Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
For the most part the film genre of the horror story has fallen far away from its roots. There was a time when the story was the thing not how much blood and internal organs could be displayed. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre has the wonderful simplicity of a story told while sitting around a campfire, it is mood and circumstances not blood and gore that makes this take the classic piece of American horror that it is. While often imitated this film has never been duplicated. Has with a good tale around the campfire this one starts off slow; it even makes sense at first. There are news reports in a small Texas town that a series of graves have been robbed, the bodies removed or desecrated. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her handicapped brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) are on a road trip in an old van with their friends Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn). Since the grandfather of Sally and Franklin was buried in this cemetery the kids decide to check things out to make sure the old gent is still resting in peace. While there the group goes off to visit the grandfatherís farm and pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who cuts himself and then turns on the group and slashes poor Franklin. Well things are down hill for the group or post hippies as they are drawn to an old house in hopes of finding gasoline only to have their worse nightmare realized. We all know what happens next as the kids are killed off one by one. What separates this film from so many others is the fact that it takes the proper time to set the stage for the horror. There is no rush to the first murder, no glimpse of what will come, the terror builds slowly, drawing the audience into the terrible world the film creates. By the time we first see Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) the now infamous chainsaw wielding, human skin wearing antagonist of the story, we already know that we are in a nightmare. The spooky mood is set with a minimalistís delight. There are no big budget effects here and that is part of what has kept this film a classic for so many years. The viewers can readily identify with the scenes, you are given the time to understand a little bit of the characters. The old saying Ďless is moreí may well have had this film in mind. TCM (as the film is affectionately known by fans) works through your senses without being so overt.
This film did not launch the careers of most of the actors in it. In fact fort most this was their first and only time in front of the camera. For the few that did continue their careers they were limited to lesser flicks. Part of the charm of this film is the amateur casting; it helps with the semi-documentary style chosen by the director and permits the audience the ability to rapidly identify with the plight of the characters. Burns as the hapless Sally is wonderfully overplayed. With her eyes bulging in terror and mouth agape is a scream that just canít find freedom she plays Sally to the hilt going from a rather innocent young girl to a human being fighting to stay alive. She is the prototype for the heroines of all the slasher flicks that will follow. Hansen as the redoubtable Leatherface is great for much the same reasons. He fills the screen with sheer mass in every scene. While virtually mute he is the grandfather to horror villains such as Michael and Jason, the unstoppable killing machine devoid of humanity. Although Sally has to be the one that remains alive to tell the tale the others fit the archetype of teenaged fodder quite well. Unlike modern horror flicks where the girls are exceptionally clean, always finding time for a shower in the direst circumstances, the cast here remains clothed right up to their untimely deaths. Rather than pander to the most puerile and crass exploitative use of nudity found in many such films this one stays on topic.
This is the film that started the directorial career of Toby Hooper. While his resume is a bit uneven it has recently been more than revived with the mini series Taken. With Chainsaw Hooper was able to take very little and create something that remains, now more than a quarter of a century later, classic and a film that still stands alone in itís genre. Financed by the infamous porn flick Deep Throat this film was done on a shoestring budget. Itís the lack of the big budget affectations that has endeared this film to the collective American consciousness. Other directors have taken the minimalist approach such as the extremists in the Dogma 95 project who refuse to bring anything on to the set. Here the decision was one of necessity, there is the "letís make a movie kids!" feel to the production. What Hooper created here is the perfect representation of a nightmare. It starts off slowly as such dreams often do, creating the environment, benign at first, and then carefully builds the tension. Like Hitchcock, Hooper leaves most of the terror to your imagination. Very little in the way of overt violence is shown. In fact he originally hoped for a PG rating but the psychological manifestation of horror is so pronounced that the film was dubbed an ĎRí. He allows enough time and exposition for the audience to become emotionally invested with the characters. In so many of the modern horror films I really donít care who gets killed next.
This special edition release is not perfect but it is the definitive incarnation of the film. The audio presents both a re-mixed stereo sound track as well as the original mono. For my ears the mono was a lot better, especially when piped through the Prologic circuits using theater mode to simulate the original experience. The 1.85:1 video is not anamorphic but for the most part it is clear. There are notable defects, especially little white flicks and pieces of damaged film but there was no discernable compression artifacts present. According to the notes Hooper personally supervised the transfer of the original negative. The grain only added to the experience for me, reinforcing the gritty nature of the film. The commentary includes Hooper and Hensen, looking back at this seminal work. This is a must have for serious film collectors and for those that enjoy a good horror film.