Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a movie I had heard a lot about over the years, and I have watched numerous documentaries about its making to where it felt like I had seen it even though I had not. It wouldn’t be until the year 2000, just after I graduated from college, when I sat down to watch it on my new 27-inch JVC television set. I just started my subscription with Netflix, and this was one of the first movies I rented from it.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” came out in 1974, so I went into it thinking there was no way it could be as horrifying now as it was when first released. I sat down in front of my TV prepared to eat my dinner, a Cedarline Mediterranean Stuffed Focaccia, while watching this horror classic. One of the first images, however, was of a pair of rotting corpses draped over a gravestone in a cemetery, and I decided it would be better to turn off the TV and finish my dinner before continuing. Once I was done and tossed my plate into the dishwasher, I turned the set back on and continued watching, believing it would be a piece of cake to sit through this lauded horror classic.
It has now been over 40 years since the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was unleashed on the world, but when I watched it on DVD, I had no idea it would prove to be one of the most unnerving and brutal motion pictures I ever sat through. I figured no movie going experience would ever be more intense than “Requiem for a Dream” was when I saw it in Hollywood with a sold-out audience, but then I watched Hooper’s horrifying masterpiece. After it was over, I wondered to myself if I could have possibly endured this film had I first watched it on the silver screen.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” opens with a crawl, narrated by John Larroquette, stating it is based on a true story, but it turns out this was not the case. However, certain plot elements were inspired by serial killer Ed Gein whose acts of violence came to inform many other movies including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” We are introduced to a group of two siblings and three of their friends as they travel out to Texas to visit the grave of their grandparents. As you can imagine, what they discover far surpasses any imagined fears anyone could have endured when they were young.
I knew I was in trouble when this group of kids picked up a hitchhiker (played by Edwin Neal). This guy looked like he hadn’t showered in weeks as his face and hair seemed much slimier than anyone else’s on planet Earth. Seeing him cut himself and one of the kids had my hair standing on end, and this was just the beginning. The horror this movie had to offer was just starting, and the intensity would only increase exponentially from there.
By the time everyone got to the house, I was already sweating. I hadn’t seen the movie, but I already knew what was coming. People don’t just die a horrible death in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” they die a realistic one. When Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) smashes one guy on the head with a hammer, the guy falls down and convulses horribly. Watching this sequence, I felt this is the way a person would react if bashed in the head with the hammer, and it showed me this would not be your average horror movie in the slightest.
What’s especially surprising about this film is it’s not as bloody or gory as you might expect. I figured there would be an ocean of blood on display, but instead it’s what I didn’t see which really messed with my head. We see Leatherface impale the beautiful Pam (Teri McMinn) on a meat hook, but we never see the hook go into her body. The expression you see on Pam’s face ends up feeling all the more unbearably real as a result because you can’t help but wonder how the hook went in and of how long she could hope to last before all her blood drained out.
In some ways, the powerful effect “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” gives off was something of an accident. When making this movie, Hooper was aiming for a PG-rating and even talked with members of the MPAA to find out how he could earn such a rating for a horror film like this one. A lot of the advice het got was to not show any body penetration or the chainsaw slicing into human flesh, and of course, he needed to limit the amount of blood shown. But instead of getting the PG-rating, Hooper saw his film get an X as these guides he was given proved to have the opposite effect. The fact it managed to get an R seems astonishing even by today’s standards. Still, this seems as welcome an accident as the shark not working on the set of “Jaws” was.
This could have been nothing more than a mere horror flick of the exploitation kind, but there really is a lot of artistry on display throughout. The acting all around is never weak, cinematographer Daniel Pearl gives everything a dirty look which will make you want to take a shower quickly after this movie’s conclusion, and the sound design makes you feel like you are in a real-life slaughterhouse. Hooper may have had a simple mission in mind while making this horror classic, but it turned into something far scarier than he ever intended.
Leatherface remains one of the scariest villains any horror movie could ever hope to have, and it’s a real shame this was the only time Gunnar Hansen played this iconic character as he brought a lot of thought and an instinctual energy to the role. Seeing him wander around in that human flesh-made mask of his, I started to fear what Leatherface looked like without the mask.
But while I want to give credit to all the other actors, I have to single out Marilyn Burns who plays Sally Hardesty. While she has an easy time during the movie’s first half, the last half has her screaming endlessly to where you want to see her get a Purple Heart instead of an Academy Award for her work. She screams and screams and screams to where I wondered just how tortured she felt throughout shooting. The closeup of her eyes while she is a guest at the most devilish of family dinners had me staring at the screen in utter horror. Even though I knew exactly how this movie would end, I was still gripped as I became desperate for Sally to escape any and every which way she could.
The movie’s last half is a frenzy to where I wondered how I could have survived this had I first watched it on the silver screen. Watching it on my television set with the volume turned down was hard enough as I wanted Sally’s hellish experience to end sooner rather than later, but her torture dragged on longer to where I refused to believe “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a mere 84 minutes long. When the screen finally went to black, it felt like such a welcome relief as I wondered just how much more I could have sat through had Hooper extended things out to two hours.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” has long since earned its place alongside the greatest horror movies ever made, and the fact it hasn’t lost any of its power to unnerve and horrify the bravest of film buffs speaks to a power most filmmakers hope to have in their lifetime. The only other horror movies which equal this one’s power to terrify decades after their release are John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” Some horror movies play better on the big screen than on television, but this one proves to be every bit as effective on both.
I still have yet to watch any of the sequels as I feel like I am still recovering from this cinematic experience over 10 years later. I did watch the Platinum Dunes remake, but the only thing about it which truly unnerved me was when Leatherface took off Eric Balfour’s face and made it into a mask for himself. As I write this review, the prequel “Leatherface” is about to released in theatres everywhere. Filmmakers can only hope to equal Hooper’s film, but it hasn’t stopped them from trying.