Last year when my Halloween Binge came to a close, I decided to wrap it up with a classic – an essential horror film I had never seen before. That was, of course, The Exorcist, largely considered to be one of the best horror movies of all time. This year I wanted to end my binge the same way, with another classic I hadn’t seen before. There were a few options, but one stood out as being especially influential, especially famous, and hopefully especially scary. I decided early on to make 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre the final film in my Second Annual Halloween Binge.
Keen readers will remember I did another Tobe Hooper film last year and didn’t think much of it. I’m referring to Lifeforce, an overlong mess of a film with only a few fun moments. However that was also a Dan O’Bannon project, and that didn’t retroactively make me reevaluate Alien or The Return of the Living Dead. Besides, Tobe Hooper had some fair hand in Poltergeist (he’s got to have at least served as occasional co-director if nothing else) and Poltergeist is an awesome movie. All of which is to say I was looking forward to Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It feels almost like an insult to summarize this movie for readers, given what an iconic and recycled structure Texas Chainsaw Massacre plays by, but I’m going to do it anyway. The movie follows a group of teenagers travelling cross-country in a van to go visit the ruins of a childhood home. Along they way they run afoul of a family of redneck cannibals. First they pick up an odd hitchhiker, who becomes increasingly aggressive and strange until they have to throw him from the van. Then, as they begin to run out of gas, the teenagers arrive at the old house they are looking for. One couple wanders off to swim. They split up further and the male teenager enters a nearby house to look for gas. When he enters the house, a large masked figure pops out of the woodwork squealing like a pig. The figure (Leatherface, obviously) brings a sledgehammer down on the intruder’s head. The woman wanders in, keels over in horror when she gets a look at the bone-furniture in the living room, and gets hung up on a meathook while Leatherface warms up his chainsaw and goes to town on the unconscious body of the first teenager.
The violence in the film has a very flat quality that helps sell it as being especially brutal. With the camera often held in the distance or hidden by placement, the approach to violence is surprisingly minimal and uncinematic. It’s also coupled with incredibly minor gore effects (Tobe Hooper had actually hoped to get the film a PG rating at the time). This helps to sell the violence as brutal and realistic most of the time. Other times it’s maybe a little too obviously a way to censor the action, but generally it goes over pretty well.
The teenagers of the movie then continue to split up and wander into Leatherface’s path one by one. They’re not exactly being hunted, with the exception of the last girl, who leads Leatherface on a not-so-merry chase before she’s eventually captured and introduced to the whole redneck murder family. It’s almost comedic watching these kids wander one by one into the unsuspecting Leatherface. It helps give the bumbling figure a lot of character. The actor chose to play Leatherface as retarded and incapable of human speech, so the human-leather wearing guy sort of bounces around making incoherent noises, which makes the whole thing more menacing.
It’s easy to see why Leatherface caught on. After all he’s the antagonist for most of the movie, and he’s a pretty entertaining figure in the film. However the whole murder-cannibal-redneck Ed Gein-inspired family is pretty great. I especially liked Grandpa; part way through I wondered why I hadn’t seen more people try to pull off a Grandpa costume. The fact that he was alive was the only “twist” in the movie that surprised me, and the scene where the family tries to hold his hand while murdering the protagonist was absolutely great.
The production was pretty gonzo. The film was shot with unknown actors on location for a small amount of money. The effects were dangerous and unplanned – like a decapitation scene that required moving a running chainsaw within a few centimetres of an actor’s face. At one point, the lead actress’ finger is cut on camera. After troubles with the fake blood, Tobe Hooper cut out the middle man – and a chunk of the finger – capturing the actress’ actual blood onscreen. The whole shoot was dangerously hot and uncomfortable for the cast (who weren’t allowed to have their costumes washed). In one scene a real hammer was dropped repeatedly past the star’s head. Hooper has said that every cast member sustained some kind of injury, and most of them took a few years to stop hating him.
While initially reviews were mixed, some people, including Roger Ebert, recognized Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a success right away. Horror aficionados like Steven King and Wes Craven have noted its impact and effectiveness. The unbelievably grimy film was an influence on everything from Alien to Halloween. The film has been recognized by the Museum of Modern Art, by the British Film institute, and by Total Film (which has named it the single greatest horror film of all time on numerous occasions).
It remains an entertaining film to this day. The villains are iconic and make for a fascinating watch. The film, despite having relatively low onscreen gore, still manages to feel brutal, unpleasant, and unclean. It has a skin-crawling griminess that gives the proceedings a lot of extra atmosphere. It’s well directed and, despite its low budget greasy façade, is notably well shot. There’s a lot of quality craftsmanship on display, elevating the backwoods slasher flick from curiosity to influential classic. It was a fitting end to my thirteen day Halloween Binge.