The Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
In 1974, a young filmmaker set out to create what would later be regarded as one of the most influential and creative horror films ever made. The filmmaker's name was Tobe Hooper and his film was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film was partly inspired by a book about Ed Gein, the infamous midwest serial killer from the 1950s. Hitchcock's film Psycho (1960) was also based on the same book.
The film begins with a scrolling introduction read by actor John Laroquette (Stripes, Night Court). Then over black we hear an ear splitting sound effect. We can see after a few seconds, flashes of light. It is someone is taking pictures of something. The camera fades in and we see a scary scene of two decomposed bodies tied up in a twisted pose upon a cemetery headstone. We can hear a radio announcer talking about the actual crime scene we are witnessing.
Five kids: Franklin Hardesty (Paul Partain) an invalid, his sister Sally (Marilyn Burns) and their friends Kirk (William Vail), Jerry (Allen Danziger) and Pam (Teri McMinn) are driving through the country. They have to stop because Franklin has to piss. They wheel him out of the van and as hes pissing in a can, a large 18 wheeler drives by and startles them all, Franklin loses his footing and rolls down the hill. As they are driving, they hear the same radio announcement about the grave robbing. They realize that one of their relatives is buried in that same cemetery. They stop and talk to the local police and people who have gathered there. As Sally talks to the police chief, Franklin is in the van and a crazy old man (John Henry Faulk) is rambling on telling Franklin stories. The way Hooper shot this scene makes it really creepy. The old man is talking lying on his back, so it looks like he's a dead corpse. It gives the scene a very ominous feeling.
The kids load up into the van and are off on their way again. They drive by a slaughterhouse and smell the bad stench as Franklin explains that his granddad used to work there. They see a hitchhiker looking for a ride so they pick him up. The Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) is very crazy looking and the kids all watch him as if he were a strange animal in a cage. The creepy Hitchhiker has a camera and he shows the kids the pictures he's taken. The pictures seem to be dead animals and rotten cow carcasses. Franklin asks the Hitchhiker about the slaughterhouse and they both seem to be getting along after they discuss the finer delicacies of HEAD CHEESE. The Hitchhiker explains that Head Cheese is made from all the brains and eyeballs and tendons of the cow. Franklin has a knife that he's been holding and the hitchhiker wants to see it. After he takes the knife, he cuts his own hand open as the kids look on in horror. The Hitchhiker gets off on this. Then he takes a picture of the kids and demands they give him money for it. They refuse and he takes the pictures and puts gunpowder on it and lights it on fire. The Hitchhiker freaks out and grabs a straight razor and cuts Franklin's arm. Then the van pulls over and they push the hitchhiker out. As they are pulling away, the Hitchhiker makes faces and taunts them, and he kicks the van and scrapes it with his razor.
The kids screech off in the van and they are stunned. They tell each other "thats the last time we're gonna pick up a hitchhiker!" The kids get to a gas station and decide to take a break. They find out that the gas truck isn't there yet, so they gotta wait. The gas station is also sells BBQ, so the Gas Station owner (Jim Siedow) tells them to stay around. They wait awhile and then they head on to their relatives house (they spent time there as kids) which is now all decrepit and rundown. The kids look around the house and see that its full of junk. Jerry looks in one room and sees a horde of spiders, it's a creepy place. While the kids are upstairs looking around, Franklin is downstairs in his wheelchair. He's angered at them for leaving him all alone, so in a comedic outburst, he whines, cusses and spits. Franklin then looks up and sees a strange ornament made of bones hanging from a doorway. Something's not right.
Jerry and Pam come downstairs and ask Franklin if theres any place to go swimming around the area. Franklin tells them there used to be an old swimming hole they used to go to as kids down a nearby trail. So Jerry and Pam get down there and see that the swimmin hole is all dried up. In the distance, they hear a noise, as they walk on, they can make out that its a compressor of some kind. They see a house and they walk over closer, they see a large garage loaded with cars covered in netting. They walk towards the house and Jerry goes up to the front door and asks if anyone is home. Noone answers, so he proceeds inside. Pam sits on a swinging chair and waits. Jerry walks into a doorway that seems to be adorned with dead animal skulls, suddenly he is savagely attacked by a hammer to the head. Its the infamous human skin masked ghoul Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). As Jerry's body shakes like a stunned animal, Leatherface clobbers him a few more times and drags him all the way in and slams the steel door shut. Pam follows after Jerry and calls out to see where he is. She walks into the front of the house and she opens a curtain and sees a macabre and startling sight. It's a room of furniture made out of animal and human skeletal remains. There's also some chickens hanging in a cage. She falls down and is sick with dry heaves as she looks at each of the deranged lounge furniture. She gets up and tries to run out the door, but Leatherface runs after her and picks her up and brings her back into his butchering room. He carries her to a meathook and plunks her on it like a piece of Grade B beef.
Back at the house, Sally, Franklin and Kirk are waiting for Jerry and Pam. Kirk decides to go look for them and he walks towards the house. When he gets there, he walks inside and noone's around. He walks into the back room and he hears a noise coming from a large freezer, an odd knocking. Jerry goes to open the freezer and Pam's dead body pops out like a Jack in The Box. Leatherface rushes in and kills Kirk. Then he crams Pam's body back in the freezer like a old pair of socks. Leatherface is freaking out, he looks out the window to see if any other intruders are about. Actor Gunnar Hansen really did a wonderful job as the masked fiend.
Sally and Franklin are restless as they wait for the others to come back, the sun is going down. They decide to go look for them. They yell out and (this is the first horror movie to use the "I'll go look for Joe" plot device that we'd later see in many horror films like Friday The 13th and others). Sally has to push Franklin through the woods in the wheelchair, as they are going down the trail, they hear a noise. They stop, but then, like a ghost, Leatherface appears with his chainsaw and he saws Franklin up into bits! Sally takes off and Leatherface chases her through the thick brush.
She finally gets to the Sawyer house, then runs upstairs where she encounters Grandpa (John Dugan) a mummified looking ghoul. She screams at him for help, but Grandpa shows no sign of being able to do anything but sit in his chair. While Sally is pleading with Gramps for help, Leatherface is sawing through the front door (I really like how Tobe Hooper crosscuts Leatherface's buzzing saw cutting through the door with closeup shots of Grandpa in his chair). Sally then jumps out the top floor window and falls into the yard. She gets up and runs through the woods, as Leatherface bolts after her, Sally screams like a maniac (wouldn't most of us?). She sees lights up ahead and she runs towards them. She's back at the gas station/BBQ cafe where they were at earlier. She runs inside and Leatherface just dissapears. The old guy inside tells her to calm down. Sally is livid, as she sits and waits for The Old Man to get his truck to drive her to the police. When the Old Man gets back, he has a potato sack and a broom. Sally is confused. Then the Old Man lets her know that she's not safe after all. He knocks her out and puts the potato sack over her head. Then he puts her in the truck and as they drive along, he pokes and prods at her with the broomstick handle. Another example of that pitch black humor the film has running through it.
As he drives down the dirt road to his house, our friend The Hitchhiker is just getting home as well. It's one big happy hellish family! When they get inside, The Old Man yells at Leatherface (his younger brother) and we see that the big bad chainsaw wielding killer is actually just a big retarded baby who likes to cook up dishes of death. Leatherface is now wearing an old ladies wig (may be a reference to Psycho). They take Sally and tie her up in a chair. When she awakes she sees that she's at the dinner table with the Sawyers. She screams and they taunt her as she flips out. Tobe Hooper shoots an extreme close up of Sally's eyeballs and it really is an amazing effect. Her eyeballs dart back and forth and it conveys the complete frenzy she is feeling. For the big dinner party, the boys bring Grandpa downstairs. They decide to feed him but Old Grandpa doesn't want a beer or BBQ, he wants some FRESH BLOOD! Sally is the donor, so they slice her finger and they let Grandpa suck on it. As he sucks, he suddenly comes back to life and almost gets up and does a dance. Hilarious!
Then for the coup de grace, they give Grandpa a large hammer to hit Sally on the head with, but everytime they place the hammer in Grandpa's hand he drops it! This is a very funny sequence. After Grandpa finally lands a blow to her noggin, Sally manages to break free and she runs and crashes out the front window. We can see it's now dawn outside and she is bloody and bruised as she runs down the long driveway with The Hitchhiker and Leatherface after her once again. She gets to the highway and flags down an 18 wheeler, but as the truck tries to stop, it crushes The Hitchhiker and turns him into roadkill. Sally jumps into the truck and she barely escapes Leatherface's saw.
As Leatherface tries to get Sally and The Trucker, The Trucker pegs Leatherface off the head with a large wrench. Leatherface falls down and the chainsaw slices his leg. Sally crazily flags down another truck and jumps in the back. Leatherface chases after her, but the truck speeds off with the bloodied Sally deliriously laughing in the back. Leatherface goes crazy as he misses his chance to slice and dice. As the sun comes up ol' Leatherface wildly swings the chainsaw around in defiance. An iconic cinematic ending if there ever was one!
What I really love most about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the fact its actually one big joke on the audience. The title sounds as if its a huge gorefest, but Tobe Hooper's genius execution is a Hitchcockian work that shows almost no blood at all! The only bloodletting that is shown onscreen, is in the van when the Hitchhiker cuts his hand then Franklin's arm with a straight razor. The rest of the film is a goreless work of cinematic brilliance. It is also very much a black comedy. Another aspect I really enjoy is the way it looks more like a 1970s 16mm documentary than an expensive Hollywood production. It gives the film a raw, gritty quality that just adds to its unique grindhouse aura. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is more than just a low budget horror film, its really a work of cinematic art and its a very special film to me.
Peter Roberts is the co-founder/editor-in-chief of the Grindhouse Cinema Database (GCDb) and contributor to the GCDb's sister site Furious Cinema. A Massachusetts native, he is an avid film fan that has been immersed in the world of entertainment and pop culture his entire life. He holds an AS with Highest Honors in Communications and Interactive Media Design.