Horizon Review: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

texas-chainsaw-massacre-gunnar-hansen-everett

So Red Molly and I sat down the other day to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the original 1974 version.  Could you believe that a horror hound like Molly had never seen it?  That is an absolute sin.  This movie is a piece of horror history.  If John Carpenter’s Halloween was the father of the slasher movie, then this movie was the grandfather (and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is the great-grandfather, but I’ll get to that on another day).  This had to be remedied, posthaste.

And now that she’s seen it, we don’t have to watch it again.

That’s right.  Once again, as with The War Of The Worlds, we have a classic, groundbreaking, genre-shaping film with iconic characters and images, and I don’t like it.  I’m honestly starting to wonder if there’s something wrong with me.

As always, this review is only about my own reactions to this film.  For a more erudite and well-researched review, see here.

I was just going to do a Quick Thoughts entry on this, but I realized that the plot was so minimal that I could do a full Horizon Review on it with little more effort.  Either way, the spoilers begin now.

The movie begins with – well, actually it begins with an introductory voiceover by John Larroquette and some artistically-arranged corpses.  Molly and I were eating some Mexican when the movie started, and we had to set it aside for awhile.  We can watch the most horrible acts of cinematic violence without turning a hair, but those corpses were flyblown and juicy.  You could practically smell them.  Score one for the movie, I suppose.  As Stephen King once said: “If I can’t get terror, I’ll go for horror.  And I’m not proud; if I can’t get horror, I’ll go for the gross-out.”  Turned stomachs are definitely a legitimate effect for a horror movie to shoot for, but still…when you resort to the cinematic equivalent of opening your mouth and showing everyone your food, that’s pretty low.

Anyway, the movie really starts with a van containing four pieces of Character Tofu (so-called for being utterly colorless and bland), two of each sex, and Franklin Hardesty.  Yes, the pieces of Character Tofu have names, but I don’t care about them and neither will you.  This is because while the chunks of Character Tofu have names, they don’t have any actual character traits.  Franklin got them all.  Franklin is a fat, whiny, morbid asshole in a wheelchair.  Now, to be fair, Franklin goes through a lot of crap even before the cannibal hillbillies show up, so –

…the hell?  Did you see that?  I was defending the whiny, morbid asshole because he’s the only real character!  You may not like Franklin, but you care about him at least a little bit, because he’s an actual person – the only one present.

Anyway, Franklin and the Character Tofu (sounds like a band name) are on a journey to visit the graveyard from the opening credits because  Franklin’s sister, a female Tofu named Sally, wants to check and see if their grandfather was one of the bodies desecrated.  He wasn’t.  That settled, they decide to go visit the old family homestead, abandoned lo these many years since the local slaughterhouse closed down and turned the area into a ghost town.  Franklin takes this decision as his cue to tell the Character Tofu more than they ever wanted to know about slaughterhouses – how many “licks” with a sledgehammer it sometimes took to kill a cow, for example.  This information is not appreciated.

As you watch this little travel montage, you honestly wonder why Franklin agreed to come along.  The Character Tofu clearly don’t like him, he doesn’t like them, and the trip itself is a hardship.  A simple attempt to relieve himself sends him crashing down a wooded slope in a bit of the movie’s ebon-black humor.

A little further down the road, the group picks up a hitchhiker, who promptly demonstrates why you shouldn’t do that.  I know that the hitchhiker’s behavior is supposed to heighten the atmosphere of menace and give us a hint that Something Is Not Right Here, that the Character Tofu’s plans are going off the rails, but honestly, you meet people who act that weird (minus the cutting…usually…) and who make the situation that uncomfortable almost daily on the New York subway.  Geddimouttahere, the scene’s running too long.

The group stops at a general store for gas, but the proprietor informs them that there is none, and won’t be any until tomorrow.  So they buy some barbecue from him and head on up to the old homestead.

Come on, come on…

They arrive at the old homestead and poke around the tumbledown old building like it was a goddamn playground and they shriek and squeal and oh dear GODS it’s boring.  After the first few  minutes you’re praying for them to fall through the floor.  Franklin, of course, is stuck on the ground floor, unable to participate, complaining about how much fun this whole trip isn’t.  I feel you man.

Oh.  Yeah.  Franklin also finds a pile of bones and feathers that was clearly arranged by something with more fingers and artistic sensibility than a coyote.  This is supposed to be threatening.  Just looks like the local kids have been messing around in the place to me.

Anyway, a Tofu couple ask Franklin for directions to the swimmin’ hole that Franklin and Sally mentioned earlier.  Now, by the rules of Seventies grindhouse features, this is clearly an invitation for the female Tofu to show us her breasts, but Tobe Hooper apparently wasn’t interested in wasting any more time at this point (too little, too late, bubba).  The swimmin’ hole is dried up, but while the Tofu couple is down there discovering this, they hear a generator running off in the distance, and set off in the hope of buying some gas.

Now, as we approach the house, we get our first real hint that Something Is Wrong: it may not be unusual for old houses out in the woods to have a bunch of cars rusting to nothing in the yard, but how many put camouflage netting over them?  For some reason, the residents don’t want passersby to know that they have all of those cars rusting to nothing in their yard.  Now, why would –

Never mind.  Mister and Miss Tofu don’t notice.  They just go up and knock on the door.  Receiving no answer, Mr. Tofu casually decides to trespass.

Honestly.  Is that something people really do, or used to do?  I mean, it’s one thing if the character has been established as a snoop, or is looking for something important, but to just casually go into a strange house when nobody answers the door?  I see it in so many movies, I’m starting to wonder if this is a real thing.

In any case, this movie gives you a good example as to why you shouldn’t.  This is the scene that everybody knows:

Credit where it’s due, that is a shocking moment, even today.  There’s no running, no struggling, no screaming, no horror movie “scene”.  Just a human being quickly and efficiently slaughtered.

Also, it turns out that Franklin’s story contained a nice bit of foreshadowing: it does indeed take more than one “lick” to put the victim all the way down in this case.

You know, as I watch this scene – moment? – I think I understand why this movie is so iconic, despite all my complaints: Leatherface himself.  There had been movies before this where the killers wore masks – plenty of ’em.  But in those cases, the masks were worn to conceal the killer’s identity, to keep the audience guessing until the Big Reveal.  Leatherface’s mask is his identity.  He is the executioner.  The bogeyman.  He is the prototype of the idea that would be perfected in Michael Myers five years later.

Of course, like all prototypes, Leatherface shows significant, and interesting, differences from the final product.  Unlike Myers, Leatherface is no supernatural force of murder.  For all his monstrousness, he remains a human being with some surprising vulnerabilities.  After he commits his second murder (Female Tofu #1 and Male Tofu #2 wander into the house and get themselves killed over the course of the next fifteen minutes or so of screen time), Leatherface searches all around the house, looks out the window, and finally sits down and puts his head in his hands.  Is he actually stressed out by the violence he’s committing?  Is he killing these people because he’s afraid of them?

It’s not impossible.  One thing that quickly becomes obvious is that Leatherface is mentally handicapped to a catastrophic degree.  He can’t talk.  He can only communicate in gestures and pig squeals.  He may very well not understand that he himself is far more dangerous than the people trespassing in his home.  He’s just a big kid left alone in the house.

Anyway, once Leatherface smacks Male Tofu #1 upside the head with that hammer, the movie finally starts to move a bit.  Like I said before, Female Tofu #1 and Male Tofu #2 wander into the house over the course of the next fifteen minutes or so and get themselves gruesomely killed.  Then a few hours apparently pass, because when we return to Franklin and Sally, night has fallen and they’re standing around the van, calling for their friends.  Finally, they decide to go looking for them, and –

Wait.  They?  Yes.  Despite Sally’s perfectly reasonable protests that she can’t push a heavy man in a wheelchair uphill through the woods at night, Franklin insists on coming along.

It doesn’t do him much good, as you can imagine.  The two of them are just kinda bulldozing through the woods, calling for the Tofus, when suddenly brawwwww Leatherface appears out of nowhere, and that’s it for Franklin.

You know, a lot of people make a point of how unique and innovative it is that most of this movie’s horrors take place in broad daylight, and I certainly can’t argue with that.  But for my money, there’s nothing like that moment where Leatherface appears out of the dark.  No Hollywood blue lights here, oh my brothers, just trees and dark, with that real country dark.

Of course, they can’t shoot ongoing scenes that way, but for that one moment, it’s perfect.

All of that said, I have to say that this moment makes me wonder why they bothered to put Franklin in a wheelchair in the first place.  They don’t use it.  Sally isn’t forced to defend him.  She isn’t hampered in her escape by trying to pull him to safety.  We don’t even get a moment of hopeless horror as he tries to crawl away from his murderer.  He’s just abruptly taken out – the only victim actually killed with a chainsaw, by the way – and Sally flees into the night.  Was it all for that one bathroom joke?

Anyway.  I’ve read other reviews that complain about Sally running through the forest screaming instead of trying to hide, but to be fair, I’m sure that Leatherface knows every inch of that forest like the back of his hand.  It probably wouldn’t have helped.  It does start to get on your nerves after a while, though.

Sally flees first to the nearest house, but since that’s actually Leatherface’s house, that doesn’t really help her much.  She has a moment of hope, but he proves willing to saw through his own door to get to her.  Still, it buys her a little time and distance.  She manages to escape out a second story window, is fortunate enough to avoid injury, and keeps running until she gets back to the general store.  For a moment, it looks like she’s safe: Leatherface is nowhere in sight, and the proprietor is solicitous and protective…until he beats her down with a broom, stuffs her into a sack, throws her into his truck and drives her right back to the house she just escaped.  Along the way, he picks up the hitchhiker from earlier.

This is where we learn that all of the crazies in this movie are connected.  In fact, they’re a family, though it isn’t until the sequel that we learn that the family name is Sawyer.

Yes.

The proprietor (name from the sequel: Drayton Sawyer) is the eldest and apparently head of the family, though his actual relation to the others is unclear.  Chainsaw II declares him to be an elder brother, but my guess would have been father or, more likely, uncle.  The hitchhiker is named – or at least called – Nubbins.  Leatherface doesn’t get a name until the remake.

In any case, Nubbins is in trouble for his little artistic odyssey to the graveyard from the beginning of the movie, and for leaving Leatherface alone in the house.  Of course, Leatherface himself is in a bit of trouble as well.

(“Look what your brother did to the door!”  Okay, that was funny.)

Now, it’s no secret that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, but now that we’ve met the Sawyer family, it seems that each of the Sawyer boys got only part of Gein: Nubbins has Gein’s artistic sensibilities, Drayton is Gein’s mild-mannered public face and his rumored culinary tendencies.

Leatherface is the killer.

Oddly enough, of the three, I’d say that Leatherface is the least evil.  Drayton is clearly the most sane, and he tries to pretend that he takes no pleasure in his family’s murderous doings, just going along with the necessity to keep his barbecue supplied with meat.  He can’t keep the mask in place for long, though.  Nubbins is much crazier – you get the impression that he’s responsible for all of the mutilation-themed furniture and art around the house – but he’s self-aware enough to be deliberately sadistic.

(Incidentally, you also suspect that Leatherface’s masks are also Nubbins’s work – gifts for his little brother.  It would be sweet if they weren’t, you know, people’s faces.)

Leatherface is simply too mindless to be evil.  When you see this huge, powerful man being bullied by a man half his size and many years his elder, you realize that he’s nothing but a big baby.  He kills because that’s how his family raised him to behave, and he understands nothing else.

Then we arrive at the film’s next most infamous scene: the dinner.  Sally wakes up tied to a chair with actual human arms for arms, seated at the Sawyers’ dinner table.  She begs the Sawyers to let her go, they taunt her…it goes on for quite a while.  I suspect that the point here was to make the audience uncomfortable with watching the torture of this young woman, making us see her suffering without giving us any kewl creative killings to distract us.  But really, it just drags.  Most slasher flicks spread their kills out more or less evenly over the course of the running time, and there’s a reason for that.  When you have to pad out the last victim until you reach a reasonable running time, it shows.

Also, the ultra-super closeups of Sally’s eyeball don’t really add anything to the proceedings, but that’s the Seventies for you.  Can’t blame a movie for belonging to its time.

After what seems like a half hour of screaming, begging, and psychotic laughter, the Sawyers have a bright idea: they’ll bring Grandpa down to the meal and allow him to do the honors of slaughtering Sally.  It turns out that what Sally – and we, the audience – had thought to be a taxidermied corpse when she found it on her earlier run through the house is actually a (barely) living man.

The Sawyers assure Sally that her death will be quick: back in his day, Grandpa was the greatest man ever to work a hammer at the local slaughterhouse.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, Grandpa’s “day” was fifty years or more ago.  Sally takes a “lick” to her head that amounts to Grandpa dropping the hammer on her, which is still enough to split her scalp.  However, the Sawyers are so busy trying to help Grandpa recreate his heyday (again, this would be sweet if it wasn’t a murder attempt) that Sally is able to wriggle free and escape.

Nubbins and Leatherface give chase – wait, it’s daylight again?  Did the Sawyers sleep at all?  Nubbins is the faster, since he’s not burdened with a chainsaw, and he slashes Sally’s back repeatedly.  Still, he can’t stop her from reaching the road, and in one of those coincidences that usually work against the protagonist in movies like this, a truck happens along at just that time and runs him down.  Pretty satisfying, really.  Of the Sawyers, he was the nastiest and the most annoying.

The truck driver stops and gets out of his truck…just in time for Leatherface to show up.  Now, in most of this movie’s descendants, the poor fellow would end up as just another casualty.  Instead, when he defends himself by throwing a wrench at Leatherface’s head…it works.  Leatherface is knocked down, his chainsaw falls on his leg and cuts into it, and he screams in pain.

I tell you, having watched all the slasher movies that I have, that was actually the biggest shock in the whole movie.  What a difference from what came after.

Still, he does get back up, and both Sally and the trucker run away.  In another coincidence, a pickup truck happens by and lets Sally jump in the back.  He drives away, and our last glimpse of her is her screaming, laughing and covered in blood, her sanity clearly destroyed by her ordeal in true Seventies style.  Leatherface is left dancing and swinging his chainsaw in frustration (apparently his leg wound prevents him from chasing the trucker, despite the latter still being on foot), and then…the movie stops.  That’s it.  No wrap-up.  No denouement.  Our only hint as to what happens after is in the opening voiceover, which mentions that Sally and friends’ experience is what uncovered the Sawyers’ doings to the world.

My recommendation is for casual viewers to avoid this movie.  This is neither an action-packed thrill ride nor light entertainment for a Saturday night.  For cinema historians or horror fans, I recommend that you watch it once.  Tour a piece of horror cinema history and take a look at the emerging shapes of things to come.  Be prepared for a criminally slow first half.  Also be aware that this will not be the ultimate gore-fest you probably expect.  Chain Saw was harsh for its time, but Saw special effects just didn’t exist.  After you’ve watched it your once, I don’t recommend revisiting it unless you’re initiating another horror-hound…or you have your finger on the Fast Forward button.

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