If for any reason you don’t own this film or haven’t seen it, you need to rectify that immediately. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the best horror film ever made. I could argue that it is the best film of any genre, if I felt so inclined. It’s a film that essentially reinvented the genre, putting into place elements that have long since become clichés (and yet still work with powerful effect here) and offering a structural style that the best of the genre have tried to copy but never quite matched. It takes the reinvented modern day realism that the genre moved towards in the 1970s and grafts it onto a new form of delirious gothic grandeur, and it is relentlessly, insanely horrifying – and absurdly funny. No other movie – not even Tobe Hooper’s own out-of-control sequel – comes close to matching the sheer levels of hysteria and madness shown here, and no film so perfectly manipulates the audience from the opening moments, bringing them to such a state of expectation that when the horror actually kicks in, it’s almost a relief.
The opening moments of the film are a textbook exercise in setting the audience on edge. The text scroll and voice over, calmly telling us that bad things are going to happen to everyone in the movie and implying that this is a true story (without ever saying so) give way to camera flashes of decayed body parts and that noise – a discordant, startling sound that is somewhere between an animal squeal and scraping metal. Cut to wired up, rotting corpses that remain the most grotesque ever seen on film and a radio report about “grave robbing in Texas” before we then go to the opening titles or sun flares and Wayne Bell’s industrial score (the most vital, unsettling and entirely essential score in cinema history, Bell’s music is nearer sound effect than traditional score, and is a massively important part of what makes the film work – replacing it would be a crippling act of cultural vandalism). This is the most jaw-droppingly powerful opening in film history.
The film continues to set us up to expect the worst. Even as we meet the characters – Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her wheel-chair bound and whinily annoying brother Franklin (Paul Partain), boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger) and friends Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Terri McMinn) – we hear a radio news report that is nothing but a series of atrocities – death, murder, mutilation and assault. The film is letting us know that the events that are about to unfold are not even that unusual in 1974 America. The kids are investigating whether Sally’s grandfather has been dug up in the grave robbing atrocities and checking out the old family farmhouse, now entirely dilapidated. En route, they pass the local slaughterhouses and pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal). He’s an odd sort, to say the least – a grotesque birthmark on half his face and a personality that hovers between harmlessly sub-normal and dangerously psychotic. When he slices his own hand open with a knife, starts a fire in the van and cuts Franklin with a razor, the audience is already reeling. If this is the set up, what the hell is coming next? It’s a smart move from director Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel, because this is already unlike anything that horror movie audiences would have seen before. It’s also one of the goriest moments in the film (despite its reputation, this is a remarkably bloodless movie) and this sets the audience up to think they have seen far more than they actually have (a fun game I used to play – pick up film reference guides, go to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre entry and see what was written. If the film was described as a blood bath with entrails flying, you knew the book was written by a clueless idiot who probably hadn’t even watched the film). It’s a sequence that further puts the viewer on edge, expecting the very worst. The film further sets us on edge by cutting scenes abruptly, sometimes almost mid-word, giving it a breathless quality that wallows in your sub-conscious.
But Hooper doesn’t need overt acts of violence to build up the tension and the feelings of growing disgust. A mass of daddy longlegs in the corner of a room, or a few unidentified bones lying around will do the job just as well. Hooper can make a simple shot of Franklin trying to get his wheelchair over a door entrance seem almost unbearably stressful at this point, and so when Kirk and Pam head out to a long dried out swimming hole and then spot a farmhouse where they could hopefully buy some gas, the audience is already at breaking point. Still, no one was ready for what came next. As Kirk enters the house and wanders towards a doorway – squealing noises on the soundtrack, animal skulls on the wall – Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) appears, lifts a hammer, smacks Kirk in the head and then drags his twitching body through the doorway before slamming a steel door shut. Bang! The single most apocalyptic moment in horror film history, right there. It all happens so quickly that the viewer barely has time to recover from the shock before it’s over. Horror films jut didn’t do that. They still don’t.
From this point onwards, it’s essentially full throttle madness. Pam enters the house and stumbles into the bone room – a room full of bones, teeth and feathers (and a caged chicken hanging from the ceiling), some of which are being made into furniture – before Leatherface grabs her and hangs her on a hook to wait her turn as he chainsaws Kirk into bite sized pieces. Then Jerry shows up looking for them and is also despatched. At this point, you feel for Leatherface, as he panics, wondering where the hell all these people are actually coming from all of a sudden (it’s easy to assume, as other Chainsaw films did, that Leatherface could be played by any big guy in a mask, but Hansen actually gives an intelligent, nuanced performance throughout the film), Finally, the bickering Sally and Franklin go in search of their missing friends, and Franklin is made short work of by Leatherface, who then chases Sally through the woods as she screams… and screams… and screams. In fact, Sally rarely stops screaming for the rest of the movie, first hiding out in the death house before escaping (one of two jumps through a glass window for her) and then making her way to the service station that we’d seen earlier. Back then, the proprietor (Jim Siedow) had explained that he was out of gas and offered what would soon be the advice given in every rural horror movie, namely not to hang around or go poking about in other people’s property (so the kids can hardly say they weren’t warned!). Unfortunately for Sally, her rescuer is part of the same crazy family that includes Leatherface, the Hitchhiker and ancient Grandpa (John Dugan), and soon she finds herself tied to a chair as guest of honour at the world’s worst dinner party, tormented, mocked and abused.
This is perhaps the most relentlessly insane scene in cinema history. Apparently as hellish and hysterical to shoot as it is to watch, it’s a non-stop series of screaming, howling and psychological torture, with Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl filling the screen with close-us of Sally’s teary eyeball as the soundtrack becomes ever more intense. It feels like it will never stop. It’s the ultimate horror movie experience because it pulls you directly into the experience. You can almost smell it, the atmosphere is so potent. When Grandpa is handed a hammer that he can barely hold to kill Sally, the film reaches a new level of delirium. It’s entirely understandably that audiences in 1974, for whom this was all very new, would react so physically to the film.
Sally’s second escape leads to the film’s finale, and it’s a shock to realise that all this hasn’t been taking place in some isolated place – they are right next to a highway and it’s broad daylight. Her ordeal has lasted all night. The final shot, a frustrated Leatherface waving his chainsaw insanely before a sudden cut to black, is iconic and unforgettable. And it offers us no respite from what has gone before. We know he’s still out there.
It’s hard to find fault with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It really is the perfect horror film. And while the movie has a lot of dark humour, none of it seems forced or awkward, and all fits within the demented family dynamic of the story that it’s unsurprising that it went over the heads of most audiences at the time. Lots of the comedy is rather subtle, too, like the service station attendant who continually gets up to wash the van whenever Siedow’s character returns to offer more advice to the passengers (and they really should’ve listened to him).
Some people have scoffed at the acting in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but this is actually a film full of great performances. Siedow is astonishing as the ostensibly more stable of the family, torn between enjoying the killing and being more responsible, usually within the same moments. His ability to be both disapproving and excited almost at the same time is fantastic, and he provides much of the film’s humour with his continual outrage (“you damn fool, you’ve ruined the door!”) and genuine creepiness. Neal is as horrible and creepy a character as you could ever want to see on screen, and Partain does a great job of being absolutely annoying, yet still somehow sympathetic. He’s far from the ‘sentimentalised cripple’ we tend to see in movies, and while we might feel for him when the others mock or neglect him, it’s easy to understand why they might find him continually annoying.
As for Marilyn Burns, what can you say? When you talk about gutsy actors, she should surely come close to the top of the list. She spends much of the film running and screaming, covered in blood or being thrown around and beaten up. Her hysterics are worryingly convincing and she essentially sets a standard that no Final Girl has come close to matching.
Every aspect of this film is like a master class in horror cinema. Yet there is something here – some indefinable moment – that can’t be copied, which is why no one has come close to making anything like this since.