“I just can’t take no pleasure in killing. There’s just some things you gotta do. Don’t mean you have to like it,” says the old man.
It’s hard to believe that one of the most influential horror films of all time, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is also one of the least goriest R-rated horror films. It’s also interesting that the film was marketed as a true story, especially since it later turned out that only some elements of it were loosely based on serial killer Ed Gein (the same Ed Gein who also inspired Psycho). I had heard various things about the film for years, and even renewed interest in it when the remake came out over a decade ago (for the record, I neither went to see the awful remake nor have I made any efforts to see it even on cable). When I bought the original film on Blu-ray (its first Blu-ray release), I watched all of the special features without actually watching the film. It wasn’t until two years that I finally saw the film for the first time ever. It was at the Museum of Modern Art (of all places) in New York City that I saw it on the big screen, and I enjoyed it very much. I would get another chance to see it on the big screen this past summer at the IFC Center, where I attended a midnight screening of the new 40th anniversary restoration of the film (which looked great).
1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre follows a group of friends traveling to their family homestead. While looking for gas at a nearby house, they encounter a family of grave-robbing cannibals and are hunted by a maniac with a chainsaw. Hooper gathered a cast of unknowns for the film (including Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, and Terry McMinn) and they do a fine job (even if some seem over-the-top at times). The over-the-top elements lend a creepy vibe to the film, and shooting the movie on 16mm film lends an even creepier, almost snuff film-like vibe (Hooper most likely had the film shot on 16mm because it was cheaper than shooting on 35mm film). Daniel Pearl’s fantastic cinematography and Robert A. Burns’ terrific production design also add to the creepiness, as well as the fact that most of the film takes place during the day (which is unusual for this kind of horror film). Burns’ work with the inside of the cannibal family’s home is quite impressive; the low budget look of everything in the home adds an authenticity to it that makes it even more frightening (he used real animal remains that he found rather than constructed ones for the cannibal family’s home). The makeup design, particularly for the cannibal grandfather and for Leatherface, is unsettling (once, the low budget works in favor of the film rather than against it).
As previously mentioned, the film is hardly gory (when compared to later horror films). Although the film does depict a number of violent acts, the grisliest ones are left unseen (suggested rather than shown), making them even more horrifying. The screenplay by Hooper and Kim Henkel examines the dark side of the American family, revealing what horrors might lie beneath the surface. The film could be seen as a commentary on capitalism; the cannibal family members are former slaughterhouse workers whose jobs had been rendered obsolete by technological advancements in the meat industry and had to resort to grave robbing and cannibalism to survive (warping their minds even further in the process). The film’s influence cannot be ignored; it helped establish such horror tropes as regular tools being used as murder weapons, a large, silent killer whose only goal seems to be murder, and (SPOILER ALERT!) the final girl. The film’s staying power has endured for 40 years and continues to be popular. Do not pass up a chance to see this film (especially on the big screen), and skip all of the crappy sequels and remakes that have followed.