The Re-Appreciator #6: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The Re-Appreciator is a feature in which I dust off the classics (and/or personal favorites). If you’ve seen the movie in question, perhaps I’ll provoke a new thought or two. If you haven’t seen it, perhaps I’ll compel you to check it out.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre arrived in theaters in 1974. It wasn’t the revolutionary indie that marked a profound generation gap in horror; that would be Night of the Living Dead in ’68. Nor was it the first slasher movie, not when the Italian Bay of Blood made its way stateside in ’72. It wasn’t even the first to feature a chainsaw as a murder weapon. The Last House on the Left showcased the power tool’s deadly potential in its gruesome climax, also in ’72.

What TCM brought was an outlandish nightmare so relentless and intense, we’re still reeling four decades later. It staked out some dark corner of our psyches that horror movies had never reached before, a place where all the mayhem on screen felt a little too real. Even after sequels and a remake which begat its own prequel, scores of imitators, references in other movies, an undeniable influence on the next generation of horror filmmakers, TCM remains an unsettling experience even if its premise has become a bit trite with age.

Five young people, including the siblings Sally (Marilyn Burns) and wheelchair-bound Franklin Hardesty (Paul A. Partain), are traveling through central Texas by van. With reports of grave robberies in the news, the siblings want to check up on their grandfather’s grave and the abandoned family homestead. They find the grave intact and pick up a hitchhiker on their way to the homestead. Our travelers soon realize their mistake; the hitchhiker is more than a little unhinged, lovingly recalling the good old days when his family worked in the nearby slaughterhouse, bashing cattle skulls with a sledge. He also takes a Polaroid photo of Franklin and demands payment. The group refuses, so the hitchhiker burns the photo and slashes Franklin’s arm with a straight razor before the group ejects him.

Running low on gas, they come to a station where the middle-aged proprietor repeatedly warns them not to go messing around in old houses. More annoyingly, he doesn’t even have gas to sell. Our travelers continue on to the run-down Hardesty house, where the couple Kirk and Pam peel off to look for a rumored swimming hole. They find a dry ditch instead, but the sound of a humming generator leads them to another house a short walk away.

Kirk and Pam knock on the door, hoping to barter for gas. No one answers, but they find a human tooth on the porch. For many of us, that might be a cue to leave. But not Kirk. Pam understandably hangs back while he goes inside. Kirk finds pieces of carcasses nailed to the walls and still presses ahead toward an open doorway. Suddenly a figure fills that doorway: a hulk wearing a mask made of stitched-together flesh, wielding a hammer. This figure strikes Kirk upon the head and drops him in a twitching heap.

Pam reluctantly ventures into the house to check on Kirk. She stumbles into a room full of animal and human remains, some artistically arranged as sculptures. She tries to flee, but the masked figure (later called Leatherface) catches her and carries her to the back room where Kirk’s body lies. Leatherface impales Pam on a meathook, leaving her to dangle, scream, and watch while he carves up Kirk’s body with a chainsaw.

And then there were three. Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry, goes looking for Kirk and Pam and fares as well as expected. As night falls, Sally and Franklin set off to find their friends...

Writer-director Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel have cited the Hansel and Gretel story as an inspiration, which is funny considering Sally and Franklin’s grating bickering in their time alone together. To create an antagonist for the siblings, Hooper and Henkel researched serial killers, including Wisconsin’s notorious corpse mutilator Ed Gein and Texas’ own Elmer Wayne Henley. This unique mix of influences – a European fairy tale published in 1812 with real postwar American murder cases – is one of the many reasons why TCM stands out from the horror pack.

Craftsmanship sets it apart as well. Hooper, Sallye Richardson, and J. Larry Carroll spent several months at the editing table, and their painstaking effort shows even before the opening credits. TCM immediately draws us in with voiceover-narrated text that deceptively implies the movie is based on a true story. It disorients us with glimpses of corpses before lingering on a shot of those corpses arranged as a sculpture in a cemetery. The opening credits appear and give way to a lingering shot of a dead armadillo on the roadside. Only then does TCM introduce its characters, already having placed us deep in a world of dread.

TCM steadily ramps up with its murders, revealing that the hitchhiker, the gas station proprietor, and Leatherface are in fact cannibalistic siblings. They capture Sally and force her to attend their family dinner, the meal most likely consisting of her friends. Then the brothers try to hold Sally down so their wizened, corpse-like grandfather can bash her head with a hammer. Just like the good old days!

By its final minutes, TCM has reached a hysterical pitch. Its cumulative effect is so overwhelming, so punishing, that it’s easy to not notice how skillfully Hooper and his team put it all together. This is no hack job that works in spite of itself. It’s the product of an intelligent design, and it’s fueled by a feverish DIY energy that Hollywood productions simply can’t duplicate.

It might be easy to overlook the cast’s good work, too. TCM suffers no shortage of memorable characterizations. Edwin Neal gives the hitchhiker a twitchy menace and little brother’s eagerness to prove himself. Jim Siedow plays the older brother as the publicly sane and moralistic one, which makes the character’s private sadism even creepier. Gunnar Hansen wears masks and has no lines for all his screen time and still provides Leatherface with something of a personality. He’s a crazed killer to the outside world, a dutiful butcher and bullied home-maker among his family.

As for the victims, Marilyn Burns admirably provides the movie with the screaming, scared-shitless protagonist it needs.  Her terror and pain feel all too real, and it’s hard to not root for her escape. On the other hand, Paul Partain’s Franklin is so whiny and insufferable, it’s hard to not root for his demise. Partain’s performance is one of TCM’s perverse hidden gems; it makes his character’s death by chainsaw both vicious and immensely satisfying at the same damn time.

It’s also worth noting that Franklin’s death happens in the dark, obscuring its gore. Wary first-time viewers might be surprised to find that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t nearly as bloody as its reputation and title would suggest. It’s violent enough, to be sure, but it’s not gratuitous even by the standards of its own time; Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs were two contemporary major mainstream releases that delivered more graphic carnage. TCM fools viewers into believing they’re seeing more gore than what’s actually shown. To be fair, some of this trickery was born of low-budget necessity, and yet TCM’s restraint ends up being one of its strengths.

Likewise, and to its credit, TCM doesn’t traffic in the rape or sexual violence that run throughout Peckinpah’s films, The Last House on the Left, and subsequent slashers. TCM’s youths aren’t killed as penance for having sex; they never even have a chance to make out. And while the villains do gang up on poor Sally, torturing her with murderous intent, they show no sexual interest even when she desperately offers herself to them. To the villains, Sally and her friends are nothing more than food or material for an art project. TCM may be misanthropic, but at least it’s not misogynistic. For what it’s worth, its final body count tallies four men to one woman.

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TCM’s production and reception have been well-documented. Anyone interested would do well to check out John Bloom’s excellent piece “They Came. They Sawed” for Texas Monthly, Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value, and the documentary The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: A Family Portrait. Videos of cast reunion Q&A panels are readily available online as well.

To summarize: it was a brutal shoot in the sweltering Texas summer heat. Due to the very limited budget, cast and crew worked long days in a grueling schedule; the family dinner scene alone required a marathon 26-hour session. Art director Robert Burns’ use of real carcasses for the set design, coupled with the heat, caused many to fall ill. Cast members suffered injuries and scary close calls; some of their screams are genuine. Presiding over this misery was Hooper, who later admitted, “By the time I finished the film, I think everyone hated me.”

Finding a distributor was another challenge. An outfit called Bryanston Distributors agreed to take it on. Bryanston did an admittedly brilliant job of selling TCM, unashamed to use the “This is a true story!” ploy that would later prove so effective for The Blair Witch Project, too. In what might have been a case of proto-trolling, Bryanston even submitted TCM to the Museum of Modern Art and the Cannes Film Festival to further rile its frothing critics. The good news was that TCM was an instant hit and cult phenomenon. The bad news was that the cast and crew received only pennies on the dollars they were promised due to the haphazard financing of the production, Bryanston’s shady accounting of the profits, and the resulting mess of legal wrangling.

Hooper went on to Hollywood in the wake of TCM’s success. His TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot had its moments, as did The Funhouse. Although Hooper was officially credited for directing the blockbuster Poltergeist, persistent and widespread rumors that producer Steven Spielberg really directed the movie dogged Hooper throughout his career. A pair of flops – Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars – and the disappointing TCM sequel didn’t help, either. By the ’90s, he was primarily working in TV while turning out critically maligned non-hits like Spontaneous Combustion and The Mangler.

This post is no knock on Hooper. He directed a landmark horror movie and co-created an enduring monster. Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger, and Matthew McConaughey would all work in TCM sequels early in their careers, but actors and directors come and go while Leatherface remains the one constant every TCM movie requires. He’s the kind of character one can build a franchise upon, as further proven by the Halloween and Friday the 13th series. Here we are in 2016, forty-two years after TCM’s release, and the eighth TCM movie – a prequel imaginatively titled Leatherface – is scheduled for release next year.

There was always more to the original than Leatherface, however. Its disturbing imagery, adept editing and camerawork, and vivid performances give it lasting power. Academics and critics have been mining it for sociopolitical subtext over time, interpreting it as a film of “primitive apocalypse” about “a world dissolving into primordial chaos,” an argument for vegetarianism, an examination of the “transgressive excesses of capitalism,” and so on. Hooper himself has claimed that it’s a response to early ’70s woes like Watergate and Vietnam. Or maybe it was just a well-made horror movie conceived by young and ambitious people who’d hoped to break into Hollywood.

In any event, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the rare film that demands multiple viewings even as it pummels viewers on the first. Why we would subject ourselves to it once, let alone more than once, is an open question. How so many of us can see artistry in it, while others see only trash, is another. But we’re out there, dear reader, we freaks who hail this thing as a classic, and I’m afraid our ranks have only grown since 1974.

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