In 1974, something monumental happened that has left an impact on the world that is still felt to this day. I’m not talking about Richard Nixon resigning, though that certainly was historic as a U.S. President had never been forced to resign. He saw the writing on the wall though and knew it was time to extend his thumb and hit the road.
I’m not talking about the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammed Ali and George Foremen where Ali landed some devastating shots that hit as hard as a hammer. I’m also not talking about my birth, as that occurred two years later, though I’m sure that was pretty horrific. Imagine a mini-me crawling out of the uterus, ready to begin whining for a tit to feed from, actually I kind of still do that and if you were to remove the beard I’d look like a giant baby. All of these are moments captured in time that will be talked about for as long as we still inhabit this wonderful flying ball called Earth (minus me of course, though there is still time for me to leave an impact beyond crude humor and weirdness… and also while I’ve derailed this… it is a ball. The Earth is not flat. Please… just stop that nonsense.) Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s continue and discuss what you are here for.
Tobe Hooper’s film, gloriously shot on 16mm the year prior, debuted in October of 1974. Audiences cringed, covered their eyes and, more importantly, experienced what true fear and terror looked like. They weren’t shocked by the gore (there was very little, contrary to what many think and remember) and they weren’t titillated by the nudity (there was none, though the shot of Pam getting off of the swing and walking to the house is quite mesmerizing). Instead they were pulled into a world very much like ours at the time. In the modern age of the Internet and Uber, we forget that life used to be different. It used to be much slower; there was more of a personal connection to people and life in general. When someone dug up some graves, you had to actually go to the cemetery to make sure your loved one wasn’t off somewhere becoming a chair. Now you’d put a sad face on the Facebook post and go back to bitching about how a horror film that is clearly a horror film isn’t a horror film. Or you’d post a picture of what you were getting ready to eat cause, let’s face it, food doesn’t taste good until many people who don’t give a fuck see it. Imagine if sex was that way. You had to post a picture before you went to town. Actually, now that I think of it, they have sites like that. At least I’ve heard about them, not that I know by experience.
Sorry, I took a thirty-minute break (more like three minutes). Now where was I? Oh yeah, it was a different time.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre opens with some quick shots of bodies in various states of decomposition. In the original VHS release these were hard to make out but you got the point. In the Blu-ray release you glimpse it in all its glory. The images themselves are horrific, but not too graphic, and what sets the mood is the sound of the old-school camera taking pictures of what you are seeing. Using the camera’s flash to light the scene was a great choice. It’s a tease that builds tension. You want to see more. You NEED to see more. It taps into the part of the mind we all have that wants you to see the nightmare. You can’t look away. You may cover your eyes, but inevitably you open your fingers and peek through. The “less is more” philosophy is used to great effect within this film. And then, suddenly, you see the ghastly skeleton display sitting atop a grave marker. The early morning sun casts its rays down in an almost angelic pose of degradation. We then meet the first family.
Kirk (William Vail), Sally (Marilyn Burns), Franklin (Paul Partain), Jerry (Allen Danziger) and Pam (Teri McMinn) are very much a family, though only two are related by blood. Their interplay is immediately relatable. We all have that one friend or family member that annoys the fuck out of you. If you don’t know who yours is, then it’s probably you. Yep, you’re Franklin. Deal with it.
Sally and Franklin’s grandfather happens to have been buried in the cemetery in question and they are road-tripping there to see if his grave is one that has been dug up. Much has been written about Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s inspiration for this film since it proudly proclaimed, “What happened is true.” I remember being young and fully believing it. I also knew it didn’t take place in Texas and that it happened in the state right next to me, Wisconsin, home of Ed Gein.
Ed Gein was a nice guy. That’s what everyone remembers about him. He helped the area residents do odd jobs, even babysitting children. True, he was a little different, weird even, but no alarms were raised. It was a different time. You trusted your neighbors, you didn’t lock your doors, you more or less believed in the goodness of people.
He had a bitch of a mom and was raised in an environment that helped to cultivate and develop his habits. No one knew what secrets his Plainfield home held. He had an affinity for digging up corpses and making decorations and other items out of them. He had skull bowls, lampshades made from human skin and even a belt made out of nipples. A fucking nipple belt. What the fuck goes through your mind that makes you look at a nipple and go, “Wow, that should be on a belt!”? In a shocking discovery he also created a woman suit made from the skin he filleted off of the corpses and had multiple skin masks. He would put on the skin suits and go outside at night, howling and laughing at the moon. I’ve been to the land he lived on.
While the house is long gone, you can’t help but look at the clearing and imagine him out there, weirding up the place. In a bizarre twist of fate, he’s buried with his family in one of the cemeteries he frequented on his nights out. He’s buried near Bernice Worden, the woman found strung up like a deer in his barn.
He was fucked in the head alright. He may have been able to go on, living his fantasies out on the recently deceased, but he progressed to murder and was caught. The totality of his crimes was written about in all the papers. He became the basis for many characters including Norman Bates in Psycho, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs and, of course, Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Leatherface is the front and center force of the film. He drives the mayhem for the entirety of the second act. The Ed Gein parallel is there due to the skin mask and bone furniture, but the story differs in so many ways. Ed certainly didn’t use a chainsaw, and when he resorted to “doing his thing,” he was living alone. What makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre work so well is this difference, the second family in the film.
The Sawyers are very much a family and also feel familiar. Their interactions, though extreme and savage, on a base level are very similar to what we all experience amongst our own families. The arguments, the hurt feelings, jealousy… they all showcase humanity. There is a moment that highlights this completely when Leatherface, played by the amazing and brilliant Gunnar Hansen, sits in front of a window contemplating what he has just done to the people that have, in his mind, invaded his home. He’s slow, he’s broken and he’s scared. All of this is shown through his eyes and mannerisms. Gunnar spent time with people with special needs in order to add that dynamic to his portrayal. He understood that in order for this to work, it needed to be elevated above a standard masked killer concept. There needed to be life behind the death.
Ed Neal played “The Hitchhiker” with more chaos. He is the bratty brother, the middle child. He is undoubtedly unhinged. He relishes in pain and misery, but he also wants to be liked and accepted, as we all do. When he is picked up on the side of the road, he smiles and tries to fit in. The “good guys” are the ones who begin to mistreat him. Franklin even refers to him as Dracula. The Hitchhiker sees Franklin’s knife and tries to use it as a way to bond because he also has a knife. This attempt falls flat so he takes a picture of Franklin in a last attempt to make friends. Unfortunately his ability to take pictures rivals his ability to fit into a normal environment and he fails. The group reacts negatively to his out of focus picture and request for payment. This is the last straw for The Hitchhiker and he lashes out in anger.
Now with this being said, I believe he always intended to kill everyone: he did try to get them to go to the family home and that would mean certain death, but I feel his portrayal of someone trying to make friends was sincere. He’s tossed out of the van after he cuts Franklin with his knife, and yes, it is a good one. He wipes his blood on the side of the van and chases after them, the whole time sticking his tongue out and blowing raspberries. I’m not sure what the kids today call it, that’s what we called it back in my day so that’s what I’m writing. It’s a childish act of rebellion and sums up the character very well. It should also be noted that Franklin also does the raspberry bit when he’s unhappy in the old family home and mocking those he came with.
The van pulls into a gas station for a fill-up and is told by Drayton (The Cook), played to perfection by Jim Siedow, that there is no gas. When we meet Drayton you have no idea he’s related to Leatherface and The Hitchhiker. He even tries to get them to leave. It is only later in the film that his inherent craziness comes out. He is a dichotomy. He does his best to prove he is above his brothers and far removed from the hurt and pain they inflict but has momentary lapses where his sadistic side comes out. When he kidnaps Sally and drives her home, he alternates between consoling her and gleefully poking her with the broomstick. He is very much the older and wiser sibling that likes to look down upon and torment those beneath him while at the same time grandstanding. Age has power in a family.
Leatherface and The Hitchhiker could easily silence Drayton but back down in his presence. Then you have Grandpa, played by John Dugan. He is the patriarch of the family. They show him respect, much like Sally and Franklin do to their own grandfather when they go check on his grave. The two families share more similarities than differences, though the whole “kill, wear and eat” thing is a big one. This movie, at its core, is about family and that’s why it will be around forever. Some families are just more fucked up.
Leatherface, The Hitchhiker and Drayton combine to really capture a disturbed mind, very much like Ed Gein. Leatherface is the child side, the scared and worried side. He’s all reaction throughout the film. The Hitchhiker is the side that tries to fit in and just can’t. It’s the rebel teen side, the side that wants to make friends but inevitably destroys any chance. And Drayton is the logical side you show the public. The side that tries to hold it together but can’t. Deep down you are too disturbed and you can only hold back so long before you lash out to feed the need. This certainly was Ed Gein. Having the body parts around and pretending wasn’t enough. Eventually he had to go further.
The group decides to drive to their old home to pass the time until the truck comes to fill up the tanks. They don’t realize that they’ve now entered madness and the two families will come head-to-head. I’m not going to give you the rest of the plot as you know it. If you haven’t seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, then you need to stop reading this, immediately locate a copy and watch it. There is no other option for you. I’m talking to you, yes you. Go…see…it…now. Please, you have to. The rest of us will carry on; you may join us when you are ready.
What makes this film work so much is the direction and choices made by all involved. Every frame of the film feels real. You can practically smell the sweat and fear. By all accounts the shoot was a difficult one. Temperatures were generally over 100 degrees, and the cast and crew worked long hours in order to complete filming.
The set decoration by Robert A. Burns was nothing short of brilliant. When I watch the film, I still swear I can smell the decaying livestock and chicken shit. I expect to get up and stand on feathers. There is one thing that is for sure: the cast and crew lived it, breathed it and smelled it. Most of the bones were real, some from a slaughterhouse, some from roadkill. The house on Quick Hill was abandoned. It was not in the best shape, there was little ventilation, real animal blood was smeared throughout the house. Heat that house to 120 degrees and you have something worse than swamp ass and sweaty balls. It was ripe for horror.
The dinner scene was a long one to shoot. The smell was getting to everyone. They didn’t have multiple versions of the wardrobe so it couldn’t be cleaned, just day after day of blood, sweat and tears. Tensions ran high, and when a blood gag didn’t work correctly, Gunnar Hansen cut Marilyn Burns for real. What you see on screen are actors reaching their breaking point due to their experience on the shoot. It absolutely shows on screen. I have seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre over one hundred times; and it is the only movie that makes me feel like I’m there, watching what is really happening. That’s why it works so well. Everything you see could happen. Half the movie also takes place during the day, when you consider yourself safe. This really amps up the tension. Not only are you fucked at night, you may be fucked during the day…and not in a good way.
When Leatherface slides the metal door closed, I get goosebumps. The way the sound hits is a perfect cinematic moment. Even writing about it gives me the feels. Gives me the feels? That’s it. I’m on social media too much. I shouldn’t be saying shit like that. The actors themselves bled for the shoot. Almost everyone had injuries; still they worked through it without any idea of what this would become.
Quite a bit is owed to Daniel Pearl for his cinematography. It’s a beautifully shot film. The natural lighting is breathtaking in some shots. The swing scene is a thing of beauty and build. The grittiness of some shots adds to the realism.
The sound design really packs a punch. There is no score, just noise that acts almost like a character in and of itself. And with the recent passing of Tobe Hooper, we have to mention how phenomenal his directing was. The man knew how to make a horror film and his talent will be missed. I’m thankful we have a part of him still available to us and know that when someone works on a film you are getting a piece of them.
The acting is great from the entire cast. Everyone knew how to play their part and did it very well. I focused more on the bad guys because… well, that’s where my heart lies. I have the tattoos to prove it. The rest of the cast is equally as good though. Everyone contributed to the film’s success and we should thank them every time we see them at a convention.
The location definitely adds to the experience. There are small communities all over the US, very much like the one portrayed in the movie. I grew up in the country. I drove past many farms that, while part of the community, were isolated. Anything could be going on behind those doors. That’s why it works so well. The killers weren’t some supernatural spirits; they were your neighbors, people you came in contact with, maybe even liked. The masks they wear are even more horrifying than the one Leatherface wears because you can’t see them for what they truly are. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre utilizes this feeling of isolation so well. You feel so alone; there is no hope and it’s all because you wandered onto the wrong property. It could have happened to you. It’s only upon the end of the film, when Sally is running from the house and you see how close it is to a road, that you realize it isn’t isolated at all. It’s there for the entire world to see, just like the homes you grew up next to. It blends in. That’s the horror.
The house itself still exists. It’s been moved, refurbished and is now a restaurant in Kingsland, Texas, called the Grand Central Cafe. My lady, the lovely Sarah French, and I stayed next door to it in the Antler Inn (fitting name). We snuck over and watched the movie on the front porch after hours though you shouldn’t. I’m sure that is frowned upon. The owners took us inside the next day, while it was closed, and let us look around. It was absolutely amazing setting foot inside horror history.
The Gas Station is now a tourist stop also. It’s located in Bastrop, Texas, and you can buy memorabilia there and also stay in a cabin behind it. We visited there when they were in the process of fixing it up but definitely will make our way back now that it’s complete. Who wouldn’t want to spend the night there and watch the movie?
Both are a testament to the power of the film. The locations still draw people in. On paper The Texas Chain Saw Massacre should have been a good horror movie. During the filming, thanks to all involved, it was elevated to a masterpiece. Everything lined up perfectly in order for it to become what it is. If any of the pieces fell apart, you wouldn’t be reading about this right now.
All of these factors contribute to my belief that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the greatest horror film of all time and I’ll go even further than that. I think it’s one of the greatest films period, genre labeling be damned. With that being said, in 1986 Tobe Hooper and company unleashed a sequel, which just so happens to be my favorite film of all time. But we’ll discuss that in Part 2 of this story.
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