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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974): Scream Queen

[well, this was scheduled to post on October 1, the fortieth anniversary of the movie’s release, but for some reason it didn’t. Better late than never.]

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Leatherface starts his chainsaw in order to butcher a histage on the movie poster.

Here’s your invitation to come join Leatherface.
photo credit: Wikipedia

The first post I wrote when I started var.ev. was about my long and spotty history with Tobe Hooper’s second feature. I’ll try not to reprise too much of that here, so if this sounds disjointed, that’s why (go read the original post for all the stuff I’m leaving out here, I guess). The short answer is that I think of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as the Bob Dylan of horror films. It’s been ridiculously influential, spawning three sequels—the first of which (and the only film in the entire franchise I have yet to see) also directed by Hooper—two remakes/reimaginings/whatever, one of which also came with a sequel (that trilogy of films is considered three of the worst movies ever made by a whole bunch of people—the recent “re-imagined” sequel from 2013, Texas Chainsaw 3D, was succinctly awarded Worst Horror Movie of 2013 by Dread Central), the careers of Tobe Hooper, Marilyn Burns, Ed Neal, and, amusingly, John Larroquette (among others), and…I like pretty much everything that came out of it better than I do the thing itself, in the same way that every cover of a Dylan song I’ve ever heard is preferable to the original article (yes, even U2’s simpering attempt at “All Along the Watchtower”).

The beginning of the infamous dinner scene at the movie's climax.

This scene is supposed to be terrifying. Instead it’s annoying.
photo credit: audienceseverywhere.net

If you’ve been living under a rock for the past forty years, and I should mention in passing that unless something horribly goes wrong, I am posting this review on October 1, 2014, the exact fortieth anniversary of the movie’s theatrical opening, according to IMDB, the plot: Five young-and-not-so-beautifuls (ah, remember the days when horror movies featured killer fodder who actually looked human?) are traveling through the Texas wildlands in a VW minibus. There’s Sally Hardesty (Helter Skelter‘s Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Rolling Thunder‘s Paul A. Partain) and their pals Jerry (Eggshells‘ Alan Danziger, who never acted again), Kirk (Poltergeist‘s William Vail, now a set decorator), and Pam (The Cellar‘s Teri McMinn). The five of them pick up a hitchhiker (Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers‘ Edwin Neal) who turns out to be, well, something of a handful. They eventually toss him out of the van, amidst great cursing, and head on to stop at a gas station and get the requisite cryptic warnings and odd looks from the locals. Of course, they have car trouble, get separated, and find themselves at the mercy of Leatherface (Hatred of a Minute‘s Gunnar Hansen), one of America’s most iconic serial killers. (Though, obviously, he wasn’t in 1974).

I cannot deny there is an elemental, almost atavistic, power to this movie, much of which comes from Hooper’s direction and Hansen’s antics. Leatherface is not the superhero-serial-killer who would start inhabiting movies with Michael Myers; he is mentally challenged, has no superpowers other then rudimentary sewing and butchering skills, and is socially awkward to a fault (all of this, seemingly, developed by Hansen). We never see his actual face, so Hansen must rely on body language to convey emotion, and he takes the old silent-film expressionist route. Oftentimes that leads to laughs—especially in the final scene—but once you’ve stopped tittering, you’ll realize just how much Hansen’s take on the sword dance has stuck with you, even if nothing else in the movie has. And, man, that soundtrack, which is pretty darn close to unparalleled; few horror movies have seen the value inherent in distressing the audience with experimental music, outside the cheesier uses of the theremin.

"We're on our way to Missoula to open for Poco. Can you tell which one of us is the drummer?" photo credit: standbyformindcontrol.com

“We’re on our way to Missoula to open for Poco. Can you tell which one of us is the drummer?”
photo credit: standbyformindcontrol.com

On the other hand, there’s, well, everything else. Rex Reed infamously called it “the most horrifying movie I have ever seen”, and “most horrifying” does not translate to “scariest”; the most horrifying film I have ever seen is About a Boy, for its offensive and cavalier attitude that men are nothing unless they are husbands and fathers. There’s certainly nothing of that here (though one wonders what Nick Hornby and the Weitz brothers would make of Hooper and Henkel’s family of cannibals), but there’s overacting by the metric ton; what comes off as creepy and effective when Hansen does it—because he has a reason to—is more annoying than distressing in many of the other characters. It works—kind of—for Edwin Neal’s hitchhiker, because the YaNSBs’ first encounter with him sets the tone for the rest of the movie, but it gets tiresome relatively quickly with him (Neal is the biggest overactor of the bunch). And for the love of Brother Ed, Marilyn Burns, I don’t think, has a single line in the last fifteen minutes of the film. She just screams.  I have no idea how she managed to keep screaming that long without blowing her voice out. Grindcore vocalists could take lessons. Hooper does what he can to break up the monotony by cutting to other folks in the various scenes that make up this sequence—the longest of them is, of course, the infamous dinner scene—but Marilyn Burns screaming is constantly in the background. And good Stihl is it annoying after a while. And this from the second-best actor in the bunch of YaNSBs (others will no doubt dispute this, but for my money, the guy who made me believe was Paul Partain). The others, well, cardboard cutouts might well have sufficed; there’s very good reason why people who remember the film fondly identify with the killer cannibals rather than their helpless victims.

My rating for this movie, over the past twenty-five years, has ranged from one to four stars, and it has both entered and left my thousand-best list since I expanded the 100-best list in 2009. I guess the best way to say it is that I appreciate the movie for what it is, and the legacy it has left (yes, even Texas Chainsaw 3D, which I didn’t hate nearly as much as everyone else), but I don’t like it all that much. Oops, I knew I’d tread on my own feet sooner or later. **


Trailer.

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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