H'ween Horrorthon: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The Late 'Poltergeist' Director's First, Most Terrifying Creation—Leatherface!
"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."Opening narration for the film.
Hello one and all.
Already in 2017, we've lost quite three major genre game changers in the world of horror films. George A. Romero gave birth to the zombie film genre with his brilliant 1968 masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead. A film that has yet to be added to my movie collection. Jonathan Demme was the brilliant genius auteur behind the Oscar-winning thriller, The Silence of the Lambs in 1991; the ONLY horror film to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. As to whether that film has been queued for my Horrorthon still remains to be seen. But, we also lost another horror movie maverick. Austin, TX native, Willard Tobe Hooper, who back some 43 years ago, took us all to Hell-and-back with his seminal cheapie cinematic barf-fest: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; however, back in 1974, the title card spelled it all out for us: THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE!
Made for under $300,000 US dollars and shot in approximately a week, it would pave the way for the burgeoning "Slasher Movie" genre, which had already had a success story in the Bob Clark horror thriller, Black Christmas, and would soar to new heights four years later with John Carpenter's iconic masterpiece, Halloween, in 1978. In the 1970s, America being jaded with The Vietnam War and Watergate, ultra-violent B-movie fare popped up a dime-a-dozen in marquee theaters and drive-ins. The late director Wes Craven started the trend; or was at least, partially responsible for the trend with his loose remake of The Virgin Spring, an Ingmar Bergman film about revenge and redemption: The Last House on the Left in 1972. That version took the basic plot thread that Bergman created and turned it on its ear, with it being about three convicts who torture and rape two girls, killing them both. Then, they are found out by one of the victim's parents in their house, and are subsequently tortured themselves. The low-budget sensibilities and it's blatant "snuff movie" violence, made it the first of its kind. It became it massive hit and opened the door to more movies with the "Ecch" Factor.
Hooper's film was no exception. Purportedly based on the murders by serial killer Ed Gein, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was not for the faint-hearted or weak-of-stomach. Realizing, of course, that the film was tame in its use of film violence back then, compared to most recent guts-and-gore films of past decades. A seemingly laughable fact was that Hooper himself was convinced that the Motion Picture Association of America would grant him a PG rating. Ummm—about that, uh... no. A scene where a girl hangs on a meat hook will not grant concessions for the MPAA. Ironically, in his collaborative effort with Steven Spielberg in directing Poltergeist (already viewed and profiled for this 'Thon of mine), a scene where a man nearly tears his entire face off in front of a mirror while in a dark trance, was worthy enough of earning a PG rating. Of course, you'd have to actually be Spielberg to get away with that—a fact, that would lead the MPAA to create a brand new rating in 1985: The PG-13 rating which bridged the gap between the PG and R ratings as far as more sexually explicit and violent content could be viewed by pre-teeners before the age of 13.
The Iconic Movie Poster from 1974
Okay... I digress. Getting back to the film. The basic gist of the plot. A group of five friends, (Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partian, William Vail, Teri McMinn) are all taking a leisurely drive through rural Austin, Texas. One is a whiny paraplegic, while the others can be easily described as college students and hippies. They make the mistake of picking up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who has a clear case of the "I-just-want-to-freak-you-the-frick-out" vibes and threatens them. He gets the boot awfully quick. They are soon stranded in the middle of nowhere and in need of help, find an abandoned house in a field. One of the guys makes the mistake of entering and discovering everything from live chickens dangling from cages. Animal bones and human skeletal mobiles everywhere. A live pig is heard in the background being mutilated and out comes, none other than—"Leatherface"! A huge, wrestler-type with a human-skin mask and wielding all manner of power tools and blunt weaponry, as well as eventually, the now infamous, chainsaw, which is clearly his favorite weapon of choice. He would be played by the late Icelandic actor, Gunnar Hanson, who in life, cherished the many conventions he appeared in for his one claim-to-fame movie.
As slasher movies go, I won't exactly applaud the production values or the top-flight acting. Let's be honest. These early films had one goal and one goal only. To scare you. Or to gross you out. Or perhaps, have an unhappy accident in your drawers. Whatever the case may be, I didn't go away thinking it was high art or a classic. I did appreciate the craftsmanship that Hooper and his cast put into the film. Hansen, who barely spoke in the film was indeed, a hulking horror menace and played his part to a tee. The rest of the evil family brood, all of whom were cannibalistic serial killers, served their purpose for the plot. It wasn't a character study. It wasn't a movie-with-a-message. It wasn't a public service announcement (unless it was to delineate the dangers of smoking weed and picking up hitchhikers). It's was a visceral, in-your-face, gross-you-the-shit-out horror movie that became the template for all future splatter movies.
If there's one thing I do applaud, is it's very eerie intro. The "narrator" is none other than TV and stage star John Larroquette with a slow title card that is read aloud by him. We hear shallow and fast breathing. A camera is jitterly being put together with a flash. Pictures are flashed in a split-second—all decomposed corpses (with a screeching noisy feedback heard in each and every one of the shots). It proves memorable and even poignant in how we then see when the corpses before they became them. It had, at least, two or more sequels and one of them would feature none other than budding movie stars Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger. As with any major iconic film, it received the then burgeoning reboot treatment in 2003 when a more blood-and-guts version was released, featuring then-TV star Jessica Biel in the Terri McMinn role. Over the years, the clones—even one in 2017, just kept piling up.
This was the definitive version. Hooper had a career because of this film. His films ranged from The Funhouse (1981). Lifeforce (1986) and The Mangler (1995), and of course, the recently profiled Poltergeist (1982). Only this one and Poltergeist would guarantee Hooper a copper bust in the annals of the horror genre. Even after 43 years, it still manages to make us react and make us sick. So... on that same subject...
Next Up: A serial killer teaching us life lessons.