I first saw the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre the day after my family and I moved to Texas. This was in May 1999, when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was still fresh in theaters. I was 16 at the time, and the idea of living in the Lone Star State was not exactly attractive to me. Living in Philadelphia really spoiled me back in the day; the people were just heterogeneous enough for a polytheist kid like me to feel reasonably comfortable. I occasionally ran into a Christian kid who wanted to make an issue about my enthusiasm for the Gods of Egypt, but I was generally accepted by everyone. Everything I knew about Texas (which was distressingly little) told me I’d better be careful or someone might burn a cross in my front yard.
The day before we left Philadelphia, all my friends skipped school with me and we went to go see The Phantom Menace. (I know most everyone thinks that’s the worst Star Wars film, but it was just about my favorite movie at the time. I really dug that Darth Maul guy). The next day, I spent about three hours on a plane. My family’s seats were all spread out from each other, and I ended up sitting next to a goofy (but friendly) old woman who had somehow snuck a prairie dog in her carry-on bag. (This was before 9-11, and I’m not making it up.) I listened to Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals and Ozzy Osbourne’s No Rest For the Wicked during the trip. Then we landed in Texas and I didn’t step foot in Pennsylvania again until 2007.
There was a discrepancy between the timing of our arrival in Texas and the arrival of the movers (who had all our belongings), so we ended up staying at a lush apartment that was owned by the company my Dad was working for. We were there for about a week, but it wasn’t bad. One of the first things we did as a family was visit the local Blockbuster and rent some videos. It was then that I came across The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I had always intended to see but never did. I decided right then and there that it would be the first horror movie I ever watched on Texas soil, and I rented it (along with Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, which I had also never seen and will discuss in a later review).
A 1974 poster for the film
It was my second night in Texas when I stayed up late to watch the flick. I honestly didn’t expect it to be as frightening as it was; I thought I had seen everything that could ever scare me in the Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies, but I was wrong. On the one hand, Chainsaw is every bit as brutal as you’d expect a movie with a title like that to be; on the other, it’s relatively bloodless. Most of the truly disturbing things – like when one character is hung on a meat hook – are really only hinted at; you never actually see the hook penetrating the body. The movie is also more than just a rampaging psychopath story; the main characters listen to the news on a radio throughout the flick, and the bulletins describe all kinds of crazy things that are happening all over the world at the same time the film takes place. It’s almost like the entire world is caving in on itself while The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is happening, and what we see is only the tip of the iceberg.
For those of you who don’t already know, the plot follows a group of teenagers – or maybe they’re twenty-somethings – who drive in a van to visit their grandfather’s grave. Somebody’s been digging up graves and diddling the corpses, it seems, and these kids want to make sure Grandpa’s okay. He turns out to be just fine, but the kids pick up a hitchhiker on their way back and everything goes to shit. The Hitchhiker is the one who’s been having midnight tea parties with the local dead, and the other members of his family – the Sawyer Clan – aren’t much better. (I don’t think it’s really spoiling anything to say they’re all cannibals and they want to eat everybody.) Meanwhile, people are jumping out of tenth-story windows and church roofs are falling on congregations across the globe because, as one of the kids helpfully explains, “Saturn is in retrograde.”
Another thing that makes this movie so disturbing is the fact that it feels like it was made by the fucking Manson Family. Apparently, the budget was so low that the filmmakers couldn’t even afford to wash the actors’ costumes; they wore the exact same clothes for an entire month of filming. Some of the stunts were accomplished inappropriately (due to the lack of trained stunt performers), which resulted in some of the actors getting injured. (When actress Marilyn Burns limps to get away from the cannibal family at the film’s conclusion, she’s actually limping from a real injury.) Furthermore, the interior scenes of the film were shot without air conditioning during the August of 1973. The outdoor temperatures had reached the triple digits, which means the indoor temperatures must have been unbearable. Combine this with the fact that the dead animals you see in the Sawyer house were also real, and you can tell that the horrified looks on the actors’ faces are authentic as well. Edwin Neal (the actor who played the Hitchhiker) claims that the stench alone was worse than anything he experienced as a veteran in Vietnam.
The attitude of the film is equally disturbing. So far as I can tell, this is the very first horror film in which there is absolutely no justice, no sense of remorse for the protagonists, and no resolution. (Even The Last House on the Left, disturbing as it is, still retains a sense of outrage against its antagonists’ deeds.) It’s not just the Sawyer family that treats the protagonists as cattle at a slaughterhouse; the film itself seems to treat them this way as well, as if their only purpose in life is to be paraded into a charnel pit. What’s more, they even act like cattle, offering themselves right up to their slaughterers without even realizing it. The film seems to say they actually deserve to be slaughtered, cooked and eaten, and that there is no fundamental difference between eating beef and eating human flesh whatsoever.
This atmosphere is further amplified by the soundtrack (which isn’t really “music” but simply a cacophany of mechanical slaughterhouse noises) and by the brief human touches that are given to the Sawyer family. The Cook mercifully gives the protagonists a chance to escape their fate by warning them away from the property, and he later complains about the cost of electricity running him out of business. The Hitchhiker loves his Grandpa enough to let the old man have the last kill. And Leatherface, the most iconic character in the film, is also the most innocent character. He is obviously mentally handicapped and suffers abuse from the other family members, and when he starts killing the protagonists, it is only to defend his home. As far as he understands the situation, his home is being threatened by dangerous animals.
The structure of the Sawyer Clan is difficult to ascertain. I’ve heard countless debates among horror buffs as to how these characters are related to each other. There are no living females in the group whatsoever; there is only the Cook (who owns the store where they sell cooked human meat), the Hitchhiker (who likes to dig up corpses and play with them), Leatherface (the closest thing to a “stay-at-home Mom” the family has), Grandpa (who looks like a corpse but is really still alive), and Grandma’s mummy in the upstairs bedroom. My guess is that the Cook is Grandma and Grandpa’s son, and that the Hitchhiker and Leatherface are the result of the Cook sleeping with Grandma. The Cook behaves like a father figure toward the other two, but he’s treated like a brother figure by the Hitchhiker. The only thing we know for sure about the family is that they worked in the meat industry when Grandpa was still in his prime, but that the advent of new slaughterhouse technology eventually cost Grandpa his job. The Sawyers seem to have decided that becoming reclusive cannibals was the only appropriate reaction to this traumatic event. I’m guessing they decided to “breed their own stock” from that point forward as well.
Leatherface, the one and only
The way the film ends left me extremely shocked; the experience was like seeing a roller coaster fly right off the rails and going blind just before it hits the ground. Imagine my surprise when I discovered The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was shot in Round Rock, Texas, which was only about an hour away from where my ass was seated at the time. I found myself wondering what kind of people might be running around outside my door in the dead of night, and it would take me a while before I felt comfortable eating barbecue again.
This is certainly not the sort of film that most people can enjoy. Everybody tends to either really love it or really hate it; I’ve never met anyone who was entirely indifferent about it. However, the cultural impact and importance of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre cannot be denied. Even though it was universally panned and even banned in numerous countries during the 1970s, it eventually won the support of such mainstream film personalities as Roger Ebert (who said the film “belongs in a select company…of films that are really a lot better than the genre requires”), Ridley Scott (who described his own masterpiece, 1979’s Alien, as being “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in space”), and Steven Spielberg (who recruited Tobe Hooper, the director of Chainsaw, to direct 1982’s Poltergeist). Thematic and sociopolitical analyses of the film are now frequently discussed by film historians (and believe it or not, they’re not just reading stuff into the movie). While it would later be crudely aped by several sequels, rip-offs and remakes (and sequels to remakes), none of the other Chainsaw films has ever come close to matching the original.