Director: Tobe Hooper
Screenplay: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Producers: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper, Jay Parsley and R
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger, Teri McMinn, William Vail, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, John Dugan
BBFC Certification: 18
Duration: 84 min
Five youths – two couples and the wheelchair-bound brother of one of the couples’ female halves – are travelling through Texas, first checking that their ancestors’ resting places haven’t been disturbed in a recent bout of grave digging, before spending some time at an abandoned house owned by the parents of the brother and sister. However, a creepy hitch-hiker and a very-much-not-abandoned house nearby put something of a damper onto their vacationing plans.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which celebrates its 40th Anniversary with this special edition release, is a film with a reputation, most of which comes from its name. I’d imagine that, outside of film fans and horror junkies, a great deal of “normal” people have never sat down and watched it. It just seems most people don’t have an urge, when they sit down of an evening, to watch something involving a chain saw massacre, and to be honest I can’t say I really blame them. What they’re all missing out on, however, is a hugely influential, incredibly well made and utterly iconic slice of cinema, which just happens to be about a family of psychopathic cannibals and their chain saw wielding son.
The film does a truly terrific job of not just creeping you out, but always changing the manner in which it’s creepy, often unexpectedly, whilst always increasing the level of terror without ever going into silliness. It opens with shots of decaying corpses, rotten hands and heads, teeth and what used to be eyes. So far, so horrific. Next, the weirdness comes in the form of a decidedly off kilter hitch-hiker (Edwin Neal) with his fascination for head-cheese (don't ask) and a penchant for blade-wielding. However, when the teens encounter the house nearby to their destination, well that's when you really need to watch out.
The iconic villain of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre franchise is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a giant, hulking, chain saw wielding brute, and I believe this entire iconic status can be derived back from his very first appearance, which comes completely out of nowhere, surprising an unfortunate house explorer with a mallet to the head and an abruptly slammed metal door. His second encounter involves a rather unfortunate soul left dangling from a meat hook, and it just gets worse from there. What the character of Jerry encounters when he goes in search of his friends still makes me jump, despite knowing full well what is coming, and it's this level of unexpected left turns that I was referring to earlier.
It’s worth noting that most of what I’ve said so far, and a great deal of the horrific acts to follow, are for the most part implied. I’m pretty sure we never actually see the piercing of flesh in any scene, especially not with a chain saw. With the hook, we see a few shots of the big, shiny, evil hook waiting for someone’s back to become its new best friend, we see Leatherface picking up said lucky soul, and then we see them dangling in the air, screaming. Later, when some heavy duty chain-sawing comes into play, the shots are almost entirely shot from the weapon, pointing up at the killer. There’s splashes of blood, sure, but the act of cutting? That’s all in your head. Apparently director Tobe Hooper has been told on many occasions that his special effects in the film are incredible, to which he replies that there aren’t any; he doesn’t show anything. It’s true, and it’s amazing.
If there's an area for improvement, it's in the characterisation of the five teenagers. The antagonists are very memorable, each with their distinct personalities, traits and roles, but the heroes are just another batch of chain saw fodder, only deviated in memory by their method of dispatch. Granted, the archetypes set up here have formed a template that's been used so often it could be the earliest influence on The Cabin in the Woods, and this film is very much more about what happens than to whom it happens to, but I still would have liked something more from the likes of Kirk, Pam and Jerry. Sally (Marilyn Burns), who soon becomes established as our lead, is also quite bland, but is made up for by her talent for screaming, and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), who is the kind of socially oblivious, whining nuisance that you almost look forward to seeing his demise.
The most famous scene is the climactic dinner sequence, infamously shot over one unbroken 26 hour period (with some of the actors involved already having been in make-up for 6 hours prior to filming) and in hellishly hot conditions to boot. It adds a gruelling, grimy, unrefined and visceral appearance to the scene, with everyone involved clearly teetering on the brink of madness from the arduous shoot. It takes a turn for the blackly comic at times, and you can’t help but get caught up in the insanity of it all, and just how much Sally (and indeed Marilyn, the actress playing her) has to go through.
I’m not normally a fan of horror, and yet I really loved this film. That’s how you can tell a film is brilliant; when it’s set entirely within a genre that I generally have no time for, yet I’ll wholeheartedly recommend it, and look forward to watching it again. It's definitely too gruesome for some people, but if you can stomach it, this is a must-see.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is out on 17th November in the UK in a limited edition 40th anniversary two-disc Steelbook Blu-Ray, released by Second Sight.
There's a feast of special features to commemorate the film's birthday, including four audio commentaries with Tobe Hooper, the cast and various crew members, interviews with editor J. Larry Carroll, director Tobe Hooper, writer Kim Henkel and actors Teri McMinn and John Dugan, a tour of the house with Gunnar Hansen (slightly disappointing, as the house is now decorated in fluffy Easter bunnies instead of just their skulls), tons of deleted scenes and outtakes, and a few other features as well.