More noise than signal

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

The only film on this list deemed so horrific that it was banned in the UK, becoming one of the small band of “video nasties” that were surreptitiously passed around as many-generationed VHS copies from the one shop in the region that imported a laserdisc in the mid 80s before the BBFC belatedly came to its senses. It seems particularly egregious in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s case, but we’ll get to that.

After disturbing reports of graverobbing that may affect their grandfather’s burial ground, Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) return to their old hometown to investigate. Along for the ride are their friends Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn), further planning to take a jolly jaunt up to the Hardesty’s old homestead.

The initial signs that things are about to get really strange in the backwoods come, well, firstly from the weird old geezer sitting in a tyre, but the first hints of danger come from a goofy looking hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who starts lamenting the (arguably) more humane methods of cattle killing at the local slaughterhouse, much preferring the simplicity of battering the cows with a hammer rather than this newfangled bolt-gun to the head idea, or the Chigurh method as I believe it’s called.

After Franklin refuses to purchase an unasked for polaroid, the hitchhiker slashes out at Franklin with a pocket-knife, leading to the freak being ejected from the campervan. They use the last of their petrol to continue on to the now dilapidated old home, despite the warnings of the apparently kindly old petrol-less petrol station owner (Jim Siedow), and set about exploring the surroundings. Kirk and Pam go off in search of a nearby swimming hole, only to find it as dry as a bone. They do however hear a generator in the middle distance, and hoping to buy some petrol from them, I guess, they head towards the ominous shack, Kirk entering only to be greeted by the hulking Leatherface (the splendidly named Gunnar Hansen) and a crushing blow to the head.

And so begins the congaline of the damned, as one by one they try to investigate where the other members of their party have gone only to find the beast that’s the reason for their disappearance, and the creepy, bone-strewn home he lives in. It seems like Sally may be able to escape after a daring dive through a second story window, but it transpires that the petrol station owner she pleads with for help is the father, I assume, of both Leatherface and the disturbed hitchhiker who returns for the final act, and he recaptures Sally for a very uncomfortable family meal along with their surprisingly not-dead, given the state of him, Grandpa (John Dugan).

Now, certainly in the UK, given its prohibition, the reputation of this film very much precedes it. It was held up as the apex of nasty violent horror, so it’s surprised me when finally watching this sometime after its debanning in 1999 to find that there’s almost no explicit violence in the film at all. Director Tobe Hooper has cleverly shot this such that, I think with the exception of one vehicle/manflesh interface scenario, the only on-screen violence is one minor knife wound and that bloodless, mid-to-long shot of a boy getting stop-hammer-timed.

You might think you saw Franklin being sliced and diced with a chainsaw, but actually, you didn’t. You might think you saw Pam being impaled on a meathook, but you actually saw someone standing on a box in front of a meathook saying, “Oh dear, how frightfully inconvenient this meathook impalement is. I shall most certainly miss my luncheon appointment with Abernathy.” That might have been the Kensington Chainsaw Massacre, actually.

Anyway, this is not to downplay the violence in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, explicit or implied, which is essentially the point of the film, Hooper reflecting the cold, graphic, heartless coverage of the outcome of violence both domestically in news footage and from Vietnam with the act of violence in the film, and unwittingly set the template for every slasher film that followed it, each upping the ante until we’re left with something like blood drenched annoyance Hostel.

Unquestionably, this is worth watching for the shadow it cast over every slasher film that followed it, and it’s a masterclass in effective low budget filmmaking. I do not, however, find it remotely scary or threatening in this day and age, perhaps a result of me coming to this significantly later in the day. In fact, I find much of this film unwittingly hilarious. Bar maybe the incessant whining of Franklin, I’ve no real issue with the victims, particularly Marilyn Burns who’s as good at screaming and looking scared as anyone I’ve seen, but the things she’s reacting to creates an unintended humorous juxtaposition for me.

While the masked Leatherface is a looming, monstrous presence most of the time, the lengthy scenes of him chasing Sally through the woods swinging a chainsaw just begs to be speeded up slightly with Yaketty Sax played over it, and Edwin Neal and Jim Siedow’s final act gurning is so over the top that it’s halfway through no-man’s land, getting blown up by a German landmine. True slapstick, however, ensues when Grandpa is given the honour of attempting to kill Sally with a hammer, which would be worthy of any Buster Keaton routine, were it not about attempting to kill someone with a hammer. The Korean Buster Keaton, perhaps.

So, comedy gold, for me at least. If it’s thrills and spills you’re looking for, and you’ve become accustomed to the gratuitous, explicit violence the genre’s devolved into it’s going to be tough to take this seriously. It’s historical footprint, however, does mean that this warrants viewing, but more as a historical artefact than an instrument of horror.