The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre… where to start?
I think I established this in an earlier review, but growing up, my family was pretty dedicated to Beta cassettes. We had four Beta players and one VHS, so we’d rent the VHS tapes from Blockbusters and copy them onto blank Betas. My mom was used to renting horror movies for me when I was a kid, as she thought the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th flicks were all pretty stupid and harmless. However, while she was copying The Texas Chainsaw Massacre onto Beta for me, she happened to watch some of it; namely, the dinner scene. She thought it was so disturbing, sick and twisted that she wasn’t sure if a kid my age (10, I think) should be viewing it. That, as you can surely predict, only made me want to see the movie even more.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her brother Franklin (Paul A Partain) and three of their friends decide to take a road trip down the back roads of super duper rural Texas to visit the old house they grew up in. Little do they know, their old digs are right across the way from the Sawyer family, a group of cannibalistic and sadistic fiends of all shapes and sizes. These inbred hillbillies, including the grotesque Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), the spastic Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) and the two-faced Old Man (Jim Siedow) have a massacre in store for the foolish teenagers. One which involves chainsaws. And Texas.
Watching it again so many years later, and having seen it at least a dozen times, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre holds up remarkably well. Sure, there are parts that haven’t aged all that gracefully, moments that were scary thirty-five years ago only to come across as humorous now, and Franklin never ceases to become more obnoxious with each repeat viewing… but the atmosphere crafted by Director Tobe Hooper is one of the finest you’ll find in any horror film. And now n’ days, good atmosphere in a horror film is hard to come by.
Most of the DVD generation likely aren’t aware of this, but the video version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that most of us grew up with was grainier than a wheat silo. While recent transfers have cleaned the picture up to a pristine shine, I actually felt that the gritty picture enhanced the overall nastiness of the plot; almost like you’re watching some weirdo’s home movies. Of course, I do mean gritty within reason. Some of those old video copies were so dirty you could hardly tell what was going on (I recall always being baffled as to what Sally was looking at in the barbecue pit at the gas station; and not being able to decipher it until Pioneer’s special edition DVD in 1998).
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a difficult horror film to classify; part slasher flick, part splatter flick, part pure, meaningless violence. When it hit in 1974, audiences were, well, justifiably confused (intrigued and excited, but still confused). A lot of critics hated it back then and I can still find people today who loathe the film. I recommended it to a couple of kids back in high school along with The Evil Dead. They adored The Evil Dead but came back telling me that Texas Chainsaw Massacre was nothing but “snuff” and were disappointed that I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it actual “snuff” (that’s more the territory of flicks like Faces of Death), but flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left did begin a trend in horror which can still be felt today in flicks like Saw and Hostel: The “torture porn” movement, if you will.
Veering away from tangents and anecdotes for a second, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, from an unbiased critical point of view, has its ups and downs. Most of the protagonists are empty shells of characters, the only one with even a remotely stand-out personality being Franklin… and dear God, how I hate that guy. He doesn’t shut his whiney trap for an hour straight and, for a lot of people I’ve talked with, comes close to ruining the movie. You’ll probably cheer when Leatherface buries that chainsaw in his gut. And if you listen to the commentary on the DVD by Gunnar Hansen, you’ll find out exactly how much everybody hated working with the actor, too.
Still, the teenage meat puppets aren’t what you go to see a horror film for. The Sawyer family (I know they aren’t given that moniker until the sequel, so spare me) are the real stars of the show, offering a diverse selection of personalities and visuals, all twisted and horrifying.
Drayton (called “Old Man” in the credits and, again, not named until Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) comes off as having the deepest personality; a sadistic cook who claims to hate torturing kids but appears to enjoy it as much as the others. There’s a shred of internal conflict on his sleeve, but you can tell that he’s still nothing but a psycho. Hitchhiker can be a little annoying, possibly because he seems to get the most screen time and dialogue of all the family members. His rowdy and spunky antics do drain you after a while. There’s also Grandpa (John Dugan), a corpse-like old man with nine toes in the grave. The scenes featuring him are excellent, particularly during the dinner segment. He’d actually go on to appear in all three sequels (before the series was rebooted in 2003, of course).
And lastly, you have the franchise mascot: Leatherface. While Leatherface is the wielder of the titular chainsaw (which actually draws less blood in this film than the non-titular sledgehammer), he’s presented as just another member of the menagerie of freaks, not really garnering much more screen time or presence than the others, save for instigating one of the best chase sequences in horror history. I’ve always felt Leatherface works best in smaller doses, as the films that revolve entirely around him tend to be the worst in the series.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a classic for a reason. Sure, some moments come off more comical than frightening (you’re probably going to laugh at Leatherface more than you’re going to fear him) and Franklin will have you grinding your teeth for an hour, but I find them not so difficult to overlook. Hooper’s film provides a terrific atmosphere, memorable villains, heart-pounding action and has left a lasting effect on the horror industry.