Tobe Hooper was one of the most influential horror directors of all time. His vision and intelligence can be seen in almost every slasher and splatter film over the last forty years and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is Hooper’s masterpiece.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) (83 minutes)
Directed by Tobe Hooper.
Written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper.
Starring Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal and Gunnar Hansen.
Followed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Originally conceived as a faux film “based on true events”, Hooper did draw inspiration from the story of Ed Gein, a murderer, grave robber who had a predilection for a number of other unsavory character traits. Gein’s crimes inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the very effective Deranged (1974), among dozens of other films. The idea was to build a narrative around Gein’s sick behavior while adding the fear of darkness, isolation and a natural fear of unfamiliar locales to build tension.
As Hooper observed the destruction of the Vietnam war, violence at home and the general climate of deceit by authority figures, he decided to portray man as the monster, and people in general, as desensitized to brutality. Hooper created the character of Leatherface, a man who wore a monster mask to show his true nature. Little did Tobe know he’d be creating a franchise and a seminal representation of horror for the ages.
The tension and narrative is provided by the clash of two families, one urban and one rural. The “good” family is hedonistic and care-free while the “bad” family has degenerated into a barely stable group of cannibalistic maniacs. The story begins with a van carrying Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair bound brother (Paul Partain) along with friends Jerry (Adam Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Terri McMinn) driving to an isolated area in the Texas badlands. It seems Sally has heard the grave of her grandfather has been vandalized and robbed.
The group then decides to visit the family’s old homestead, a short distance away. They stop to pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) and this is where the shit starts to go down. One look at Neil and I would have put it high gear but the kids being young and naïve decide to give a lift to a dude who seriously looks like Charles Manson’s younger brother. Everything about him says “Stay the fuck away!!!” Neil is convincing as a true psychopath. He first borrows Franklin’s pocket knife and cuts himself, slurping up his own blood. Then if that wasn’t weird enough, he grabs the gang’s Polaroid, photographs them and demands money for the picture.
Neil is unhappy with their response and burns the souvenir, then whips out his straight razor and slashes Franklin’s arm. The group forces the maniac out and he high-tails into the brush. In this one scene Hooper establishes a feeling of unease that quickly turns to the bizarre and finally the nightmarish. The claustrophobia of the van’s interior, the sudden and unexpected burst of violence, and Neil’s bizarre, sickening behavior puts the movie squarely into horror territory.
The kids pulls into a gas station but are told by the proprietor (Jim Siedow) the pumps are empty, but a delivery is expected later in the day.
At this point our intrepid group continues to the homestead in search of a rumored swimming hole. The hole is dried up but they stumble upon an old house. Hooper has shot all this action in the bright Texas sun, so despite Neil’s unsettling appearance, the day still keeps a feeling of normality. There are shots of golden fields, bugs whirring, and a quaint swing that Pam deposits her hotpants clad butt upon.
Meanwhile, Kirk is snooping around and hears the sound of a generator. Bright lad that he is, it’s a natural conclusion that where there’s an engine there’s gas. He sneaks in an unlocked door into a truly awful looking butcher’s area, but before Kirk can figure out he should be on his way to Oklahoma, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) sneaks up and turns the lights off with a large hammer.
Leatherface was one of the most inspired horror icons ever created and made Michael Myers look like a Jehovah’s Witness. Impossibly huge, ugly by any standards and wearing a mask fashioned from rotted human skin, Leatherface was a unique madman. The lines between man and monster are completely blurred as the character embodied every evil and perversion humanity is capable of.
Pam gets tired of waiting and enters the house where she soon realized all is not as it should be. If the chairs made of human bones weren’t enough of a clue, there are all sorts of creepy, nasty unsavory shit everywhere. The editing in this scene is superb as the audience feels every frisson of disorientation, horror, fear and nausea that Pam is experiencing.
She makes a wise decision to vacate the premises, but her timing’s off. Just as she is about to get out the door, Leatherface grabs the poor thing and drags her off to the meat counter. The shot where Leatherface holding a struggling Pam disappears behind a hidden door is one of the most memorable in the history of the horror film. The scene merely suggests something really bad is going to happen but doesn’t show the audience any blood or violence.
Leatherface decides he wants Pam hanging around so he promptly impales her on a meat hook. At this point in the film, the terror is relentless, bringing to mind the intensity of Night of the Living Dead. While she twitches in agony, Leatherface butchers Kirk with his trusty chainsaw. Again, very little blood or gore is visible in this scene. The terror comes from what the audience imagines is going on, the animalistic growl of the chainsaw, the editing and the effective music.
With sunset approaching Jerry finds Leatherface’s playhouse. He hears a thumping emanating from a large deep freeze and finds a frosty, but still living, Pam. However, before anyone can do anything heroic, Leatherface dispatches Jerry and jams Pam back down into the freezer.
As darkness falls, Sally and Franklin go off in search of their friends. They approach the old house just in time to have Leatherface appear out of nowhere and vivisect Jerry. This was one of the first jump scares I remember in film and the scene was flawless. Once again, Hooper accomplices much with no blood or guts and plenty of clever lighting, camera angles and editing,
Poor Sally escapes to the old house where she finds the near mummified bodies of a couple. If that wasn’t nasty enough Leatherface appears, forcing her to jump out of a second floor window and seek safety at the gas station. The proprietor seems sympathetic, but then gags and binds her, stuffing her in his truck and driving back to the house.
In a sick parody of a normal family dinner, Leatherface, dressed a woman, frilly apron and all, serves the meal. The hitchhiker and the rest of the family torment Sally, making fun of her plight while torturing her. The old man Sally saw upstairs is actually the living patriarch of this misbegotten family and is encouraged to suck the blood from a cut on Sally’s finger. The boys then get a hammer and a bucket, trying to get Pa to relive his glory days at the old slaughterhouse. The feeble bastard can barely hold the tool let alone bash in poor Sally’s noggin.
Sally, now quite insane herself, takes advantage of the brother’s arguing about who gets the kill, to break free and take another dive out another window, hoping to escape.
The scene at the table is one of the most sadistic ever recorded on film, as the family feeds on Sally’s pain, humiliation and terror, like extra gravy on a biscuit. The editing and the nuances of each character’s perversions are intense. It is a brilliant sequence, one which has few equals in cinematic history.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains for some strange reason, one of the most ‘banned’ films in the world. Australia didn’t permit an uncut version to be shown theatrically until 1984. I believe this shows how talented Hooper truly was. He convinced audiences and censors they were seeing horrible things on-screen, when most of the terror was in their imaginations. The film is intense, sadistic, disturbing, and violent but also a true work of art. Hooper invented a number of unique camera techniques and used the bizarre musique concrète score to heighten the tension of the film.
The story behind the scenes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was almost as dramatic as the on-screen action. The actors, especially Marilyn Burns, had to endure long hours and harsh conditions. For the scene when Poppa Cannibal was sucking her blood, Marilyn actually had to cut herself to make the shot work. It seems the production had run out both stage blood and the funds to purchase additional supplies. That’s dedication, and unfortunately, the cast and crew got screwed over when it came to get paid.
Tobe Hooper went on to make some of our most cherished films. The variety and sophistication of his movies puts him among America’s greatest directors. The artist is gone, but his art will live forever.