The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Travel in the country, long-range plans, and upsetting persons around you could make this a disturbing and unpredictable day. The events in the world are not doing much either to cheer one up.
--Franklin's horoscope

There are moments when we cannot believe that what is happening is really true. Pinch yourself and you may find out that it is.
--Sally's horoscope

If there is one stereotype that Hollywood movies and TV shows keep coming back to, it is that of your so-called average resident of the "Deep South". According to some, the southeastern region of the United States is full of rural backwoods communities populated by hillbillies with missing teeth, rednecks with Confederate flags painted on their cars, fat corrupt sheriffs, Southern belles complete with parasols and 19th-century attire, Colonel Sanders lookalikes who think the War Between the States is still on, and hygienically-challenged hog farmers who are not above ogling their own relatives.

And those are just the positive ones. Horror movies set in the South tend to send a message to not go there for any reason, lest you become a victim of a serial killer or a local yokel who'd love to hear you "squeal like a pig". Case in point: Tobe Hooper's 1974 cult horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which turns a harmless road trip though the Texas countryside into a nightmarish tussle with psychotic country bumpkins who'd just love to have you for dinner, and in more ways than one.

Despite the implication of the title, the carnage is quite bloodless. Hooper originally wanted the film released with a PG rating and toned down the violence and the language, but it got an R rating anyway because of the violence implied off-camera. Also, despite popular belief, the film is not based on a true story--its trademark villain Leatherface was influenced by serial killer Ed Gein, who also influenced Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, as well as the chainsaws that caught Hooper's eye while he was leaving a crowded hardware store.

We start out with a radio news report about a series of grave robberies in Texas, which brings our five unsuspecting victims into the movie. I'll introduce them for you: Sally Hardesty (played by Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-ridden brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) are heading down there to a cemetery to locate their grandfather's remains; Sally's boyfriend Jerry (Allen Dazinger) is driving them out there; two of their other friends Pam (Teri McMinn), whose reading of an astrology book makes for instant foreshadowing, and her boyfriend Kirk (William Vail) are both along for the ride. These characters aren't all that developed, but then again this is a horror movie, so it's probably best not to get too attached.

And yes, they're all riding in a van. All they need is a dog and we'd have another Scooby-Doo clone on our hands.

The gang then set out to visit the old Hardesty family homestead. Along the way they pass a slaughterhouse, which brings up the topic of how they slaughter cattle to sell as meat. Franklin describes how your modern abattoir has gone from bashing cows in the head from using a retractable bolt gun. The conversation is interrupted only by the appearance of a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) whom they pick up on the side of the road, and when Franklin picks back up on the topic of slaughtering cows, their new friend tells them that his family worked at a slaughterhouse and how they use the head to make head cheese...and then goes on to prove himself not the ideal person with whom to discuss slaughterhouses, as he borrows Franklin's knife and slashes his hand with it and then uses his own knife to slash Franklin's leg before he is ejected from the vehicle, wiping his bloody hand on the side of the van as it drives off.

After stopping at a gas station where the proprietor (Jim Siedow) tells them that the pumps are empty, the kids decide to press on to the homestead and stop for gas later, after the fuel truck arrives. They finally get there, and Sally takes all of her friends who have the use of both legs on an upstairs-and-downstairs tour of the place while Franklin asserts himself in my eyes as the most annoying character in the film, as he is on the ground floor in an empty room hearing his traveling companions' laughter and merriment, mock-giggling and blowing loud Bronx cheers. I really hate Franklin.

After that strange scene, Franklin tells Pam and Kirk about a swimming hole nearby, and that's when the killing starts. While they're out there, the two of them hear the sound of a gas generator and discover a house in the middle of nowhere. Kirk knocks on the door, hoping to ask whoever's inside if they have gasoline to spare for their van, and then wanders inside, where a man in a leather face comes out of nowhere and bashes his brains in with a sledgehammer. Pam follows him inside shortly after and gets even further than Kirk did, going as far as to discover that the house is decorated lavishly with human bones, before the leather-faced man finds her too. She tries to run out of the house, but he drags her back in and hangs her on a meat hook in the kitchen while carving up Kirk's remains with a chainsaw. By this time the sun is going down, and Kirk and Pam haven't come back yet. Jerry heads out to look for them, and as you may have guessed, finds the house and goes inside. He makes it to the kitchen where Pam's body literally jumps out at him from inside a freezer, and before you can say "cold cuts", Leatherface is there with his sledgehammer and you know the rest.

Leatherface: the man, the myth, the legend.

Night falls on the quiet countryside, and Sally and Franklin remain. Franklin desperately wants to leave, but the late Jerry still has the keys to the van. After some pointless bickering about who gets to hold the flashlight, he and Sally go looking for their friends. Leatherface again pops up out of nowhere and goes to town on Franklin with his chainsaw while Sally flees for her life. (Which brings up an interesting point - the title of the movie is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and yet only one guy is killed with a chainsaw. I understand that it originally went under two different titles - first "Headcheese" then "Leatherface" - but those may have been preferable because they didn't imply any specific murder weapon. For a movie with a title that suggests a killer who murders his victims with a chainsaw, we kind of expect to see more than one victim murdered with a chainsaw. I'm guessing The Texas Sledgehammer, Meat Hook and Chain Saw Massacre would've been too long to fit on a marquee.)

What follows is an extra-long chase as Sally runs away from Leatherface through the woods and eventually up to the house, locking the door behind her despite the fact that the door is made of wood and is therefore easily penetrable by a chainsaw. She escapes up into the attic, where we see more macabre decor and a shriveled old body sitting in a chair. By this time Leatherface has gotten into the house and Sally is forced to escape out of the attic window and back through the woods, eventually making it back to the gas station. The proprietor manages to calm her down and then leaves the room, but then--SHOCK!--returns with a rope and a sack. Despite the struggles, the old man bags Sally, throws her in his truck, and drives back to the house, picking up--DOUBLE SHOCK!--the hitchhiker along the way.

One big happy family.

At this point, Sally doesn't have very many lines, as she spends much of the rest of the movie screaming her head off at the Leatherface family breakfast scene before her (at least I think it's breakfast - it's morning in the next scene), the horror of which is further emphasized by the haunting soundtrack, mocking psychotic laughter, and extreme closeups of Sally's eyeballs. It is revealed that the hitchhiker was responsible for the grave robberies mentioned at the beginning - for meat, maybe, but I'm guessing he probably thought it was cheaper than hiring an interior decorator, I don't know. Anyway, the three of them decide to let Grandpa (the shriveled body from earlier) "have some fun" and let him kill Sally himself. They hand him a sledgehammer and position Sally's head over a washtub, but he's not a very good shot, and after a few tries Sally wriggles herself free and jumps out of a window (wasn't the door chainsawed through earlier?) with Leatherface and the hitchhiker in hot pursuit. Sally leads them out in the middle of the road, where a passing semi runs down the hitchhiker, and Leatherface chases after the driver who runs off into the woods somewhere. A pickup truck stops at the scene, and Sally jumps in the back just as Leatherface races toward her, and she shouts at the driver to speed away, laughing hysterically as Leatherface dances the dance of disappointment, swinging his chainsaw wildly as he carries on.

Aww, don't fret, you'll get the next one. I think that fat truck driver's still running around...

On the surface, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels like a run-of-the-mill slasher movie. You have your homicidal maniac, your small band of kids waiting to be brutally and viciously slaughtered, and considering it's set in the "Deep South", your dirty clan of backwoods hicks who in this case turn out to be a family of grave robbing cannibals. And yet it has become one of the most influential slasher movies of all time. Its domestic gross of $30 million on its initial release made it the most successful independent film of all time, until John Carpenter's Halloween came out four years later. Modern day horror directors such as Wes Craven and Rob Zombie consider it one of the scariest films ever made. It gave Tobe Hooper a place in the annals of Hollywood horror, following up his success with such films as 1977's Eaten Alive (featuring future horror legend Robert Englund), 1982's Poltergeist and the less successful Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986, one of many spin-off movies.

Perhaps one reason it's considered high-brow for such a low-brow genre is its choice to minimize the on-screen violence. Nowadays in movies you can't just have people getting shot--you have to see the blood from the exit wound splatter on the wall behind the guy as he falls over dead. Horror directors these days have a habit of letting the camera rest on the grisly visuals of the victim's dying agonies without realizing that most of the terror is left to the viewer's imagination. You don't need an on-camera disembowelment to tell you that the psycho with the chainsaw has racked up another kill, and this film knows that. It isn't so much the gore that makes a horror movie memorable as it is the shock value.

However, the main point this movie seems to make is that if you should find yourself driving through the Texas plains, leave as soon as possible and don't stop for anything. You never know if the man who runs the service station on the side of the road wants to kill you. Oh yeah, and stay as far away from slaughterhouses as possible. Especially in Texas.

Sophistication in the unsophisticated.

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