Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel
Stars: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Allen Danziger
Release Date: October 1, 1974
There's a rawness that cannot be replicated and an earnestness that cannot be emulated is every single scene of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a landmark film in American horror.
Forty years ago today a miracle hit theaters around the country and the American horror film was never the same again. Four years before Halloween became credited for starting the slasher film (something Psycho technically founded two decades prior) audiences were petrified by this "slicer" film. Sure, butcher knifes are scary, but chainsaws are terrifying. For a tool turned weapon that's so clunky and loud it's remarkable how much of the film is so slight and quiet.
The film follows five friends (including Sally and her wheel-chair bound brother Franklin) on a road trip. They detour at the old country house of the siblings' grandfather and that's as far as they get. The events of the film span 24 hours and are over in 83 minutes. It's as succinct a horror film as you could hope for and made on as small a budget as can be. The financial limitations are immediately apparent, but the effort they put into the project anyway is what makes all the difference. The cast and crew sweated under the Texas sun with limited resources and loose contracts. The suffering is felt and the creative solutions are seen.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was Tobe Hooper's second feature-length film after Eggshells. For most of the stars it was an equally early endeavor. There's a rawness that cannot be replicated and an earnestness that cannot be emulated is every single scene. Each shot is careful set-up that somehow offers a radical glimpse of the surroundings. When Pam enters and falls to the living room floor of a suspicious neighboring house the details are fed to us bit by bit as her eyes take in the entire room. The horror lies in what we imagine is just off the frame. People remember the film as bloodier and gorier an experience than it actually is. There's not a lot of violence and when there is, the results are only sometimes seen. It's the filthiness of the rooms and their occupants that conjure the unpleasantness. Shot on 16mm by Daniel Pearl and blown-up to be projected in 35. The film is almost pungent in its magnifying look at the transpirations of that summer day and night.
The film begins with a scrolling narration that befits a docudrama, casting the film into the realm of "based on a true story" believability even though it's nonsense. This leads into an eerie overture of photographs in the dark, each whining flash illuminating some piece of a rotting corpse. The opening credits are placed over polarized footage of the surface of the sun, establishing a sweltering that never lets up. We're tainted and uncomfortable from the very beginning and that's where a lot of the effect hides. Some films make you feel like you need a shower when they're over and done with, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that way from the very beginning.
The production in marked with brilliance, including some of the most disturbing art direction that'd make you think Ed Gein was the interior designer. However, it's the performances of the friends and the friendly cannibals they meet that bring this circus to life. Paul Partain and Marilyn Burns play a believable brother and sister. His neediness is matched by his pitifulness. It's hard not to laugh at his eccentrics, but there's cause for serious concern. She's a tad plain until she succumbs to fight or flight and tries everything we would and more. Jim Siedow, Edwin Neal and Gunnar Hansen demand all attention and give you the impression that everyone involved will need counseling when this film is over.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is less about who will live to see the morning and more about how anyone could go on living after such an ordeal. It's strangely about family, no matter how messed up yours is at least you still have each other. This is one of my favorite of (horror) films and I hope others will give it a chance to remind them to take a bath.