1974 - 83m.
"Who will survive and what will be left of them?" This is a question asked on the poster for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and, by the time the flick's gruelling 83 minutes have gone by, you'll know the answer. Made by Texas filmmakers Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel for under 300,000 dollars this came out of nowhere to become surprise hit and Hooper (who followed this with Poltergeist, Lifeforce, and many more) would never be able to reach the heights of his debut here even going for complete satire when he revisited Leatherface and his clan twelve years later for the 1986 sequel. It's a deserved horror classic and, along with John Carpenter's Halloween, my all-time favourite genre flick.
Opening with somber narration, camera bulb flashes illuminating grotesqueries, sharp metallic beats on the soundtrack, and a strung up corpse it's merely just a taste of what's to come. It's a brilliant start and instantly puts you on edge before we're introduced to our group of, soon to be, unlucky twenty-something's as they drive across Texas in order to visit the childhood home of Sally (Marilyn Burns) and the wheelchair bound Franklin (Paul A. Partain). They make the mistake of picking up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) whose bizarre behaviour and eventual self-mutilation has them booting him out of their van. Little do they know this chance encounter will soon come back to haunt them.
Soon after they're running low on gas and, when told they have to wait until morning for the refill truck to fill the tanks at the only station around, they go check out the old homestead. They run afoul of the psychotic neighbours which include our hitchhiker, a withered old Grandpa, and the imposing Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) who has an affinity for chainsaws, sledgehammers, and wearing a mask made of human skin. Oh, and they also happen to be cannibals.
From here Hopper and company ramp up the tension as our free-spirited group start meeting terrible fates and Sally is captured and treated to one torturous night. There's a lot of demented moments, some sharp moments of implied violence (the film isn't actually nearly as bloody as its reputation as most of it occurs off-screen and your imagination fills in the rest), a whole lot of psychological torment, and a finale that ends with one of horror's most iconic moments.
Made up of a cast of mostly unknown Texan actors it's surprisingly how strong most of the performances are. Burns, who sadly recently passed away, is put through the wringer here and her mental breakdown and utter survival instinct comes across perfectly. She's truly the original "Scream Queen". Given the unfortunate task of playing the snivelling, annoying Franklin, Partain does well enough that we just can't wait for him to meet his nasty fate. However, it's our cannibal clan that steals the show. Hansen is a massive figure and when he's not powerfully picking up a girl to introduce to a meat hook he's swinging hammers and giving off man-child grunts. Neal and Jim Siedow, as the family's eldest sort-of leader, play off each other so well it becomes morbidly hilarious at times.
At the time of its 1974 release this was set up to be based on a true story when, in reality, it is loosely based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein. A Wisconsin farmer who in the 50s murdered two local women in cold-blood but also had bizarre shrines and artwork in his home made from the bones and skin of corpses he'd dug up in graveyards. Leatherface is the most memorable character based on these feats but Gein also inspired films such as Psycho, Deranged, and The Silence of the Lambs.
Considering how many times I've seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre over the years it's still amazing how powerful it is. Having just experienced it on the big-screen for its fortieth anniversary screening its ability to unsettle, even when I knew what was coming, is amazing. The dread built up by Hooper and Henkel you can just taste. This is a gritty, unrelenting ride that rises way above its small budget to deliver the goods. Pair that with the fact it's awesomely shot by Daniel Pearl who stages a lot of striking shots (like Burn's chaotic close-up moments with her eyes wildly darting about and a beautiful tracking shot from underneath an outdoor swing) this is truly a remarkable achievement. (Chris Hartley, 8/11/14)
Directed By: Tobe Hooper.
Written By: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper.
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danzinger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail.