Examination : The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973)

By : Doc AKA The Sadistic Surgeon


Every horror movie buff and their grandmother, and their neighbors, and their next of kin has written countless articles on the original Texas Chainsaw TheTexasChainSawMassacre-posterMassacre. But it’s become such a legend, that it never seems to get old. The year was 1973 when Tobe Hooper produced what would become an iconic masterpiece, setting the standard for years of slasher films to come. Many would pay tribute to, but few would succeed in recreating the waves that this one film made across the world. Viewers swore up and down that the marketing they saw was real – that the events of the movie had really happened. Critics proclaimed it the “scariest horror film of all time” … People walked out of theaters when it was first shown. Yet by today’s standards, the film contains hardly any gore, little graphic on screen violence, and is relatively tame compared to the exploitation and torture pornography films that are coming out of the extreme indie film world. So what makes Texas Chainsaw hold its own among countless other abundantly more extreme movies that are out there? How did this one film survive this long?

The synopsis of this film, for those of you who have the gall to call yourselves extreme horror film enthusiasts without having seen this movie (stop reading and go watch it now, then come back) – is fairly simple. Five teenagers including Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her invalid brother Franklin (Paul Partain), her boyfriend Jerry, (Allen Danziger), and additionally, Kirk and Pam (William Vail and Teri McMinn) are on a pleasant summer afternoon drive Leatherface200across Texas. Reports are that grave robbing has been taking place, and the teens are heading out to the graveyard to ensure that one of their family members has not been disturbed. En route they decide to go visit an old house owned by the Hardesty family. One by one they wander off on to the property of a cannibalistic family, including a 6 foot 4 mentally retarded killing machine named Leatherface…..

Texas Chainsaw Massacre teaches a few very important lessons in horror film making. The first, and probably the most important contributor to the film’s effectiveness is the use of implication rather than graphic on-screen violence. For example – the scene in the Sawyer kitchen where the character Pam meets her untimely fate on that iconic meat hook. The camera never actually shows metal piercing flesh. The viewer’s mind fills in the blanks. So one would conclude that what is in the mind of a person watching a movie such as this one is far worse than what is really happening on screen. Many modern horror films seem to have forgotten this simple principle.

The second contributor to the legacy of this trend setter in slasher film making is the sparse use of gore. There is hardly any blood in this movie. Again though, we go back to the use of implication. Everyone claimed that Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the bloodiest horror film they’d ever laid eyes on. When in TCMTTGoreality there was maybe only a few cups full of blood on the walls, on the characters costumes, etc.

The third point to touch on is the use of black comedy in the script. Has anyone ever noticed that beyond the bloody slaughterhouse like atmosphere of this film lies a script that’s really almost kind of hilarious when you listen to what the actors are saying?

The final contributor to the success of this movie lies with the actors themselves. Namely Gunnar Hansen, who has come to be known as  the grandfather of slasher horror movie villains.  Or at least a very senior member of the founding brethren of slasher movie villains. For a guy that was working as a non-fiction writer, and just decided that doing this movie would be “something fun to do” – he sure got more than he bargained for. According to Kim Henkel, who wrote the original film,  Leatherface was written to be a severely mentally retarded man, who had absolutely no personality behind the mask he was wearing. Killing and that chainsaw was hard wired into him – but he wore different masks depending on who he was trying to be at that moment – in the movie there were three masks. The “Killer Mask” – which he wore from the beginning up through the dinner scene. Then there was the “Grandma” mask, which was used from about when the Cook and the Hitchhiker arrive back at the house to the actual dinner scene. Lastly there is the “Pretty Woman” mask, which is worn from the dinner scene to the end of the movie.  One thing leather-faceto note about Leatherface is that unlike today’s horror movies, his kills weren’t sexually motivated, nor were they inspired by rage, or hate. To Leatherface, the humans that came around were just more cattle going to slaughter. We note his almost confused frantic actions – running around the house wondering where all these people are coming from, even as he slaughters and prepares them for evisceration in his kitchen.  The other members of the family support this monster of a villain – giving voice and thoughts to a wordless killer.

Everything about this movie was ingeniously simple. Many horror movies that have come out recently have attempted to follow this formula. Some have succeeded. Others have  failed miserably. But it goes to show that in this genre, the mechanics of the grotesque, disgusting world we live in through that camera lens is simple. All we as viewers, directors, writers, filmmakers have to do is be willing not to over complicate it.

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