Title: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writer: Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel
Release Date: Oct. 1, 1974
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Cliff’s Notes
The film that you are about to see is an account of the tragedy that befell a group of five youths; in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them, an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to…
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is, without a doubt, one of the best horror films ever made. Technically speaking, the composition and direction of this flick is nearly perfect. Each of the early moments beautifully crafts the image of a carefree summer drive. The documentary-like first act is tempered with only a vague air of threat, as if this is the beginning of a cosmically bad day. Our group of friends is sketched with the broadest of strokes, but the quality actors bring it up a level. The meeting with this hitchhiker, the exploring the family home, and the walks through the Texas countryside each build to a single explosion of violence.
And from that moment on, TCM is like watching a nightmare. Danger is always no more than a few feet away. The reality of the film seems to collapse in upon itself, keeping the viewer trapped in a holocaust of violence and degradation. There is no reprieve, no release from the horror that surround the characters. As it builds, TCM becomes a horror powerhouse. And then the dinner scene starts.
Filmed over 26 straight hours in the Texas heat, the dinner scene is pure anarchy. It is a descent into madness driven by violence, some of it real, and rage. It’s like watching then end of the world. That’s not a complaint. This is a horror movie lover’s dream. The scene, as well as the third act, is so emotionally draining that, by the time the film as let up, any of the films last images – characters run over by trucks, escaping into madness, or pure unadulterated rage- are apt metaphors for the viewer’s mental state.
Marilyn Burns, who sadly just passed (R.I.P.), is fantastic in this flick. I’m not sure how much counseling she had afterwards, but the terror she puts out on screen is incredible. The rest of the disposable teens hold their own and read as real people, which makes the docu-feel of the flick hit harder. Special props go to the chainsaw family. Edwin Neal and Jim Siedow are fantastic as the crazies. Siedow especially brings a moral schizophrenia to the film. He is both drawn to the violence that his family is dishing out, but also somehow terrified of the possible results. Hansen also brings a powerhouse performance. Without a single word, he commands the screen like a champ.
Tobe Hooper underplays most of his choices. TCM, at least for the first half or so, reads almost like a documentary. The angles are simple, the pace effortless, and the tension slowly rising. Hooper pays strict attention to Hitchcock’s bomb under the table theory. We know this is going to end horribly, so the lead up is laced with tension. Halfway through, Hooper opens the floodgates. There are crazy dolly shots, wild angles, and extreme close-ups galore. Every movement of the camera, every shot of not seeing something terrible build the film to a level of terror that has rarely been seen.
Despite being rewritten extensively during the production, the script is a perfect microcosm of the movie. It’s distressing, technically solid, and matches the horror happening on screen. Grade A!
The film itself is nearly bloodless. While other, lesser, films would have collapsed under this stress, it actually makes TCM more unsettling. By seeing less, the viewer’s brain makes up for what they think they’re seeing. And what they think they’re seeing is horrible. Also, special note for the production design of the Chainsaw house. You want “arm” chairs? Awesome bone sculptures? Distinct and terrifying masks? You get it all and more!
Um… the whole thing? Actually, the one thing that I have found, after multiple viewings, is the humor of the piece. I know, it doesn’t sound like this is a funny flick, but TCM is masterful in its use of dark humor.
I really can’t complain about the film itself. The only thing I can mention is that the making of the film was incredibly, legendarily difficult. The horror stories from the TCM set are well known and universally painful. Not only was Marilyn Burns actually cut and beaten, several of the cast complained of the difficult conditions. Edwin Neal compared the filming to his time is Vietnam and Gunnar Hansen’s thoughts on filming are well documented in the excellent Chainsaw Confidential. (BTW, pick up Chainsaw Confidential. It’s a great look at the creation of this film.) I’m all for suffering for art, but this was a little ridiculous.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an excellent film. It routinely ends up on just about everyone’s top horror film list. The awards are well deserved. There is no film that matches the intensity and destruction that this movie lets loose upon the viewer.