Written by: Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal and Gunnar Hansen
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“You could have dinner with us... my brother makes good head cheese! You like head cheese?”
Ed Gein was a truly sick man. His exploits have inspired not just one but multiple horror films and psychological thrillers over the years (Deranged, Psycho, Silence of the Lambs). Perhaps the one film that is the closest associated to the Gein case is Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Because of the film's opening title card claiming the events of the film are true, many over the years have come to view the film as 100% true to life. This isn't entirely the case. At no point did Gein actually use a chainsaw to kill. However, much of the film is inspired by what Gein actually did... including making cookware and home decor out of human flesh and bone. It's level of truth isn't what is important, however. Since the day of its release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has scared audiences out of their minds, and continues to do so to this day.
Five friends set out for an enjoyable, lazy drive in the hot Texas Summer. They intend to check out the old homeplace of one of the teens' grandfather. Along the way, they find a bizarre, chatty Hitchhiker with a penchant for photographs. Being naive city kids, they take in the hitchhiker. Minutes later, they regret the decision as he nearly sets the van ablaze and then uses a straight razor to slash the arm of a wheelchair-bound teen. With the incident fresh on their minds, they finally run upon the homeplace, and as teens often do in these movies, decide to wander off a bit. A pair wanders into an old farmhouse decorated with smashed watches, dead cars, and dried animal bones. Before long, they come face to face with Leatherface, a crazed chainsaw-toting killer wearing a butcher's apron and dried, stitched up human faces as a mask.
This is such a great horror movie. Over the years, it has inspired many fans and filmmakers alike. One of the most famous of the movie's fans is none other than director Steven Spielberg, who made Jaws victim Alex Kintner's float yellow because he had liked how well the color of Leatherface's apron contrasted with blood splatter. The film's inspiration didn't stop there. It inspired not just a sub-genre of crazed hillbilly family styled horror movies (The Hills Have Eyes, Motel Hell) but also the power tool horror sub-genre (The Driller Killer, The Toolbox Murders, and Nail Gun Massacre). And of course, numerous horror movies utilized the word "massacre" in light of the film's runaway success. One unique factor about the film is that Leatherface isn't the sole villain. He's but a mere member in a whole family of dangerous, cannibal psychopaths. The idea that this family (although certainly twisted) is just trying to survive and preserve their macabre way of life puts a whole different slant on the film than similar stalk and slash fare. One could even argue that although he is the film's signature villain, Leatherface isn't the leader of the group.
The film's biggest asset is its nightmarish atmosphere, which is helped in part by its amateurish production quality. You can tell this was the work of a young film crew looking to impress by any means necessary. Sound and picture editing is often jarring, and overly-flashy camera zooms give us uncomfortable close-ups of a rotted tooth and one character's eyeball. It all adds up to a very nightmarish, but chillingly entertaining experience for the viewer. The cast is low-key but effective. What helps the film work is that none of the cast members look Hollywood at all. They have the appearance of a group of your average hippie culture college students of the time period... which, is what they actually were. They seemed more real than what you would find in a slick studio production. When they run, screaming in terror, you believe it and you fear for their lives. This is, in my opinion, much the same reason why the similarly independent phenom The Blair Witch Project was so effective. Also of note, the musical score is pretty much non-existent. All we get in the way of music is the occasional ominous tapping of a cymbal and bizarre, ratchet-sounding noises. I've said for years that horror films of today often suffer from being over-scored. This film shows how effective a movie can be when grisly sound effects are emphasized over composed music.
As highly as I think of the film, I can't help but wonder if it wasn't just a happy accident. The right people making the right decisions, under the right conditions. I say this because nothing Hooper has done since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been nearly as good. You can make cases about Poltergeist and The Funhouse being entertaining fan-favorites (and to a lesser degree, Hooper's Eaten Alive) but the fact remains, as watchable as they may be, they don't quite have the visceral power that this film has. The worst nightmare I can remember having as a child involved Leatherface, exactly as he was depicted in this film. Running after me at full speed, with the chainsaw going non-stop. I woke up drenched in a Jesse Walsh-ian sweat with a splitting headache. The crudely buzzing saw, Leatherface's ghostly pale mask, the screaming... That is the power this film can have. The sounds and images it carves into the mind are unpleasant ones not easily forgotten. The film's frenetic editing goes a long way into giving the audience just enough of a glimpse of horrific things to scare themselves. That's the unique thing about the movie. It's almost bloodless. You see a chainsaw roaring at full force, you hear the screams of the victims, but actual blood and gore are (by design) left to be imagined on the part of the viewer. I can remember watching the film at age 8 or 9 and thinking it was the most graphic thing I'd ever seen. Seeing it years later, you kind of wonder if you're watching an edited-for-TV version. It just goes to prove that you don't need a lot of blood and gore to make a horror film great. Sure, those things can make a lesser movie more watchable, but the right sights and sounds are what can take a film to a whole other level. They can take something you would consider just "a good horror movie" and make it into "a downright great movie, period".
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has received countless DVD releases over the years. My first copy on the format was Pioneer's extras-packed Special Edition. This edition had some great outtakes and bloopers, rare set photos, and an audio commentary track. When the Platinum Dunes remake hit theaters, the Special Edition was given a re-release with multiple covers (one of which, even featured a package of ground beef as the cover art). MPI/DarkSky Films then gave the film an "Ultimate Edition" release in a metal case which is, as of now, the definitive version of the film on the home video format. A Blu-Ray of the Ultimate Edition was also released. As of this writing, both the DVD and Blu-Ray are out of print, leaving the film without a home video release for the first time since the digital format. I'm sure someone will give the film yet another look on DVD/Blu-Ray (remember, there's a 3-D reboot in the works to cash in on at Lionsgate). Until then, track down either the Pioneer Special Edition or the MPI Ultimate Edition. Some say the film looks too good and cleaned up in the Ultimate Edition, as many prefer the raw, gritty, and rough appearance the film had when they were first introduced to it through tattered drive-in prints or through Media Home Entertainment or Wizard Video's original VHS releases. Regardless of your preference, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a bonafide classic in every sense of the word. It has stood the test of time and its power to scare is unmatched by other films of similar ilk. Pieces, Junior... chainsaws, they may have, but the scares just aren't there. These films don't creep into your mind and stick with you the way this one does. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre belongs in every true horror fan's collection. Seek it out and watch it in the dark. You'll never hear the sound of a chainsaw in quite the same way ever again. Essential!
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