, Sally and her boyfriend, Jerry (Allen Danziger) poke around the old place, Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail) head out to find the local swimming hole. Turns out that the swimming hole is all dried up but the couple hear the sounds of a gas-powered generator and see a windmill poking above the nearby trees: a quick peek reveals another farmhouse, albeit in a seemingly worse state of repair than the old Hardesty place. After curiosity gets the best of them, Pam and Kirk decide to do a little trespassing and check out the hidden homestead. They need gas for the van, after all, and there’s obviously someone living there since the generator is running. As Pam pokes around outside, Kirk lets himself into the dark, stuffy farmhouse, slowly roaming down the long, central hallway. As he looks around, Kirk steps straight from reality into a living nightmare…and horror movie history.
While the set-up for TCM is pure simplicity, the film is such a powerhouse because there’s so much stuff happening in the margins and within the shadows, little elements that not only enrich the overall viewing experience but help to establish the film as something much more than a low-budget attempt to break into the splatter market. In a nutshell, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is about a world gone mad, a world in which a hundred little oddities add up to a pretty terrifying picture. The Sawyer family may be the easiest example of this but Sally and her friends don’t seem to meet many “normal” folks during their fateful trip: the rednecks at the graveyard are leering and vaguely threatening, the drunk speaks a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo and the cook’s gas station attendant doesn’t appear to be playing with a full deck. Solar flares…Watergate…grave robbing…genuinely bizarre people…this is certainly not the promised utopia of the ’60s but more akin to time-lapse photography of rotting meat: the promise of blissful unity decomposing into violence, hate and indifference.
While rewatching TCM for what must be at least the 100th time, I challenged myself to imagine what it would be like to see this film all the way back in 1974, perhaps at some out-of-the-way drive-in theater or a grindhouse in Times Square. It’s not easy to forget 40 years of genre static and unnecessary fluff but the reward ended up being particularly rewarding: when I tried to view the film in as cold and clinical a light as possible (attempting to gloss over the fact that I’ve loved it unconditionally for the entirety of my adult life), I found that it still retained every measure of its initial power. I knew the story by heart…every jump scare, every shot, every bizarre and wonderful image…but I still found myself on the edge of my seat, feeling nervous and fidgety. The infamous dinner scene is just as awful today as it was back in the ’70s (or the ’80s, when I originally saw the film). The opening is just as striking, the climax just as awe-inspiring. Unlike other beloved films from my childhood, TCM has lost not an inch of its initial power and allure: if anything, my appreciation for the film grows with every screening.
Why does TCM manage to have so much lasting power when other films of the era feel dated or slight? Chalk it up to a perfect storm of filmmaking: Hooper and his inexperienced crew stumbled their way into perfection, using each and every obstacle and problem as a springboard to something truly unique. This, in essence, is the furthest thing from “by-the-book” filmmaking. As was ably detailed in the excellent documentary, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: A Family Portrait (1988), working conditions on the set were less than ideal: the bones and rotting food were all real, leading to on-set odors that would rival abattoirs, particularly in the scorching Texas sun; Gunnar Hansen was kept separated from the rest of the cast, so as to further the isolation of his soon-to-be-iconic Leatherface character; Marilyn Burns was actually psychologically tortured during the dinner setpiece, placing her terrified reactions in a queasy middle-ground between reality and art; the cast wore the same clothes for the entire shoot, lending everything a grimy, dirty feel. Reminding one of the stories from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) shoot, albeit minus the drugged-out insanity, actually filming Hooper’s classic seemed to be as much of a physical struggle as surviving the fictional Sawyers.
As a filmmaker, Hooper constantly surprises and impresses with TCM: the set design of the Sawyer farmhouse, on its own, would be enough to secure the film a place in cinematic history but there’s plenty else to extol. Despite the amateur nature of the cast, none of the acting feels awkward or out-of-place. The three villains (Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen and Jim Siedow) are pitch-perfect and nuanced: they’re obviously a severely deranged group of sickos but they actors never feel the oversell anything, even when the script is at its most teeth-gnashing. Similarly, the five young friends may not be exceptionally developed characters but they manage to avoid the “Nerd/Jock/Stoner/Cheerleader/Good Girl” stereotypes that have plagued “dead teenager” films pretty much from the get-go.
The cinematography is suitably grainy and immediate but there are a surprising number of effective flourishes: a propensity for extreme long shots that helps to make the characters seem tiny against the landscape…twitchy, insane extreme close-ups of Sally’s terrified eyes and that aforementioned opening…the constant smash cuts to the moon and sun (circular imagery is actually pretty prevalent in the film, which also includes plenty of circular flashlight beams, round windows, eyeglasses, etc…). The score (courtesy of Hooper and Wayne Bell) is subtle and unobtrusive but endlessly effective: much of the film takes place with only diegetic sounds and sound effects (crashing cymbals are a popular one) but the creepy score occasionally sneaks in to shake things up. The editing, appropriately frenetic and quick-cut during the action sequences, is still able to allow for more leisurely reveals and creeping atmosphere, when necessary.
As a film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre contains many of my all-time favorite scenes: Leatherface’s first appearance…Pam discovering the bone room…the dinner scene…Sally’s initial escape…Franklin and Sally trudging through the pitch-black woods, with only a meager flashlight for a guide…Grandpa (John Dugan) constantly dropping the mallet and obscenely waggling his arms and legs like a happy infant…the opening…that amazing finale. Truth be told, the conclusion to TCM may just be my favorite ending to any film, ever (with the possible exception of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), depending on my mood): as Sally escapes into the promise of a new day and whatever remains of her shattered life, Leatherface stands in the middle of the road and spins and pirouettes, swinging his snarling chainsaw around in a perfect fit of what very well might be teenage peevishness. It’s horrifying precisely because it hints at the idea that these human monsters might have as much notion of their evil as kids who burn ants with magnifying glasses do.
Unlike modern films which take every possible opportunity to spin out an “origin” story, Hooper is more than happy to just give us the basics: terrible stuff has been happening for a while, the Sawyer family has “always worked in meat” and the modernization of the local slaughterhouse has left the former employees (Grandpa was always the best cattle killer at the place) disenfranchised and dangerously marginalized. If all you want is a high-octane film about a murderous, cannibal clan, look no further. If you want a sly commentary on how the inevitable march of progress chews us all up and spits us out, look no further: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre delivers on any level.
I’ve seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre enough, at this point, to know that my love for the film is genuine: as I said earlier, I love it more each year, not less. As someone who watches between 300 (in a bad year) and 700 (in a good year) movies a year, there have been plenty of opportunities for films to vault over TCM. I won’t lie: each year, I invariably see a batch of new films that have “classic” written all over them and several of them have become new “go-tos” for me. In the 20+ years since I first saw the movie, however, I don’t think there’s ever been a horror film that has affected me quite as much as this did. It seems rather impossible to call any film “perfect” but Hooper’s classic is as close to perfect as they come, imperfections included.
While I’ve actually really enjoyed Hooper’s post-TCM career (if nothing else, you really have to admire the breadth of his catalog), nothing, with the possible exception of the much maligned sequel or his sophomore film, Eaten Alive (1977), have approached this magnum opus. While I tend to detest remakes, on principle, I really protested the 2003 remake of TCM for one very simple reason: the film was perfect as it was. With the possible exception of ramping up the gore (despite its reputation, Hooper’s TCM is almost completely bloodless, save for a few choice shots) and introducing “hot young actors,” a remake seemed a complete exercise in futility. After all, how could a sterile money-grab ever compete with the legitimate insanity of the original film? The answer: it can’t.
40 years after its release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre still stands as a legendary piece of cinematic history. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that 40 years from now, discerning audiences will still find something to appreciate about the film. I’m assuming that all horror fans have already seen the film but, if you haven’t, there are simply no excuses: this should be as much a part of any cinephile’s DNA as any of the classics, genre or otherwise. In a time when CGI rules the horror roost and films are so self-aware as to be numbing, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that rarest of things: a breath of fresh air. This is a film with a soul and a beating, blood-red heart, crafted by a cast and crew that could have had no idea that their humble little project would be immortal. I’ve loved The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from the first time I saw it: come talk to me on my death-bed and I’m pretty sure I’ll tell you the same thing.