Catching the Classics: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Texas Chain Saw Massacre 1974 PosterSince 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list is updated regularly and is currently more than 1700 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.

A title can say a lot about a film, particularly when the film is titled The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (promotional material differs on whether “chainsaw” is one word or two; as the film itself uses two words, I’ll be going with that for the review.) It gives a setting, a plot, and a genre all in a few short words. The very title evokes powerful imagery even before one knows anything about the film. It’s the sort of title that would easily have helped the film get attention. Considering one of the interim titles was “Head Cheese”, things could have gone rather differently for it.

The original 1974 film has a reputation as being a classic in the horror genre. It’s a name that is brought up frequently with comparisons to other franchises, with the killer Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) being discussed among the iconic horror villains along with Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. Released before either of those franchises, there’s little question that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of the major forerunners to the spate of slasher movies during the late 70s and the 1980s. It’s probably the start of the chainsaw being viewed as a weapon in addition to a tool. It even kick-starts the trend of horror movies claiming to be true events while being nothing of the sort; while it takes some motifs from serial killer Ed Gein, director Tobe Hooper and actor Gunnar Hansen have both said the events in the film itself are completely made up. There never was an actual Texas chainsaw massacre. The date given in the opening narration even takes place after the film’s own release date. That a number of people believe it actually happened stands as a testament to the film’s effect on pop culture.

But respecting a film’s influence is not the same as enjoying the film. Watching it for the first time (and I’ll note for the record that I’ve seen no other incarnation of the franchise), I found it very difficult to become interested in it or to remain interested. The first half hour or so is spent focusing on the young adults traveling in their van to the old family homestead. There’s a decent suspenseful scene with a hitchhiker (that may have helped kill the hitchhiking craze), but the rest of it’s fairly flat. It’s the “getting to know the victims” stage that is so common in slashers (again, the film is influential), but like a lot of its spiritual descendants it doesn’t do much to really build any audience investment in the characters. There are five of them, but only two get even the most casual attempt at characterization; even the opening narration seems to acknowledge this by mentioning the horrors encountered by “Sally and her brother” (Marilyn Burns and Paul A. Partain) and glossing over the very existence of the other three. Even those two don’t really get much beyond “Franklin is a bit whiny”, for all that Sally is the main character.

As for the other three, they’re just there for the body count, and don’t really even do much on that front. One by one they discover the house where Leatherface resides, and each gets offed within seconds of arriving. There’s no chase involved at this stage, no creativity in the kills, it’s not even all that involved for the first three. They aren’t even killed with the chainsaw of the title. It’s just go in, get killed; knock-knock, knife. The way it’s done, it’s hard to even feel all that intimidated by Leatherface, as it’s not like he’s even going out and being a deliberate threat at this point; he’s just taking opportunities that hand themselves to him. It’s a lot like watching the victims take high dives into an empty swimming pool. It’s bloody, and one can see what’s going to happen, but there’s little fear or interest attached to it.

When Leatherface finally goes on the offensive, the film does a lot better. A man moving strangely while wearing the skin of another person’s face over their head is a striking image, as long as he’s actually doing something. But even then the film interrupts this with an extended sequence in which Sally is exposed to the horrors of the house while held captive. This sequence is weird, but manages to slow the suspense by (ironically) removing the immediacy of the situation. Even though her tormenters are all right there with her, now that she’s not being chased, it doesn’t feel as though she’s going to be killed right away; instead, the expectation is that she’ll escape. Further, the scene takes away some of the mystique of Leatherface by showing that his entire family is psychotic; he’s no longer the mysterious boogeyman that appears in the first chase scene, he’s just one product of a screwed up family, and not even the dominant one. It doesn’t help that this scene — and indeed pretty much all of the last half hour — has Marilyn Burns screaming virtually non-stop. It might be a realistic emotional reaction (fortunately, I have not witnessed any real life equivalents to compare it to), and it’s certainly visceral to a degree, but it’s not very entertaining. There’s a reason most slasher films have their female leads scream a bit, and then stop. It’s easier on the ears, and somehow people seem more terrified if they’re “too scared to scream”. It’s easier to sell the audience on the fear, because the physical reaction more closely matches their own; it’s harder for the audience to buy into hysteria when they are not themselves in hysterics.

The film does certain things very well. Leatherface is a menacing character during the period when he’s both proactive and unique. The chase scenes with Sally work very well, as does the hope spot near the end of the first one. It’s just that outside of the chase scenes, the film fails to be interesting. At the beginning, it’s fairly dull; towards the end, it’s irritating. I can respect the film for what it began, as the influence it had on later horror films is obvious at several points. But as a film itself, I have to say it left me unenthralled.

Rating: 2 Stars

Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.

12 thoughts on “Catching the Classics: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

  1. I understand your hesitation about the first part of the movie but once they get to the house I really thought it was creepy without being grossly gory. The sudden appearance of Leather face and the weirdness of the family worked for me.

  2. This is a great review, Morgan, but I agree with Richard’s points above. The buildup of the film is fairly generic, but I fell in love with it once Leatherface showed up. The dinner table scene was the icing on the cake for me. Usually incessant screaming annoys me, too, but for whatever reason Marilyn Burns didn’t bother me. If anything, I feel it added to the terror of the situation.

    • Fair enough; we’re all wired a little different, and to be fair, I seem to prefer my horror films to be more on the suspense side of things (or to be straight-up monster movies), so this may just be a case of “it’s not for me.”

  3. Great review! From a personal perspective I think the legacy overshadows the shortcomings of the film, but when you compare it to other genre classics, the lower quality is quite obvious. Loved your point about the irrelevance of the supporting characters.

    • Thanks, Jim. I agree that the legacy makes up for the film’s shortcomings, at least in terms of being a film that any movie lover (or horror movie lover) should check out. Even with some areas lacking, in my opinion, it’s an important film.

  4. There’s a raw intensity about the film which I believe propels it, in some quarters, to that title of “greatest horror film ever made” – or at least one of the top 10. I can understand your reservations about the opening section of the film but I feel some of that criticism is informed by the generic nature of it that has ensued because the film is so influential. However, few slasher films reach the level of craziness seen here – indeed, it is the sheer terror of seeing this obscure off-kilter dead-end portion of society that makes the checklist nature of the killing more frightening. That Tobe Hooper manages to make such a graphic horror without showing practically any gore is testament to the enduring qualities in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its ability to get under the skin without ripping it to shreds before your eyes.

    • I’m afraid I’m going to have to continue to disagree here. My criticism of the opening sequence isn’t based on it being echoed so often in later films; as a rule, I’m pretty good about recognizing such situations and giving the original film credit for it. Consider all the films Halloween has influenced in the genre, and yet there isn’t a dull moment in Carpenter’s masterpiece. Or — to go out of genre for a moment — consider The 39 Steps, a film in which almost every motif and plot element is duplicated in hundreds of later films, including other Hitchcock movies, and yet it’s still entertaining to watch no matter how many of its descendants you’ve seen.

      The problem with the opening sequence is that taken by itself, with no consideration for influence it has or influence other films had on it, it’s a very boring sequence. Aside from the hitchhiker segment, which doesn’t make up the bulk of it, it’s just five kids riding a van and doing absolutely nothing. It’s not that it doesn’t hold up to its genre descendants, it’s that it doesn’t hold up to any worthwhile film in any genre. Whether it’s interesting characters or interesting events or interesting atmosphere, it has to give me some reason why I’m watching it, and that segment of the film doesn’t.

      And I personally found that lack of intensity, even by non-horror standards, carries forward through the first few killings. Now here I’ll grant there’s some degree of expectations coming into play. But I think the level of experience I’d have to have to find the first few killings to be truly intense would be that I’d have to have never heard of the horror genre to begin with. The title alone gives the impression that there will be more to it than a simple knock on the head.

      The last sequence I’ll agree has a very strong raw intensity. But by that point, I had already been bored for too long. Plus I found the constant screaming irritating, but I’ll agree that’s a very subjective measure.

  5. That only goes to show that many people nowadays are closet psychopaths. Realism doesn’t cut it, it must be more and more intense, and now we’re stuck with newborn rape à la A Serbian Film.

    • There are a couple problems with your assertion here. The first is that calling this film realistic is stretching the term to its breaking point. The second is that you appear to be confusing emotional intensity with being grotesque. There are films contemporary to this (Halloween) and prior to it (Psycho) that are far more intense — and also just superior in general — without being nearly as grotesque, or even as violent, as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

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