Every discernible horror aficionado understands that the horror genre contains a multitude of subgenres. That’s one of the things I love and cherish most about horror: it’s the most variegated medium of film ever created. You can contribute using so many disparate ingredients: monsters created in a lab by an overambitious scientist, boogeymen hiding under a little vulnerable child’s bed or in their closet, a tormented teenager discovering a dormant telekinetic ability that enables them to exact vengeance on those who’ve wronged them. The possibilities are inexhaustible. But the one type that always fascinated me the most, that served as my introduction to the genre at 3 years old, is the slasher subgenre. There’s always going to be something endlessly horrifying and all-too-realistic about a large murderer wearing a mask and carrying a weapon as they chase their victims into the night. And this never would’ve started, there would be no Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, without the groundbreaking endeavour of Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s 1974 masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! 

Made on a low budget of just $140,000, this influential teen slasher film became a classic of contemporary culture, but not before facing a scorching degree of contempt from audiences at the time of its release. Slandered by the church as a “despicable piece of trash” and even the more open-minded Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who praised the technical aspects but expressed ignorance as to why anyone would want to make a film so violent and depraved. I have the answer to that question, Mr. Ebert: Horror is not a child’s genre. It’s not always meant to be fun, innocuous, or conclude on an optimistic note regarding the future. Sometimes, it’s used to tell a frightening story that delves into the despicable underbelly of the everyday world. Few films depict that with the inventiveness, bleak artistry, or gritty pessimism that Hooper brought to the table. 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre relays a tragic tale that finds a group of five youths going for a drive through the beautiful countryside of Texas en route to a cemetery after hearing reports of vandalism and graverobbing in the area. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her physically (and most likely mentally) handicapped brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), are concerned that the grave of their grandfather has been dug up as well, and they desire to head out to see for themselves. Along for the ride are Sally’s boyfriend, Jerry (Allen Danziger), and their two friends, Kirk (William Vail) and his girlfriend, Pam (Teri McMinn). Upon finding out that their grandfather’s grave remains secure, Sally decides to take her companions to the old dilapidated home previously owned by her deceased grandmother, where she spent one summer when she was eight. 

Unbeknown to the young, naïve folks, a new family has taken residence at the house just across from where they’re headed. Down a trail between two old sheds lies a family consisting of four deranged individuals: Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow), the proprietor of a nearby gas (less) station who cooks and sells barbecued food; middle brother Nubbins (Edwin Neal), a hitchhiker who has a penchant for breaking into crypts and stealing certain parts of decayed corpses; the patriarch of the clan known only as “Grandpa” (John Dugan, sporting countless layers of mummy makeup) who has seen some better days; and last but not least, the youngest of the family, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), an overweight, mentally disabled, largely mute figure of menace who wears other people’s faces as a mask, carries around a chainsaw as though it were his best friend, and will do anything he deems necessary to protect his home and family from outside intruders. 

Right from the unforgettable opening shot, director Hooper sets the tone for his narrative. Following a deeply unsettling narration prologue delivered by John Larroquette, we the audience are treated to nothing other than a pitch-black screen. But there’s something different about this delay. It seems to remain black longer than you’d expect, and without warning, our eyes are assaulted by blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots of skeletal remains. Hands, teeth, severed arms, all flashing by in a matter of seconds, accompanied by a heart-stopping, high-pitched, screeching noise almost like that of someone taking a picture of the macabre images. Suddenly, a corpse makes an appearance on the screen. Not a fresh corpse buried a few days ago. This body appears to be several years old, completely decayed, dripping embalming fluid from its mouth, and oddly enough, it isn’t lying peacefully in a casket like a body should be. It’s sitting upright, and as Hooper pulls the camera back a little further, it’s revealed that the corpse has been impaled on a headstone with another person’s head being held in its lap.  

The story is just brilliantly simple – group of friends take an idyllic summer drive for the day and end up crossing paths with a family of sadistic backwoods murderers who proceed to pick them off one by one – but the crucial element that elevates the material to a grisly work of art is Tobe Hooper’s masterful direction. Working in beautiful tandem with cinematographer Daniel Pearl (who would go on to shoot Marcus Nispel’s equally terrifying remake almost 30 years later), Hooper brings this story to thrilling, grimly intoxicating life using a variety of cost-effective ingredients. Mainly, he prefers imagery. Loads and loads of haunting, repulsive imagery that fill the screen and never seem to disappear. Hooper doesn’t just put these images on display, he lingers on them. He milks each and every one of them for all their worth. That is precisely how he builds and sustains a nearly unbearable atmosphere of foreboding.  

Even at the very start of the picture when the teens first step out of the van, Hooper lets us know this story is not going to end well. The depiction of Texans is not particularly flattering. The town sheriff is a lazy drunk who at one point falls over and begins mumbling to the camera, “Things they know about don’t tell about. I- I see things. You say it’s just an old man. You laugh at an old man. It’s he who laughs knows better.” If you’re reading this line thinking, “What the hell does any of that gibberish mean? What relevance does that bear to the narrative?” The answer is nothing and everything. It is absolute drunken nonsense with zero subtext whatsoever, and this sheriff has nothing to do with Sally’s story. Once again, it’s Hooper’s method of tension building. Presenting this slice of land as a foreign place nobody should even think about setting foot in. From the decaying bodies to the deceased possum lying on its back in the middle of the road, Hooper kept me entirely on edge from start to finish. Death is everywhere, and nobody, least of all the so-called sheriff, can do anything to make us feel safe. 

Character development is typically not a slasher film’s strong suit. One of the subgenre’s charms – or shortcomings, depending on how the individual viewer looks at it – is that many of the characters are essentially little more than bodies lined up for the slaughter. Hell, there’s even a heavily symbolic shot that features the teens driving past a slaughterhouse with several cows getting ready to be turned into a delicious steak or cheeseburger. It may be a tad on the nose, but it’s effective foreshadowing for where these unsuspecting people are headed and what terrible fate will befall them. While Sally, Franklin, Jerry, Kirk and Pam are far from three-dimensional creations with fully developed backstories and personalities, the script by Hooper and Henkel doesn’t neglect to provide them with individual characteristics to distinguish them from one another. Pam is interested in astrology, constantly reading ominous passages from a book to her friends dealing with the zodiac, retrograde, and plenty of other things I don’t personally care about, but I respect that Pam does. She also serves as the voice of reason, the audience identification character who speaks up and insists, “Let’s go. Let’s just turn around and go back!” If only the others had heeded her advice. Kirk is presented as a decent, kindhearted musician who graciously assists Franklin on wheeling himself out of the van to urinate, as well as picking up a deranged lunatic so that he won’t asphyxiate in the heat. Jerry is the jokester of the group, making light of a troubling situation. “He’s coming to get you, Franklin. I gave him your name and told him where you live. I even gave him your zip code”, he gags, all while Franklin tries desperately to convince himself the hitchhiker isn’t following them.

 

Now, something I didn’t notice or appreciate back when I used to watch this movie as a kid – I just recently noticed it after giving it a rewatch the last two nights in a row – is how nuanced the characterization of Franklin is. Partain portrays the wheelchair-bound lug as a major complainer, the type of person who ruins a party and the last person in the world you would wanna invite on a road trip. At one point, after struggling to wheel himself inside his grandmother’s house to be with his sister and her friends, Franklin becomes deeply childish, forcing a phony laugh of contempt and spitting at the air while mocking to himself, “Come on, Franklin. It’s gonna be a fun trip.” He’s pathetic and obnoxious, and yet, against all odds, I didn’t find myself loathing him. I felt sorry for him, I empathized with his frustration as the only paraplegic in the group, and I recognized him as a lonely, discontent, benevolent human being. That Partain could pull off such a striking balance of personalities, to make me roll my eyes at him one moment and then feel for him the next, is a testament to his sympathetic ability as an actor.

Edwin Neal, without a doubt, steals every scene he’s in. While Leatherface is the primary antagonist of the film and franchise as a whole, I often found myself the most mesmerized by Edwin Neal’s devilish exuberance. His childlike, deranged, wickedly enthusiastic grin synthesizes flawlessly with his bone-chilling giggle, and that enlarged birthmark painted across his entire right cheek serves as the cherry on top of a thoroughly nerve-shredding villain. The confrontation between him and the 5 soon-to-be victims represents one of the film’s most tense sequences, and Hooper injects just as much tension into the painfully awkward silences as he does in the oddball dialogue. In addition to being one of the scariest films of all time, Texas Chainsaw also weaves an eccentric streak into the unrelenting nightmare. 

Not unlike Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror classic, Alien, Hooper begins the proceedings in a slow creep, favoring quietness and tranquility before unleashing the gruesome mayhem full throttle in the second half. Once the monsters make themselves apparent and the friends realize each one of them is vanishing without a trace, the level of intensity ratchets up to 11 and refuses to cease. Much like the two remaining characters standing (so to speak), we find ourselves lost in the dark. All alone in the woods. No one to call for help. 

 

The production design is a marvel of grotesquerie. The Sawyer’s household is composed almost entirely of human remains and decapitated deer heads. It’s essentially a living manifestation of Hell in our neighborhood. During filming, the temperature rose to a peak of 110 degrees, and the effect shows. Watching Kirk and Pam race down a hill to find that the old swimming hole is now nothing but ground, I could practically feel the searing sun on my back. I was gasping for breath just as they were. This is immersive, tangible filmmaking at its most uncomfortable.

When we think about the best final girls who populate the horror landscape, who either escape or defeat their predators head on, Marilyn Burns’ Sally Hardesty ranks among the greatest. As soon as she comes face to face with the monster who will change her life forever, Burns is instructed to scream at the top of her lungs for pretty much the remainder of the film. In addition, she’s forced to clutch her hair, run for her life through the seemingly endless forest while squeezing through branches, and take a beating here and there. She proves more than up to the task in every last regard. Texas Chainsaw would not have registered as strongly as it did without the unrelenting commitment of the late Marilyn Burns. How she didn’t lose her voice or wind up in lifelong therapy after wrapping on this movie is utterly beyond me. 

What I love most about Sally Hardesty as a character is that she is so unbelievably intelligent and nimble, but vulnerable and human at the same time. After jumping out of a second-story window, Sally doesn’t just stand up and run full-speed like a superhero who can never be injured. That would strain my credulity past the breaking point and make me fear for her less. Instead, she continues to run with a limp. Hooper is wise enough of a director to understand how a person would carry herself after sustaining an injury, but he respects his heroine enough to write her as a fierce, tough-as-nails survivor who refuses to give up and will fight with everything in her to make it out of this night alive. I couldn’t stop rooting for Sally as Leatherface chased her through the woods in a sequence that just kept going and going, and frankly, I didn’t want it to end. 

 

By the end, I was left breathless. The climax is a masterpiece of unrestrained, proudly cacophonous insanity. As Sally wakes up to find herself at the head of the dinner table surrounded by the family of lunatics, Hooper refuses to spare her any mercy. She’s tortured both physically and psychologically, and this is where the directorial genius shines through. Daniel Pearl films Sally’s torment in close-up, capturing the precise expression of true human fear without letting go for a second. The camera moves closer and closer on Burns’ wide eyes, blinking, dripping with tears. She thrashes her head around in unimaginable anguish, and the camera moves with her. This isn’t just a horror movie; it’s an honest, unflinchingly brutal exploration of our deepest vulnerabilities and mortality.

The personalities of the killers are deceptively rich. Leatherface pursues his victims with the ferocity and shamelessness of a Pitbull, but when his older brother savagely beats and berates him, all of a sudden he is reduced to a shrinking violet. He instills fear in his victims, but he also experiences the feeling of fear himself. Drayton is one of the most fascinating members of the family. One minute, he’s laughing sadistically and taking pleasure in watching his prey suffer, the next minute, he defends them and tells his brothers, “No need to torture the poor girl.” Drayton even tries to dissuade Jerry and Kirk from trespassing on their property in the early portion, suggesting that he’s aware of his own wickedness and genuinely wants to make an effort to stop them from making a mistake they won’t live long to regret. Jim Siedow provides both contradicting facets of his role with impeccable verve, without allowing the character to descend into self-parody. 

The power of suggestion is employed to maximum effect. When Leatherface picks up a character invading his home and plants her nicely on the end of a hook, the camera doesn’t actually show the hook piercing her back. Hooper relies on our imagination to fill in the gap, plus the wholly convincing acting of Teri McMinn sells her character’s agony with aplomb. A bucket placed directly beneath the young woman’s hanging body tells us all it needs to about what might be happening to her in a matter of minutes.  

 

While there are no shortage of slasher movies out there, the grandfather of them all remains this grainy, low-budget, relentlessly scary thrill ride that has lost absolutely none of its unnerving power nearly 50 years after it first slashed up the screen and altered the horror genre for years to come. 

Jordan Pressler

Jordan Pressler

Contributor

Jordan Pressler is a horror movie fanatic and screenplay writer whose work can be found on Fanon Fandom.

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