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A Selection from My Collection: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

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By Chris Kavan - 06/18/11 at 02:58 PM CT

I don’t care if it’s dated by today’s standards; Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains one of the iconic horror films of all time. You can take all your remakes, your loving homage, and your blatant rip-offs but in the end, it all comes back to the original, and it deserves respect.

-- CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD --

The story if fairly simple – a group of young friends are down Texas way to visit their grandfather’s grave (and make sure it hasn’t been dug up by a body-part snatching freak) and then visit the old homestead for good measure. They give off a definite hippie-ish vibe, though, surprisingly, no illicit substances make an appearance. It’s too bad the closest neighbors to this old house happen to be of the cannibalistic insane variety.

I think the appeal of the film starts with the deadly serious warning that comes at the beginning. Before all the “found footage” films came out, this was as close to a “true” story as you could get (previous entry Last House on the Left also used this concept). Anyway, our intrepid group ignores the warning signs about grave robbing in the area and picks up a random hitchhiker. I don’t know the history of hitching, but between this film and The Hitcher, well, I don’t know who would want to pick up any stranger.

Anyway, Edwin Neal plays the quite prominently birth-marked hitchhiker to perfection. His fascination with knives (and cutting himself), slaughterhouses and general creepiness is off the charts. When he takes a picture and demands payment – there are no takers, so he does the natural thing: burns the picture (in the van) then takes out his razor and cuts the poor guy in the wheelchair. Finally our group catches on that maybe this guy isn’t all there and kicks him out – he gives them a nice bloody farewell before dancing crazily out of the picture.

Afterwards, seeing as they’re a little low on gas, they end up at a remote gas station where they sit down to some down-home BBQ and ignore the advice to wait for the gas truck and stay off other people’s property. Granted, the place they’re visiting is a family home – but from the looks of the property, it’s been abandoned for a good, long while what with the spiders and animal bones.

Now, speaking of our group of people, I’m afraid you won’t be finding any familiar names. The budget being low, I’m sure the payment wasn’t exactly stellar. Our two main characters are Sally and Franklin Hardesty – Franklin being the whiny, wheelchair-bound and somewhat morbid guy – Sally being a typical damsel in distress – great at screaming and running and looking like an all-American girl. Rounding out our soon-to-be-fodder are Sally’s boyfriend, the most hippie-ish looking Jerry and the other couple along for the ride Kirk and Pam. Pam is your new-age astrology fan who keeps reminding everyone that because of the position of the planets and other crap that everyone is doomed. Well, I guess there must be something to that astrology thing after all!

But I’m going to be honest – this isn’t a movie where you look for character development or even much personality. It’s pretty much a non-issue here. But those aren’t the characters that stand out. The best is yet to come.

After exploring the old family ground, Kirk and Pam decide to take a dip at the old pond, only to find it has gone bone dry. Then, with visions of gas for their van, they visit the neighbors who have a nice generator going and also a great collection of cars! Despite hammering on the door for a good few minutes and getting no response, Kirk decides to enter the home. Now, in the history of bad ideas in horror films, this ranks right up there. As a strange chicken/animal squeal leads him to the bad room and – with a nice bit of slaughterhouse foreshadowing coming into play – we meet Leatherface.

Ah, good old Leatherface. Gunnar Hansen doesn’t get enough credit for creating one of the most memorable movie monsters – right up there with Jason, Freddy and Pinhead – in film. Without hesitation, he bashes his head in, gives him another whack for good measure and then slams that metal door shut. That one scene takes about 20 seconds, but it speaks volumes. The mask, the noises, the killing itself – this is not a person you want to meet… ever.

Pam wants to know where Kirk went, so she too enters the home and stumbles upon a uniquely decorated room. A chicken in a cage and bones – human and animal – hanging, used as furniture – just a great design choice for your rural cannibals. Well, after freaking out, she too is found by Leatherface, who takes the chance to have her hang around… on a meat hook. Then the chainsaw comes out – it’s a pretty bloodless affair, but then sometimes it’s better to leave this to the imagination. Nothing can be as horrifying as what you can come up with in your own mind.

Don’t feel bad for the kids, they’ll soon have company as Jerry gets a quick hatchet and then Sally and Franklin run into our masked friend who introduces Franklin to his chainsaw. Sally makes a good run (though why she insists on screaming her head off and jumping through windows willy-nilly is beyond me). She does meet grandpa and grandma along the way (both look pretty desiccated, but one of them is still alive! Guess who!) And manages to make it back to the gas station – only to find out that it’s run by the family patriarch. After hilariously being beaten by a broom (and then broom handle) she is tied up and taken back to the lovely family home. Junior also makes it back (that would be the hitchhiker) and they set down for dinner. And guess what – Grandpa joins them!

Despite looking like a reject from the mummy, good old grandpa loves him some blood and gladly sucks it up in what has to be the best sound effects in the movie – then, to make him feel young again, they let grandpa take a few whacks with the hammer (though it looks like Leatherface is the one humoring him). Sally gets the last laugh, managing to jump through yet another window and escape. Junior gives chase, but finds out that he’s no match for a semi. The rotund driver gets out only to find that Leatherface has also given chase – he thrown a wrench at his head, knocking him down and causing him to get a taste of his own medicine when the chainsaw drops on his leg.

Sally manages to track down a passing truck and, bloody as all hell, maniacally laughs her way to freedom – probably needs a sanitarium after that, but freedom none the less. I always wondered what happened to that truck driver. I mean Leatherface is still parading around the middle of the road with his chainsaw swinging. I think he would make a fine main course with a good mix of fat and meat on those bones.

So, what makes Texas Chainsaw Massacre such a classic? Certainly not the music, which my friend described as “The Mexican Percussionists”. Granted, once again we’re talking minimal budget here – but there are plenty of discordant notes, random cymbals and long, low drawn-out sounds.

The story? Hooper, like Alfred Hitchcock, partially based his story on notorious serial killer Ed Gein. The bone and skin furniture and mask and cannibalism were taken from that case. However, everything else was purely fabricated. Despite the warning at the beginning and somewhat gritty documentary style film, this rest was pure fiction. Anyone telling you different has a very warped sense of history (and that does happen!)

The legacy! Yes – this is one of those films that was banned, condemned and shunned when it was release. Despite being pretty mild (gore wise) by today’s standard, back in 1974, it was SHOCKING and DISTURBING – I would say if you normally don’t watch horror, it could still elicit some of those same feelings. I think the age just adds to its semi-documentary nature – almost like you’re watching some aged special on a real group of unfortunate people. The not-exactly-Hollywood performances just add to the flavor.

That being said – there are plenty of sequels and remakes to this film. While Hooper’s Part 2 and the most recent remake (2003) are serviceable, I would highly recommend staying away from Part III and the 1994 Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (or Next Generation). Next Generation is the worst of the bunch, despite having both Renee Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey – just goes to show even good actors can be hampered by crap scripts.

Despite having a budget somewhere around $85,000 (Hansen said he was paid around $800 for his role at Leatherface), Hooper crafted an instant classic. A film that is completely outlandish, yet feels like it could have been based on real people. This should be an inspiration to low-budget filmmakers everywhere (even non-horror) – story – memorable characters – and setting makes all the difference.

If you’re a horror fan, this should be a cornerstone of your collection. Even if you are squeamish, the lack of gore means that even non-horror fans can watch without feeling completely grossed out. Like I said – it’s mostly left up to your imagination – a much more potent vehicle for conveying horror than anything on a screen. So settle down – rent or buy – and experience a true horror classic.

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