Happy 2019 and what better way to start a new year than with a new retrospectives series? Consider it my gift to you! This time we’re dipping back into the horror well with one of the most iconic and storied slasher franchises, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Of course, that means that we’re going to start at the beginning today, with 1974’s landmark original, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (it’s worth noting that the original is the only film in the franchise which makes “chain saw” two separate words). I first saw this film during a late-night double feature at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa – they were showing the first two Chainsaw films back-to-back and it was possibly the coolest way to experience these films in their intended setting. Does the original still hold up 45 years later? Read on to find out…
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of the first films by horror director Tobe Hooper, who would also go on to direct Poltergeist and the Salem’s Lot miniseries. Tobe Hooper came up with the concept for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre early in the 1970s. He was already working on a horror concept and was inspired by contemporary events at the time, such as Watergate and Vietnam, and by increasingly sensationalized and violent news coverage. He was also inspired by the crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. According to Hooper, the titular chainsaw was inspired by a trip to the store where he wished that he could hack his way through the busy crowds.
The script was co-written by Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, who would form the backbone for the series going forward. Most of the actors involved were unknowns or knew Hooper personally. Most notable were Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty, Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, Jim Siedow as Drayton Sawyer and Paul Partain as Franklin Hardesty – for all of them, Chain Saw was one of, if not their first, film roles.
The film’s budget was incredibly tight which caused numerous issues for the production. For one thing, most of the cast and crew were promised shares of the potential profits for the film. However, the value of these profits was really only a fraction of what was promised, since it was based on the profits of the production company, rather than the film itself. Furthermore, due to the desire to cut down on equipment rental costs, the filming schedule was extremely punishing on the cast and crew, filming every day for a month, up to 16 hours per day in hot and humid weather up to 43°C! Even worse, costumes couldn’t be washed due to continuity reasons (stains couldn’t disappear) and because they straight-up could not afford to replace lost costumes. This all contributed to some very dangerous conditions for the actors, all of whom acquired some level of injury during filming. Most notably, the extreme conditions caused Gunnar Hansen to have a mental breakdown and believe that he actually had to murder Marilyn Burns, leading to a scene in the film where he actually cuts her finger with a knife, drawing real blood. The scene were Kirk’s body is carved up with a chainsaw was also incredibly dangerous as it involved a real chainsaw being operated within inches of William Vail’s face, meaning that if he moved he would have actually been killed. All-in-all, the extremely limited budget made for a difficult shoot for the cast and crew, but it also led to some very notable elements of the film, such as its unconventional soundtrack and grainy, grimy aesthetic. It also led to Tobe Hooper aiming for a more commercially-viable PG rating, keeping most of the explicit gore off-screen. Naturally, the film was far too horrifying for this to ever happen, but the lack of explicit gore actually enhances the horror as it is largely left up to the viewers’ imagination to fill in the blanks.
The film was released with the intentionally misleading claim that it was based on a true story, a factor which was believed to have contributed to the film’s commercial success. The film also proved incredibly controversial for years, a fact which may also have contributed to its success. In addition to audiences walking out of cinemas in disgust, in Ottawa police advised theaters that they would face morality charges if they screened the film, the British film censors banned the film for years (in part because the word “chainsaw” was banned from movie titles), Australian censors banned the film for a decade, and was also banned in Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and West Germany. Despite this, the film grossed over $30 million on a budget of around $130,000, making it one of the most profitable independent films at the time. It also helped to kick off the slasher genre, being one of the most successful slashers since Psycho and ushering in the success of Halloween a few years later.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre follows a group of young adults who travel to rural Texas to investigate the grave of Sally and Franklin Hardesty’s grandfather. There have been reports of grave robbing at his cemetery so they want to make sure his grave has not been disturbed. Joining them is Sally’s boyfriend Jerry and their friends Pam and Kirk. On the way back they go to visit the Hardesty’s old home and pick up a hitchhiker along the way. The hitchhiker acts very strangely, cutting himself with a knife and then slashing Franklin’s arm with a straight razor when he refuses to pay for a picture the hitchhiker had taken. Naturally, they kick him out of the van and then continue on their way to the house, searching for gas for the van on the way (the only gas station they encounter has no gas available).
Kirk and Pam try to go swimming but stumble across another house nearby and decide to see if there’s any gas available there. When they enter the house, they are both picked off by a masked maniac named Leatherface, who bludgeons Kirk to death and then hangs Pam on a meat hook before carving Kirk’s body up with a chainsaw. When Kirk and Pam are late getting back, Jerry decides to check on them and also stumbles across the house, where he finds Pam locked in the freezer before Leatherface also bludgeons him to death. With night setting on, Sally and Franklin are both becoming very worried about their friends and set off to find them, but are found by Leatherface, who kills Franklin and chases Sally around the countryside until she makes her way back to the gas station. However, the seemingly-nice proprietor kidnaps her and then takes her back to Leatherface’s house, revealing that he, the hitchhiker and Leatherface are all brothers in a serial killing family. They psychologically torture Sally over dinner and then try to kill her for their next meal, but Sally manages to escape and flags a passing transport truck. The truck accidentally runs over the hitchhiker and the driver injures Leatherface before Sally gets into another passing truck and flees.
As you can probably tell from the plot summary, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a pretty simple, straightforward film from a narrative standpoint. Rather than making this film feel generic or mediocre, this simplicity actually helps to sell the film’s assertion that this is a “true story”. It’s not like this is a mid-80s slasher film where the villain is hunting his long-lost family and killing in over-the-top ways, it’s just about a bunch of regular people who stumble across a horrifying family when they venture to the fringes of society. So many elements of the film help sell this aspect, from the grainy, grimey aesthetic (which would be emulated in future films such as All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), to the documentary-like filming style, to the unknown actors and their naturalistic performances. Even the film’s violence helps to sell the realism of the film. This certainly isn’t like a modern slasher which aims for creative and spectacular kills to help it stand out. Most of the kills here are sudden and brutal – Kirk and Jerry are both bludgeoned to death in a very quick and efficient manner, Kirk’s body and Franklin are chopped up by Leatherface off-screen and the Hitchhiker’s death by transport truck is also very sudden and not particularly gory. The disturbing imagery (mutilated corpses, stolen parts from robbed graves, etc) are also ripped straight from serial killer cases, most prominently Ed Gein. The film’s realistic feel is a major contributor to its success and why it is so disturbing. In fact, the ending doesn’t really make a lot of sense without this aspect – what purpose does the image of Leatherface flailing with his chainsaw in the sunset convey to the audience other than “the villain is still out there”? It’s so much more effective than the cheap jump scares that other horror movies think that they have to work in at the very end.
In addition to drawing on realism for horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has plenty of other ways to scare or unsettle its audience. The primal horror of getting chased by a masked maniac in the dark is obvious, but some of the most disturbing parts of this film are much more unconventional and interesting. My favourite technique is how Tobe Hooper will use extreme close-ups to disorient the audience and reveal bits and pieces of disturbing imagery, while cutting in between increasingly more terrified reaction shots of the characters. This is done on a couple different occasions. In the first, Pam falls in the Sawyer family living room and tries to take in the room, giving the audience snippets of bones and drawing the scene out as the audience pieces the scene together just like Pam, before revealing that the couch is adorned with human remains. The infamous dinner scene at the end of the film is also made all the more unsettling by the extreme close-ups of Marilyn Burns’ eyes, which project a look of abject terror which sells the scene and ratchets the intensity to stratospheric levels. A similar technique is also used in the opening scene where unearthed corpses are revealed in only momentary flashes from a camera. The audience’s imagination helps to fill in a lot of the blanks in all of these cases, a technique which The Texas Chain Saw Massacre leverages masterfully. Perhaps my favourite instance of this is in the opening credits, which play over a distorted, blood-red and black screen which is almost like a Rorschach test. This is made all the more unsettling by a voice over of news stories about death and violence, making these credits almost an image of madness, most of which is merely implied by the film and which is filled out in the audience’s minds.
I also want to give some attention to the acting in this film, because the performers are all universally great. Among the main cast, Marilyn Burns (Sally), Paul Danziger (Jerry), William Vail (Kirk) and Teri McMinn (Pam) all put in very convincing and naturalistic performances, but I want to give a special shout-out to Paul Partain’s wheelchair-bound Franklin. His performance is also quite natural, but he gets much more to work with and really makes for a more interesting character than the rest of the principle cast. I really disliked this character the first time I watched the film – he’s always pushing the other characters’ buttons, getting himself into trouble and whining about his woes. However, on further viewings I have really gotten a soft spot for Franklin, because he really is getting screwed over constantly. For one thing, the other characters mostly see him as a burden who got brought on this trip with them, evidenced by how as soon as they reach the family house they abandon him to have fun by themselves. This is also evidenced by how Franklin asks Sally if she didn’t want him to come with them and she deflects, saying that she’s just tired, denoting that she obviously did not want him to come. In addition, he just constantly gets shit upon by the world – the very first time we see him, he has to go to the bathroom beside the road and gets knocked into a ditch by a passing truck. Then he gets his arm slashed open by a random hitchhiker’s straight razor. Then he gets left out while all of his friends have fun. Then he loses his pocket knife. Then when all of their friends start disappearing, he begins to panic at the thought of losing Sally too and just pitifully sticks with her even though he can’t keep up on the uneven terrain. Oh, and then he gets chainsawed to death by a masked maniac to boot. I just feel so sorry for the poor guy, he’s just having an awful day and everyone else is treating him like crap.
The villains are also all very interesting characters. The idea of having a family of serial killers is pretty unique and is an often-forgotten element of the Chainsaw movies which helps set it apart from the other slasher franchises. The first member of the family we meet, Edwin Neal’s unnamed hitchhiker (given the name Nubbins Sawyer in subsequent films), is very compelling. He has a speech impediment and clearly has some sort of mental health issue, but is also just gleefully sadistic. His introduction is tense because he’s so clearly unhinged and fascinated by violence. He also clearly has his own internal logic which makes sense to him but to the audience is completely unpredictable, making any sort of interaction all the more tense. This is demonstrated in a couple different interactions, such as when he takes Franklin’s knife and then cuts himself with it to see how sharp it is. It is also shown when Franklin refuses to pay the hitchhiker for a photo, which insults him and leads him to attack Franklin. In the hitchhiker’s mind, he did Franklin a courtesy and the refusal is like spitting in his face for a job that he did.
There’s also the gas station proprietor (given the name Drayton Sawyer in subsequent films), who is played to perfection by Jim Siedow. He’s almost like an evil Mr. Rogers in this film – he’s the nice guy of his family, the only one who is clearly sane. However, he’s unmistakably evil: he abuses people for no other reason than to assert his dominance (seen when he prods Sally while tied up and when he beats up his siblings, making up excuses for doing so), oversees the violence in the family and then secretly sells human remains at his gas station as barbecued meat (oh, and ere’s some second-viewing horror for you: Franklin ate some of that meat). He also really hates getting his hands dirty, as evidenced by his line about how he can’t stand killing, so he leaves that to Nubbins and Leatherface. He’s just a really great, colourful and memorable character; I’d argue that he gives the best performance in the whole film.
Before we get to Leatherface, I also want to mention Grandpa Sawyer. He has a very minor role in the film, but the family’s patriarch is almost corpse-like. In fact, during the chainsaw pursuit, Sally comes across Grandpa in the attic along with Grandma’s decaying corpse and I thought he was just another corpse in the Sawyer house on my first viewing. Then when they drag Grandpa down for dinner later I thought they were just lugging a corpse around, so imagine my surprise when it turned out that he was actually still holding on to life! It was a “WTF!?” moment for me for sure and just another element of what makes that dinner scene so unsettling. Are we meant to believe that this is actually happening, or has Sally gone truly insane?
Then there’s the most enduring aspect of this film, the main attraction himself, Gunnar Hansen’s Leatherface. He’s such an interesting character and unlike most slasher villains. For one thing, he is obviously very mentally handicapped in this film (Gunnar Hansen attended a special needs school to study the students in preparation for the role) and is incapable of speech. In spite of this, he is arguably the most dangerous and sadistic member of the family. At one point, Drayton berates Nubbins for leaving his brother alone, implying that when left to his own devices Leatherface will just murder people indiscriminately. Like Nubbins, he has an identifiable but twisted logic in the film – from his perspective, people just keep invading his property and he’s defending it. He’s even visually shaken after killing Jerry, freaking out and looking out the windows to see if there are any other trespassers because he can’t understand what’s going on. However, he also clearly relishes in killing as he has a look of pure bliss as he carves people up. He even has some rudimentary, animalistic cunning, such as when he lures in Kirk and Jerry to their deaths by making pig noises. His mask is also a crucial aspect of the character. There are apparently three different masks worn in the film, each representing a different aspect of Leatherface. The most obvious are the iconic “killing” mask, which he wears to kill Kirk, Pam and Jerry. It has a really simple but great look in this film, like it’s very worn out and made in a very rough manner. It also shows off his eyes and mouth enough to allow Gunnar Hansen to be quite expressive. It might work best for me because it isn’t really designed to be a “scary flesh mask”, it just gets to be scary on its own merits (also, holy shit, I saw a face transplant article on CBC a while ago and they have pictures from the procedure… you could straight-up make a face mask like Leatherface’s in real life). He also wears two masks which are meant to make him look like a woman, which are possibly even more unsettling than the killing mask. He wears these during the dinner scene and they are meant to convey that Leatherface is trying to be “domestic” rather than a butcher at that time.
Despite being very simple on the surface, there’s a lot that you can say about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which makes it far more than just a really well-made slasher film. The most obvious theme to me is the divide between urban and rural, or society and savagery. Sally and her friends represent “civilized” urban society and when they venture into rural Texas it’s like a strange, unknown world to them. It feels like an American gothic story to me, where all of the evils of society are hidden just beneath the veneer of normalcy. Everyone in rural Texas is portrayed a being at least somewhat eccentric, from the straight-up psychopaths in the Sawyer family, to the drunken and crazy locals just hanging out at the graveyard. The land itself is even run down, from the shut-down slaughterhouse, to the quaint gas station, to the old homesteads that the group witnesses. The Sawyer family’s savagery seems like more of an extension of the reality that they live in, rather than some aberration unique to them. In their world, you have to do what you can to survive, including hunting to eat. I wonder if this is perhaps why Tobe Hooper decided to make Franklin a paraplegic to further show the divide between these two worlds. In the civilized world, Franklin can get by well enough, but as soon as he enters the rural parts of Texas he is getting attacked by the elements and the locals. Even his old family home can’t accommodate him in his state and he is ultimately killed by Leatherface because he’s unable to flee on the rough terrain. On a similar note, Kirk and Jerry are the men of the group and would traditionally be seen as the “protectors”, but the fact that they are overpowered almost instantly by Leatherface shows the might that he has in his own environment. Considering that the film has an early reference to cattle being killed with a hammer at the slaughter house in the “good ol’ days”, the fact that both of the men are killed this way clearly is meant to equate them with cattle in the Sawyers’ eyes.
And speaking of the slaughterhouse, that leads into another theme of the film which resonates with me regarding how capitalism is ruining the lives of rural people. Nubbins mentions that his grandfather and Leatherface used to work at the slaughterhouse and were legendarily good at killing cattle efficiently with a hammer blow. However, when bolt guns were introduced into the business it made the process even more efficient and presumably caused Leatherface’s job to be redundant. You could even argue that Grandpa’s living corpse is symbolic of the family’s refusal to let go of their past despite capitalism making their living obsolete. You can also see this economic depression in the fact that the Hardesty homestead has been abandoned and left unsold; no one wants the property anymore. Drayton also mentions when kidnapping Sally that he had to go back into the gas station and turn the lights off, because the price of wasted electricity is so expensive that it could put him out of business. You can connect the dots pretty easily for how a family on hard times with a talent for killing cattle would turn to murdering and eating people, all because economic opportunity has been drained from the community. You could also argue that this is why Nubbins takes Franklin’s refusal to pay for a photograph as such an insult. He believes that he did a favour for Franklin and gets screwed over for his work. This might even mirror the circumstances of Leatherface losing his job after years of loyal service, so Nubbins might be even more enraged by the snubbing as a result.
The other theme which I find particularly interesting is the concept of family. The traditional family dynamic is twisted in fascinating ways in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I’ve already mentioned how it’s unique that the film features a family of psychopaths, but it goes much deeper than that. The Sawyers have a traditional southern family, with grandpa as the patriarch and grandma having died some time ago. However, since he’s comatose and unable to lead the family, Drayton has had to take over as the head of the family, handing out abusive-levels of discipline to his brothers when they misbehave. Leatherface’s place is also quite interesting in this family – since the matriarch of the family has died, he wears masks with makeup on them to fill the void in the family. The family dynamic is most clearly felt during the dinner scene, which is clearly meant to be a nightmare version of the idea of “southern hospitality“, only now with human remains strewn everywhere, a family of psychopaths and the attempted murder of the guest. However, as twisted as the Sawyers’ notion of family is, it’s juxtaposed against the family dynamic of Sally and Franklin. Sally doesn’t get along with Franklin very well, in fact she seems to find him to be a burden that she is forced to bear. The only time they have any sort of familial moment is when Franklin asks if she wishes he didn’t come with them, but she clearly lies when she says that she’s just tired. In comparison to the Sawyers, the Hardesty family is more fractured and broken, even if it is more “conventional”.
As you can probably tell, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is far more than just an average slasher film. I don’t tend to like slasher films very much, but I really do love this one – it’s incredibly well made (especially considering the low budget which gets used as an asset rather than a hindrance), deceptively fascinating and deeply unsettling. Its status as a horror classic is undisputed and I would definitely put it up there as one of my favourite horror movies of all time.
Be sure to tune in soon as we move onto the next entry in the series, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2!