Saturday 19 July 2008

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

I've been a horror fan every since I can remember. When I was a kid and my sister had a TV and I didn't, I'd stay up to watch late night Hammer films in her room. Yet it took me until the end of the millennium to see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the most notorious and powerful horror films of them all, mostly because it was banned outright in England and so wasn't easy to get hold of. By the end of the 20th century though, the censors had lost their influence mostly through the UK having to obey wider European law on certan things, and I picked up a double disc DVD version. Watching this film was literally the last thing I did in the year 2000.

That double disc DVD mysteriously disappeared, maybe during my move to the States, but IFC are showing it, so now's a good time to catch up with it again and see if it feels as powerful today as it did on my first viewing, a quarter of a century later. I'm in interesting company; my 17 year old stepson, another confirmed horror fan, has never seen it before, and my wife saw it at a drive in at the age of fifteen: it was her first date movie with her previous husband. That could explain a lot.

It opens with a bizarre art piece, a badly decomposed corpse wired to a monument, and news footage talking about graverobbing and a dozen empty crypts. Then, after an abstract credit sequence backed by quiet newscaster and pre-industrial music, we visit the graveyard again in the company of Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin. Apparently their grandfather was buried there and they want to make sure that nothing happened to his grave, given the news stories. After that they drive on, with a bunch of friends, to his house, which is deserted and derelict.

Given that this is a horror movie you know that doesn't bode well, and with a title like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre it's not going to be pretty. A drunk at the graveyard rattles on that 'things happen hereabout they don't tell about', and we soon found out what he means. We're in the backwoods of Texas in August 1973 and the sun is burning down through the clouds on everything around.

They pass a slaughterhouse, prompting Franklin to enthuse about how his uncle worked at one and slaughtered cows with a sledgehammer, upsetting the vegetarian of the bunch who doesn't believe anyone should kill animals for food. They pick up a twitchy looking hitchhiker with a little mojo bag containing pictures of the cows he'd killed, a knife which he uses to cut a gash in the palm of his hand and an old camera that he uses to take a picture of everyone. When they don't want to pay him two bucks for it, he burns it up and freaks out, prompting them to dump on the side of the road, where he smears blood on their van before they can drive away.

They stop for gas, but the gas station is all out, so as soon as a couple of them realise that there's a house nearby with a generator running outside, they naturally head over to see if they can buy some. What they find is a house full of skins, skulls and artwork made out of bones; plus a huge guy who wears a mask made of human skin, carries a wide variety of tools (not least a chainsaw), and can move quicker than you'd expect for man his size. And they haven't met the rest of the family yet.

I remember reading somewhere that Tobe Hooper deliberately tried as to get a low rating from the ratings board and that would fit, because there's very little of the traditional horror elements. There's hardly any gore in the entire film, though there's a little blood here and there. There's no sex at all, in fact nobody even gets topless. There's no bad language beyond one use of the word 'bitch'. In fact this is the sort of horror film that the Mormons would watch, at least on the face of it. However I have a feeling they wouldn't like what they saw.

Unless their checklists have got a lot better, they don't include the sort of things that impress most here and contribute most to why this is a freaky, disturbing, mad ride. It's the bones that do it here, the wide range of skulls and bones and what they're used for. It's the lunatics and their mindset. It's Leatherface chasing after Sally Hardesty at full speed with a buzzing chainsaw. What I remembered most about it were the screams, mostly of Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty.

Her big scenes in the last third of the movie are overdone but deliberately so, and they are scarier to me than any of the big budget gorefests. She's not stuck in a situation where we wonder about how she'll escape. The people she's with aren't people you can reason with or outwit. She's stuck in a situation that we wonder what she'll become even if she escapes and who's to say that she will anyway? That's what's disturbing here: we literally have no idea what's going to come next. The rulebook is gone.

Needless to say, the story is fiction, but it has a root in reality, in fact the same reality as a number of other famous films. The root of the story comes from Ed Gein, a Wisconsin killer who went insane after the death of his deeply religious and bitter mother, who was the only person he loved. He dug up corpses from the graveyard and used the bones to make art. He used human skin to make lampshades or upholster his furniture. He stuck skulls on his bedposts. He even used skin to make his clothes, wearing a woman suit in a similar way to the way Buffalo Bill does in The Silence of the Lambs, a second film influenced by Gein. A third famous Gein-inspired film is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. That's a serious cinematic influence for one man to have, and that's not a complete list. Gein died in mental hospital in 1984, where he spent most of his life after being acquitted on grounds of insanity.

The cast were all unknowns, as indeed were the filmmakers at the time. Some never appeared in another film ever again, such as Allen Danziger and Teri McMinn, who both have major roles here. Some moved mostly to TV, such as William Vail. Jim Siedow and Paul A Partain notched up a few roles in films but not many. Edwin Neal, the freaky hitchhiker, didn't act again for over a decade but eventually went on to Japanese TV shows, including a major role as Lord Zedd in Power Rangers. Even Marilyn Burns, who is very believable indeed as Sally, almost the definitive film screaming victim, would only go on to a handful of further films, including an anonymous bit part in The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The 6' 4" Icelandic actor Gunnar Hansen who played Leatherface went on to the longest career of any of the actors in this film, reprising his role a number of times. However he resisted acting for a long while, preferring to write, and so his roles are rare until the 21st century when he became far more prolific. Tobe Hooper, writer and director, was the only other name to really continue in the business, going on to become a legend of the horror genre, though the horror films he's worked on are versatile in tone, from early nasties like Eaten Alive and The Mutilator to more accessible films like the TV version of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, Invaders from Mars and the first Poltergeist film.

And yes, it's as powerful today as it was on my first viewing in 2000 and I'm still sure it must have truly freaked people out in 1974. No wonder it's a cult classic. It's an awesome example of just what can be done without a huge budget or any recognisable names whatsoever, and it's one of the freakiest and most intensely disturbing films ever released.

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