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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Tags: film
Tagline: “Who will survive….and what will be left of them?”
Duration: 82 minutes

Film Quality: 5/5
Gore Content: 1.5/5
Entertainment Value:5/5
Originality: 5/5


Introduction


It’s rare these days that a film’s reputation precedes itself but back in the days of VHS, particularly in the UK, this film was synonymous with video nasties, despite never officially receiving a ban. We were told by people claiming to have ‘watched’ the film how unbelievably gory it was, how limbs were flying left, right and centre and how their friends threw up and passed out halfway through. Saying that this film was notorious is a bit like saying NWA were in a bit of a mood when they recorded ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and, though time has changed the way this film is regarded from sick obscenity to full blown classic, it remains a true landmark in horror cinema


In a nutshell


A group of friends in a camper van enter a world of pain when they visit a former haunt in deepest Texas and fall prey to the salacious appetites of a family of cannibals. Sounds like a simple premise and it is, but it’s not about the story, it’s about how it’s told…


Pure terror
So what’s good about it?
The tone and atmosphere of this film is relentlessly bleak and from the opening monologue, which pretty much seals the fate of the youngsters to whom we’re about to be introduced, to the final shot there is virtually no hope or salvation offered. We’re hit with flash photography of something that looks very much like a decomposing corpse before being slapped around the face with a grotesque ‘work of art’, a radio news report about grave robbing and some ear splitting, experimental music played over the top of images of sunspot activity, well known for amplifying madness. Within the first two minutes we’re told the kids are going to die, the dead are being disturbed and astrological forces are on hand to conspire against everyone you’re going to meet in the next 80 minutes. We even hear one of group’s horoscope…”There are times where you won’t believe that what’s happening to you is actually real”.

The score, by director Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell, is truly incredible. It’s freeform to say the least with low frequency hums, crashing symbols and reportedly used household objects which were distorted in the sound studio to stunning effect, apparently to echo the sounds animals hear in the slaughterhouse. There’s very little in the way of recognisable notes which represents the omnipresent danger that presides over these unfortunate teens and the barely disguised insanity harboured within the twisted Sawyer family. The unbelievably ominous low drone that accompanies the fluid camera as we and Sally catch a first glimpse of the house fills you with dread despite the glorious sunshine and carefree attitude of our hapless teen.

The set design as well just oozes decay, death and imprisonment, particularly when Pam stumbles into the room filled with furniture constructed from recognisably human bones, lampshades made out of tanned skin and a chicken cooped up inside a cage barely big enough to contain its bulk. Then there’s Leatherface’s lair with meathooks, a slab for cutting up the meat, bloodstained walls. There’s the outdoor area with nets covering what looks like a massive car lot as it becomes apparent that the family have been doing this for years and of course the final ‘dinner’ scene which is about as nightmarish as had ever been filmed up to that point.

The devastating final shot
Hooper’s direction on the tightest of tight budgets is excellent and it’s a shame that he never quite recaptured whatever it was that inspired him to make this film so great. The performances he gets out of his actors is phenomenal, although by all accounts he put them through absolute hell, all of them receiving injuries at some point to the extent that the screams, terrorisation and appearance of utter hopelessness in many cases could well have been genuine. That said, Marilyn Burns truly set the standard for the final girl that I don’t think has been surpassed, taking around 40 minutes to document what would normally account for ten in later efforts. The way she barely clings on to sanity in those final shots sends shivers down my spine…it’s not a cry of relief that she’s the one who survived, there is a genuine sense that there is a trauma there which will never be shaken.

For me that is what makes this film so incredibly effective and that is the realism. As the film is virtually bloodless, there are no rubbery effects to date the movie, instead your own mind fills in the blanks and that stays with you long after the film ends.


What about the bad?


After praising the film for acknowledging that what your mind conjures up on its own is far worse than anything you can show on screen, I do of course mean apart from the terrible 70s fashions and hair styles! Yes, it’s from the time, but those flares and sideburns are a crime for which some of them deserve their fate!!!


Any themes?


There is a lot more going on in this film than the casual observer gives it credit for. Hooper subverts the idea of family as good, particularly during the horrific dinner scene which turns the traditional family dinner into an absolute nightmare. You have Leatherface as the mother (complete with absurd make up and wig) there’s the chef as the father figure, the Hitchhiker as the naughty little kid and Grandfather as the elder statesman. The fact that the three compos mentis members laugh and joke their way through the scene makes it even more horrific, juxtaposed with the close ups of Sally’s terrified eyes and screaming face. Family isn’t always the cornerstone of a good home.

There is plenty of social comment as well. As one of the characters says, the slaughterhouses have been closed and modern technology has implemented new, more efficient ways of slaughtering cattle, making many of its workforce redundant. This has left many small towns in middle America destitute and dying, the big cities and authorities leaving them to fend for themselves. In Hooper’s vision America is literally eating itself, embodied by the cannibalistic antics of the Sawyer family.

Hooper was also intrigued by the coverage of world events, particularly the glee with which real life violence, especially in the case of the war in Vietnam where footage of the aftermath of battles would routinely show blood strewn across the streets. Vietnam was the first televised war and it occurred to Hooper that mankind was the real monster and the biggest threat to its own civilisation. By creating the character Leatherface, with his own features hidden by the skin of those he has killed, Hooper literally showed the human face to be the mask over which evil which could hide.


Release History


The BBFC really didn’t know what to do with this film and it very nearly undermined everything they were trying to achieve with censorship. The problem was not with any on screen violence, which is relatively tame and off screen (there’s more actual blood than fake blood – Marilyn Burns genuinely cut herself running through the woods and the cut on her finger during the dinner was also real!), but with the overall tone of the film which is incredibly oppressive and disturbing. You can’t censor the atmosphere of the film so when a cut version was submitted to the BBFC (some minor trims from the dinner scene) it made no difference whatsoever and remained unreleasable in their eyes.

The Wizard Video release, which was uncut and distributed in 1981, remained the only way to see this film as many local councils refused to grant a license to screen it in cinemas. It was never officially banned, partly because it was never re-released, and other than a few cinema and festival screenings in the London area it became one of those films where the only means of watching it was to buy a tenth generation copy for a fiver from Dave at The Dog and Duck.

Then came a surprise!!! In 1999 Blue Dolphin released the completely uncut version on VHS which became a runaway hit and also enjoyed a reasonably successful cinema run. But it was under Second Sight’s supervision that it received the best treatment, finally releasing a glorious three disc steelbook which was as comprehensive in content as its release history has been complicated.


Cultural Impact


Leatherface has become one of the true horror icons and the film was instrumental in predicting the slasher genre. Like ‘Psycho’ it was loosely based on the exploits of Ed Gein but was perhaps more explicit in the gruesome details, focusing on the more ghoulish aspects of his crimes rather than using it as the driver for a whodunit plot. Still as outlandishly popular now as it was in the years since it was released, we’re still seeing remakes and reboots, films bearing an uncanny resemblance and nods to the original. One of the most financially successful independent films of all time, it’s also one of the most influential.

In the US it was the last film rated ‘X’ before the introduction of the NC-17 rating (despite Hooper being convinced that the lack of on screen gore and violence would ensure a ‘PG’ rating!) and it also spawned a video game which was an almighty flop – so violent that many stores refused to stock it…imagine that in our era of violent shoot ‘em ups!!! I’m sure the next instalment featuring the exploits of everyone’s favourite chainsaw wielding maniac is just around the corner!!!


Final thoughts


About as pure a horror film as you could wish for, everything from the opening shot to the closing ‘dancing chainsaw’ scene is designed to frighten, unnerve and disorientate. Most films lose their impact over the years but Chainsaw has lost nothing and it just as devastatingly effective now as it was back in the mid-70s. It is an absolute depiction of madness on celluloid, the ferocity of which has rarely been matched since its release more than 40 years ago. Hooper would try again with a decent sequel and ‘Death Trap’ (aka ‘Eaten Alive’) which was more of a studio affair but he never did anything as raw and visceral as his first feature.


Memorable Quotes


Narrator: “Had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected, nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day.”

Attendant: “You don’t want to go messing around other folks’ property. If some folks don’t like it…they don’t mind showing you.”

Hitchhiker: “I have this knife.”


You’ll like this if you enjoyed…


‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘Slaughterhouse’, ‘Eden Lake’, ‘Wolf Creek’





This post first appeared on The Horror Video, please read the originial post: here

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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

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