Warning: moving parts may crush or cut. Serious injury or death may occur.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre changed the world of horror films when it hit theaters in 1974. This chilling and exploitative slasher film changed the way horror films were thought about, marketed, and made. Welcome to another H-Origins film on 31 Days of Horror.
The trailer of the film purports that this is based on a true story. As a series of people are attacked by a large man (possibly a mutant) who sometimes has a chain saw. One woman stumbles into a room full of bone sculptures and other weird items. The narrator reminds audiences that watching the film is almost as scary as really being there. This new style of horror film about a killer with a chain saw turned the world on its ear.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
In August of 1973, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her paraplegic brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), along with friends Kirk and Pam (William Vail & Terry McMinn), plus Sally’s boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger) visit a cemetery in Newt, Texas to check on the grave of her grandfather after some strange vandalism has occurred. The five of them ride together in a hot, sweaty van as Pam reads everyone’s horoscope. Jerry stops for a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) outside the old slaughterhouse (which still smells). The strange and spastic man talks to them about how the animals were killed in the slaughterhouse and how head cheese is made.
The hitchhiker grabs Franklin’s pen-knife and cuts his hand before giving it back, which shocks everyone. He invites them all for dinner at his house, which is near here, before taking an unsolicited photo of Franklin who won’t pay for it. He burns the photo and cuts Franklin on the arm with a straight-razor he keeps in his shoe. Jerry pulls over and they throw him out. They agree that picking him up was a bad idea. They continue to a local gas station.
The old man that owns the station (Jim Siedow) tells the youngsters that he’s out of gas and more won’t be delivered until that evening. He offers them some of his barbecue and urges them not to mess around at the old Hardesty place where they’re headed. When they get to their old family house the kids begin exploring the old run down gothic structure, except for Franklin who cannot navigate the stairs with his wheelchair. Kirk and Pam head off alone to find the swimming hole, but instead find another house. Hoping to be able to get some gas from them, they enter the house.
Kirk is attacked by a large man with a mask made of human skin, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). The mute monster then comes after Pam, grabbing her and suspending her from a meat hook while he uses a chainsaw to dismember Kirk. When Jerry realizes they are missing he too discovers the house and finds Pam partially alive in the freezer. Leatherface bashes his head in with a hammer. As night falls, Sally and Franklin start looking for their friends, who also happen to have the keys to the van. As they wander through the dark woods, Leatherface jumps out with a chainsaw and kills Franklin. Sally flees in terror.
Unfortunately she runs into Leatherface’s house. She finds two corpses in the attic before jumping out the window to avoid the masked killer. She runs back into the woods and makes her way back to the gas station. The owner consoles her, but suddenly attacks her and ties her up. He begins driving her back to the house when he sees the hitchhiker on the road, who also happens to be a relative. They arrive at the house and set up for dinner. Leatherface brings Grandpa (John Dugan) down from the attic, who is still alive and feeds him with some blood suckled from Sally’s hand.
Sally is tied to a chair during the bizarre family dinner and she begs to be set free. They tell her that they will let Grandpa kill her since he was the best killer at the slaughterhouse. Unfortunately the hammer they give him is too heavy for his feeble hands and he keeps dropping it. She manages to get free and runs out into the highway, followed by the hitchhiker and Leatherface. In the now dawn light, a semi truck runs over the hitchhiker and Sally manages to flag down a passing pickup truck. She hops in and the truck speeds away as Leatherface dances a frustrated jig in the middle of the road, waving his chainsaw in the air.
“I just can’t take no pleasure in killing. There’s just some things you gotta do. Don’t mean you have to like it.” – Old Man
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, spelling chainsaw as two words this first outing, was not the first slasher film, nor was it the first exploitive horror film. But it did happen to be in the right place at the right time. Ancestors of the modern slasher film go back before movie theaters were even a thing, to the Grand Guignol of the French theater. Films that dealt with killers existed throughout the early 20th Century, but it was probably the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960 that began the change in filmmakers and audiences allowing the more troublesome and graphic films of the late 60s and beyond to be created.
Coming in 1974, near the height of public outcry over the graphic violence and exploitation, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre surprised everyone involved, becoming the biggest commercial success in horror films since the previous years The Exorcist. It seemed to be as much about the actual content as being in the right place at the right time. This might surprise individuals who have not seen the film, or who haven’t rewatched it in a while, but there is a surprising lack of gore in this film, given the films reputation. Director Tobe Hooper spends more time setting up a hot and sweaty environment, coupled with unappealing settings and dialogue. From the two minute discussion on head cheese and the inner workings of a slaughterhouse with the hitchhiker, to the repetitive and intense shots of the bone room found by Pam in the old house, the film makes audiences believe that they are getting more from the film, even when all killings happen off screen. As with Psycho before it, the editing of the most gruesome moments are built more in the viewer’s brain than on screen. Blood does exist, but much of it is after the fact.
At its most base, Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an exploitation film. This subgenre usually gets a bad reputation, as it often focuses on niche trends in film, is low budget drive-in or grindhouse fodder, and deals with explicit sex, drugs or violence. Chain Saw is a low budget film that was made during a time when many other films of this genre were being made and focuses strongly on overt violence. But there’s more to the film than that. As with Night of the Living Dead, the film has a point of view and showcases some deeper social subtext. It’s the counterculture vs establishment as much as the patriarchy vs the youth. It also doesn’t dwell on these subjects, giving no time for audiences to catch their breath as the cannibalistic family makes quick work of 80% of the kids, and then takes their time with the final girl. The film also imagines a posse of undesirable killers, even if Leatherface is the one that most people think of. A hulking, child-like adult, wearing a mask that sets him apart from society who uses a common tool to do in his victims. The chainsaw was a new twist for the genre. No longer a knife but some other clever item that can be both a tool and a weapon. All of these elements allowed Texas Chain Saw Massacre to rise to the top of the pile and inspire future films and filmmakers.
And inspire it did. Suddenly the future for slasher and splatter films became very bright indeed. Wes Craven, whose 1973 The Last House on the Left received much controversy and nearly convinced the writer/director to leave the industry, saw this film as a rebirth of the genre and returned in 1977 with The Hills Have Eyes. John Carpenter took some of the ideas from this film, and others, and created his suburban nightmare scenario in 1978s Halloween. Texas Chain Saw also inspired Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films as well as the work of Rob Zombie, and dozens of others. It’s impressive when a film can stand the test of time and become an inspiration to others or outshine the dozens of other similar films released at the same time. For these reasons The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is required viewing as a H-Origin film, which you’ll remember from other articles this month, is a film that is unique or helps redefine the genre in ways that allow the growth of other films based on the premises contained within. There are three more H-Origin films this week that continue to inspire the horror cinema and stand as the basis for multiple franchises and decades of ripoffs and reimaginings.
- Spawned a successful franchise that follows Leatherface and his family. Includes 5 sequels and spin-offs (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Texas Chainsaw, & Leatherface), plus a 2003 remake. All the following films spell Chainsaw correctly, as one word.
- This film is actor John Larroquette’s first credited role. He read the opening narration.
- The killer, Leatherface is loosely based on the life of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin serial killer that also inspired the characters of Norman Bates in Psycho, and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of The Lambs.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.