The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

USA | 1974 | Directed by Tobe Hooper

Logline: Whilst on a visit to a relative's old house several friends become victim to a strange, murderous family from a nearby property.

“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

One of the most influential modern horror movies ever made, Tobe Hooper’s seminal nightmare continues to shock and amaze audiences with its raw and oppressive atmosphere, its grotesque imagery, and its emotionally visceral tone. Made on the smell of a blood-soaked rag and delivered like a baptism of fire, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre celebrates its 40th anniversary with a 4k digital restoration and inclusion in the 61st Sydney Film Festival (including a special late night Friday Drive-In presentation in Sydney’s western suburbs).

The movie demands a big screen screen viewing, even though it was only shot on 16mm. It is a cinema master class in narrative efficiency, editing, sound, score, and most importantly, nightmare mood and tone. Hooper had made the firm decision for his second feature to make the subject matter the star, and so, with his screenplay collaborator Kim Henkel, they devised a scenario inspired by the true crimes of the notorious Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a necrophile and cannibal.

None of what happens on screen is true, except some of the art direction of the Sawyer family’s home that includes armchairs made of human bones (Ed Gein had a penchant for that kind of interior decoration), but the movie’s presentation exudes an authenticity that makes one’s skin crawl. The low-budget ingenuity, combined with the unctuous shroud of sweat and grime, adds spitting fuel to the nightmare fire.

Originally called Leatherface, then Head Cheese, finally the simple, yet staggeringly effective title The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Yet, only one person is killed with a chain saw; the others are either bludgeoned by sledgehammer or hung on a meat hook. Curiously, Hooper was intended on getting a PG rating (?!), but no amount of cutting back on the on-screen moderate violence could get the MPAA to approve a general exhibition. What was Hooper thinking?! The movie was simply too intense for anything but an R.

Indeed, one of the movie’s extraordinary features is just how little graphic violence is actually depicted for a movie of its intent. Only John Carpenter’s Halloween comes to mind, bearing a similar intensity through minimalism, and another landmark modern horror. Hooper's "violence" is in the cinematic sub-text; the camera angles, the use of sound, the suggestion.

Plucky Marilyn Burns plays Sally, one of the all-time great scream queen final girls, her ordeal reaching a fever pitch during the protracted and incredibly macabre scene in the Sawyer family’s dining room. It is this interior sequence – along with the first reveal of the Sawyer family’s ivy-covered homestead – that lingers long and hard in the mind. The extreme close-ups of Sally’s petrified green eyes should’ve been used in the movie’s poster campaign.

From the disturbing opening montage, flash-photographing the crime scene of the grave-robbing, to the final images of a blood-streaked, hysterical Sally huddled in the back of an escaping ute, whilst an enraged, mentally-retarded freak swings a roaring chain saw around and around in the burning haze of a Texas sunset, Tobe Hooper’s lean, mean killing machine will remain deeply etched in the annals of modern horror history.

 

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre screens as part of the 17th Revelation - Perth International Film Festival, Saturday 12th July, 11:15pm, Luna Cinema.