THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE - the title in itself has more name power than any other film in the world, correlating it with cannibalistic depravity and macabre imagery.
Many people couldn't tell you the films that were Oscar nominated this year, but they recognize every time the infamous five word title that strikes an ominous power-chord into everyones psyche.
The majority of the crows associate blood and gore alongside TCM, when in fact, it contains very little blood and hardly any gore at all. I guess you could call TCM guilty by association, (after all, it does have the words 'massacre' and chain saw' in the title) but allot of people who typecast it haven't really watched it without taking off their blinders.
The film as a whole is more psycholigical than anything, with the power of suggestion being one of its cornerstones. Once the ball gets rolling, everything is delivered to us in a slapdash sort of way - pouncing on us like an overweight cat and smothering us in its furry presence.
TCM is a film of bad karma, laced with a potency of bad luck and abnormal circumstances. The whole film deals with altered luck and how a reaction of events can ultimately lead to a defining point in ones life. In this case, it was a few people's last defining point, but one survivor, 'Sally Hardesty' (played marvelously by Marilyn Burns), fights and defeats the prerverbial monster, albeit bruised and mentally scarred - left in a hysterical stupor from the torture and depravity she endured.
The monologue at the beginning of the film (read by non other than Dan from 'Night Court) overshadows any hope we have stored up for our characters, giving us evidence that 'four of them were never seen again'. Not only has John Larroquette's somber narrative dampened any good spirits we had going into the film, now a hopeless anchor settles deep in our abdomen like a greasy cheeseburger.
On a hot Sunday afternoon in August, 1973, five youths travel down a blistering Texas highway in a Ford van, en route to Sally and Franklin's granddad's graveside. It just so happens that they're in fear of it being desecrated in a recent hash of grave exhumations, and decide to check it out along with their friends. Jerry pulls the van onto the graveyard area where local cowboys tailgate and barbecue, sharing stories and getting drunk at the expense of the grave robbings, quietly enjoying the whole thing in some Freudian sense or another.
Sally, her boyfriend Jerry, his friend Kirk and his girlfriend Pam, jump out of the scorching van, leaving Sally's handicapped brother Franklin inside to bake. A cowboy whisks Sally off to her granddad's grave and Franklin sits, staring out the side door of the van. An old slobbering drunk catches Franklin off guard. He's tanked off his feet and rolling around the grass like a rabid German Shepherd, all the while, gurgling some mad drunkards speech of how "things happen there...things they don't tell about". The cinematographer (Daniel Pearl) does a magnificent job with the camera. He lowers the camera down on the drunks level, perched in this weird angle as the drunkard delivers his 'everyone thinks I'm crazy, but they'll see!' jargon.
It doesn't take a cinematic genius to figure out that this now systematic scene is of importance. There's this 'we're getting somewhere now' sensation that nestles firmly in the back of our mind, delivering gloom and doom by the truck load. Joe Bill Hogan (who plays our gloomy drunk to a tee) actually looked like he had consumed a keg of beer (by himself) before his performance, giving the term method-acting a whole new meaning.
From this point on, the element of luck plays the hidden star of the film. The production crew also capitalizes on just the right approach by giving us an almost documentary-like 'tangibility'.
Franklin is sort of bothered by the drunk's macabre tale of hinted gravesite mischief, but, at least grandpappy's grave was still intact (and he still had on his best duds). Everything seems to be ok, so off they go - to brave the blistering Texas highways once again.
Knowing first hand of the heat, Sally suggests picking up a hitchhiker they see in the distance. Pam, being somewhat weary of the idea from a head full of astrology, argues that "he's weird looking" and that they should just pass him by. One of the guys swears, "he'll asphyxiate out there", and they pull over.
We learn from the get-go that the hitchhiker has never won a beauty contest in his life - and when he fell out of the tree of weirdness, he obviously hit every branch on the way down. His greasy hair and dirty features jump out at you. Edwin Neal does an excellent job with his portrayal of the hitchhiker. He approaches his character with so much depth that it's hard not to take our eyes off the screen as he freaks everyone out by just being his insane self. His mannerisms and lanky features peel away any comfort we usually attain from understanding what we're seeing is just fantasy, but his distinct theatrical charm is morphed into a heinous cesspool of chemical imbalances and eccentricity. To put it plainly, the guy went on a trip a number of years ago and never made it back.
It's discovered that the hitchhiker is heading south, and that he had hitchhiked from the old slaughterhouse the crew drove by a few minutes before, holding their noses in disgust from the rancid smell. It just so happens that the hitchhiker and his family come from a long line of cattle killers, as he boasts proudly of his brother working at the slaughterhouse. Franklin and the hitchhiker soon strike up a conversation regarding the new way of killing cattle. Apparently, the hitchhiker prefers the "old way - with a sledge". See, he says they supposedly "die better that way". Franklin also declares his love for meat products and doesn't seem to pay attention to the fact that he and the hitchhiker enjoy the subject of meat just a little too much.
The tension starts to subside just a bit while mentions of headcheese and various meat concoctions become the subject of discussion. In some sort of comical, but somewhat disturbing way, everyone but Franklin and the hitchhiker are grossed out by their meaty mentionables, and quickly suggest changing the subject. All that talk of slaughtering cattle and slicing meat must have made the hitchhiker strike a boner. He grabs Franklin's pocket knife from his hand and begins slicing his own meat, so-to-speak. He cuts a huge gaping gash in his own palm and simply hands the knife back to Franklin - as if cutting a piece of thread off his jeans. No big deal. Needless to say, the crew is bewildered. I guess SHOCKED would be a better way to put it.
The atmosphere jumps the hurdle as things go from semi weird, to downright dangerous in a matter of seconds. Everyone is as silent as a whore in church on Sunday morning, the only sounds being the wind and the metallic creakings of the van traveling down the open road.
To make a long story short, the hitchhiker had a few more tricks up his sleeve, which left Franklin with a burned photo of himself and a slashed forearm by the hands of our deranged road-walker. The hitchhiker, during the chaos caused by torching Franklin's picture with gunpowder, pulls a strait razor from his shoe and gives Franklin a gash of his very own. The crew muster enough gall amongst all the confusion to physically push the hitchhiker out of the van, leaving him once again to roam the highway in the blistering Texas heat.
Wouldn't you know it? Keeping in line with the steady stream of altered happenstance, they just happen to be getting low on gas and pull into an old gas n grill. Come to find out, the owner is out of gas and the transporter won't be by until the next morning. Again, we have another link in the seemingly bizarre chain of events that have riddled the group from the start.
It just so happens that their grandmother's old place is close by, but the gas attendant gets kind of ancy when Franklin mentions it. He assures Franklin that the girls wouldn't want to go messing around the old house, trying to coax the kids into not visiting the dilapidated abode. The crew pay for their barbecue and jump back in the van. We all know that they should have listened to the old gas attendant, but if they had, I'm sure there wouldn't be a massacre in Texas at all now would they?
We get a long distance shot of the van pulling into the overgrown driveway of the abandoned house. A foreboding piece of music subtly sustains in the background, adding to the atmospheric development maintained throughout its current running time. When everyone gets out, they notice that the hitchhiker smeared blood on the side door upon his hasty exit from the van. Jerry refers to the smear as the "mark of Zorro" - his joke seeming useless and ill fated. Everyone decides to go inside the old house, leaving Franklin outside chewing on raw sausage and cleaning up the blood.
Everyone is making the most of it except Franklin - laughing giggling, exploring the old house, not worrying about their impending dooms. Franklin, who insists that if he has anymore fun today, he just ain't gonna be able to take it, sits all by himself downstairs, sulking at the crew. To tell you the truth, I don't blame the guy. At the beginning of the film, he rolls down a hill while trying to urinate in a coffee can. He then gets his arm sliced in half by a crazy hitchhiker before getting his picture blown up with gunpowder. Not only that, everyone else gets to walk around on their own two legs and have fun while he sits idle in his wheel-chair.
Pam and Kirk are getting restless and want to go swimming. Franklin mentioned something about an old swimming hole before, and the couple want to check it out. He tells them there's a trail between two old sheds - they heed Franklin's directions, but are disappointed to find the swimming hole all dried up. Kirk hears a generator in the distance and puts two and two together. He acknowledges the fact that where there's a running motor , there's usually gasoline near by. He devises a plan to pay the people for some gas and leave them his old guitar as collateral, but Pam wants to turn back. Like most men, Kirk doesn't listen.
In a nutshell, Pam and Kirk don't make it back. They run into a slight problem that involves a sledgehammer and a meat hook. I hate those types of problems (especially when I'm either splatted in the head with the aforementioned sledgehammer until going into convulsions, or hung on a meat hook from the meaty muscle of my back, writhing in pain and breathless from the over-abundance of hurt). They incidentally run upon an old two storey house full of bones and feathers in search of gasoline, and die gruesome deaths. During this portion of the film, the title manifests itself in the form of a giant bohemeth, donning a bloody apron and someone else's face!
Something that elevates the atmospheric level of TCM is the fact that it's broad daylight. This adds an extra layer of realism to the macabre events we've been witnessing. In reality, people are murdered in broad daylight everyday, and Tobe Hooper uses this ingenious idea to capture every ounce of realism he possibly can.
Back at the van, Franklin, Sally, and Jerry wait and wonder where Pam and Kirk are. They should have been back by now. Jerry finally insists on doing the manly thing and goes looking for them. We all know it's curtains for Jerry as he stumbles upon our old two storey house. Let's just say that he has a splitting headache and can't make it back.
Sally and Franklin are becoming quiet frustrated. It's now dark and neither Pam, Kirk, or Jerry have made it back to the van. A damp blanket of dread covers the entire viewing space, immersing the viewer into the lonesome world of our stranded soon-to-be's.
Franklin literally looses it for a moment and repeatedly honks the horn for their missing friends. This makes Sally even more frustrated as we start to feel the feeling of sibling rivalry rear its ugly head. There's a load of tension between Franklin and Sally as we can almost feel their helplessness try and carve itself through the dense Texas night. Sally wants to go look for the missing members, but realizes she'll have to go alone. There's no way she can push Franklin's wheelchair down the dry bumpy terrain. Franklin won't have any of that. He insists that he's going to go and tries to hoard the flashlight. Let's be real, a paralyzed man in the dark, (especially after the strange events, and the disappearance of their friends) isn't exactly safe. I'd want the damn flashlight too.
Finally, Sally gives up and tries to push Franklin's huge frame along in their search for the guys. She grunts and groans, but isn't making much progress. Franklin hears something and shines his 'sun-gun' around in the bushes. Sally tries her best to push, but it's no good.
This scene is quiet simple in its purpose, but what explodes through the thick Texas darkness are sweaty, gritty, almost painful levels of dread and anticipation. Hooper walks the fence and goes for the gusto by giving us normal circumstances and letting them play out in real-time fashion. Franklin again hears something and shines his light upward, this time, it landing on the barbaric face of a hulking maniac.
The ambiance is literally pulverized by the instant start of the chainsaw. Thick blue smoke funneling from the exhaust of the two-stroke McCullough lingers in unison with Franklin's screams, as Leatherface cuts him to pieces.
He chews up the landscape (literally) with his raging smoking extension, with the mind shattering buzz of the chainsaw tearing up every ounce of hope we have left for our remaining character. Sally looks in disbelief upon this macabre giant, decked out in his butchers apron and mask of skin. She screams in sheer terror as she watches her brother die a horrible 'chainsaw death'.
The now infamous chase scene is as close to terror without actually living it as you're going to get. Daniel Pearl follows along gracefully with the camera, as Tobe Hooper delivers vital direction that fittingly leads to one of the most terrifying scenes in horror movie history. What's so remarkable about the 'chase scene' between our chainsaw-welding psycho and little ole Sally is the length thereof. Sally runs in desperation, flailing her arms wildly and gaining a scarred and battered frame for nearly five minutes. Another note of importance is the excessiveness of the whole thing. Hooper gives Sally an extra dose of wanton horror and shoves it in our faces by having her run through painful thorn bushes, knocking herself silly on a tree branch and ultimately jumping through a window and pummeling two stories to the hard ground below.
I would imagine that during it's initial release when audience members actually walked out on screenings, the chase scene was one of the scenes that they decided to call it quits on. A simple, yet interesting point is that Leatherface goes straight ahead. He doesn't turn off his chainsaw and hide behind a tree to throw us off as would Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers. He doesn't weave around the darkness in a stealth-like shell only to pop up at that 'everything's alright now' moment and tear Sally a new rectal opening. He proceeds, running and laying the gas to his high powered killing instrument, shelling out the energy and leg power to stay fresh on her heels - not walking casually behind.
Sally is eventually naively taken hostage and brought back to the house for what cult film fans refer to as 'the dinner scene'. Sally experiences all sorts of delirium and terror from our crazed family of cannibalistic freaks - captured brilliantly by large close-ups of her disgruntled eyes and sheer looks of helplessness and insanity. She's sweaty, bruised and bloody - and the way things look, just so happens to be the main course. Sally screams consistently, delivering an audible irritation that entwines with the blaring soundtrack, assaulting the senses. The lunacy displayed by our family of goons as Sally sits helplessly tied to a chair, seems to seep from the television screen and leave a quagmire of psychological trauma on our living room carpet.
They just don't shoot them like this anymore, folks. The intensity and sheer believability of our villains as they act like maniacal overgrown children in pursuit of authority, really gives us something meaty to sink our teeth into. Not only do we have good direction, good scenery, a great soundtrack, and wonderful camera work, we have a distinct type of acting you just don't see anymore. They deliver their lines with such realism that one don't comprehend them as just being actors with lines, on a production, with cameras and lights following their every move. They seem adjacent to the film - almost like it's being captured from some perverse soul on an old 16mm home movie camera.
To put it lightly, I appreciate every single performance from all our portrayed characters. Whether it be Edwin Neal making grotesque faces and howling like a madman while Sally wriggles helplessly in her chair, or our deranged cook poking Sally in the ribs as she's curled in the floor board of his old beat up truck, or seventeen year old Jim Dugan made up as an old man sucking the blood from Sally's fresh cut while closing his fists and kicking his legs like a baby sucking its bottle, they give it their best shot.
There's no watered down dialogue or contemporary teenagers sporting bikini clad garments, bubble braining their lines, looking cool even when they defecate. We're subjected to a relentless, raw and riveting docu-style film that delivers in the realism department. I can assure you there was no green room or bowls of M&M candies (with the brown ones removed), sitting on a buffet style table in an air conditioned parlor The cast and crew of TCM 'roughed' it, so-to-speak, giving horror fans nothing but a pure treat.
Leatherface has become synonymous with the grande old horror film. Mention the name to people and it automatically strikes a chord of fear deep inside their bones. He certainly wouldn't be Leatherface without his old McCullough chainsaw - an extension of himself that does the talking for him. His true identity is never truly known throughout our viewing experience. He hides behind the smoke of his long barred chainsaw and the skin of someone else's face, giving him the persona of a faceless, genderless, emotionless, killing machine - who murders by no rhyme or reason.
Jim Siedow, (who portrays the cook with psychotic perfection) adds allot of Texas flavor to the film. He looks like your average blue collared middle aged man, striving to make a business in our dog eat dog world. His character is a couple of layers thick, giving presence to a number of individuals inside himself. He dishes out his lines with know how and makes himself a gift to watch. Sadly, he passed away in Nov of 2003 in his 80s.
Another main player from TCM also passed away recently. Paul A Partain, everyone's favorite whiny paraplegic, should also be commemorated for his realistic and down to earth performance as Franklin. Be honest guys, when Franklin gets ousted, it's hard not to break down in one of those grand mal crying fits and wail his name.
The good memories expressed from the remaining cast and crew overshadows any form of sadness one feels for our fallen actors, leaving us with a bit of hope the film itself deprived us so skillfully of.
There's very few films that can deliver all forms of emotion and hand them to you in a big gravy bowl the way TCM manages to. Hooper reaches deep down inside us, tugging at the very diagram of horror, slowly grinding and chipping away until our bare nerves have ultimately mylenated.
If terror and suspense in the bucket-loads is what you're after, spend a quaint Sunday evening with our deranged Texans to get that true horror fix you're craving. You'll find that this film goes further than just lights, camera, action.
female:1 / male:4
1) Male hit over the head with sledgehammer
2) Female hung on meathook and dumped in freezer
3) Male hit over the head with sledgehammer
4) Male cut up with chain saw
5) Male run over with truck