Terror found a new face with the release of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, a face sewn of human flesh! As a progenitor to the Slasher era, TEXAS CHAIN SAW is one of the first films to feature a masked madman that murders teens with a variety of deadly weapons. It is set in an isolated location far removed from the safety of home, and includes a lone surviving female protagonist, or "final girl," that defeats the villains and escapes the madness. These common tropes would dominate the 1980's, but they had yet to find a home in Horror cinema by 1974.
In THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, Sally Hardesty and her friends head out to a remote cemetery to check on her grandfather's grave after hearing reports of vandalism and grave robbery that had been occurring across the state. While there, they decide to visit the old family farmhouse, but soon run out of gas. As Sally, Jerry, and Franklin have fun exploring the house, Kirk and Pam head over to a nearby neighbors to borrow fuel. Kirk knocks and enters, but is hit over the head and dragged inside by the hulking cannibal known as Leatherface! Pam follows, and is snatched up and skewered on a meat hook. Confused by the intrusion, Leatherface grabs his chain saw and takes off after the remaining teens to ensure that no one discovers his house of horrors hidden off of the Texas highway.
With TEXAS CHAIN SAW, director Tobe Hooper launches an all-out attack against the viewer that doesn't stop until the credits role. From its earliest moments, the audience is assaulted with horrifying images of death and destruction, but unlike so many other films of its kind, CHAIN SAW goes sparingly on the bloodshed and instead focuses on intense moments of implied violence that shock and upheave. Hooper also strays from convention by setting the majority film in the daylight, building his mood and atmosphere around the natural Texas landscape. As if Gunnar Hansen's imposing figure weren't enough to terrify audiences, the use of sound elevates the tension and unease to a level beyond compare. The high-pitched whine of the camera during the opening scene, the jagged whir of the chain saw, the clatter of bones, and Sally's maddening screams at the dinner table... Each of these push the viewer past the edge of sanity. We have reached the place of nightmares, and it is in our own backyard!
Like in EASY RIDER before it, CHAIN SAW marks the end of an era for the hippie movement, while showing firsthand the harsh social and political climate of post-Vietnam America. Hooper has created the blackest of all comedies, drawing a sadistic humor out of the depraved scenes of torture. Here, we have the American family turned upside down; men whose moral base has shifted as a means of survival after they are forced out of their jobs. American industry has chewed them up and spit them out, and now they are left to pick the carcasses of unsuspecting travelers. They react to Sally's cries with mocking laughter as they try to help good old grandpa crack a hammer against her skull. We laugh as well, to rid ourselves of fear.
The production design and art direction of Robert A. Burns are unmatched in any other film of its kind. Once Tobe Hooper invites us into the Sawyer home, it is up to Burns to sell it, and he does with a disturbing display of death and decay. Each room is littered with the remains of countless dead animals, and furniture has been designed from human skin and skeletal remains. This is Hell on the highway, a house of horrors that has been taken straight from the history books. Stories of the Butcher of Plainfield, Ed Gein, come to life before our very eyes as Hooper sets his own family of cannibals loose on the world.
It is easy to look back and laugh at the amateur acting from several of the teen characters, particularly with Paul Partain playing Sally's annoying brother Franklin, but they are at least more likeable than many of the teens to come in the countless imitators that drowned out the 80's. Marilyn Burns, however, is unforgettable as Sally. Her screams will forever haunt anyone who has seen the film. All we can see is the frantic look of horror and despair in her eyes as she sits strapped to the dinner table. Hooper captures this moment perfectly in a tight zoom. We are scared, but we cannot look away.
The Sawyer family is also expertly cast, each bringing with them their own form of crazy. Jim Siedow's sadistic father character "can't take no pleasure in killing," but he sure doesn't mind beating his victims with a broom or chasing after those old sons of his. Edwin Neal is purely psychotic as the Hitchhiker, putting the audience in an instant state of unease from the moment he boards the van. He is rash, unpredictable, and insane. The utmost of praise is always held for Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, however. Hansen's choice to play the character as mentally deficient gives his role an entirely new meaning. There is no malice behind his actions, he is simply in the business of collecting meat, and business is good. Leatherface appears to be more surprised than his victims when the teenagers just start popping out all over the place, and he takes care of them the only way he knows how: with the saw.
TEXAS CHAIN SAW remains one of the most influential and utterly terrifying films ever created, and its legacy continues to grow with each passing decade. While the sequels, remakes, and prequels keep the legend of Leatherface alive, nothing can ever top the original nightmare.
Movies like THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE:
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, JUST BEFORE DAWN, MOTEL HELL, EATEN ALIVE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, SLAUGHTERHOUSE.