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Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The slasher flick that spawned them all

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Gunnar Hansen hunts down Marilyn burns in Texas Chain Saw Massacre.


Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Directed by Tobe Hooper

Playing at the Charles Theatre Oct. 31, 9 P.M.

Beyond giving us one of the more menacing accessory-required Halloween costumes, 1974’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a wince-inducing, stomach-curdling piece of cinema, also spawned the slasher movie. It was one of the first horror films to leave a lone blood-caked and traumatized girl to tell the tale of her friends’ demise—a slasher-flick device known as the “final girl,”—whose existence happens to facilitate the making of a franchise. Its lead tormentor, Leatherface, is the progenitor of Halloween’s Michael Myers, Friday the 13th’s Jason, and that mask from Scream. Yet, Leatherface is possibly the least sinister villain in this massively deranged movie.

Five 20-somethings drive through oppressive Texas heat: two hippie-looking but entirely sober couples, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and Jerry (Allen Danzinger), and Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail); and Sally’s wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin, a literal fifth wheel, played by Paul A. Partain. After stopping at a graveyard where Sally and Franklin’s grandfather is buried and where a spate of grave robberies recently occurred, the group picks up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal). The man has an enormous birthmark on his face and a mental disability, perhaps. He tells the fivesome that he used to work at the nearby slaughterhouse as a cattle killer. Naturally, this is where shit begins to get weird.

And it gets progressively weirder. When the only gas station around for miles is out of gas, the group (sans hitchhiker) heads over to the old, abandoned Hardesty home to kill time while they wait for the station to get its delivery for the day. The young couples begin to explore. Franklin sulks by himself. Kirk and Pam eventually come across another house, where Kirk thinks to ask for gas. Cue the first “don’t go into the house” scene.

From there, Texas Chain Saw Massacre blazes on, its plot ever intensifying in its degree of terror. The story line grips the audience’s gut with a gradually increasing power that leaves one wondering when it will stop. And that speaks to Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s greatest strength: its pacing. Just when one expects the story to start its denouement, when the seeming worst has past, when one thinks the leading lady is in the clear, director/co-writer Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel’s script gets not only scarier, but a whole hell of a lot darker.

Hooper takes it relatively easy on gore. (There is, for instance, no projectile blood spray.) Reportedly, he had hoped for a PG rating but instead received an X rating, prompting Hooper to cut out some scenes to bump the movie down to an R rating. Nonetheless, the film was banned in 10 countries, including the United Kingdom, Finland, and New Zealand.

The disturbing nature of the movie doesn’t rely on its actual depiction of violence so much as its execution. In a nightmarish scene, when Sally finds herself in the seventh circle of hell, Hooper bombards the viewer with a series of extreme closeups of one of her bright green eyes, blinking, darting frantically in disbelief and fear, its veins bright red. Even while he momentarily spares the viewer the same horrific sight as Sally, Hooper builds tension and anxiety in the audience as the film cuts back and forth from Sally’s eyes and the unreal setting which she must take in. He achieves a stretched-out psychological terror uncommon in slasher films.

That’s not to say, of course, it’s lacking in graphic violence. Texas Chain Saw Massacre lives up to its title. Its weaponry is more sprawling than just a chainsaw. A scene involving a meat hook is particularly brutal, though mostly blood-free. In the closing sequence, however—the iconic shot in which Leatherface spins around in a mad rage—Sally is crimson, head-to-toe.

The actress who played Sally, Marilyn Burns, actually suffered many injuries during the filming of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was a predictably low-budget production. Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, had to wear the same outfit, without a single cleaning, over the five weeks the movie was filmed so that the bloodstains on his butchering apron would remain consistent. The film was shot in 100-plus degree summer in Texas. Therefore, the props in the slaughterhouse set (some of them real animal carcasses) would bake and stink up the house. The cast and crew would vomit between takes. Edwin Neal, the hitchhiker, later said of shooting the infamous “dinner sequence”: “Filming that scene was the worst time of my life . . . and I had been in Vietnam, with people trying to kill me.”

The intensity of the filming conditions adds to the movie’s overall terror level. And while jaded first-time watchers of Texas Chain Saw Massacre might find it riddled with horror-movie gimmicks, they would do well to remember that this movie invented those conventions. But ultimately, the film is most distinctive as a work of art in how convincingly it transforms a jaunt to the countryside into a gruesome slaughter. As far-fetched as its conclusion may seem, Texas Chain Saw Massacre transports its viewers via that central transformation, ensuring that, the next time you’re taking a pleasure cruise out by way of, say, Western Maryland, you won’t let the gas tank get near empty.

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