I was 14 when I first saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. VHS was still relatively new and the Film mentioned had yet to be released, Wizard Video would release it a few months later. I’ve heard of it of course since it was always playing in some theater or drive-in around my home for the past eight years. Having been a die-hard gore hound imagine my surprise when I saw an ad for a double feature of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of The Living Dead, plus a bloody short film called Ninja Warrior Nuns, at a revival house on the Balboa Peninsula.
After seeing the picture I didn’t quite know what to make of it, despite its gruesome title there wasn’t any gore to speak of and some of the scenes where darkly humorous, not the blood soaked gore fest I had expected. The film left me very disturbed and freaked out in a way I had never been before. I mean everything felt so real like a documentary and the grainy print made the filth and squalor of the killers’ house all the more filthy and decrepit. Tobe Hooper really crafted a horror picture that had no precedent, though the opening scenes with a radio reporting about graves being robbed reminds one of the TV broadcasts in George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead. The score by Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell is unorthodox, to say the least. Using cymbals and what sounds like ratchets and other tools leaves one disoriented making the opening shots of decayed pustulous flesh unnerving. Danial Pearl’s cinematography, shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, goes from grandiose ‘John Ford style’ wide shots and beautifully executed low angle dolly moves, to hand held ‘in your face’ documentary shots and manic editing. Had I not seen Salem’s Lot, The Fun House, and Poltergeist, which had just come out that summer, I would have thought some crazed lunatic made this using whatever he had around him in his dank barn.
“It’s also without any apparent purpose unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose. And yet in its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.” -Roger Ebert
The picture was released in 1974 just a couple of years before the end of the Vietnam War. A time when social mores were changing, the industrial revolution had been over for twenty years leaving rural areas impoverished and a time when hippies started making movies, I doubt that Mr. Hopper was a crazed anarchist hippie but the film is subversive as hell and manages to offend just about everyone. Most of the sadistic violence is directed at a woman, Sally, and it is brutal and uncomfortable. Blake Snyder in his book on screen writing says that for any great Monster on the loose picture, which TCM essentially is, you have to have a Monster (Leatherface), a house or place (the cannibal house), and sin (The groups, in particular, Sally’s ill treatment of her invalid brother or perhaps the modern world turning its back on traditional American values) despite being cannibals the family is a more traditional family unit than the victims.
You have three brothers, the eldest one runs a gas and food stop that serves BBQ and is known as The Cook; he’s the father figure. Next is The Hitch-Hiker, a sadistic freak, and last but most certainly not least is the infamous Leatherface, a brutal man-child who wears a skinned face over his own that’s adorned with lipstick and rouge and fills the motherly role. The three of them act as a family unit and it all plays out in this Grand Guignol comedy of terrors.
It’s these “family” scenes are what threw me off when I first saw it. Leatherface, after killing Franklin, chases Sally into the house, she shuts the door behind him so Leatherface cuts it down with the saw, typical stuff right? Later during an intense seen the Cook sees what happened to the door and shouts “Look what yer brother did to the door!” they argue while Sally is tied up screaming. Are we supposed to be laughing at the absurdity or frightened with terror? This is where the picture becomes a cacophony of screams, ratcheting screeches, laughing and arguing while the editing becomes a psychedelic montage of extreme close-ups of Sally’s bloodshot eyes, the family staring and laughing at her. This is an iconoclastic moment that sets it apart from all the copycats that soon and still follow.
With the passing of Tobe Hooper, George Romero, and Wes Craven we have lost some of the best filmmakers of the genre. All these filmmakers were iconoclasts. Tobe Hooper made some great pictures afterward, The Funhouse, Poltergeist, and Lifeforce just to name a few. And one of the best TV movies Salem’s Lot, but he never quite reached the sheer visceral terror nor the cinematic bravado of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It is the work of a mad genius made with the right story at the right time with the right cast. It will always be my favorite horror film and one one of my all time favorite pictures.
-Phillip López Jiménez