Deep in the heart of Texas, vandals have desecrated the Muerto County graveyard where the Hardesty’s grandpa is buried.  Sally Hardesty, her endearingly annoying brother, Franklin, and their three friends road-trip to investigate.  They then venture to visit the old Hardesty homestead, only to encounter ominous events along the way.  At their destination, they are forced to confront a brutal butcher as a genetically-challenged family of cannibals, fixin’ for supper, awaits them.  Armed with slaughterhouse meat hooks, mallets, and most notably, the chainsaw, this family of ingrades gives new meaning to “Hook ’em Horns.” 

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Bloody Rundown

A red-blooded American horror masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has spawned remakes, sequels, a prequel, and innumerable knock-offs, and has amassed so much critical analysis and interpretation that Tobe Hooper’s independent slasher is undoubtedly one of the most influential horror films ever created.  After four decades, the discourse continues.  Feminists argue that the film exploits women (a rather dubious consideration as the protagonist is a sole-surviving female); activists concur that the film propagates vegetarianism (indeed, it does offer a compelling case against carnivore diet); and rumors swarm that the film is a true account of Ed Gein (only some aspects of the Wisconsin serial killer served as inspiration to this otherwise fictional horror).  Perhaps the film, which some critics surmise, was indeed a reaction to the turbulent times of that era.  The Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, and the economic crisis of the early ‘70s left the country disillusioned, eroded, and in complete turmoil (this mayhem manifests itself on the screen).  But, carving out the underlying meat of the tale is pointless as the film is totally open to interpretation. 

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Every aspect of the film is indisputably timeless and sadly prophetic, yet nothing is more jarring than its main antagonist.  Tobe Hooper was a pioneer in his creation of an indestructible, barbaric, hard-hitting madman, traits unprecedented for that time.  Before there was Michael, Jason, Freddy, or even Candyman, there was Leatherface.  Clad in a blood-stained butcher’s apron, Leatherface is a chainsaw-brandishing cannibalistic ogre who enshrouds his face in masks made from the human skin of his victims.  (His ensemble entails three different masks: the “Killing Mask,” the “Old Lady Mask,” and my personal favorite, the “Pretty Woman Mask.”)  Leatherface is the embodiment of the grotesque: he is a sweaty, filthy, human monster whose tremendous physical strength and stamina enables him to impale, bludgeon, butcher, chase, and chainsaw away his prey.  There is no reasoning with Leatherface; he only obeys his crazed kin.  He is an aggressive, mentally-impaired inbred who does not speak but rather grunts, groans, and squeals like a slaughterhouse pig.  Gunnar Hansen portrayed Leatherface with such spot-on zeal he should have been an Oscar contender.  (On a side note, actor Gunnar Hansen’s curriculum vitae is highly impressive; he holds multiple degrees and is also a novelist, screenwriter, travel writer, and documentary filmmaker.)  

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The horrid conditions in which this film was made surely enhanced the performances.  With a marginal budget, there were no union breaks, no safety measures, and most horrifically, no air conditioning during the 32-day shoot in the unbearable August heat of Texas.  Marilyn Burns was relentlessly committed in her grueling portrayal of Sally Hardesty.  Prodded, tied-up, gagged, and chased through windows, the prairie, the bush, and the street, in the roasting heat, it was no wonder that the actress was actually injured on the set.  She exudes such intense dread and terror, especially during the scene in which she is guest of honor at the dinner party from hell.  

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All of the performances are authentic, and deserving of accolades, or at least scale pay.  Paul A. Partain’s role as Franklin Hardesty provided much needed comic relief while Teri McMinn delivered sheer panic and agony in her role as Pam.

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With innovative art direction and camera work, the scorching 100-plus-degree heat and rancid stench of meat literally permeates through the screen.  The cannibals are indeed hardcore hoarders; their treasures of biohazard waste are strung from the ceiling and strewn about their absolute pigsty of a home.  Complete with chest freezers, meat hooks, and a slaughterhouse steel door, the home is decorated with rawhides, human skeletal remains, animal bones and feathers, and a pet chicken confined in a bird cage.  The exterior’s rusty junkyard of broken-down cars, presumably those of previous victims, is just as appalling.  Still, that does not deter the characters as they each, like a lone cow lost from its herd, head toward the wasteland of rotting human flesh.

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It is extraordinarily impressive that most of the cast and crew were students and recent graduates from the University of Texas; they were neophytes who mastered the ultimate gem of an American horror.  Like the decomposed corpse displayed in the Muerto County cemetery, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a most “grisly work of art,” and will be regurgitated and discussed for another forty years to come. 

Plot Mutilator

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre begins with John Larroquette’s narration warning the audience that the film is based on a true story.  Snapshots of a decaying body from the crime scene are then shown with the notorious screech of the camera’s flashbulb. The film takes place on August 18, 1973 when a radio announcer reports a local story about the grave the robbing and desecration of a dozen bodies in the cleverly named county of Muerto.  Sheriff Jesus Maldonado, according to the reporter, declined to specify on the “grisly work of art.”  (Oh, the irony!)  The reporter then announces the chaos befalling the nation.  Sound bite after sound bite, he relays news stories of suicide, homicide, fatal accidents, a cholera outbreak, a poor economy, burning refineries, and high gas prices—not unlike the news of today. 

Sally Hardesty, and her brother, Franklin, along with three friends, travel to ensure their grandpa’s grave has remained unscathed.  They then decide to drive to the old Hardesty homestead, and, along the way, they pick-up a vagabond hitchhiker.  He tells them both his brother and his grandpa were former employees of the old slaughterhouse, and that his family has “always been into meat.”  The hitchhiker then takes a Polaroid and asks for payment.  At their refusal, the hitchhiker burns the photo and grabs Franklin’s pocket knife.  He then cuts both himself and Franklin.  The group kicks him out of the van and then drives to the nearest gas station, as they are nearly out of gas.  The owner tells them the pumps are temporarily out of fuel, but offers to sell them his homemade Texas barbeque.  When they ask for directions, he tries to dissuade them from visiting the homestead, assuring them that his pumps will soon be refueled.  They do not heed his warning.  Still, before they set off, the owner manages to sell them his barbeque, which may or may not be human meat. 

At the homestead, which is dilapidated and cluttered with cobwebs and bones, Franklin tells the group about a nearby creak for swimming.  Pam and Kirk depart only to find the swimming hole dry, but they then follow a distant sound of a generator at a neighboring house.  In hopes to find gas, Kirk enters the unlocked house, while Pam remains oblivious in the yard on a swing.  Leatherface appears, blugeons Kirk, drags him into the butcher room, then slams the infamous stainless steel door. 

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Shortly thereafter, Pam enters the home and calls out for Kirk.  As she trips and falls in the living room, she takes in the horror of the macabre décor.  When she gets her bearings, she runs out the door, but in quick succession, Leatherface clutches her.  Leatherface impales Pam on a meat hook, forcing her to witness the dismembering of Kirk. 

At dusk, Jerry searches for the couple, leaving Sally and Franklin with the van.  He meanders through the house of horrors and into the kitchen, perplexed.  As he hears thumping from a chest freezer, he opens it to find Pam still alive.  Leatherface emerges, and quickly kills Jerry and then shoves Pam in the freezer.

Sally and Franklin have a tiff about searching for their friends.  Franklin wants to wait with the car and the flashlight.  He reluctantly follows his sister, but finds his intuition to be correct as Leatherface slaughters him with a chainsaw.  And that was just the first half of the film.  The second half is even more unrelenting as Sally is chased, tortured, and terrorized. 

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The torment is exhausting.  Sally is chased inside the house where she discovers the decomposing bodies of an elderly couple in the upstairs bedroom.  With Leatherface on her tail, Sally jumps out of the window and runs toward the gas station.  The deceitful owner prods her with a broom, ties her up, and drives her back to the house where Grandpa, Leatherface, and his brother, the hitchhiker, await at the dinner table.  Grandpa is goaded into killing Sally with a sledgehammer, but he is too weak.  Chaos ensues and Sally is able to flee.  She jumps through yet another window as the hitchhiker and Leatherface chase her to the road.  A truck driver runs over the hitchhiker and stops to help Sally.  Leatherface chases them until Sally escapes into the back of a passing pickup truck.  The fate of the truck driver, however, is unknown.  The film ends with Leatherface flinging his chainsaw in horror.  The moral of the tale:  Don’t Mess with Texas.       

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Deadly Details

Director ∞ Tobe Hooper
Producers ∞ Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper, Jay Parsley,
     and Richard Saenz
Screenwriters ∞ Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
Narrator ∞ John Larroquette
Music ∞ Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper
Cinematographer ∞ Daniel Pearl
Art Director ∞ Robert A. Burns
Editor ∞ Larry Carroll and Sallye Richardson
Studio ∞ Vortex
Distributor ∞ Bryanston Pictures
Release Date ∞ October 1974
Running Time ∞ 84 minutes
Country ∞ USA
Language ∞ English
Cast
Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty 
Allen Danziger as Jerry 
Paul A. Partain as Franklin Hardesty 
William Vail as Kirk 
Teri McMinn as Pam
Edwin Neal as Hitchhiker 
Jim Siedow as Old Man 
Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface 
John Dugan as Grandfather 
Robert Courtin as Window Washer 
William Creamer as Bearded Man 
John Henry Faulk as Storyteller 
Jerry Green as Cowboy 
Ed Guinn as Cattle Truck Driver 
Joe Bill Hogan as Drunk 
Perry Lorenz as Pick-up Driver 
John Larroquette as Narrator