The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Written by Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
Directed by Tobe Hooper
I’m going to get right to the point here. I didn’t like this movie very much. I did not hate it, but by the third act, I was extremely bored. When the film became just a woman running through the woods screaming with Leatherface chasing her at night, I felt very disengaged. I would argue that Texas Chainsaw Massacre II is a better movie, and it is undoubtedly my favorite film in the franchise because it leans into comedy. So many brilliant techniques and creative choices are happening in this first film, and I was highly impressed. I don’t think anyone could argue that TCM was a failure. It’s a foundational text in the horror film canon, and we can view it as establishing tropes that continue into today.
Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) receives word her grandfather’s grave in a small Texas town is one of many that has been disturbed. Corpses have been removed from many of them, and some bodies have been configured into grotesque sculptures. She, her paraplegic brother Franklin, and some friends head down in a van to see what is happening and connect with the authorities about resolving the situation. Along the way, they stop to pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who is evidently mentally unwell and lashes out at the young people. After ditching the man, they continue into town and take in the macabre site at the cemetery. With night approaching, the group checks out the old Hardesty homestead while waiting for fuel to come in at the town’s gas station. Two wander off and come across another seemingly unoccupied home, only to come face to face with Leatherface (Gunner Hansen) and descend into a night of despair and horror.
Some of the cinematography on display in TCM is astonishing. Made on a reasonably small budget, director Tobe Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl get the most out of their equipment and locations. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember the iconic shot where Pam gets up from a swinging bench in the yard and walks towards Leatherface’s home. The camera goes underneath the bench, taking in Pam and the house from a low angle. The result is that this decaying home takes on a dark mythic quality. For a moment, we realize we are in the presence of a type of evil that has existed long before this moment.
That is something the entire production communicates beautifully. Hooper paints America in the bleakest light from the opening shots and the brooding narration. He doesn’t see a beautiful land full of happy people; he sees a landscape rife with death & decay. His protagonists are sleepwalking through a nightmare, seemingly numb to the constant threat that looms over them. What’s funny is that there are moments where the villains feel just as, if not more sympathetic than, our heroes.
I recall a fantastic scene where Leatherface, after dispatching a few nosey young people, plops down in a living room easy chair. He lets out a frustrated groan, head in hands, completely exasperated. I felt a lot of empathy for the character at that moment. Here he is just trying to do his job (butchering corpses), and these people keep coming in and interrupting him. You get the sense Leatherface only kills them out of necessity. They are trespassing and endangering the family. As someone who has tried to get work done only to be constantly interrupted, I relate to our skin mask-wearing friend.
There’s just not enough of the black comedy here to keep me engaged, though. As mentioned above, we eventually fall into a screaming girl getting chased by the killer trope, and I just didn’t find how that played out interestingly. The family dinner scene is a fantastic highlight, extended and built upon in TCM II. It puts the audience front and center in the madness by recreating such an ordinary everyday life event, dinner with the family. We have all the elements of a typical family dinner: table is set, dishes set out in the middle, and grandpa is even there being helped. This twisted family respects their elders and cherishes spending time with them. It’s just they spend time with them eating human flesh and interior designing with their skin and bones. I got the strong sense Hooper was attempting to critique the horror of the mundane he’d grown up with, the pleasant domestic facades we erect to cover up the corpses and horror it’s all built on top of.
TCM is a must-see for horror film completists. This, along with Halloween and Psycho, are ur-texts, the seed from which everything else in contemporary horror has spawned. Unfortunately, I don’t see myself revisiting it anytime soon because of how it slides into the chase and scream trope. It’s not a long watch, though, a tight 80 minutes. If you haven’t seen TCM II, then I strongly recommend that it takes the same critiques of Americana and explodes them in the wildest, most ridiculous manner resulting in one of the best comedies of the 1980s.