TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
Director: Tobe Hooper
In the lexicon of cult classics, one movie has reached a level of recognition rivaled only a select few. It has become synonymous with unrelenting horror and brutal violence, and even those who haven't seen it are quick to agree that it's one of the most terrifying films ever made. Its reputation has grown to a status where its name alone is enough to inspire a reaction in all that hear it. Just hearing the title automatically puts visions of unspeakable carnage in your mind. Drawing inspiration from a notorious serial killer and an unsavory experience he had in a certain power tool aisle at Sears, writer/director Tobe Hooper presents us with one of the most insane, demented movies ever made: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the thirty years since its release, it spent 25 years on Great Britain's list of banned "video nasties," spawned three sequels and a big-budget Hollywood remake, and has often been considered one of the forefathers of the slasher subgenre. But is it really as good as its reputation lets on?
Upon hearing that vandals have desecrated the graveyard where her grandfather is buried, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) recruits her annoying parapalegic brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), her boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger), and their friends Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail) to check things out. They arrive at the cemetery and discover everything is on the up-and-up (as much as it can be with a corpse sitting on top of a tomb in the middle of the graveyard), so the five twentysomethings decide to take a little side trip to the deserted farm belonging to Sally and Franklin's grandfather. On the way, they pick up a deranged hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who tells them how headcheese is made (if you don't know, you don't want to know) before slashing Franklin's arm and his own hand with a straight razor. They promptly kick him out of the van, and he smears a trail of blood along the side of the van as they drive away.
After arriving at the farm, Sally, Jerry, and Franklin (who's scared the hitchhiker might come back to get them) look around while Pam and Kirk hunt for somewhere to go swimming. They don't find a swimming hole, but they do discover a house out in the middle of nowhere instead. Kirk hears a generator, so he heads inside hoping to find some gasoline for the van (thanks to the gas station they passed being out of gas). Unfortunately for them but fortunately for the viewer, this is a huge blundering error. Kirk lets himself into the house and begins investigating a strange noise, which is Huge Blundering Error #2. That investigation doesn't last long, as Kirk soon comes face-to-face with one of the house's residents. Clad in a nasty leather mask and dirty butcher's smock, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) promptly cracks Kirk upside the head with a mallet and drags him deeper into the house. Meanwhile, Kirk's prolonged absence leads Pam to make Huge Blundering Error #3, entering the house herself to snoop around for Kirk. Pam stumbles upon some rather damning evidence that something not quite right is going on, but it also leads to one of horror cinema's most famous moments. Leatherface finds Pam snooping around and chases her out of the house, but catches her on the front porch, drags her back inside, and introduces her to the business end of a meathook. As night falls, Sally, Franklin, and Jerry begin looking for their missing comrades, but their search leads them right into the seventh circle of Hell. Franklin and Jerry fall victim to Leatherface as well, and Sally soon finds herself trapped in the remote farmhouse with a demented family comprised of Leatherface, the hitchhiker, barbecue connoisseur Drayton (Jim Siedow), and Grandpa (John Dugan). Will she survive, or will she become stew like her friends?
Before I go any further, I'd like to explain a few things. For years, people thought this was true. In fact, the remake's entire marketing campaign was based on the fact that it was supposedly based on a true story. That's not exactly correct. This movie, Robert Bloch's novel Psycho (which later served as inspiration for Hitchcock's classic movie), and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs were all inspired by Ed Gein, a serial killer and grave robber in Wisconsin circa 1957. He was haunted by his dead mother, like Norman Bates, and he would occasionally wear the skin of his victims like a suit, an idea mirrored in Buffalo Bill's skin suit and Leatherface's mask. He would also use bones to reinforce furniture (another idea used in the Massacre movies), kept body parts in jars and Tupperware, and used the tops of skulls as cereal bowls. He was one sick puppy. (Thanks to the Crime Library and House of Horrors for the information.)
The movie is very much a 70s horror film in both look and execution; it has a rough, gritty look, helping make it look and feel like a documentary or a snuff film. However, despite the movie's grisly nature, it's not as blood-soaked as some people seem to think. Much like John Carpenter's original Halloween, the movie doesn't try to scare people with gore, but instead tries to elicit scares through pacing and suspense. There are actually very few instances that I can remember someone in the movie bleeding. And the movie isn't as full of violence as its reputation would have you believe. We watch from a distance as someone gets hit in the noggin by a hammer, a girl hanging from a meat hook with no actual flesh piercing seen, a broom being used to smack someone, and two chainsaw attacks with very little bloodletting seen. I think that might be due to the fact that writer/director Tobe Hooper was aiming for a PG rating (prior to the MPAA's creation of the PG-13 rating). The Texas Chainsaw Massacre rated PG? Just the title suggests that it should be rated R. The acting isn't much to write home about. I liked Edwin Neal's portrayal of the off-his-rocker hitchhiker, as I also enjoyed Gunnar Hansen as the movie's most famous character, Leatherface. Leatherface didn't even have any real lines. All he did was run around swinging hammers and chainsaws, while babbling a bunch of nonsense. That was the good acting. Now for the bad. I just wanted to punch Paul Partain's character right in his face, then roll him and his wheelchair down a hill into heavy traffic. The rest of the cast, I could take or leave, though I didn't think Marilyn Burns was that bad. She did a decent job when she wasn't screaming her head off. I'm sorry, but her screams were like nails on a chalkboard. One good point is the movie's score, composed by Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper. Egads, is it bizarre. It's mostly comprised of gongs and other odd noises, which only helps make the movie weirder than it really is. I give it a thumbs up. The makeup effects are good too. John Dugan looks like a crusty, almost-dead mummy of an old man, even though he was only 18 years old when the movie was made. That's good effects.
Overall, I'll give the movie a thumbs up. I liked the first hour and the final three minutes a lot, but the nineteen in between just really didn't do a lot for me. That nineteen minutes is supposed to be the most memorable scenes in the movie (the dinner scene, for those of you who've seen the movie), but I don't know why. I just wasn't digging its groove. Maybe I'll need to watch it a few more times to get into it, I don't know. The beginning of the movie moves kinda slow and can be boring, but it all pays off. I enjoyed the heck out of this one, and I'm gonna give it three and a half stars. I find The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be an acquired taste. It'll grow on you after multiple viewings, and I find that it still stands up with the horror movies of today.
Final Rating: ***½