The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)recommended viewing

Earns its stripes
★★★★★
Released: 
1974
Director: 
Tobe Hooper
Starring: 
Marylin Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Gunnar Hansen
The Setup: 
Teens take a really ill-advised trip into the country. No, I mean, REALLY Ill-advised.
Discussion: 

I had this sitting around, having bought copy for $5 somewhere along the line, and finally decided to pop it in. The question with a definitive horror classic like this is: Will it hold up? Will it continue to earn its place as a true horror classic? And I'm happy to say that it does that and more.

We open with an crawl, read aloud by a narrator, letting us know that this is a true story that happened to these unfortunate kids in 1973. Actually, this is not a true story, and that part is one way director Hooper is responding to the government's lies around Vietnam. While this is happening we have the sound of digging and are seeing grisly sights in the light of a photographer's flashbulb. We hear radio reports that someone in this rural area has been digging up graves and arranging the corpses into "grisly works of art," one of which we see arranged atop a tombstone against the red light of a setting sun. You'll notice that in this film it's the glaring sunlight that is scary--as shown in the transition to the story proper, in which we see a glowing red sun against a black background. The blue sky slowly fills in, and we join our van of hapless teens.

They are a bunch of victims, Sally, typical 70s teen girl, and Franklin, her brother who is confined to a wheelchair. They stop along the side of the road, arrange a ramp so Franklin can get out, and wheel him away into the brush to pee--where he soon begins rolling uncontrollably down the hill until he is dumped from his chair. Part of this film's delicate tone--which we'll dissect later--is the downright evil humor it gets at the expense of the disabled Franklin. It is played very straight-faced--it's up to YOU to find it funny or get off on it--and it's part of what lets you know that the conventional rules of nice movies are not going to apply.

They stop at the plundered graveyard--the ostensible reason for their trip--to ensure that Sally's relatives' graves have not been disturbed. They move on, traveling through cattle fields, discussing methods of slaughtering cattle, and suddenly the film diverts into cattle on the feedlot and how they are pulled in for slaughter. We also hear about former slaughterhaouse butchers put out of work by modern slaughtering technology.

The teens see a hitchhiker and decide to let him in. He looks strange--a bizarre mark on his face--and seems fascinated with Franklin's pen knife. He takes it, cuts his own hand open, then hands it back. The whole group is shocked and terrified--and here they are, trapped in the van with this guy. I recall this sequence being the most terrifying part of the movie the first time I saw it. The hitchhiker takes out a camera, takes a polaroid of Franklin, then demands money for it. When Franklin won't pay, the guy throws gunpowder on the picture and burns it! He reaches out and cuts Franklin's arm with his own knife. Thoroughly terrified, the teens get him out, where he draws a symbol on their van in his own blood. It's terrifying! And we're only 18 minutes in.

They stop at the local gas station, which will have no gas until that afternoon. They wait around a while--it's hard not to notice the many shots looking up the girl's short shorts--when Franklin mentions that he wants to go find the old house their grandfather used to live in. The proprietor tells them, as discreetly as possible, that they REALLY don't want to go there. But it wouldn't be a horror film if they listened, right?

They find this nasty abandoned house, presented in black interiors and an exterior grown over by nasty dark green foliage. Most of them go explore the house and leave Franklin to wheel about as best he can, which he is pretty pissed about. Okay, let's stop right here and talk about Franklin. He is pretty much the most irritating person on God's green Earth, a whiner and a coward and a passive-aggressive baby, and... what is going on? Obviously there's a sense of evil humor in making the disabled person the one you just want to beat with a baseball bat [a sense of humor which wouldn't become acceptable--if it is--until South Park decades later]. Then there's the horror movie thing of making you really WANT to see these people get killed, which operates in a funny way here, as it's really only Franklin you want to see killed. And simultaneous with all that is the sense that--how do you expect him to be? He's stuck in a wheelchair--odds are not a voluntary position--and he's constantly holding his friends back, which he must be aware of, and also must be aware that they're all tolerating him, and don't really want him around. So is it really surprising that he's such an irritating person? So... that's a lot of complexity for a horror movie character! And a lot of conscious levels to have one's story operate on, with this evil sense of humor, simultaneous shame for mocking the disabled and wanting to see them get it, while also making us empathize with the character and feel for their situation. see if you're going to find this kind of complexity in any of today's horror flicks.

One other thing to take note of is that a great many horror films have long first halves where little to no horror happens--and a great many of them are unable to create characters interesting enough, or find enough for those characters to do to make the film interesting until the bloodletting starts. Not so this one... we discussed Franklin, the whole opening in the van [really fucking scary, although no one was killed], and in here, small but ominous touches like a random tooth and the field of older cars keep things ominous without revealing too much. But the characters all seem very real and, while perhaps not so interesting in themselves, have genuine-seeming interactions and never do anything truly stupid. Compare this to a movie like the recent 70s-horror replica The House of the Devil, which simply couldn't manage to make its first section interesting enough to make getting to the climax worthwhile, or older films like the original Friday the 13th, which had to rely on teen skin and sex to keep people interested. This movie is able to keep you interested and drawn into the story because its characters are compelling and they don't act like idiots.

All along we have found reason to admire the sound design--here we are hearing the girls running and screaming upstairs, which sounds awfully like people being tortured in the distance.

SPOILERS > > >
One young couple wanders off to find gas. They end up finding a field of abandoned cars--we realize its the former victims--and continue to a house. On the front porch sits a human tooth. The guy wanders in, is grabbed by Leatherface and a big steel door is slammed.

So Pam, who was waiting outside, decides to go in and look for her missing friend. You'll notice that the camera is looking up her ass as she walks toward the house. She falls inside a room strewn with bones, filled with furniture made of bones. On her way out she encounters our leather-faced friend, who takes her in back and, in a touch that is still quite genuinely shocking, hangs her on a meat hook. There's just something about the way he's so casual about it that is deeply chilling. Then he revs up his chainsaw and begins the task of carving up her friend. In here you might notice that this movie contains very little actual gore, since Hooper was hoping to get it released as PG! Which is kind of charming--he didn't even realize how terrifying, gore or not, his finished piece would be.

By the way, in here one will have cause to notice that in this film, Leatherface is fat and middle-aged. In the 2003 remake he has become the typical giant hulking bodybuilder, which is a little ludicrous, but here, having the killer look like he might work delivering milk during the week adds to the mundane quality of it all and adds to the horror.

After another friend meets an unfortunate end, Sally and Frank are left alone in the dark by the van. They have a very good, effective scene as Sally argues that she should go after their friends, and Frank should wait by the van. Frank is terrified at being left alone out there, and it comes down to simple things like refusing to give Sally the flashlight. He argues that they should leave, go get help, then come back, but it's obvious he is just afriad. Then he finds that their missing friends have the keys to the van, and he seems on the verge of metally snapping. Which is terribly effective, as these seem like raw, honest emotions, and make an excellent comparison with the remake, in which a genuine human emotion never makes an appearance. Finally, Sally ends up pushing him through the dark, uneven woods in the dark toward the house, while you are sitting at home, thinking "Boy, this really is NOT going to end well." Which soon proves to be the case as they encounter Leatherface and he makes quick work of our mobility-challenged friend.

Sally runs. Now this girl can scream. We have the first of our long chases through dark woods, and it's remarkable how effective what a simple device can be, especially when peppered with real-seeming issues like Sally getting her hair caught on branches. She finally reaches a garage, where a guy is up late! Unfortunately, he seems to be searing big, creepy slabs of meat.

Yes, it would seem he's in on it as well, and ends up beating her with a broom, tying her up and throwing her in a canvas bag. He then sadistically pokes at the bag while driving her back to the house. She is really NOT having a good day!

She is drugged, and wakes up in a haze, tied to a chair at the end of a table. Dad the sheriff is there, and he yells at Leatherface like a tyrannical dad, causing the boy/man to squeal and cower. Also present is the hitchhiker from the beginning. They decide to go upstairs and get Grandpa, an old fossil in a wheelchair upstairs. At first you wonder if he's even alive, and it's a sick feeling when you realize that he is. They bring him downstairs, and in one of the nastiest little touches that quite effectively stands in for the sexual content they couldn't possibly show, they cut Sally's finger, then put it into Grandpa's mouth to suck! It'll give you the creeps.

Now two things happen. First, the movie's most macabre comedy, as they tell Grandpa that "he can have this one." They put a hammer into his hand and bend Sally over a wash pail, guiding Grandpa's hand to bludgeon her to death. But he's too weak to hold it, and they try again, and again, and again, to comic effect, while Sally's life hangs in the balance. The second thing is that with a movie like this we always have to ask how exploitative it is, and what its point of view is. Here I think it's important that there are several close-ups of Sally's face and even into her eye, showing that she is essentially mentally snapping in the face of these circumstances. What keeps it from feeling overly sadistic is that the focus at this moment is on Sally's suffering, which the film implies is quite awful. So it is reminding us that this experience is horrible, instead of stepping back and seeing it from an outside point of view, one that objectifes Sally, denies her suffering, and concentrates on the sadistic glee of torturing her. Here, the film won't let you forget that this is HORRIBLE, and so awful to the point that Sally's mind is fracturing. You can't just dismiss her trauma and be sickly amused at her plight, as you might in a more exploitative film.

Sally breaks away, jumps out the window, and runs. Here follows the second big chase-through-the-woods sequence, and it's remarkable Hooper is able to make such a simple thing so compelling. She makes it to a road and stops a truck, there is a final struggle, and Sally ends up driving off, laughing insanely, not likely to be open and trusting any time soon. The last shot goes a long way toward making this film a little more than just a horror film, and I think expresses the abstract, arty nature of the film that is why it is in the Museum of Modern Art and such places: Leatherface dances with his chainsaw in the red light of the setting sun. Whether is is exalting in his power of frustrated by losing Sally is debatable, but also irrelevant. He's just dancing with his chainsaw, reveling in his power, and somehow this makes him a force unto himself, just what he IS, sort of an abstract expression of wrath, while also connecting back to the theme of the bright red sun expressing the horror in this film. And that's the end!
< < < SPOILERS END

It was SO much better than I remember it being. Many things I've touched on in the review, so I'll just glance at them again in conclusion. The ultra politically-incorrect comedy centered around Franklin seems, in its own perverse way, terribly advanced for its day, for, when combined with what a truly annoying person he is and at the same time how understandable his character is, it draws a terribly complex and rich set of emotions from the viewer. I'm not sure I can name another horror film positioned to enoke such complex ambiguous feelings about a character.

The sound design is impeccable. Real care has been put into every sound, and the sounds are used very carefully to suggest horror and guide the viewer even when nothing is really happening. The pitch-black macabre sense of humor of the film is quite striking. And the movie very cleverly sets up very convincingly scary situations [Sally and Franklin out by the van in pitch blakness] and exploits them to full effect. And finally, just that it is so full-on terrifying, with nothing to mitigate the serious, balls-out terror.

This movie stands out for the grimness of its vision and worldview, which I think can be best demonstrated in comparison to the 2003 remake. Here the teens discuss how the stars are aligned poorly for mankind [i.e. there's nothing anyone can do]. In the remake, they discuss how "there are no accidents," [i.e. you are fully in charge of your own destiny]. Here, their running across the murderous family is pretty much bad luck. In the remake, it is the culmination of a series of very deliberate decisions. Again, the difference is in saying we live in a dangerous world where bad things just HAPPEN, the other is again saying that we play a large driving role in where we end up. And finally, here Leatherface is a socially and psychologically-stunted fat middle-aged man. In the remake, he is a a gargantuan hulking bodybuilder [hits the gym between slayings I suppose?] who methodically murders people because people used to make fun of his skin condition. So throughout, the difference is between a worldview that holds us as at the mercy of forces that might hurt us terribly for absolutely no reason, or a worldview that says we are largely responsible for our fates and nothing happens that isn't for a reason. You can decide on your own which you mind more unsettling.

Anyway, utterly essential, and I bet you if you give this another look and pay attention to how very well it's put together and how complex and ambiguous it is, you might be shocked at its extremely high quality. Even now, it's a revelation.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, everyone should watch this at least once.

RELATED MOVIES:
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE [2003] is the Michael Bay-produced remake. My review contains a lot of comparison between the two versions.