Like most of you out there, anytime a new entry in a horror franchise is about to hit theaters, I can’t help but revisit all the previous entries in that franchise to prep me properly for the theatrical going experience. And seeing billboards plastered all over town with Leatherface’s visage has put me in a post-Christmas Texas Chainsaw Massacre kind of mood! So what better way to ring in the New Year than with Leatherface and family? We’ll have to go back to the very beginning with Tobe Hooper’s infamous 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I can’t remember exactly how I discovered the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I do know that when I was around 12 years old, I was already helping myself to a steady diet of horror titles courtesy of the mom & pop owned video store on the corner from where I lived. And as I burned through renting franchise title after franchise title, I do recall that Chainsaw was one of the first VHS tapes I actually bought to own. In fact, this was around the same time that the movie was referenced in 2 of my favorite comedies at the time – Summer School and Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home. After getting a glimpse of the ending scene from obsessed horror fanatics Chainsaw & Dave in Summer School, that’s when I knew this movie was a keeper.
And it’s interesting. I’d say that I revisit the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre probably once a year since I was 12, and what gets me on every viewing is just how much it still to this day holds up as a well crafted, genuinely creepy yet darkly hilarious visceral experience. Back when the remake was on the cusp of coming out in 2003, I had a group of girl friends that had wanted to see the original before that new one. One of them left the room shaken and upset after Leatherface makes his first appearance approximately 35 minutes into the feature and that’s when I thought ‘wow, it still works’.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre opens with one of the most unsettling sequences in horror history. The “ting” and flash of that old camera, the quick glimpses of what appear to be cadavers and then finally, the audience is locked eye to eye with a close up of a horrifying corpse face, strangely and morbidly posed on a tombstone as we hear reports of grave robbing in the area. We’re then introduced to our group of teenage kids as they take a drive through Texas. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger), their friends Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Terry Mcminn), and Sally’s invalid brother Franklin (Paul Partain). They end up picking up a Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) whom they at first refer to as “Dracula” and then realize they’re not far off! The oddball Hitchhiker works at the slaughterhouse and boasts about how his brother makes head-cheese “real good”. He then attacks Franklin with his straight blade razor and marks the van with his blood, strangely foreshadowing their inevitable fate.
Later on and up the road, they (unbeknownst to them) stumble upon the property of the Sawyer family and one by one, they come face to face with the Hitchhiker’s mentally challenged brother Bubba aka Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). The obvious first thing that sets Leatherface apart from the other “movie maniacs” is his appearance. Inspired by the old stories that Hooper had read about the infamous Ed Gein case, the filmmaker chose to put his villain under a mask made from his victims own faces, an idea and image that is as bizarrely upsetting as it is intriguing. And while his first few appearances are quick, shocking and abrupt, as we spend more time with Leatherface, we slowly start to see his childlike mentality unfold. In other words, he doesn’t know any better. Drayton Sawyer (played by the late, great Jim Siedow) and Grandpa (John Dugan) round out the rest of the cannibalistic family and when Sally is the only one of the core group left, she’s forced to endure a terrifying dinner with her captors which spirals out of control for the film’s final reel.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is in the top 5 horror movies of all time, plain and simple. Its influence can be seen countless times over the 3 plus decades since its release. The group of innocent teens driving across country and inadvertently running into the hornet’s nest. (See – Wrong Turn) The large imposing, hulk-like killer (See – Jason in the Friday The 13th sequels) who sports a mask made of human flesh. (See – Hannibal Lector’s daring escape in The Silence Of The Lambs) The strange dark sense of humor that while missed by most audiences on Chainsaw’s initial release is far more evident in Hooper’s own 1986 sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. The documentary-esque feel to the filmmaking only adds to the movie's harsh look and it forces the viewer to feel as if they're watching something real. Then there's the stark and simple non-score sound design by Wayne Bell and Hooper himself which compliment the films' horrors perfectly. Anyway you slice it, there’s so much that establishes this movie as the classic that it rightfully is heralded as. And it’s surprising that it took so long for the franchise to really take off considering the notoriety of the first film. But alas, we’ll tackle that tomorrow when we revisit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2!
Don’t forget to check out our Post Mortem episode with Chainsaw writer/director Tobe Hooper!
Revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Revisiting Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III
Revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4: The Next Generation
Revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003 Remake
Revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
FEARnet Movie Review: Texas Chainsaw 3D by Scott Weinberg