Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list is updated regularly and is currently more than 1700 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
A title can say a lot about a film, particularly when the film is titled The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (promotional material differs on whether “chainsaw” is one word or two; as the film itself uses two words, I’ll be going with that for the review.) It gives a setting, a plot, and a genre all in a few short words. The very title evokes powerful imagery even before one knows anything about the film. It’s the sort of title that would easily have helped the film get attention. Considering one of the interim titles was “Head Cheese”, things could have gone rather differently for it.
The original 1974 film has a reputation as being a classic in the horror genre. It’s a name that is brought up frequently with comparisons to other franchises, with the killer Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) being discussed among the iconic horror villains along with Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. Released before either of those franchises, there’s little question that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of the major forerunners to the spate of slasher movies during the late 70s and the 1980s. It’s probably the start of the chainsaw being viewed as a weapon in addition to a tool. It even kick-starts the trend of horror movies claiming to be true events while being nothing of the sort; while it takes some motifs from serial killer Ed Gein, director Tobe Hooper and actor Gunnar Hansen have both said the events in the film itself are completely made up. There never was an actual Texas chainsaw massacre. The date given in the opening narration even takes place after the film’s own release date. That a number of people believe it actually happened stands as a testament to the film’s effect on pop culture.
But respecting a film’s influence is not the same as enjoying the film. Watching it for the first time (and I’ll note for the record that I’ve seen no other incarnation of the franchise), I found it very difficult to become interested in it or to remain interested. The first half hour or so is spent focusing on the young adults traveling in their van to the old family homestead. There’s a decent suspenseful scene with a hitchhiker (that may have helped kill the hitchhiking craze), but the rest of it’s fairly flat. It’s the “getting to know the victims” stage that is so common in slashers (again, the film is influential), but like a lot of its spiritual descendants it doesn’t do much to really build any audience investment in the characters. There are five of them, but only two get even the most casual attempt at characterization; even the opening narration seems to acknowledge this by mentioning the horrors encountered by “Sally and her brother” (Marilyn Burns and Paul A. Partain) and glossing over the very existence of the other three. Even those two don’t really get much beyond “Franklin is a bit whiny”, for all that Sally is the main character.
As for the other three, they’re just there for the body count, and don’t really even do much on that front. One by one they discover the house where Leatherface resides, and each gets offed within seconds of arriving. There’s no chase involved at this stage, no creativity in the kills, it’s not even all that involved for the first three. They aren’t even killed with the chainsaw of the title. It’s just go in, get killed; knock-knock, knife. The way it’s done, it’s hard to even feel all that intimidated by Leatherface, as it’s not like he’s even going out and being a deliberate threat at this point; he’s just taking opportunities that hand themselves to him. It’s a lot like watching the victims take high dives into an empty swimming pool. It’s bloody, and one can see what’s going to happen, but there’s little fear or interest attached to it.
When Leatherface finally goes on the offensive, the film does a lot better. A man moving strangely while wearing the skin of another person’s face over their head is a striking image, as long as he’s actually doing something. But even then the film interrupts this with an extended sequence in which Sally is exposed to the horrors of the house while held captive. This sequence is weird, but manages to slow the suspense by (ironically) removing the immediacy of the situation. Even though her tormenters are all right there with her, now that she’s not being chased, it doesn’t feel as though she’s going to be killed right away; instead, the expectation is that she’ll escape. Further, the scene takes away some of the mystique of Leatherface by showing that his entire family is psychotic; he’s no longer the mysterious boogeyman that appears in the first chase scene, he’s just one product of a screwed up family, and not even the dominant one. It doesn’t help that this scene — and indeed pretty much all of the last half hour — has Marilyn Burns screaming virtually non-stop. It might be a realistic emotional reaction (fortunately, I have not witnessed any real life equivalents to compare it to), and it’s certainly visceral to a degree, but it’s not very entertaining. There’s a reason most slasher films have their female leads scream a bit, and then stop. It’s easier on the ears, and somehow people seem more terrified if they’re “too scared to scream”. It’s easier to sell the audience on the fear, because the physical reaction more closely matches their own; it’s harder for the audience to buy into hysteria when they are not themselves in hysterics.
The film does certain things very well. Leatherface is a menacing character during the period when he’s both proactive and unique. The chase scenes with Sally work very well, as does the hope spot near the end of the first one. It’s just that outside of the chase scenes, the film fails to be interesting. At the beginning, it’s fairly dull; towards the end, it’s irritating. I can respect the film for what it began, as the influence it had on later horror films is obvious at several points. But as a film itself, I have to say it left me unenthralled.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.