Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #6
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: October 1, 1974
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $30,859,000
Running Time: 88 minutes
Director: Tobe Hooper
Producers: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper, Jay Parsley, Richard Saenz
Screenplay: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Narrator: John Laroquette
Special Effects: Dean W Miller
Cinematography: Daniel Pearl
Score: Wayne Bell & Tobe Hooper
Editing: Larry Carroll, Sallye Richardson
Distributor: Bryanston Studios, Universal Home Entertainment (UK VHS)
Stars: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Allen Danziger, Paul A Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, John Dugan, Robert Courtin and Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface
Suggested Audio Candy
Wayne Bell & Tobe Hooper “Soundtrack Suite”
I wish to start by making one thing unmistakably clear. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the most despicable, mean-spirited, rotten hunk of celluloid that I have ever had the outrageous good fortune of being subjected to. That’s a compliment in case you’re wondering. That’s right, you can forget about child’s play like The Last House On The Left and I Spit on Your Grave. They may well be reasonably accomplished movies in their own right, but both were culpable of displaying more than enough ineptitude to cancel out a lion’s share of the good work done. That simply isn’t the case here.
Hooper’s film explores humanity at its most inhumane, which leads me to a rather delightful piece of Texas trivia, in the attempt at raising our spirits before speaking of its wretched inhospitable nature further and this one should give you a kick. The working title for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie whose name alone can strike fear into the hearts of lesser mortals, was actually … drum roll … Head Cheese. I swear I’m not making this shit up, the most infamous slab of festering exploitation to emerge in the seventies almost ended up bearing this ludicrous mantle. Can you imagine it? Doesn’t quite have the same harsh ring, does it? Even The Texas Head Cheese Massacre would be pushing it. Thank the heavens above for prevailing logic and also Tobe for supplying me one helluva belly laugh. God knows, they’re thin on the ground here.
Hooper has had a decidedly chequered career in film-making to say the very least. For every Poltergeist there’s been a Crocodile, and few of his works have been held in the same lofty regard at his sophomore full-length outing. Take Lifeforce for example. By all accounts, it is just as much of a cataclysmic mess as many critics would have you believe, although it is also a truly masterful B-Movie deserving of so much more than the indifference it received. That is an emotion which doesn’t come into play with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you either love it or hate it and, even if you opt for the latter, you secretly still love it. How could you not?
Occasional missteps aside, one thing that nobody can take away from Hooper is that here he supplied horror enthusiasts with the most taut and nerve-jangling movie experience in many of their existences. The idea actually came to him in a bustling hardware store whilst trying to work out the best way to navigate the crowds. He looked up, spotted the chainsaws, and the rest is cinematic history. One would imagine that he then passed the cheese counter on the way to the checkout. Anyhoots, put simply, this film was more menacing and brutal than anything else I watched during my filmic development. Perhaps most remarkable was that it did so almost entirely without the need for bloodshed.
Its brutality lies solely in what you deduce is happening behind that rickety sliding door. It comes from a brief glimpse of that rusted meat hook and the conclusive twitch of one of its butcher’s hapless victims’ death nerves. It also comes courtesy of the seemingly endless chase scene in which Marilyn Burns gives such a tangible account of being truly fucking horrified because she is truly fucking horrified. Not only that, but it then has the sheer audacity to force us into laughing from very the pits of our stomachs mere moments later. With our hearts still thumping furiously in her chests, she runs into a kindly gas station attendant and ends wearing a burlap sack over her head as he pounds her across her head with a blunt instrument, while telling her it’s all going to work out fine, all the while grinning like a deviant. Priceless.
The real horror we are exposed to lies in the director’s cut which our mind’s eye conjures and no two versions of events will ever be the same as they depend on each viewers’s interpretation. Me? I dropped acid for the first time at sixteen and since then my mind goes wherever it damned well pleases whether I like it or not so, needless to say, I’m sitting at the table opposite gramps, pounding my cane incessantly whilst screaming “where’s my cake Bedelia?” Hold on, wrong film. Somebody pass me the bucket and hammer. My point is this, when I close my eyes, it’s the goriest movie in existence. Amusingly, Hooper was originally striving for a PG rating. That blistering hundred degree plus heat must have got to him.
Predictably, there have been numerous sequels, prequels and reboots along the way, each attempting to expand on the grimy universe depicted here and with wildly varying levels of success. Some have actually worked out rather well (Jonathan Liebesman’s superior prequel The Beginning) and others not so (Kim Henkel’s shamelessly bungling Next Generation) but one thing is true of all these pretenders. They can never hold a candle up to the original and I state that, not to be pompous and arrogant. I simply deal in truths.
The less we know about this ungodly place, the more distressing the thought of being cooped up there. I struggle to grasp how it would feel to stumble into the bone room (complete with dangling teeth mobiles), hearing that sliding door promptly opening behind me, or waiting for gramps to get a better grip on his hammer and give my crown a well-placed dig. It is the material from which sleepless nights derive and anyone who knows me will be aware that I’m actually relatively easily scared if the correct approach is taken. Moreover, I openly encourage any resulting night terrors.
Hooper used a lot of improvisation during his shoot and made life a living hell for all of his cast. As a result, he wasn’t particularly popular but, as unorthodox as his approach may have been, just look at the results. Take Sally Hardesty for example, he would never be able to coax the performance he did out of her if she wasn’t beside herself with authentic blind terror. While I’m sure Burns eventually forgave him, I’m also convinced that she would have been traumatized her months after shooting wrapped. Teri McMinn also endured a considerable amount of pain in the sake of art as she dangled excruciatingly on the meat hook with nylon cord between her legs throughout her character’s ordeal.
For any Texas virgins patiently waiting for a plot synopsis, I regret to inform you that you won’t find one here. There are plentiful sources for those who wish to know the plot and the title really does sum it up to perfection on this occasion. If Hooper had stuck with Head Cheese, then perhaps I would have been more inclined to elaborate; but the less you know the more you stand to gain. In the thirty plus years since my primary Texas outing, only one film has had anything like the same impact and that is Srđan Spasojević’s A Serbian Film. When you consider that Hooper’s film landed in the early seventies, it is actually every bit as debilitating and that is some claim.
So to my final thought and the point I wish to make may surprise any technology freaks amongst us. It is now available on Blu-Ray with a superior transfer and looking as crisp as though it has just been shot. While that is well and good, I still prefer watching its grainy original print. For a film that relishes in its raw depiction of unbridled human angst, it just feels more authentic. Having said that, I would implore you to experience the restored version if you can take the relentless mental anguish a second time. Daniel Pearl’s cinematography really comes into its own here and every solitary strand of jade green Texas grass stands out defiantly against the brilliant azure skyline.
Whatever way you view it, one thing is for damned sure. It may not be particularly bloody and, indeed, was never officially banned, despite any reports to the contrary. But it sure as shit ain’t no PG movie. In my mind, which I hasten to add relinquished all innocence the moment I first slid its cassette into my VHS toploader, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still very much the original video nasty and still every bit as distressing now as it was back in 1974. You could even say it has matured like a vintage cheddar, Head Cheese if you will. I knew there was a reason why I’m so fond of dairy.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: First, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. For a film bearing the word Chainsaw in its title, it is ironic that the only visible contact comes right at the end and is hilariously inflicted by Leatherface on Leatherface. Having said that, two hapless victims are bludgeoned to death, one impaled on a meat hook, and another obliterated by an eighteen wheeler. Without a shadow of a doubt this is right up there with the very meanest-spirited of exploitation flicks despite there boasting barely a single drop of blood for its entire duration. This attests that the most telling factor is the feeling you get deep in your knotted abdomen whilst watching. All the decapitation and disembowelment in the world can’t compare with that particular sinking feeling.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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