While on a summer drive in the Texas farmlands, five friends are trapped and killed by a cannibalistic family led by a chainsaw wielding maniac.
As hot and merciless as the Texas sun, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre scorched unsuspecting horror fans. While assaulting our senses it paved a golden path for a myriad of films and filmmakers to follow. However, none have been able to equal.
What was it about the film that was so groundbreaking, so influential and so darn scary? Every so often in films, a movie will come along and revive, reinvent, or influence a genre. In this case, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did all three and more.
In the 1960's we saw some of the greatest horror/thriller films ever produced. Most were by one man, Alfred Hitchcock. However, not far removed from the Alfred Hitchcock's "era", the horror world would almost hit a stalemate. The Exorcist explosion was an exception of sorts, but the high budget powerhouse was almost an anomaly for Hollywood. With the horror genre looking for an identity, Tobe Hooper answered the call.
The U.S., in the early 70's, was still entrenched in Vietnam, assassinations were oddly common but on the flip side peace and love was still going strong led by ageing hippies. The world though, was changing and the innocence was dying out. The film landscape was changing too.
The early and mid 70's offered movie audiences a sample of how great films could be. The "director's era" was being ushered in, lead by Francis Ford Coppola and following in his footsteps were some of the greatest filmmakers ever, Scorsese, Spielberg, and Lucas to name a few. The other end of the spectrum something equally magical was happening. The independent and low budget films were among the most creative, beautiful and all round brilliant ever made. The low budget era in the 70's offered a grainy and rustic film look that matched the movies of that time like peanut butter and jelly. Horror films, especially, benefited from this look. The $84,000 TCM budget almost looked like less, and I don't mean that in a bad way. Over the years that is what sets this film apart. More on that later.
As far as a horror film, the idea is the same as most these days. Kids head out for fun but die. Simple. How TCM went about this was all new to the horror world. Introducing us to "hard core" horror and delivering it in a real and shocking fashion. This wasn't Jimmy Stewart playing a 30 layered character in a genius script, shot picture perfect. This was the antithesis of that. TCM's style, though many say accidental, was almost documentary in feel. It looked like and extra cast member was holding a second rate camera while sitting in on all the action. It was a style that would drive away some but lure in millions more. In fact, TCM has often been hyped, not by the filmmakers, as being a true story. A rumor that was further helped by the eerie and monotone narration, performed by John Larroquette, that occurs in the roll up before the film begins. One would say that it helped the film become even more iconic. That may be true, for to think that this film could be true sends shivers up my spine. The film was however based loosely on real life, Wisconsin, killer Ed Gein.
The raw look of the film and rugged camera movement was something that worked for this film. Not always is this look desired but if pulled off, the impact can be quite profound. Such is the case with TCM. The realness of the film was something that to this day viewers cannot wrap their heads around, back then, it was an all out assault. The score in the film is another example of perfectly using your choices as a filmmaker. By not using conventional instruments and electing to go bare-bones and create off-setting tones and stingers, the film becomes that much more disturbing. As usual, score plays a role in a film. In TCM the score role was perfectly cast.
Though the film flourishes with terrific antagonists one stands out as one of the greatest of all time. Leatherface (Gunner Hansen) was a poster child for horror villains. 6 foot 4, 300 pounds, wearing a mask made from the flesh of his past victims, and wielding a chainsaw. However, despite all that, what makes Leatherface so terrifying to me is that Hooper gave him a seven year old mentality. He is seemingly mentally challenged. His squeals and panic driven cries are a paradox compared to his look. This character has now, with the passage of time, gone on to be a horror icon however, back in '74, this character struck fear into everyone. Was there a Leatherface out there? Could there be such a person or family? I guarantee this, "idyllic" summer drives in Texas farmlands, dropped considerably in 1974.
Yet as horrifying as the film plays out, very little blood is used in this film and the violence is relatively subdued... ok, I said relatively! The famous meat hook scene in which a young girl (Pam) gets hung up like a side of beef, Hooper chose to shy away from a sharp hook ripping through the young girls torso by cleverly using camera angles and slick editing to convey the brutal death scene. Relying on pure film making and spot-on acting, you see nothing but feel everything.
Marilyn Burns who played the heroin was brilliant. She was able to reach a place so few have gone in the genre. She wasn't an actor trying to look pretty, she was the real deal. Her terror was felt and in the final dinner scene where a world of chaos ensues around her- she is absolutely brilliant. Yes the scene was hard to watch but for two reasons more than just the nutty family. The first being the suggestive style Hooper used to torment Sally. Not much really happens to her for the first while but the tension kept growing. The families objectives were not obvious and the one thing scarier than being killed is wondering WHEN it's coming or even if... And the second reason and even more important, Marilyn's performance. Her scream, her eyes, she sold everything. Had she not have been so strong that scene could have easily fallen apart. She was the glue in that film.
The film ends with the lasting image of Leatherface swinging his chainsaw like a lottery winning lumberjack in the beauty of a Texas sunrise. With an abrupt fade to black you are forced to wait a few seconds before the first credit lets you know that it is once again safe to breathe. Though the film achieved box office success by grossing almost 31 million it's legend is even more impressive. The very title evokes a horror myth on it's own. To think it was originally going to be called "Head Cheese" Dear God! Tobe Hooper, sadly, peaked while shooting this film. He has never been able to capture a fraction of his genius with other films. Though that is unfortunate, his Texas masterpiece will forever remain a benchmark for all horror films and filmmakers. The raw, and gutsy production of the tortures of innocent people at the hands of maniacs was masterfully delivered and tapped a nerve in everyone. Presenting everyone with their worst fear in a most visceral way possible.
You felt the horror and mayhem in this film and though it was just a film, in this case, almost more than any other horror film, you constantly have to remind yourself.