There’s a healthy discussion on the genesis of the 80s slasher. Some fans point to John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, which jumped the curve by a few years. Others say there would be no HALLOWEEN without Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS, from which Clark liked to claim Carpenter heavily borrowed. Still others look all the way back to 1960’s PSYCHO, and claim Alfred Hitchcock created the whole subgenre. But for my money, I say it’s Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Though made for almost no money and meant for grindhouses and drive-ins, the flick set the template for much of what Sean Cunningham and countless others would take to extremes a decade later. It’s also a lot of fun to watch, because it’s one crazy movie.
A bit of history: I’d never seen TEXAS CHAINSAW before my buddy John “Brando” Gibbons got it on DVD in 2000. My whole knowledge of the franchise came from viewings of CHAINSAW 2 on cable in the late 80s, and commercials for LEATHERFACE, the third installment, in the early 90s. Oh, and the footage that shows up in the Mark Harmon flick SUMMER SCHOOL, which gives away the entire ending (which, out of courtesy, I won’t). I’d heard so many conflicting opinions on it that I was eager to give it a shot, especially because I loved the second entry so much. Brando told me I would hate it. So we watched. And I told him something that blew him away. I told him I loved it.
After John Larroquette’s voiceover warns of what is to come, intercut with takes of black, a camera flash illuminates different angles of a corpse. Transition to five friends, who pull over to the side of the road so paraplegic Franklin can take a pee, which doesn’t work out for him so well. They arrive at the cemetery, so Franklin’s cousin Sally can make sure her dead relative is still buried. On the road, they pick up a whacked out hitchhiker, who has a thing for straight razors, head cheese and photography. He slashes, Franklin, and they toss him. Within the first 18 minutes, this flick has gone off the rails crazy, and it hasn’t even gotten into its plot yet. With this first act, TEXAS CHAINSAW steps out from the hundreds of other grindhouse junk flicks of its day, creating a nutzoid personality that made it noticeable in the low budget exploitation field.
The best thing it does early is establishing characters. The Hitchhiker is like some 60s acid trip meets redneck sensibility, all gone terribly wrong. Pam is into astrology. Sally is the airy blonde, burdened by Franklin (I’ll get back to him later). Terry is the hippy that drives the van, and Kirk is the handsome wiseass. Deep characters by no means, but they feel real enough. These are decent kids on their way to visit Franklin’s dad’s family home, but they’re really headed into the heart of hillbilly Hell.
The set design and cinematography also sell the flick. Art director Bob Burns does wonderful stuff with piles of bones and feathers, taxidermy experiments gone wrong, and in one scene, rusty cans tied to a tree branch. DP Dan Pearl has a lighting style that is both realistic and downright creepy. His use of light and shadows is impressive for such a low budget affair. Hooper includes lots of zooms and camera movement, and captures some profoundly unsettling things on film. CHAINSAW looks like an ugly, grimy cheaply made affair made for drive-in theatres, because it is. But that only adds to its charms.
Several paragraphs in, and I haven’t even discussed Leatherface yet. He’s a brawny, brutal man child, exactly the guy you wouldn’t want to run into in rural Texas. His twisted family dynamic, of which the film only gives a slice, has turned him into a gender-confused cannibal hulk with the education of a first grader. Gunnar Hansen does a fantastic job as Leatherface, combining his bulk with childlike movement. He’s good with a hammer and a meat hook, but best with a chainsaw naturally. I judge slasher flicks on the slasher and the kills, and Gunnar doesn’t let me down.
As for the kills, there aren’t nearly as many as you might think. I dig them, especially because they use weapons one would find on a farm in Texas. And though they use a lot of instruments both sharp and blunt, I was astounded at how the kills are relatively bloodless. CHAINSAW got an R rating, but the last 10 years much of TV violence makes this tame by comparison. If it were released today, in a world where HANNIBAL was on network television, it would probably do no higher than a PG-13.
The best kill of all is Franklin. From the moment he’s peeing in a jar and rolls down a hill, Franklin begs for the audience to beg for his death. He whines about everything, including but not limited to: the heat, the trip, feeling neglected, feeling unwanted, Sally’s need to find Terry… ugggghhh. The list goes on and on. Sure he’s wheelchair bound, but he’s such a whiny dick that even his handicap didn’t elicit my sympathy. But hey, actor Paul Partain should be proud, as Franklin is part of Death Ensemble history: he’s the force behind my Law of Annoying Characters’ Pleasing Deaths. Of course, I’m sure he’s somewhere in Slasher Hell whining about that too.
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is a solid slasher, but it’s more important for what it set in motion. Foremost, it’s ground zero for the “teens headed out into rural country on a trip that goes awry” template, responsible for such diverse flicks as HOUSE OF A THOUSAND CORPSES and WRONG TURN. The secluded location would become a standard in slashers, as would the unrelenting psycho chasing behind an innocent teen. The “final girl” concept, so prominent in slashers, begins right here. So much of what we know from slashers, we owe to Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel.
What fascinates me most, and I posit is the reason it’s accepted as a classic, is the family dynamic in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. The final act of the film revolves around family dinner at the kitchen table. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean that a bunch of cannibals gather to eat Sally Hardesty. From the outside, this is the epitome of depravity. But to them, it’s bonding over a meal. It’s The Donna Reed Show gone insane, with Leatherface dressed up like a woman, the Hitchhiker mimicking poor Sally’s screams, and the rest of the family ready to eat. Jim Siedow is brilliant here—even better in CHAINSAW 2— as the head of the household, and I’ll never forget the line, “Look what your brother did to the door!” He’s the reason I love the first two flicks, and though he would be replaced with other family members in later installments, his absence sorely affects them. Though his character states it in CHAINSAW 2, the original’s keynote becomes clear during the dinner scene: “The Saw Is Family.”
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE could’ve turned out like so many forgettable drive-in terrors of its day. But Tobe Hooper’s first film leaped straight from those drive-ins into the rarified air of a slasher classic. Leatherface is the Big Daddy of slashers, and he’s earned his place not only atop the pantheon of slasher, but as the very first inductee in the Hell of Fame. PSYCHO, HALLOWEEN and BLACK CHRISTMAS all have their merits, but they all owe a debt to TEXAS CHAINSAW. And Brando, I still love it.