I came into The Texas Chain Saw Massacre series a bit out of order and at a way too young age. When I was around nine or so, the lady next door had her young nephews over each summer who were around my age. We’d hang out and it is because of them that I first saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 (review forthcoming). The humor of the film fit right in with my morbid 10 year old self who though Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kidswere cultural milestones.
And then I made the mistake of watching the original.
I’m not sure how in the hell we managed to do this, but one day while in a Brendle’s, I managed to convince my mom to buy a Video Treasures copy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (it is sad my keen sense of finagling was lost as I grew older — I’d have made one hell of a salesman). I watched it with my friends, and we made fun of Franklin, but I’m not sure we had the attention span to watch it all the way through.
Flash forward about four years, and I tried to watch the film again by myself on a day home from school during a thunderstorm. The scene with the Hitch Hiker cutting himself in the van caused me to have instant panic attacks. The stark realness of the scene got to me. At the time, I had a couple of cousins (brothers) who had various struggles with mental illness. The younger of them (who was probably twenty some years older than me) was hilarious, but also very scary. On a Saturday night, my family went to my aunts house to visit and it was all going well until my cousin burst through the door convinced someone was trying to kill him. My aunt tried to calm him down, and we let with her cradling him while he was still yelling about a shadowy killer outside that only he could see. It was a very terrifying experience for me, and the Hitch Hiker reminded me a lot of him and that experience.
I had to cut the movie off.
Flash forward another seven years. My cousin had unfortunately committed suicide at this time. I’m in college, grown up, and ready to give this film another shot. And thank God I did, because it quickly became one of my favorite films. I felt a bit silly for letting the Hitchhiker (Ed Neal) get to me back in the day, although he is still a very scary character (whom I’m friends with on Facebook).
One of the first things I related to in re-watching this film is the summer heat. If you haven’t been in the south in the summer you’ll never really understand just how important the climate is to the film. Southern Summers seemingly last forever, the humidity can kill you if the heat index doesn’t, and God help you if you’re outside on a day the wind is still. It makes people irritable, it makes people crazy. And the actors in this film weren’t really acting; they were trapped in the locations on the film under the scorching Texas sun, fed up with the situation and really out to get the film accomplished by any means necessary. The real life desperation carried over into the characters and permeates the film with a sense of grim desperation.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels like a documentary. The grainy film and minimal dialogue help this, and the fact that there are no real character arches. They kids are their, but their personalities don’t matter. The only one we kinda get to know is the annoying Franklin (Paul Partain). Paul Partain took method acting up to 11 as the invalid Franklin, the brother of final girl Sally. The fact that he is in a wheel chair makes you want to sympathize with him but he’s such a whiny little jerk you can’t wait to see him finally die. All the other actors in the film felt the same way because they had to put up with it during the entire time of filming because Paul never broke character. It added a lot to the stress levels and you can feel how pissed they are at him. All of this has solidified a lot of horror fans theory that the true classics of the genre are often low budget; creativity and hard workmanship produce visceral circumstances which feel authentic to the viewer. Which isn’t to say big budget horror movies can’t be classic but it’s rare (i.e. The Mist, John Carpenter’s The Thing).
The opening of the film sets up what we’re going to see and experience very effectively. The narration by John Larroquette is of course iconic and much parodied; it makes you believe what you’re seeing is a true story even though such a thing is never said. But it’s the opening shot that really drives the nail home. We hear the most insidious camera noises in cinema history taking pictures of a corpses body parts. A flash of teeth. A flash of a hand. Then we see the full picture of what’s being photographed: the body is strapped to it’s own head stone, with another corpse on on top of it. Both are rotting in the Texas sun as a radio news announcement plays over the scene. The newscaster is is relaying that there has been a series of grave robberies in the area, with bodies being left as gruesome pieces of art.
Cue opening credits.
And this is what I love about the film; each viewing reveals different little details I never noticed before. For some reason until today, it escaped me the two dead bodies were wired together. When I was a kid, and still scared of this film, a new VHS version came out and Fangoria had a ton of letters come in about the details it revealed (such as the pan under Pam to catch her blood when she’s put on the hook). It was strange to me how passionate the fans of the film were about these little details, but now it’s something I can appreciate. Bob Burns did a fantastic job making a lot of really disgusting things to sell the atmosphere of this film with the most iconic the roadkill antelope we see right after the opening credits. It doesn’t serve any purpose to the story but it helps establish a sense of oddball randomness that really sells the film. The film has a sense of randomness, like none of this should be happening, but it is. Fate is just crapping all over the characters in this movie. There is also hints that people in the community know more than what they are saying. A random drunk in the cemetery delivers a frightening a monologue that works because of what it implicates; but he’s not talking to anyone but himself.
No one is talking to him or laughing at him though. He’s just there, seemingly unnoticed rambling on while drunk and sunburnt laying in a cemetery for no damn reason right in front of the police who are doing an investigation with no one so much as saying “Hello” to him. Makes you wonder just what these locals are up to and how tied in they are with the goings on.
For all it’s brutality the film possesses a strange rustic beauty to it, displayed brilliantly in the shot of Pam’s getting off of the swing. It’s simple and effective, the dread we feel as she enters the house on her search for Kirk is heightened considering the scene before it where he’s dispatched in the most disturbing kill ever. Leatherface pops out of nowhere and bashes him in the head with a meat hammer like I did my sister when I was three and she was paying attention to the TV instead of playing with me. Unlike that situation though, Kirk dies after having a convulsion due to brain damage, and being further bludgeoned to death. We know this crazy guy waits in there just waiting for her. And then she gets it worse than Kirk by getting herself strung up alive on a meathook and watching helplessly as her dead boyfriend is carved up for dinner in front of her.
When I first made it this far in the film, I was like “holy crap! This movie is awesome!”, and I still feel that way now. It’s not gratuitous in it’s violence either, it’s just matter of fact about it. A lot of this film’s clones and it’s crap remakes lose is that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is so grim and real because it’s not trying to shove the audiences nose in the carnage. The direness of the situation hits home also because it’s not presenting the villains as “evil”, the film takes pains to humanize their insanity. Part of what makes the film scary and really freaking funny is that eventually you realize Leatherface isn’t killing these kids because he’s a mass murderer or evil or anything like that; he is an autistic who doesn’t understand why these people keep coming in his house. There is a scene where he’s banging his head against a bird cage while looking out a window to make sure no one else will be coming in. Also, I love that his mask looks like it’s actually made of human skin in this. In the sequels and remakes he began to progressively look like a Slipknot member.
These murders of course have to have their loose ends tied up (i.e. surviving girl Sally) and that’s where Dreighton Sawyer (the late great Jim Siedow) comes in. Up until the end of the film, we just think he’s the old coot who runs the gas station/BBQ joint. Turns out he’s the oldest of the three brothers and trying to keep them surviving in the current economy by serving the victims they kill into BBQ. Holy balls! This is where the film really becomes unglued. Most horror films play the villains as menacing and scary (this is especially true of the remakes of this film), but here they are a screw ball comedy act. Imagine the Marx brothers if they were inbred and carried switch blades. The fact that Leatherface and The Hitcher killed four people for no good reason doesn’t really upset Dreighton, but his front door being sawed in half is a serious issue for him. A man’s gotta have his priorities!
Poor Sally (Marylin Burns) goes through the ringer towards the dinner and what you are seeing, all the cuts on her, all the blood, all the terror, all the rotting food seems real. Too real. Know why? BECAUSE IT IS. The cuts she takes while running through the woods, all the abrasions, that’s not make up. And the food on the table didn’t last long in the 100 degree Texas heat; all of this gave them a reason to get this film over with by any means. Marylin gave Jim Siedow and Ed Neal a free pass to just do what ever to get it over with, including beat the crap out of her with a broom handle without holding back to make it look as real as possible to avoid re-takes, as well as slicing open her finger. What a trooper, and truly the greatest Scream Queen of all time, hands down.
The family calls down their patriarch, the barely alive Grandfather to come down to deliver the coup-d-grace on poor Sally by bashing her head in like he used to do to cattle. Unfortunately for all involved the guy is over 100 years old and barely able to hold a hammer, so he ends up just repeatedly dropping it on her head. It’s both grueling and uncomfortably hilarious.
Sally escapes by the skin of her teeth by hitching a ride on the back of an oncoming pickup truck. The film ends with her driven insane and screaming bloody murder at the same indifferent sun that Leatherface is impotently swinging his saw at. As MacBeth would say it’s full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.
At it’s heart, this film is really about a bunch of people met by circumstance (Pam’s horoscope foreshadowing events gives some an interpenetration that the hands of fate were against them) who are having the worst day ever, but it also set a template for the killer family genre, obviously inspired by the then recent Charles Manson family trial sweeping the headlines and terrorizing the nation. There is a sense of mythic nature regarding Texas and the old West in our culture that this film taps into in a weird way and channels it into a horror film and established the prototypical SAVAGE SOUTH!