The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Review (R)… And Not Recommended, Even for Halloween…
Continuing my Halloween reviews, I figured I would take on what’s a perennial Halloween favorite. Not one of MY favorites. though.
I have mixed feelings on this one. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre had to have a number of good things about it, or it wouldn’t have been the low budget success story that it was… Or could it? I think the real fascination about this film (to some) is of the geek show variety. This was director Tobe Hooper’s second film (I believe) and he has a great eye for visuals. He also knows how to create truly gruesome, sometimes terrifying horror scenes. He claimed this was a reaction to the state of contemporary society, but that’s a load of crap. This is just exploitation (and a bit misogynist) for commerce. I consider it to be maybe the first big torture porn film to make its way into at least the edge of the mainstream consciousness. For that I find the film of dubious character.
The story starts out with a statement that this is somehow a true story and that a group of young victims (traveling to the grave of a relative of two of them) will face unimaginable horror, the likes of which they will never see if they had lived long, full lives. Hooper frames the opening shot in grand morbidity. There has been a desecration of some bodies and some vandalism at the graveyard. From there the film deteriorates.
The victims are introduced with Paul A. Partain playing Franklin, distinguished from the others because he’s overweight and wheelchair bound and complains a lot. He relates the necessary information of how cows are killed in slaughterhouses. That’s so when the retarded serial killers in the film are killing their victims, you’ll have the necessary information that they’re slaughtering the victims like cows are slaughtered. That’s the only thing the director felt that’s important to know in this film. That’s really, the whole thing, though, I guess.
First there’s some gratuity with Franklin, having him urinate in a can on the side of the road before falling down a hill. Then the group picks up one of the retarded hillbilly killers, called simply ‘the Hitchhiker’ (played by Edwin Neal). Okay, there’s NO WAY that anyone picks this guy up. He’s the worst actor you’ll ever see in a film for starters and he already has blood on his face when he climbs in the van.
It’s only after he pulls out one of those freaking scary straight razors that barbers used to use when EVERYONE was insane, and cuts his hand open while continuing his conversation that the group decides…
Yeah, it’s time for the hitchhiker to go.
Then, they go to get gas at apparently the only station in town, but there’s no gas. The gas station attendant is another member of the crazy hillbilly killers, but you’re not supposed to know that yet. So, while the group waits for gas to come in, they visit the dead relative’s old homestead. When they get there, two of them want to go swimming and Franklin directs them to a swimming hole. On the way they come across the Sawyer house, which at least on the exterior is fairly well kept. I imagine Leatherface does the hedges. As victims in horror movies often do, they go in some stranger’s house because no one answers the door (“Hey! The door’s unlocked. Let’s go in.”)
And Leatherface… a very large retarded guy that dresses in slaughterhouse gear (and wears someone else’s face) immediately kills the guy. And then… well, much like the Zodiac killer, Hooper is far more concerned with depicting the women’s ordeals in the film than the men’s. The male victims in this are quickly dispatched. “Bam! Dead!” The women… Well, the first female victim screams, is chased screaming by Leatherface, is placed on a meathook screaming and watches while screaming as Leatherface cuts up the first victim. Later, the others come looking for her. The second male victim is also quickly killed (“Bam! Dead!” ). The girl, though… the first victim… is still alive and she’s quickly stuffed back into the meat freezer where she’s being kept by Leatherface, to be carved up later.
Then, the other victims show up in the dark. Leatherface is waiting for them, of course. He jumps out of the dark aaaand… No more Franklin (“Bam! Dead!” or “Buuuuzzzzzz! Dead!” actually). This is where the second female victim (played by Marilyn Burns) starts screaming. She does not stop screaming until the movie’s over. You hear her screaming and crying to the tune of a chainsaw until film’s end… So, I don’t know… 45 minutes of that? I’ll admit, it’s pretty unsettling. The idea from here on, is to have her running (and screaming), having her become increasingly injured and mistreated as she goes. She escapes from one horror crazy only to end up in the clutches of another, as she encounters the entire family. She runs (screaming) from the chainsaw wielding Leatherface (while screaming) and encounters the corpse-like Grampa. She eventually escapes Leatherface’s chainsaw (briefly) by jumping (screaming) through a glass window from the second story of the house and outpaces the killer to the gas station. Leatherface is in great shape, too. He manages to gain on her, despite being a very large, overweight man wearing a mask in the dark, in jeans, weilding an industrial sized chainsaw. He must cross train or something.
Leatherface gives up the attack to allow the gas station attendant (part of the extended family) to beat her with a broom (while screaming), ties her up (moaning… she only stops screaming when she’s beaten unconscious) and puts her in a burlap sack which I found maybe as distasteful as anything in the film. Then, he takes her back to the house to ‘have dinner’ with the entire Sawyer family. I have to add right here, though, that the Sawyers are never called that in the film, as far as I know. It’s also why I believe Hooper’s defense that this was a reaction to the climate in a America at the time is all bullshit. He was just trying to justify the film against critics who were blasting the film because of the violence (especially towards women). But I digress, again…
So, the entire family traumatizes Burns’ screaming character. There is much juvenile taunting with the screaming Burns assaulted especially by Neal’s atrocious acting as the Hitchhiker. She escapes (screaming) when after having Grampa sample her blood in sick fashion (while she screams), the group tries to allow him to ‘get a kill’ ‘like he used to in the good ole’ days’. So with Leatherface’s help, Grampa begins cracking her in the head with a hammer (while she screams). She manages to escape… screaming…again by jumping through a glass window. She limps away screaming with the Hitchhiker and Leatherface giving chase. Did I mention she’s screaming and that power tools are being utilized?
Here’s where Hooper decides that things have been far too subtle so far. At this point, Neal looks like he’s in a Benny Hill skit, even when he gets run over by a passing semi. Another truck stops to help the screaming Burns, but Leatherface now chases Burns (screaming) and the pudgy truck driver until Burns (screaming wildly) throws herself (still screaming) in front of yet ANOTHER truck (a pickup) in order to stop the driver. She escapes in the back of the truck screaming crazily, covered in blood. I would like to read the script for her lines in the last half of the film. It probably reads like “Victim #5: Screams loudly… Next scene… Victim #5: Screams loudly, with feeling… Next scene…Victim #5:Ditto, the last scene” And so on…
And the final shots of Leatherface spinning around with his chainsaw is both the dopiest ending I have ever seen in a horror film and makes it clear to me that they were all high on something when they made this.
I have never found this to be ‘fun’ Halloween fare. To me, horror films are supposed to scare you a little, not to disgust you, and above all entertain. It’s hard to be entertained when there aren’t really protagonists in the film, just victims to be tortured, terrorized and slaughtered, not necessarily in that order. As I said in the beginning, it’s a geek show where you’re paying you’re money to go behind the curtain and see a man bite the head off of a live chicken. I don’t find that entertaining. It has an infamy that is slightly more palatable than even more irresponsibly made brutal films like Cannibal Holocaust. However, this movie does partially explain the career of Rob Zombie, though, and where he got his sensibilities from. Dammit. There’s another digression…
I do credit the film with its ability to unsettle and for Hooper’s abilities to frame a scene for maximum brutality. It’s so low budget, that you don’t get the impression of the filmmakers being ‘responsible’ or having any restraints put on them. You never know how ‘far’ the film is going to go.. It is somewhat surprising that Hooper did allow for a lot of what occurs onscreen to occur in the mind of the viewer. There is a surprising lack of blood shown, but it’s the idea of what’s presented. The persistent screaming and the chainsaw sound effects are very off putting, not to mention the complete lack of any kind of empathy by the killers for their victims or that one of them wears someone else’s face.
The best horror films have some kind of subtext. Invasion of The Body Snatchers was about the fear of spreading communism. The Thing was the fear of the unknown, Frankenstein, at its core is about the arrogance of man to play God. Despite what Hooper has said about this film (and I actually like many of Hooper’s movies), is that this is about the fear of being killed slaughterhouse style by deranged retarded cannibal hillbillies.