Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Tobe Hooper’s powerfully disturbing breakthrough ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is a film of superior artistry executed for the specific reason to hate you and ruthlessly attack you; its sole intention is to drive you mad with its insane sights of the macabre - a raw grueling waking nightmare that captures authentically the syntax of one. Everything here is made to draw that strong emotional response from your psyche causing an impact so deep you will not soon forget what you just saw as you experience its sheer horror suffering with anxiety, despair and fear from the psychological mindfuck it relentlessly hits you with as you squirm with immense discomfort. It is an uncompromising exercise in cruelty and savagery entailing torture, mutilation and murders and features five prolonged sequences of maddening terror with all these horrid events encapsulated in a constant thick atmosphere of dread.

Yet despite these extreme acts of violence, there is hardly one drop of blood in sight. Expertly crafted by Hooper he cleverly makes you think you have seen more than you actually have as if you just witnessed a bloodbath of epic proportions - there are no explicit close-up money shots of gore and amputated limbs as it is all done out of shot. The filmmaker did wonders on such limited resources with the independent production’s ultra-low budget and anything else would have been just so fake looking, therefore this restraint was the right decision and is far more effective for it. This is in total contrast to the movie’s provocative selling points of its excellent unforgettable title and equally memorable glorious tagline - “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” There is actually only one chainsaw related death in the entire running time if you do not include the decapitation of an already dead victim; his head sawed off in front of his hung up on a meat hook girlfriend. However, Tobe Hooper does not hold back in all other horrifying aspects. He also emphasises upon sound design with the various excruciating sounds existing both in and out of the world of the story contributing with great effectiveness to an ingeniously efficient piece of shocking cinema.


A native Texan growing up in Austin, the filmmaker was inspired in part by the graphic nature of the local TV news coverage showing explicitly in their reports of road accidents the carnage of mangled human corpses. Another influence was the paranoia the rest of the USA feels about the rural Deep South and its inhabitants. The dangers of outsiders heading into the isolated territory of hostile and sometimes inbred hick residents were depicted with terrifying realism a couple of years earlier in John Boorman’s brilliant survival thriller ‘Deliverance’ (1972). It laid the foundations for the backwoods slasher evident here and what would follow in 1977 with Wes Craven’s own stark brutality of the ‘The Hills Have Eyes’. Hooper and Craven are both important innovators in the molding of the slasher as a whole sub-genre of horror with the former introducing to it the elements of the masked killer, the final girl and the often-used backwoods setting along with its tropes.

The body snatcher and murderer Ed Gein of Plainfield, Wisconsin was an inspiration as well. Gein would dress up in the skin of the exhumed bodies of recently buried women he would dig up from the village’s cemetery and even the skin of his recently deceased mother; her passing the cause his psychosis. He also murdered two local women in his efforts to experience what it would be like to be a woman and crafted furniture and other various artifacts out of women’s bodies. This is an influence seen here in the antagonists’ disgusting home the rundown farmhouse of the Sawyer family. The act of skinning and the want of femininity inspired the look and behavior of the movie’s central villain and posterboy Leatherface the hulking brutal force of nature played with such vigor by Gunnar Hanson expressing himself through movements. Leatherface assumes the characters of his various human skin masks he wears throughout assuming different roles in his dysfunctional family even the female role of the homemaker wearing a feminine mask complete with cosmetic make-up taking the part due to no presence of a female in the family. This makes him sexually ambiguous. Not only is Leatherface the most physically powerful villain here but he is also the most frightened - a mentally challenged man-child defending himself against the luckless strangers of the youths invading his home searching for gasoline. Hanson actually studied mentally challenged people researching his role.

The head of the Sawyers (although we do not learn their family name until Tobe Hooper’s 1986 sequel) is The Cook (Jim Siedow). He is the eldest brother of the family but has taken the role of the fatherly figure the breadwinner doing his best to support them representing blue collar America in the film’s subtle social commentary of the era who has a sadistic side he tries to bury but cannot help giving in to the urges of his genetic bloodlust. He is the owner of a rundown gas station during the time of the country’s great gasoline crisis a further financial crippling to his family’s victimization of industrial capitalism - technical advances in their working class profession of abattoir workers has resulted in their redundancy from the local slaughterhouse. This poverty of unemployment is further emphasized by the director’s iconography of the landscape of these Texas surroundings - a barren wasteland as if it were on the brink of apocalyptic destruction. There is the said rundown gas station, a derelict mansion and the also aforementioned shithole farmhouse inhabited by the psychotic family. They have resorted to cannibalism to feed themselves treating their victims like the cattle they used to slaughter; the results of industrial capitalism forces its victims - the older working classes - to feed on society’s younger generation. Ironically, the shortage of gasoline further adding to the Sawyer’s woes leads the teenagers to their doom when two of them go looking for gas at the farmhouse. Both generations are victims of the same system.

Astrology plays a part here too in the unlucky young adults' bad day. We hear the diegetic sound of the radio in the van with a news broadcast of terrible events happening around the country as the group of friends travel to a local cemetery where the grave of two siblings here - Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) Hardesty - has been defiled. This is seen in the grisly opening pre-title sequence that perfectly sets the atmosphere and tone for the rest of the dreaded proceedings. One of the group Pam (the meat hook victim) played by Teri McMinn reads aloud from an astrology book the gist of which is how today’s alignment of the planets has a negative impact on the day; like the other horrible events happening in other locations, the events depicted in this movie just so happens to be one of those events.

Leaving the cemetery, they pick up a crazy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) the defiler of the grave and the youngest member of the Sawyers who plays like the rebellious teenager of the family and this really is the start of the group's bad day out. This completes the components of a deranged version of an American sitcom like family in which Hooper’s underlying pitch-black humour can be seen in the last act as all three comically interact with each other while psychologically and physically torturing Sally. Although this dark humour is lost amongst all this unpleasantness and grimness going over the heads of the movie’s audience, something that really bugged the fuck out of Hooper that lead him to bring these elements to the forefront for his bat shit crazy black comedy sequel.

Burns as Sally is a template for the final girl in modern American slasher horror. This later common convention in the sub-genre has yet to be fully rounded here in its characterization of a sensible virginal bookworm with morals and values who does not partake in sex and drugs and later blossoms with resourcefulness in the climatic chase/fight off sequence with the killer. Here Sally shows none of these characteristics as Burns pulls off being petrified, helpless and descending into madness with complete conviction in an emotionally exhausting performance. Sally’s paraplegic brother Franklin while obviously a defenseless victim is one of the most annoyingly obnoxious and tiresome characters ever. I think this was intentional by Tobe Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel to make the killing of a disabled person that you should be repelled by but instead makes you feel guilty for having your wish come true in seeing this whiny childish brat getting the chainsaw. The rest of the group is very likable in comparison and we feel sympathy for their misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This is one of the purest horror films ever made and one of the most significant of 70’s American cinema made by a young radical filmmaker with real guts and vision. This was at a time when young independent horror filmmakers were making fresh energetic provocative works commentating on the world around them changing cinema forever with their subject matters and the innovations of how they depicted their stories setting them apart from the traditional studio system established before them. Tobe Hooper was part of this new wave of young auteurs along with George A. Romero with 1968's 'Night of the Living Dead' and Wes Craven with 1972's 'The Last House on the Left' that made Lady Hollywood sit up and take notice as they penetrated her, pounded her walls and exploded inside of her. Horror was ideal for these indie filmmaking voices to carry the metaphors of what they had to say embodying it all in groundbreaking ideas ushering in a new era of the genre setting the template for modern horror  that would remain prevalent today and ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is testament to that.

****1/2 out of *****

Dave J. Wilson

©2015 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.


  1. Good write up on an amazing film. I think this film's influence on American cinema aftr it is very under appreciated. You, my friend, get it. (Hell, it inspired my own "Nothing Men" novel, something an early reader of it picked up on after she finished it.) Kudos!