Attacked by many critics upon its release, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE has grown in stature since 1974, partially based upon recognition that there is considerable artistry to the film’s seemingly chaotic mix of mayhem and madness. It has been hailed by Rex Reed among others as the most terrifying film ever made.
I recall reading a review that said that even the soap bubbles on the van windshield in an early scene came across as ominous. The film builds, with quiet passages, but the sense of dread is omnipresent.
The in-your-face, over-the-top title and the full-throttle action that takes over in the second half of the film distract from the fact that there is careful mood building and even restraint at work, not to mention doses of bizarre humor that almost take the film into the realm of the surreal.
Violence there is, and blood, too, but the film is not quite as gruesome as the title would have us think. The killings are shocking more from their suddenness and bizarre nature than from an overindulgence in actual gore.
Directed on a low budget by Tobe Hooper and featuring a mostly unknown but game cast, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE follows a group of young people including Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain). They seek out the old Hardesty homestead but run out of gas along the way.
Seeking help at an isolated farmhouse which contains knick-knacks and furniture made of bones and human skin, the group ends up being attacked one by one by a family of psychopaths who used to be slaughterhouse workers until the old place went out of business. They now have to depend on passersby like the Hardestys to keep their old skills in practice.
Most memorable of this crew of cannibalistic crazies is Leatherface, a heavy-built, seemingly retarded man who wears a face mask made of human skin.
Only Sally Hardesty survives the initial series of attacks, and the remainder of the film consists of Sally screaming, fighting, leaping out of windows, and doing everything possible to evade and elude her insane tormentors. She gives a remarkable performance, constantly on the edge of hysteria and sometimes beyond, in the tradition of the great Fay Wray of KING KONG fame.
Most bizarre is the family dinner scene, in which a seemingly mummified Grandpa is pulled out of mothballs, coming back to life as he is allowed to suck like some obscene infant on Sally’s bleeding finger. There is a kind of dark comedy at work, which only slightly relieves our unbridled horror at the depraved madness on display.
Sally earns our admiration as she continues to fight to survive. Incredibly, she gets away, but we’re left in doubt as to whether she has escaped with her sanity intact.
In an oddly poetic final image, Leatherface vents his frustration at her escape by twirling his chainsaw in the air in a defiant dance.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s a rewarding and unforgettable ride for committed horror fans and an absolute touchstone in 70s horror.
- The opening narration informing us that the events we are about to see really happened is read by actor John Larroquette of 80s sitcom fame.
- That narration is an effective mood-setting device but a lie. The events didn’t really happen as shown. The story takes some loose inspiration from the case of infamous Wisconsin killer Ed Gein, whose exploits also helped inspire PSYCHO and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
- In 1982, Tobe Hooper directed the Steven Spielberg-produced POLTERGEIST.
“From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore,
turning man against his brother, ’til man exists no more.“