Now a legendary horror film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as it seems to be called just as often (hereafter TCSM either way), was at the time of its release a most unusual feature. Why the movie still resonates today though, why it still has such a strong cult following, and why it remains one of the genre’s greatest entries, is for many of the same reasons it was so groundbreaking in 1974. The Vietnam-era angst has since dissipated (or has perhaps been replaced by a new sort of battle fatigue) and the notion of a post-Night of the Living Dead horror film renaissance has certainly gone by the wayside, but TCSM remains just as expressive and as masterfully effective it ever was.
The opening scroll touts a film that is both “mad and macabre,” and goes on to give the picture a (false) true story mythos, suggesting with a tone of journalistic actuality that on August 18, 1973 the events we are about to behold actually occurred (production on the film started July 15, 1973, so there’s that). As flashbulbs illuminate mangled and rotting corpses, a piercing grinding or sanding sound cuts through the muffled noises and the voices of disembodied men. These are more than just corpses strewn about. These physically mutilated bodies are situated in bizarre arrangements in a graveyard. Something very wrong has been happening in this remote Texas region. A sickly feeling of impending, ghastly dread is heightened by hues of saturated oranges, yellows, and red, a color-coding that will reappear throughout the film. Over the radio, we hear news accounts of other horrific events in the area. Death is in the air it seems.
The story that follows is admittedly slight, with little in the way of narrative exposition or elaborate characterization, neither of which prove to be especially necessary for this film that functions far more successfully in its emphasis on atmosphere and visuals. Such as they are, there are five main characters though: Kirk, Pam, Jerry, Sally, and her brother, the wheelchair bound Franklin, the only character with a memorable presence, for better or worse. In these roles are William Vail, Teri McMinn, Allen Danziger, Marilyn Burns, and Paul A. Partain, respectively.
“Things happen here about,” says a drunkard rather cryptically in the beginning of the picture, and while the group’s intention of visiting an old family home seems innocent enough, it soon becomes obvious that things will not go as planned. Along the way, they pick up a bloodied and scarred hitchhiker who laughs hysterically, notes that his family has “always been in meat,” carries snapshots of cow carcasses, and proceeds to cut his palm with a pocketknife. What could go wrong here?
So much of what is now a tried and true horror cliché is present to this point—the eccentric drifter, the group of teenagers, a cemetery, an isolated setting, etc.—but when the hitchhiker is removed from the van and proceeds to smear his blood on the side, the initial mild weirdness takes a sharp yet subtle turn to imminent danger.
The quintet arrives at their destination and begins to survey the area, including a visit to a nearby farmhouse with inhabitants who, we find, have a very peculiar sense of dysfunctional family values. Again, this begins the now common, though then comparatively novel, scenario of picking off one by one each of the young people, ultimately concluding with the “final girl,” arguably the first incarnation of this similarly modern generic device.
Early on in the van, there is mention of the zodiac and planetary alignments suggesting some sort of otherworldly evil, but such a foreign stimulation for the terror that transpires is not to be. The evil here is not from the beyond. The evil here is very human, very real. From the first time we see the famous Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), it becomes clear that TCSM is operating on a whole other plane that its horror predecessors. The picture eschews the typical, but by no means mandatory, malevolent back-story assigned to the villains. This wickedness is an inexplicable one. There is no solace in an explanation, no comfort in reasoning. Those who reside in this house of horrors operate on an unknown and perhaps unknowable wavelength. They simply are who they are and director Tobe Hooper appears to be not the least bit concerned with establishing their motivations or their rationale. And the film is all the better for it.
There is surprisingly little bloodshed in the film, but there is certainly violence—painful and sudden violence—starting with the dynamic first kill, a brutally realistic and spastic takedown. In place of excessive gore, there is a palpable sensory experience. Stifling Texas heat and the concurrent dirt and grime that appear bonded to every individual and surface produce a texture of uncomfortable grit and roughness. Add to this the stated stench of the local slaughterhouses and the sweaty confinement of the van and you get a highly evocative sense of displeasure. TCSM utilizes abject features to amplify its unpleasantly potent picture of the horrific: spiders scurrying in the corner, peeling wallpaper, bones, hair, fur, teeth, and skulls. These naturally repellent or at least unsettling elements placed in these abhorrent sites set a truly horrific scene.
Related to this are the anatomical constructions that decorate the interior of the farmhouse. The gruesome set design created from these revolting props is an ornamentation built on the objectionable. While TCSM is a fictional film, part of its inspiration came from the ghastly exploits of Ed Gein (also a basis for Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs). Here, his fleshy furniture and corporeal costuming are ever-present and act as a sort of primitive precursor to the body horror subgenre that would develop years later, the pinnacle of achievement to come in the works of David Cronenberg. TCSM is particularly focused on physical deformity and disability (see, for example, Franklin, his crippled condition conveying a weakness that will contrast against the power of Leatherface) and, on the other hand, the strength of the physical and mental will that allows for the gruesome bodily modifications and the generally repugnant living conditions of this most uncanny family.
For a film that otherwise looks down and dirty and clearly on the lower end of the budget spectrum ($83,532 according to an IMDB estimate – yielding a $30,859,000 gross), credit goes to Hooper and director of photography Daniel Pearl for keeping the film punctuated by unexpected bits of stylish skill. Odd and interesting angles and smooth, occasionally quite intricate camera maneuvers do a good deal to offset any apparent budgetary restrictions. Yet one of the reasons TCSM is so impressive is its generally unappealing look. This has nothing to do with poor cinematography (though cheap 16 mm stock no doubt contributed), but it is a feature common to a great many horror films from the period. Take any number of the cannibal films of the 1970s, the average Video Nasty, or the early Wes Craven features; these films look unpleasant, and they work extremely well because of it. There is no gloss, no sheen, no consistently crystal clear imagery. They are grainy, murky, and soiled. The settings are filthy and ugly. The people, or at least the bad people, are unattractive and peculiar. Forget their narrative content, these films look like horror films. One of the last really great movies to effectively capitalize on this visual distinction was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), which arguably falls more into the drama category anyway, already signaling a stylistic shift in the form. In any case, such an objectionable quality and association is relatively rare now, which is a shame, for as TCSM shows as well as any, it makes for a profoundly visceral viewing experience.
For those who agree with any of the above assessment and likewise find TCSM to be a strikingly impressive horror film, the newly released 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition 2 Blu-ray/2 DVD combo pack is a gold mine of fascinating featurettes, commentaries, and behind the scenes miscellanea. On the disc with the feature are no less than four distinct commentary tracks (two unique to this set), bringing in everyone from Tobe Hooper and a majority of the cast to production designer Robert Burns (perhaps the most unsung and integral contributor to the film) and editor J. Larry Carroll. The 72 minute The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth is probably the most informative special feature, but inclusions like a 2000 tour of the farmhouse-turned-restaurant with Hansen and an episode of Horror’s Hallowed Grounds will stoke the fan boy’s interest in the film’s contemporary state (I for one would gladly take a trip to Kingsland, Texas in order to dine at the Grand Central Café). Deleted scenes, outtakes, more interviews, even a blooper reel; the bonus disc sheds light on nearly every facet of this classic motion picture.