October 31, 2014 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre celebrates 40th Anniversary
One of the most influential films ever made, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has been sawing its way into movie viewers hearts since 1974. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this month, the first American slasher movie took the horrors of supernatural Universal monsters and turned them into human beings. A grainy, gritty, dirty movie that found footage filmmakers try desperately to emulate, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was directed by Tobe Hooper, co-written by Hooper and Kim Henkel and filmed on a shoestring budget of less than $60,000. The cast consisted of Marilyn Burns (who passed away this past August at the age of 65), Gunnar Hansen, Paul A. Partain, Allan Danziger, William Vail , Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal, John Dugan, and Jim Siedow. Combining a true story, creative ideas, inventive effects and directorial passion went on to earn not only recognition for Hooper, but also a place in history in our horror-soaked hearts. Strangely enough, Hooper actually hoped for a PG rating for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, since the amount of onscreen blood and gore is kept to a minimum. Instead, the film was originally rated X by the MPAA, banned in Britain and pulled from theatres in Canada. Even after a few more scenes were left on the cutting room floor, the MPAA would only budge to an R rating.
The many ingredients which went into Hooper’s long pork stew, including the cannibalistic, human hide wearing serial killer Ed Gein, was the gritty and graphic coverage of violence by the San Antonio news stations, the ideas of isolation, darkness in the woods, and the versatility of a chainsaw as a tool to get one through a crowded hardware store. Current news events, such as the atrocities of the Vietnam War, helped to cement in Hooper’s mind the ease at which a human brain can snap out of reality and revert back to reptilian savagery. The ultimate vegetarian film, Texas Chain Saw Massacre reminds viewers that, while meat is murder, murder is also meat.
With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre art director Robert Burns had his work cut out for him. Limited by such a small budget, Burns drove around the Round Rock, Texas filming location, looking for dead and rotting cattle to pile onto the abandoned farmhouse floors and build the house’s furniture. He even sprayed slaughterhouse blood on the walls. With the 90-110 degree days and the inability to cool the house down, one could just imagine the smell, making the situation a true life horror. Renting the equipment was also expensive, so the shoots for the film would last 12-16 hours a day, seven days a week for over a month. The crew was nervous that the local laundry would lose or discolor the actor’s costumes, so with only one outfit per actor, shooting in this hot, humid and rotting environment must have made for an overpowering costume closet. At one point, when the Hitchhiker has to cut Sally’s finger to feed Grandpa, the blood pump wouldn’t work, so, being the trooper that she is, Marilyn Burns let Edwin Neal actually cut her with a scalpel. No one could ever say that these people were not passionate about their project.
While common in movies today, the idea that a psycho could be living in even the most ordinary of conditions was still a relatively new one in 1974. Only Hitchcock’s Psycho Norman Bates had come before as a mainstream villain, and he was only one guy. What should a group of healthy teenagers have to fear? It is not like psychosis can run in the family, right? Well, when times get tough, craziness comes out, and hey, a family’s got to eat, right? Why not make a little money on the side? Once the Sawyers had lost their jobs at the slaughterhouse, it was only a short step for them to find other means of getting food. What started as digging up the recently deceased, smoking thighs and making a mean head cheese quickly turned into a crime of opportunity when fresh meat literally arrived at their front door. When Sally Hardesty (Burns) and her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Partain) took a road trip with some friends (Vail, Danziger and McMinn) to investigate rumors of their own grandfather’s tomb being robbed, they never expected to become a part of the horror. The chainsaw wielding Leatherface (Hansen) makes short work of the first three teens, taking them out and chopping them up before Sally even knows what is happened. It is not until Sally and Franklin get ambushed by Leatherface in the hard to maneuver, thorny woods does Sally realize the horror that she is up against. The chase is accompanied by the sounds of poor Sally screaming as her long hair gets tangled in branches and the buzzing roar of the chainsaw. After escaping, Sally shows up at the local gas station/BBQ hut, hysterical but unhurt and asking for a phone. Little does she know that the proprietor (Siedow) is the head of the cannibalistic bunch, and he takes her back to the house. Rather than gut her right away like the first four kids, the Sawyers tie Sally up and carry weak, mummified Grandpa (Dugan) downstairs to take her out. But not until after a family dinner! Even gibbering Leatherface is on, dressed in a housecoat and his “pretty lady” skin mask. Grandpa gets fresh blood from Sally’s sliced finger, and the rest of the family dines on their own special roadhouse BBQ. When its time for Grandpa to whack Sally, he is too weak, and in the confusion, Sally manages to get away by jumping out a window. But is there really anywhere safe anymore?
The score of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is muted, but it is there with surreal noises and bongs that sound like metal pans being clanged together underwater. The audience does not get the warning of intense piano playing or jangling guitars, only Sally’s screaming and that constantly burring chainsaw. With this unique approach to the soundscape, Hooper chose some ingenious effects, like the squealing of pigs as the teenagers meet their fate and the rasping respirator as Grandpa is being brought downstairs. While an intense score can build up a movie’s suspense, sometimes a barely existing score can inject a realism that no amount of music could ever hope to accomplish.
The Sawyer family is one disturbed piece of work, but the one that stands out in Leatherface himself. The image of the skin mask, barely whipstitched together and framed in a mass of dark, curly hair, is one no conversation of horror movies is ever without. Every Halloween has a sprinkling of mini Leatherfaces knocking on doors, in the middle of the zombies, clowns and princesses, even forty years later. The popularity of Leatherface and his crew has spawned six other The Texas Chainsaw movies; sequels, prequels and reboots. Even a video game was put out by Atari back in 1982, but the violent nature of the game led to many stores not carrying it, and the sales were poor. In 2005 a comic mini-series began publishing based on Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) telling a more fleshed out, graphic version of the original script that writer David Schow had originally intended.
Underscored with the bloody horror The Texas Chainsaw Massacre provides, one might be ashamed to mention the black humor. “What kind of person am I if I laughed during this horrible, ‘true’ tragedy? Does giggling when seeing Leatherface dressed in a housecoat and delivering a dinner of roasted human flesh make me a monster, too?” The humor does not detract from the film. As a matter of fact, the humor engages the audience and helps them relate to the characters. Plus, to forget about the perversion, even for a split second, makes the next sweep of the chainsaw all that more terrifying. All in all, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the first of its kind, cramming societal woes into its creases as much as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Last House on the Left (1972). The fear is real, one only has to know where to look.
The impact The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reaches a broad range of people. Read what some musicians and actors say about the film:
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is actually my favorite horror movie of all time. It is completely disturbing without over stepping any boundaries that make it too real to enjoy. No horror movie will ever be able to capture what it accomplished simply because nowadays technology kind of ruins the grittiness that the original has. The shaky unsteady cameras, the scratches in the movie, hell, even the film looks dirty!!!! It’s that dirty vibe that gives it it’s charm. and in a way, you almost kind of adore leatherface. At least I do.” – Ash Costello, New Years Day vocalist
“My all-time favorite is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Man, I saw that at least thirty times. I collect memorabilia from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I have at least ten t-shirts by now, an iron shed, and of course a Leatherface mask and sculpture, it is rad.” – Helmuth, Belphegor vocalist/guitarist
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the most influential of all cinematic horror stories ever made, not just for me, but for a couple of generations of fans and filmmakers alike. It is artful, it is thrillingly constructed, it was the very first of its kind, and it’s really fucking scary!” – Mick Garris, filmmaker, Masters of Horror, Hocus Pocus (1993)
“I can appreciate the film very much. John Dugan is a good friend. I miss Marilyn Burns! I never tire of watching it.” – Camille Keaton, actress, I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
“Growing up as a kid in Texas, there were always urban legends that the story of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre really happened. That made the movie even scarier and goes to show what an effective example of genius film making this was. Also, Alexandra D’Addario is one of the most beautiful women ever. ” – Monte Pittman, guitarist Madonna/ Metal Blade Records
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a horror masterpiece. It scarred me for life. Just the sound of the camera snapping photos at the beginning gives me chills to this day…” – Bevan Davies, MonstrO & Wayne Static drummer
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most original and gritty horror films ever made. It was quite visceral despite leaving much to the viewers imagination. I dare say that Leatherface was the first true horror icon. It still holds up after decades. Necrophagia paid homage to the film with a song from Harvest Ritual titled “Return to Texas”. TCM is a definite top 20 all time horror film in my humble opinion.” – Killjoy De Sade, Necropahgia vocalist
“The importance of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre simply cannot be overstated. It captured a visceral mood under relentless circumstances that no kushy film set could ever duplicate. They can imitate, remake and sequalize until the end of time, but they’ll never be able to recapture the raw horror, black humor and delirious energy that makes that movie so damn effective. “ – Andrew Kasch – director, Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010)
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre changed my life. It was the scariest movie I ever saw, in fact my boyfriend was with me and a friend at the drive-in and I had to drive him home he was so scared and then I hightailed it back to watch it .” – Linnea Quigley, actress, Return of the Living Dead (1985)
” After touring through Texas a lot and driving through some towns that look like they could be part of that movie it only gets scarier every time I watch it.” – Drayven Davidson, Davey Suicide drummer
“I love the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because I just sort of think it is a template for what a great Horror movie is supposed to be. It has been imitated so many times, but never really duplicated. It had such a raw vibe, you felt like you were watching a Documentary; it is like the original found footage.t and driving through some towns that look like they could be part of that movie it only gets scarier every time I watch it.” – Spider One, Powerman 5000 vocalist
“I’m in love with Leatherface. My favorite is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it is my favorite of all-time.” – Carla Harvey, Butcher Babies vocalist