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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  (1974)
4 Stars
Directed by Tobe Hooper.
Cast: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger, Teri McMinn, William Vail, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, John Dugan;
narrated by John Larroquette.
1974 – 84 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

The film which you are about to see is an account
of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths...

The level of ingenuity and skill that went into the making of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" astounds even today. Shot on a tiny budget of $83,000 in the blistering summer months of 1973, the film wrangled together a group of up-and-coming young talents behind the scenes—writer-director Tobe Hopper (whose career would take off after this), co-writer Kim Henkel, cinematographer Daniel Pearl (who went on to shoot the inferior 2003 remake), and music composer Wayne Bell (also responsible for 1994's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation"). What they ultimately pieced together created a firestorm of controversy. Its release was banned in a number of international territories and its reputation as one of the most violent and gory movies ever made was thereby set into place.

What is amazing, then, is that "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" has very little blood and the violence comes off as relatively tame by today's standards. The reason so many people mislabeled the film's content was because of its sheer, feel-it-in-the-gut power. Director Hooper set out to make a motion picture of raw, uncompromising intensity and gritty, unflinching realism, and that is exactly what he achieved. Loosely based on the story of serial killer Ed Gein (who would also inspire 1960's "Psycho"), the film takes the viewer into the mouth of unquenchable insanity and madness and refuses to loosen its grip until the final power tool is silenced by the end credits.

Intermittent camera flashes open the film, the fleeting light revealing the decomposing remains of human corpses. On a radio, a news reporter tells of grave robbers plaguing the dusty Texas area. Who is behind the crimes? Who is taking pictures of the bodies, if, in fact, they are the same ones glimpsed moments before? This information is not disclosed through the course of the film—at least, not concretely—but it efficaciously sets a malevolent tone for the proceedings. So, too, does the music of the opening credits, made up more of a collection of booming, disconcerting sounds and rumbles than a proper orchestral arrangement.

A van carrying two young couples and a nagging tag-along—Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and Jerry (Allen Danziger), Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail), and Sally's wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain)—heads down the open roads of the Texas countryside. After a stop at a cemetery to visit the grave of the Hardestys' grandfather, they set out for his old, abandoned house that Sally and Franklin used to visit as kids. Picking up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) whose family runs the nearby slaughterhouse turns out to be their first mistake after he pulls out a scalpel and slices into Franklin's arm. The group promptly kicks him out along the side of the road, but an even bigger nightmare awaits them. Before the day is through, they will run afoul of a clan of cannibalistic lunatics in the business of slaughtering anyone who steps foot on their property.

The plot is fairly barebones, but it is in this hypnotizing simplicity that "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" rises to a loftier plateau of terror heretofore never quite matched, or done so well, in the annals of cinema. The introduction of the five protagonists in the opening half-hour is almost documentary-like in its view of friends on a road trip together. There isn't an ounce of artifice in the actors' performances, all of them seemingly living out their characters' interactions. This acute naturalism sets them at odds with the landscape before them. The viewer can practically feel the sweaty, sun-drenched atmosphere and sense the heat rising off the asphalt. Their desolation is palpably felt, too—in one shot, the van strolls along the road in a strip of land at the bottom of the screen, the overwhelming infinity of the sky above weighing down upon it. Cinematography, at once appropriately grainy and handsomely composed, and the editing, deliberately paced and intoxicating, plays a large part in raising the tension level. There appears to be a safety net around Sally and her pals for a long time, and things seem to be okay, except they're not.

After arriving at the house, Pam and Kirk head out to find a swimming hole that is supposed to be on the edge of the property. When their search leads them to nothing but dry land, the faint sound of a motor running lures the couple to a farmhouse over the hill. Maybe the residents have some fuel for their van, since the nearby gas station was all out. When no one answers their knocks, Kirk walks inside the front door while Pam waits for him on the swing in the front yard. Is that a squealing pig he hears coming from the open doorway in front of him? He moves deeper into the lair. With sudden, brunt force, a stocky figure (Gunnar Hansen) wearing a mask of human flesh—a man who would grow to be called Leatherface—appears before Kirk, hammers him on the head, and pulls the sliding steel door shut behind them. When Pam gets tired of waiting, she ventures inside, too, literally falling into a living room crudely decorated in filth, chicken feathers and human bones. She won't be leaving any time soon, and Sally's, Franklin's and Jerry's dark fates are right around the corner.

"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is a cutthroat, unendingly bleak masterpiece of horror cinema, one that wears its depravity on its sleeve and isn't without a historical context—Vietnam, peace-loving hippies, the Manson cult and subsequent slayings—to hook its narrative upon. Stimulating in its breathless, brutal nature, unnerving in its out-of-control thematic awfulness, the film finally forces you into Sally's shoes, pushing her insufferable brother in his wheelchair through the underbrush, hopelessly calling out her friends' names in the blackness of night, and then witnessing her wall of security come toppling down with the onslaught of Leatherface and his buzzing chainsaw. The climax, depicting Sally's hellish experiences in the hours before dawn as she screams bloody murder and struggles to stay alive amidst a kaleidoscope of iniquity incarnate and one particularly unsavory dinner, is emotionally draining and, for lack of better words, unimaginably horrific.

Even if Sally survives her ordeal, there is no catharsis for her. She does not turn the tables on her captors. They receive no real comeuppance. And all she has to show for what she goes through is a collapsed mental state that may never heal itself. The brilliance of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is not simply in its coarse yet dazzling filmmaking prowess, or in its forthright goal to shake and stir audiences, but in its brave, chilling admission that the evils in our world never really die. "You think the '70s are messed up," Tobe Hooper looks to be saying. "You ain't seen nothing yet."
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman