What is there to say about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (TCM), Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece about murderous hillbillies and their attack on a group of isolated youths? The film has been endlessly studied since its release, not to mention fawned over and pointed to by scholars, film buffs and famous directors as being one of the most influential entries to its respective genre. I’d like to say that I have discovered a new angle, a novel approach to critiquing it. I’d love to say that this is the review to end all reviews, which will prompt you to not only reevaluate TCM but perhaps life itself. Unfortunately, I can’t say any of these things. I don’t have a novel approach. That’s not because there isn’t one out there, but because I don’t have an original thought in my stupid fucking head.
But I’m not going to let that stop me. Here we go with the review:
The film opens with a group of young people driving in rural Texas. This group includes Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn), Jerry (Allen Danziger) and brother and sister Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and the wheelchair bound Franklin Hardesty (Paul A. Partain). They are on a trip to investigate reports of grave robbing and visit the old Hardesty homestead. The countryside they pass through is grim, barren and impoverished. The nation outside of Texas also seems chaotic and hopeless, with radio broadcasts alluding to extreme violence and catastrophes happening across America.
The one maxim that governs Hooper’s film is that aesthetics are all important. The film is long on mood, its sense of apocalyptic dread established through images of exhumed corpses; blazing suns; and sprawling stockyards filled with dirty, sad-looking livestock. This imagery is paired with a jarring sound design, complete with innovative effects like flashbulbs, farm animal squeals, and something that sounds like a scraping razor blade.
Conversely, it is light on characterizations – but this is by no means a negative. The primary cast of youths are strikingly banal, little more than bodies to be sacrificed in this tale of horror. But unlike the countless films that have come out since TCM, they also have an archetypal charm. You understand and accept their utilitarian function. They are also goofy and moronic, like a batch of dopey puppies that keep tripping over their own paws.
The film’s antagonists are marginally more detailed and provide some expository details. The first one is Nubbins Sawyer (Edwin Neal), a wiry, maniacal lunatic the youths initially meet while he is out hitchhiking. Nubbins is a terrifying presence, and he provides one of the few windows into his perverse family’s background as former slaughterhouse workers. Then there is Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow), the proprietor of a grimy old gas station the youths stop at that also serves BBQ that may be composed of human meat. Drayton acts as a pseudo patriarch of the family and is often shown bullying the other members.
Finally, rounding out the main hillbilly cast is Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), a giant, cognitively impaired, cross dressing villain who wields the titular chainsaw. Leatherface is probably the most weirdly sympathetic of the hillbillies. It is obvious that his family exercises complete control over him and that, when he kills, he is acting out of fear and confusion as much as malice.
Although largely attributed as being a trailblazer of the slasher film genre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a marvelously restrained movie, with little gore ever shown. Hooper’s preoccupations seem far more concerned with building suspense and drumming up anxiety. Early scenes with the character of Nubbins, for example, are brimming with tension and the possibility of violence. This feeling continues later when the youths stumble upon the hillbillies’ house, which is filled with signs of madness like a room bursting at the seams with bones and feathers. Of course, later this restraint goes away, and the effect is unbelievable. The film’s climax contains one of the most frenzied and protracted depictions of violent insanity in any American film.
Working with only a paltry $300K budget, director Hooper must be given massive credit for creating an apocalyptic vision in such a singular and assured way, especially considering that TCM was only his second film. Everything about the production seems specific and intentional, designed to throttle viewers into becoming immersed in the story’s primal conflicts. One example involves the sparse use of music, which perfectly augments the power of specific events. Another is the film’s aggressive editing, which elevates moments of terror into full nightmare territory. Additionally, while the film’s story is about as basic as it can be in terms of what actually happens, the film is thematically rich, alluding to diverse topics like post-Vietnam malaise, vegetarianism, industrial capitalism, energy anxiety, the dichotomy between rural and urban America and the breakdown of the nuclear family.
These themes have already been talked about at great length by thinkers and writers that make me look like a little kid trying to mingle with the grownups. Nobody would be served well by me trying to add something to the dialogue, so I’ll close this out by simply pointing to how well the film balances its horror and complex themes with comedy.
The film’s comedy artfully defuses the sense of pessimistic brutality that pervades the screen. It gives viewers much needed reprieves from the overwhelming bleakness and helps prolong their investment.
The hillbillies are funny and, at times, even a laugh riot. Some of this simply has to do with their thick southern accents, not to mention the lip-smacking glee they display as they toy with their prey. The humor also is derived from the way the film embraces the terrifying ridiculousness of its premise. The fully realized nature of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s topsy-turvy world makes it feel like anything can happen, and this gives it a humorous freedom and a weirdly evil sense of joy not present in many of the boorish genre films that followed it. It perfectly balances out the film’s objectively serious elements and never detracts from Hooper’s totality of vision. Instead, it enhances how powerfully he uses his medium to investigate the horrific side of the American experience.