I have a long and varied history with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic that, for all intents and purposes, began the whole iconic-serial-killer craze. Well, there was Deranged, but they were based on the same guy, so I’m willing to bend the rules a little here.
It all started in the early eighties, during my teen years. I grew up in the age of the video store–we’d rent four, five, six movies on Friday afternoon on the way home from school, then have them all watched, rewound, and returned by Monday morning. And I pretty much had carte blanche when it came to the horror section. I probably saw Romero’s Dawn of the Dead fifty times or more during my junior high and high school years. I even had the tabletop RPG, for heaven’s sake. I spent most of my formative years in Pittsburgh, so we had a special relationship with Romero, but how many times did I see XTRO? At the time, it was, if not the most extreme sci-fi film ever, pretty darned close. I saw every Dario Argento movie one could get one’s hands on in America in the early eighties. (Expect a post rather like this one about Suspiria at one point; the first time I saw it, I hated it.) Scanners and The Exorcist are two of the very few films I can confidently say I’ve seen over a hundred times. I could rent anything in the horror section I wanted to…except The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and, as time went on, its sequels. My mother was obviously far too influenced by Rex Reed, who famously called it “the most horrifying film I have ever seen” back in 1974.
Because of this, I didn’t actually get round to seeing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the first time until I was in my twenties, and as you can tell from the above, by then I’d had a pretty heavy grounding in the horror genre, including such monstrosities as Cannibal Holocaust, Fulci’s Zombi 2 (the last film, to the best of my knowledge, to be released unrated in America after getting an X from the MPAA and actually playing the local cineplex), and selected other wonders from the video nasty list. And I popped in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre… and my reaction was, “this is what I’ve been waiting over a decade to experience? This is boring!”
Fast-forward to the late nineties or early noughties, back when IFC was still worth watching. They used to have an excellent, entirely underwatched series called Talking During the Movie, which was just them showing a classic flick while playing the DVD commentary track. During one of their Halloween editions, they popped on TCM with the Henkel/Hooper/Hansen commentary, and since I was willing to go along with anything IFC did during the Halloween season, I settled in to play a video game or something with it on in the background. Twenty minutes later, I was riveted to the screen, I was understanding more about TCM than I ever had before, and I started to appreciate what it was about this film that makes it an American horror classic. As a side note, this was also the first time I really latched onto the commentary track as something desirable on a DVD, but that’s another story.
I’ve watched it a number of times since then–most notably, right after watching Marcus Nispel’s surprisingly capable 2003 remake in order to do a compare-and-contrast review–but I’m writing about it now because on October 20, 2012, I was given the chance to see it on the big screen for the first time at the Capitol Theater’s third annual Twelve Hours of Terror festival. Despite the fact that it was the only one of the four revival films I watched that night that was not a new digital master or something similar, it was still a gorgeous print, not degraded at all. As is usual with a movie you’re familiar with on the small screen, I caught a few things with the bigger format I’d never noticed before;
Leatherface’s female make-up really popped off the screen in a way it never did on TV. The make-up makes sense, given that Leatherface was based on Ed Gein, but it also bring a whole new level of not-right to the all-male slaughterhouse family, and there is a wealth of material to be mined there; I assume others have already done so. I’ll have to go looking. I also finally caught the one line in the script that links Edward Neal’s character to the shenanigans we see in the film’s opening sequence, which is perhaps the film’s most truly horrific set piece, but which always seemed disconnected from the rest of the film to me. It still does, though I can no longer be certain that that isn’t some sort of residual disconnect rather than it actually being gratuitous.
On the other hand, the wide-screen, surround-sound presentation brought out a number of the film’s glaring problems that get subsumed in the transfer to a tape or DVD. The dinner scene is wholly wrecked by Marilyn Burns’ impressive lung power. For the love of god, woman, SHUT UP. And when Dave, 12HoT’s program director, got up on sage to announce the second film of the night (Slither, one of Hollywood’s best horror comedies of the past two decades), he started off with a call-and-response bit.
“So, how did you like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?”
[lots of applause]
“Did you wish Franklin got it a lot earlier than he actually did?”
I think what I ended up taking away from the experience is a deeper understanding of the difference between appreciating a piece of classic cinema and liking it. I am not a fan of the movie. It is rarely, if ever, the first movie I think about dialing up when I want to watch a horror movie. And yet there is a wealth of iconic material in the film it’s impossible to deny. Hooper made a B film, and he didn’t even make the kind of B film that yearns to transcend its genre, like They Drive by Night or Double Indemnity or Night of the Living Dead. It’s an unrepentant B film, with terrible acting and a script that was probably written in a couple of hours while doing shots of Jim Beam. But, for
example, as long as you’re willing to dismiss that within the confines of the movie there’s no way it could actually happen, that dance Gunnar Hansen does during the film’s final sequence? That’s amazing stuff, up there with the dance of the drunkards in Calvaire or the opening sequence of Werckmeister Harmóniák. And how many bad slasher films since 1974 have aped the first encounter at the filling station? Beautiful. But still…not terribly watchable.