The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

This review was originally written as part of my USA Road Trip series at French Toast Sunday. I also reviewed the film recently for Blueprint: Review.

Five youths – two couples and the wheelchair-bound brother of one of the couples’ female halves – are travelling through Texas, first checking that their ancestors’ resting places haven’t been disturbed in a recent bout of grave digging, before spending some time at an abandoned house owned by the parents of the brother and sister. However, a creepy hitch-hiker and a very-much-not-abandoned house nearby put something of a damper onto their vacationing plans.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film with a reputation, most of which comes from its name. I’d imagine that, outside of film fans and horror junkies, a great deal of “normal” people have never sat down and watched it. I remember once when my girlfriend heard somebody talking about it, and asked me what kind of a sick person would enjoy watching this filth. I then pointed at the copy of the DVD in my bookcase, and the conversation took an abrupt turn. It didn’t help that, before watching it for this review, I’d never really seen the film, and I highly doubt I’ll ever get my partner to watch it (it really, really isn’t her kind of thing), it just seems most people don’t have an urge, when they sit down of an evening, to watch something involving a chain saw massacre, and to be honest I can’t say I really blame them. What they’re all missing out on, however, is a hugely influential, incredibly well made and utterly iconic slice of cinema, which just happens to be about a family of psychopathic cannibals and their chain saw wielding son.

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As I said, this was pretty much my first viewing. I have technically sat through it before, as has been the case with so many “classic” movies I attempted to cross off a personal list in my youth, but only succeeded in spoiling the endings for myself and not appreciating anything about the actual films themselves. However, some parts stuck with me, because even if you barely watch this film, it’s not an experience you’ll ever completely erase from your mind. The bit with the hook, for example, traumatised me for a very long time, and I’m not sure why I’m writing this sentence to sound like it still doesn’t traumatise me now. In fact, let’s get into some of those scenes. From this point, there’s probably going to be some spoilers dotted around, or gone through in depth.

The film does a truly terrific job of not just creeping you out, but always changing the manner in which it’s creepy, often unexpectedly, whilst always increasing the level of terror without ever going into silliness. It opens with shots of decaying corpses, rotten hands and heads, teeth and what used to be eyes. So far, so horrific. There’s also a dead armadillo, because why not? The first problem our heroes have to deal with is a hitch-hiker (Edwin Neal). Presumably this is the film that started the whole “Don’t pick up a hitch-hiker” trend, because this guy is a whack-a-doo nutjob (who I thought bears more than a passing resemblance to Adam Driver). He goes on about the delicacies of headcheese (I’ll spare you a description, suffice to say I hope I never eat any), has a purse made from some kind of animal skin, forcibly cuts his own hand and attacks Franklin (Paul A. Partain), the brother in the wheelchair, who we’ll be getting too later. I kind of loved the hitch-hiker, if only for being so unadulteratedly crazy, and not bothering to attempt to hide it behind a veil of sanity. After cutting Franklin’s arm, the hitcher is understandably thrown out of the van, and the journey for the kids continues.

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Nothing overly creepy happens for a while until, after arriving at their destination, two of the kids – Kirk and Pam (William Vail & Teri McMinn) – go exploring out back and find a house, which Kirk enters in search of fuel for the car. Oh, the house. This really is a marvel in production design. The walls are covered in mounted animal skulls, one room is a children’s ball pit full of chicken feathers, there’s a bench covered in animal and human bones, caged chickens dangling from the ceiling, dining chairs with human arms and skeleton lamps. Art Director Robert A. Burns truly outdid himself with the effort that went into this house. Unfortunately, Kirk doesn’t get much chance to experience it. He goes exploring, tentatively heading through a doorway at the back of the entrance hall, into a bright red room with all the animal skulls on the walls. Then BANG! he gets a crack on the head from a giant masked monster of a man with a sledgehammer. Kirk falls, flailing and jerking around. There’s a second smash on the head, and a big metal door is slammed across. It’s the movie’s first on screen kill, and whilst there’s a deliberate sense of set-up to it, it still comes almost out of nowhere, and happens entirely within the space of 20 seconds, from Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) appearing to the slamming of the door. You can read more about this scene when Nick discussed it for a recent Favorite Scene Friday over at Robert’s To The Escape Hatch.

What follows is what I described earlier as “The bit with the hook.” Pam, left on the porch, enters the house too, looking for Kirk. She doesn’t find him. At least, not alive, and not whilst she can do anything to help. You see, Pam trips, screams, and is discovered by Leatherface, chased out of the house, grabbed, dragged back inside, and hung on a meat hook. Screaming. Dangling. Screaming. Writhing. Screaming. Screaming. Screaming. And then Leatherface starts cutting up her boyfriend in front of her. Like I said, traumatising. It’s worth noting that most of what I’ve said so far, and a great deal of the horrific acts to follow, are for the most part implied. I’m pretty sure we never actually see the piercing of flesh in any scene, especially not with a chain saw. When Pam is placed on the hook, we see a few shots of the big, shiny, evil hook waiting for someone’s back to become its new best friend, we see Leatherface picking up Pam, and then we see her dangling in the air, screaming. (Did I mention the screaming? Because there’s a lot of fucking screaming.) Later, when some heavy duty chain sawing comes into play, the shots are almost entirely shot from the weapon, pointing up at the killer. There’s splashes of blood, sure, but the act of cutting? That’s all in your head. Apparently director Tobe Hooper has been told on many occasions that his special effects in the film are incredible, to which he replies that there aren’t any; he doesn’t show anything. It’s true, and it’s amazing.

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OK, so Kirk is being minced and Pam is hung on the wall and out of the picture. This leaves three happy campers left: Franklin, who isn’t much use to anyone, his sister Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger), otherwise known as the epitome of everything 70s. Concerned about the apparent disappearance of his friends, Jerry goes investigating too, stumbling upon the very same house they were killed in. As viewers, we know what is about to happen. Jerry will go into the house, he’ll snoop around, find something odd, then feel a sharp pain in the back of his head, before a warm sensation flows down his neck as he bleeds out. It’s just a matter of when. What we don’t expect, and this is where the film really enjoys fucking with us, is for Jerry to open up a big freezer box, and for a half-frozen Pam to wake up and flail at him, in what results to be a pants-shittingly terrifying moment. Of course, now Hooper has smacked us in the face with the frozen girl, Leatherface can now jump out and kill Jerry, as expected, just via a completely unanticipated jump scare. It’s at this point we remember – one of the surviving characters is in a wheelchair. This is going to get brutal.

I’m going to take a moment now to discuss the character of Franklin. He’s an arsehole. Just a not very nice character. You get the feeling no-one else on the trip wants him to be there, and Sally was probably forced to bring him by their parents. Making a character disabled is generally a sure-fire method of making them sympathetic, but Franklin pushed far beyond the boundaries of likeability. We’re told in the opening crawl that most of the horrors in the film occur to him and his sister, so there were times when I was almost looking forward to his demise, as he picks his fingernails with his knife and refuses to shut up about various slaughter methods, despite the obvious discomfort it is causing to everyone else. There are some sympathetic moments – the rough ground outside the house they’re staying in makes it difficult for him to manoeuvre his wheelchair, whilst the others have all raced inside to explore the house – but these are soon forgotten once Franklin begins speaking again, childishly blowing raspberries and yelling at everyone else. When his comeuppance came, I was almost disappointed by how abrupt is actually was, especially after the amped-up lead-in. Sally, on the other hand, is the original final girl and scream queen, who is actually a nice person despite her brother’s dickishness. She doesn’t have a great deal of character, but this film isn’t necessarily about who these people are, it’s more what happens to them and by whom.

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The most famous scene is the climactic dinner sequence, infamously shot over one unbroken 26 hour period (with some of the actors involved already having been in make-up for 6 hours prior to filming) and in hellishly hot conditions to boot. It adds a gruelling, grimy, unrefined and visceral appearance to the scene, with everyone involved clearly teetering on the brink of madness from the arduous shoot. It takes a turn for the blackly comic at times, and you can’t help but get caught up in the insanity of it all, and just how much Sally (and indeed Marilyn, the actress playing her) has to go through.

I’m not a fan of horror. Nor is Nick, fellow FTS-er. And yet both of us, especially him, really loved this film. That’s how you can tell a film is brilliant; when it’s set entirely within a genre that I generally have no time for, yet I’ll wholeheartedly recommend it, and look forward to watching it again. And it’s a bizarre film where my biggest complaint is that the guy in the wheelchair didn’t receive enough torture.

Choose Film 9/10

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2 thoughts on “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

  1. That’s a great write up. I appreciate being able to read about one of my favorite movies from your perspective. I find I almost exclusively talk about it with horror fans.

    Would you consider watching the second one? It is much more graphic, but the black comedy you touched upon really comes to the forefront. I read once that Hooper made 2 that way because he felt that many people missed the humor the first time around. Perhaps if he had actually named the film Headcheese…

  2. Fun post. I love this movie, too, but I’m a horror fan so that’s to be expected. Glad to see someone who isn’t being able to appreciate it. To be honest, though, I avoided this film for years because the very title conjres up mental images of a relentless barrage of grisly acts. In short, I was a little scared to even start watching it. I know this is where my wife is. She has no use for horror except for a few rather tame movies I’ve talked her into. Whenever I bring up this one she practically runs out the room. When I, myself finally mustered up the gumption to watch it for the first time four or five years ago I discovered that the true beauty of TCM is how sparse it is in its approach to everything, violence included. That nearly everything is implied is what makes it so creepy…and yes, blackly humorous.

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