“If I have anymore fun today, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to take it”
Depending on your source, the budget for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ballooned from $60,000 to as much as $300,000 by its completion. Some shady dealings allowed profit shares to be sold with intentionally misleading percentages, production ran a crazy schedule spanning seven-day work weeks consisting of long hours to cut equipment rental costs, and a lawsuit over profits sprang up almost immediately after it debuted. Writer/director Tobe Hooper also hoped to earn a PG-rating by consciously keeping the gore off-screen so that it would prove more palatable. But he of course eventually had to make cuts so the MPAA’s X shifted to R. And despite everything this low-budget horror not only made thirty million at the box office, it also became one of the genre’s seminal masterpieces.
Its iconic, stoic brute of a killer Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) would spawn the likes of Michael Myers and Jason. Its use of backwoods rednecks and creepers pre-dates Wes Craven‘s The Hills Have Eyes and the decision to utilize cannibalism as a major plot point continues being copied today. Listening to the fake news broadcast at the beginning even delivers what sounds like the precursor to a zombie apocalypse, a nod perhaps to one of the few films that is more influential than itself—Night of the Living Dead. So there’s a bit of everything and it’s only 1974. Caring little for excess (unlike its own “torture porn” remake in 2006), Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel were able to instill a sense of no-frills, instantaneous terror instead.
What I love most is their confidence to streamline plot and remove the need for exposition or cheap deflection. Everything can and should be taken at face value. The sex-crazed couples of Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail) opposite Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Jerry (Allen Danziger) are exactly that. Sally’s fifth wheel, wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) is always the odd man out due to numbers and his conversational habit to delve too deeply into less than savory topics. An unforgettably unhinged hitchhiker played by Edwin Neal is as unpredictable and dangerous as he appears. And the warnings of a gas station owner (Jim Siedow) that they pass aren’t to be taken lightly. Just because Sally and Franklin’s uncle owns property here doesn’t mean they’re welcome.
The little exposition that is included is virtually tossed aside as after-thought, a reason to get these kids on the road in the sweltering heat towards nowhere. Someone has been digging up corpses and leaving macabre monuments around this Texan town, a place that happens to be where Sally and Franklin’s Grandpa Hardesty is buried. So they’ve come to ensure he wasn’t disturbed and stay for the quiet solitude of a giant home they used to visit as kids. The couples can enjoy “alone time” and Franklin can try coaxing the rest into hitting a slaughterhouse on the way back for a stroll down memory lane. After the scare that picking up their hitchhiker gave them, this isolation is exactly what they need. Unfortunately, they ask for more.
There’s an authenticity to the film’s aesthetic of sweat, grime, and dirt that places us right into the scene. It’s so prevalent that two characters blowing raspberries instead of giving the middle finger or swearing doesn’t derail the suspense. In fact, the campier things are, the creepier things get. You want to laugh when an old man who looks dead (John Dugan) starts sucking the blood from a female victim’s cut finger, but the overall circumstances and specific depiction are too grotesque to do anything but gag. These teens don’t know what’s coming and neither do we. How could anyone when the object of terror enters without fanfare? It only takes one victim stumbling where he doesn’t belong to become tenderized meat. The rest fall like dominoes.
And I do mean fall because Hooper isn’t interested in prolonging for effect. He knows sudden bursts of violence are ten times more jolting than long passages pregnant with anticipation only to become tediously repetitive. No, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is built like the slaughterhouse Jerry drives past. One innocent lamb after another walks into the killing room without a chance for survival. It’s a breath of fresh air in comparison to contemporary twenty-first century horror because our fear arrives from helplessness rather than gore. Instead of being strung up with the potential to escape so you can be dragged back and tortured again, life is extinguished swiftly. A ninety-pound co-ed doesn’t stand a chance against a hulking brute like Leatherface unless her surroundings slow him down.
The need for a fight is warranted, though. Without one the eighty-minute runtime decreases to forty. We must experience the power at work via multiple deaths before letting time create an opening for one lucky soul. Only after it gets darker is the playing field leveled. Only when two characters attempt to see what’s happening together can one escape thanks to the other’s unwitting sacrifice. A chase makes it possible to elude this predator who before then possessed the element of surprise. Now you can introduce more characters (or return to some left behind) and fully grasp the nightmare Sally and friends tumbled into. From there it’s hubris, mania, and kismet that keeps the bad guys off-balance and the remaining victims slippery enough to run.
It will be difficult to forget Partain’s over-the-top whining or Neal’s erratic psychopathy accompanied by loony grins. Burns is the consummate “scream queen” with shrieks spanning minutes at a time and tears that also scream in extreme close-ups of frightened irises seen via wide-eyed terror. Siedow moves from authoritarian to devilish giggler, this transition often cut with a dementedly irregular rhythm that makes our unsettled mood even worse. And Leatherface is the type of cursed soul/malicious monster amalgam you love to abhor. He’s like a child without words, a mentally stunted victim of abuse wielded as a weapon. He’s Sloth from The Goonies if Chunk hadn’t found him to provide a light touch. He hates himself so much that he wears the faces of others to feel empowered.
Hooper and Henkel create archetypes without a hint of superfluity and allow them to roam this mysterious terrain unleashed. They need gas and thus seek assistance. They fear their friends are missing and thus go missing themselves to find them. All the while the villains hide in plain sight either as wolves in sheep’s clothing or in house arrest exile amidst bones of mammals and tools of death. There are no elaborate torture devices or in-your-face eviscerations—just acts of utility. When Leatherface is busy butchering one human for sausage meat, he must keep the next on a hook or in a cooler to wait its turn. His chainsaw isn’t to scare his victims. It’s merely the most efficient instrument for his current means. Dinner is served.
Watched in conjunction with Season Two of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.