The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Directed by Tobe Hooper

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a counterculture film, not too unlike Easy Rider.  It’s a horror film adaptation of Hansel & Gretel that created so many of the horror cliches (the final girl, young people on a road trip to a remote location, etc.) that are still around today and were satirized in 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods.  In some ways it is the Citizen Kane of modern horror films.

It’s also a film that was ahead of its time and of its time.  Made on a small budget with a small crew that had to endure the shoot more than participate in it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a huge success, the first real “slasher” movie, that has spawned multiple sequels and remakes, making over $30 million off of its $60,000 budget.  And yet, most of the cast and crew wouldn’t work on anything as noteworthy as this film.

“Only the late Warren Skaaren, the first director of the Texas Film Commission, who would become one of the highest-paid rewrite men in Hollywood, and Ron Bozman, the film’s production manager, who would accept the 1991 Academy award for best picture as one of the producers of The Silence of the Lambs, ascended to the pinnacle of their profession.”

The cast was composed of non actors or inexperienced actors, with only one performer a member of the Screen Actors Guild.  The tall man who played the iconic killer Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) said, “I’m happy I did it, but they’ll probably put ‘Gunnar Hansen. He was Leatherface’ on my gravestone.”

With a movie this groundbreaking and, at the time, unique, the actors became so connected to the types of characters they played.  Marilyn Burns playing Sally, became the ‘final girl.’  She’s the only survivor amongst a group of young travelers who will meet their demise in the Texas backcountry after their van runs out of gas.  While her four friends are pretty quickly and brutally mowed down by the chainsaw-toting serial killer, Sally’s escape lasts much longer.

The film moves much more quickly than you might expect.  We spend time with the group in a non-horror setting, before their van breaks down and while they pick up a disturbed hitchhiker, and once we finally reach the lonely old home in which Leatherface resides, the plot moves swiftly.

There is no drawn out chase that leads to the deaths of Sally’s four friends.  Two of them wander over to the house.  One of them goes inside and is quickly clubbed over the head and prepared for slaughter like the cattle of the slaughterhouse they pass by and briefly ruminate on in the film’s first act.  Then the guy’s girlfriend follows him in and is similarly, quickly desecrated.  In what writer Kim Henkel would call the number one “walker scene,” the girl, Pam, is lifted up and hung on a sharp meat hook where she screams in pain while Leatherface decapitates the lifeless body of her boyfriend.  “If the audience was gonna walk, that’s when they walked out,” said Henkel.

Soon the other two important characters are slaughtered, and that leaves plenty of time for Sally to make her escape.  She shrieks as she runs through the woods, her long blonde hair snagging on dying tree branches, and the film will end on her blood-curdling shriek which morphs into maniacal laughter as she flees, covered in blood, in the back of a pickup truck.

The film spends most of its time on this final, drawn out escape.  Sally will be captured, then forced to endure the most disturbing dinner party of all time, before she again escapes.  Where the film previously cut down the protagonists with conviction and speed, now we watch that familiar trope of the slasher stumbling to keep up with a character he should be able to rundown easily.

In the final chase, Sally makes her way to the nearest road where she flags down a truck driver (clearly and endearingly a non-actor) while the slow-moving Leatherface tries to catch up.  The scene prioritizes spectacle over logic as Sally gets away and the film basks in her shriek/laughter.  It’s a perfect moment to end on, one that underscores the horror of what we’ve just seen and despite the getaway leaves you with a sick feeling in your stomach.

“Many people believed, and still believe, that the movie is entirely true, in part because of its effective cinéma vérité documentary style. In this respect, Hooper anticipated The Blair Witch Project by 26 years, and he did it without the advantage of cheap video.”

Hooper and Henkel wrote the film as a modern version of the Hansel & Gretel fairytale, though they changed the witch character into something like Ed Gein, a cannibal who would dig up buried bodies and decorate his house, from what I tell, with their bones, much as Leatherface does here.

There are some similarities in tone between this and 1972’s Deliverance, a story about a group of friends who find themselves tortured in the backcountry of Georgia.  In that case the danger is rural, and the implication is that the world outside of the more developed cities is where the threat is.  It’s similar to Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend which satirizes this idea, takes it to the extreme, and portrays a setting in which just about everything can and will go wrong once you leave the big city.

But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, like Deliverance, takes this idea very seriously.  The danger is quietly out there, and it seems as though anyone (you or me) could easily stumble upon this trap.  The only truly 100% effective contraceptive is abstinence, and the only way to be 100% sure you don’t end up under the knife of someone like Leatherface is to stick to the urban, liberal cities.

So it’s a counterculture film in the way Easy Rider (1969) was.  In that film, two hippie-ish motorcyclists cruise through southern America, doing drugs on their way to New Orleans.  In the end they are unexpectedly murdered by two people who just don’t like they’re vibe.  They’re killed because they’re different.

From the beginning of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the main characters are marked by ways in which they’re different.  The van in which they cruise through Texas might as well be one of those cages divers submerge themselves in when they want to get up close and personal with a group of sharks.

Before they run out of gas at a gas station that claims not to have any fuel (it’s all part of the trap), the group picks up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), covered in scabs, holding an old-fashioned camera and fascinated by knives.  He sits in the back of the van, on the floor, while the rest of the passengers crowd to one side, looking at him like an audience.  They’re immediately alienated from this character who may or may not be aware of the energy he’s giving off.

We will later learn that the hitchhiker is part of the bigger plot of the story, but in this moment he is just ‘other’ to the passengers’ ‘normal.’  They look at him with wide-eyes as he talks about slaughterhouses with the same kind of reverence as someone discussing the beauty of child birth.

Soon they kick the hitchhiker out of the van but only after he intimidates them by taking their photo, demanding money for the photo, then burning the photo when the group refuses to pay for it.  Oh, and then he slices the arm of one of the group, a foreboding sign of what’s to come.

Between the slaughterhouse-talk, the arm-slicing and what will later happen to the young group, there is a theme of, well, slaughter.  The youths may be idealistic, and they may consider themselves unique, but to this world around them they are nothing more than meat.  They won’t just be killed, but they’ll be violated, chopped up and utterly ruined.  Their bodies will be fragmented, as if to emphasize the parts of the body more than the person.  The head is as useless as the rest of the body but probably even more so.  For a generation of people driving the counter-culture movement, Massacre suggests that we’re still all just the same, and it’s all pointless, at least from the perspective of the old guard, the group that resists this kind of change.

This is what they want to do to us, metaphorically, Hooper might as well be saying, just as Dennis Hopper said with Easy Rider.  This is what we’re up against.

Up Next: The Tree of Life (2011), The Shape of Water (2017), East of Eden (1955)

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