Written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
Directed by Tobe Hooper
A Byanston Picture
Starring: Marilyn Burns (Sally Hardesty); Paul A. Partain (Franklin Hardesty); Allen Danziger (Jerry); William Vail (Kirk); Teri McMinn (Pam); Edwin Neal (The Hitchhiker); Jim Siedow (The Gas Station Attendant/The Cook); Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface); John Dugan (Grandfather); John Larroquette (The Narrator)
If ever there was a movie that horror fans just had to see based on the title alone, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is it. To see the film is to love the film and to love the film is to admit there’s something curiously different about you; how else could anyone pony up the money for a movie with such a title and hope to see something that might not drive normal people screaming from the cinema. Its reputation precedes it like the gulls warrant the arrival of Moby Dick. Which is all quite amusing considering that, while the film looks rough around the edges (part of its creepy charm, really), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a remarkably restrained film; low to moderate on blood and gore, high to bursting on scares and suspense. And the incredible thing is that it has not grown quaint with the passing of the decades as many horror films do. Despite its sequels and its remakes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a fresh viewing experience every time you settle back and watch it one more time.
After a grammatically-challenged opening narration (intoned, as everyone by this time knows, by future sitcom star John Larroquette), we’re given a series of shots – flashes of carrion – that are eventually revealed to be someone photographing what eventually turns out to be a grotesque work of art: decomposing corpses have been exhumed and turned into a grisly statue. This is the event that gets our protagonists, Sally and Franklin Hardesty along with their friends, down in a van to such a God-forsaken spot in Texas; they want to see if their grandfather’s grave has been disturbed. And of course, while they’re there, they have to run into a drunken prophet who claims to have seen things nobody would believe. Of course, why should anybody pay any attention to him?
Their next destination is their grandfather’s old home, which is now an abandoned shambles. Why any of them would want to go there is a little difficult to ascertain. Maybe the two couples just want to find a place, preferably on an upper floor, where the wheelchair-bound Franklin can’t get to but whatever the reason, it is this additional leg of the voyage that leads them to cross paths with both the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) and the Gas Station Attendant (later known as “The Cook” (Jim Siedow)). These two encounters are important to the development of the plot; the hitchhiker gives us a sequence to creep us out while we wait impatiently for the chainsaw that we know is coming while the gas station is a false comfort zone and will become important later when Sally believes that reaching it saves her from Leatherface’s rampage.
The Hitchhiker sequence frightens us because one look at the guy, particularly his wild eyes and large facial blemish, should clue anybody that he’s bad news (“We just picked up Dracula,” says Franklin, the voice of subtly as usual). As the hitchhiker babbles about the most effective way to slaughter cattle and the exact ingredients of headcheese, the audience waits for the moment when inevitable trouble will start. The kids start regretting their decision to pick him up when he starts insisting that they come to his place for dinner, where headcheese is the main course. Sensing no takers, the suspense finally reaches its peak when the hitchhiker slices Franklin’s arm with a straight razor. The kids succeed in getting the freak out of the van and taking off and the audience falls for the first trick of the film; on the first viewing, it seems as if the hitchhiker sequence is there to set the scene and provide a bit of suspense. If this were House of 1000 Corpses (2003), the picking up of the hitchhiker would lead directly to their doom, here it doesn’t seem as if we’re going to see that freaky character again. But wait for a bit…
A short stop at the gas station establishes that the pumps are dry and the van is likely to run out of gas before long (and for anyone who’s never driven across Texas, this is a likely and frightening prospect). The kindly attendant warns them against about driving to their grandfather’s shack and tries to invite them for barbeque, but you know what young folks are like. It isn’t long before Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) find themselves wandering off on their own and attracted to a nearby house because of the sound of a generator (Kirk thinks he’ll be able to buy some gas off him). Everything about the house they eventually find screams danger, from the remoteness and the shabbiness to the human tooth that Kirk finds and uses to scare his girlfriend. But if you’ve read these articles throughout this series, you’ll know that these films are not a haven for those who make wise decisions. Kirk enters… and never comes out again. We’re given our first look of the main villain, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), as he raises his sledgehammer over the young man’s head. Pam enters to and, after she is exposed to a gruesome work of art/furniture, she ends up in Leatherface’s clutches as well and she is subjected to one of the most difficult scenes in the film to watch; she is hung on a meat hook and left to bleed while Leatherface revs up his chainsaw.
The other members of the gang fall to Leatherface until we are left with Sally, and the chases sequence that results is the centerpiece of film. Sally runs all over Hill and Dale with Leatherface close on her heels, screaming the entire time, and the sheer endurance of the character is stunning (to say nothing of the endurance of actress Marilyn Burns, who suffered numerous injuries and strains while filming the second half of the picture). Sally, in shock and platform shoes (two obvious disadvantages), sprints like a racehorse through the field, up the stairs in Leatherface’s house, jumps out the second floor window, and somehow manages to make it back to the gas station (which is not close by). The suspense of this sequence is maddening; all the time the sound of the chainsaw is close behind, ready to do to her what it did to Franklin, and Sally’s look of panic and constant screams keep the sequence at the highest of pitches. When she bursts through the door of the gas station and into the attendant’s arms, the audience feels an immediate relief; it’s like flipping the off switch on a racing heartbeat (or on a chainsaw; notice how the chainsaw’s roar cuts off just as Sally springs through the door). Marilyn Burns does an incredible job speaking through her hysterics and for a moment, while the attendant goes to get his truck, Sally can take a minute to try calm down, now that the terror is behind her. But then she takes a closer look at the barbeque roasting on the fire just before the attendant returns with a large burlap sack and a strange smile on his face.
As it turns out, Leatherface, the Gas Station Attendant and the Hitchhiker are all part of the same family of cannibals, living with their nearly comatose patriarch, Grandpa. Some commentators have cast the Attendant (now to be known as The Cook, since he’s the one that cooks the human flesh for the gas station’s barbeque) as an older brother to the other two, but I have always seen him as their father considering the ways he beats and disciplines them (“Look whatcher’ brother did to that door!” he yells upon finding the front door chainsawed in half). Sure, he refers to the old man as “Grandpa,” but parents often do when they talk of their parents to their children. But the cook is also the most interesting character in the family; his insistence that he “can’t take no pleasure in killin’” has made him the face of the family – he’s the one that can actually go out in public and sell the meat without anyone thinking he’s a freak (the Hitchhiker isn’t so fortunate and I would hazard to guess that Leatherface doesn’t get out much). But that’s not to say that he doesn’t get some sadistic pleasure out of seeing someone suffer. His amicable mask of working-class respectability drops when he has Sally in his clutches, jabbing at her with a broomstick while she’s tied up in the sack and giggling manically. And he has no problem with handing Sally over to first his demented sons and then his nearly-deceased father, leaping with glee as Grandpa tries again and again to strike Sally with a killing blow. His sons may make fun of him (“He’s just a cook! Me and Leatherface do all the work!” shouts the Hitchhiker at one point), but he provides the functional role that keeps this family of maniacs and murderers running smoothly.
The strangest thing about this film is how the kids came to be in the clutches of the family in the first place. As noted already, picking up the hitchhiker doesn’t directly lead them to their appointments with the chainsaw; it is simply a way to introduce a character who will become important later on. On the other hand, we eventually find out that the hitchhiker was the one who exhumed the corpses and set up his ghoulish work of art (which should have been obvious when he flashed his camera in the van – the graveyard ghoul was also taking pictures) so, it is the hitchhiker’s actions that have brought Sally and her friends into the area in the first place (the major impulse for the trip was to make sure Sally’s grandfather’s grave was undisturbed). There is a case of opposing motives in the cook, who initially warns the kids off from their grandfather’s old house and tries to get them to stay until the tanker arrives. Maybe this is another aspect of his feelings about killing; he’ll cook the meat and eat the meat, but he doesn’t want to meet the meat.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre follows the best examples from the best horror films; it’s moments of horror are kept oblique and leaves much to the imagination. Sure, bones and body parts litter Leatherface’s house (Sally is even tied to a literal “arm” chair), but we never do see that meat hook piece Pam’s back and the only person who meets his demise at the business end of that chainsaw is Franklin, and nothing is explicitly shown of that. In fact, we see more of the fates of the villains; the Hitchhiker gets run down by a truck in a very effective shot and we are treated to a lovely shot of Leatherface accidently chains awing his own leg. Director Tobe Hooper obviously knows whose blood the audience really wants to see, and he doesn’t disappoint.
And what of Leatherface, that hulking enigma with less than impressive dental work but strong enough to continue going after Sally even after he’s sawn his own leg. Is there anything even remotely human under that mask of human skin (which is only hinted at in the film). What is it with that gibbering freak who pounds a sledgehammer into people’s heads without a second thought but cowers in front of his Dad while wearing a mask that has obviously been made up to resemble the woman of the house? What did it take to produce a creature like that, who’s last shot shows him flinging his chainsaw around in a rage as Sally is finally driven to safety? Is he even human? Maybe that’s why Sally’s sanity breaks in the final moments, because no one can come as close as she did to an agent of absolute monstrous evil and hope to think a sane thought ever again. That’s what I see when I see that final shot of Leatherface whirling his chainsaw in a frenzy: the human embodiment of the Beast.