The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974]

Certificate: 18
Running time: 83 mins
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Edwin Neal, Gunnar Hansen, Allen Danziger
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Country: USA

It’s the last week of the term, the last week of Hixploitation and it’s the ultimate Hillbilly Horror film.  Director Tobe Hooper’s true classic see five friends on a road trip amidst a spate of grave robberies in the pan handle as they stumble upon a family of cannibals and one very memorable man, Leatherface.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues on from The Town That Dreaded Sundown’s theme of being part of a cinema of trauma.  Chainsaw Massacre, being set in 1973, sees five friends, three males and two of which are able bodied travelling across the South of America in a camper van.  The relevancy of the two able bodied College kids is an interesting one as they have managed to avoid the draft.  The Vietnam War wages on and, the contemporary Hollywood movement is under way and therefore cinema is perfectly primed to reflect on physical and psychological trauma.  Psychologically to deal with the issues born out of the very fresh Vietnam War would be too emotionally damaging, the trauma is displaced and set against a smaller, more personal conflict that allows for further and brutal interrogation.  The physical assaults on the well to do “City Folk” by the working class men of the South is a retaliation for the notion that never before have so many with so little have fought so hard for so few who have so much.  The working class brutalisation of the upper class is a strike for balance.

It’s remarkable that, when made, Tobe Hooper was aiming for a PG certificate.  In his mind with the films lack of sex, minimum use of profanity and restricted depiction of physical violence that it was a shoe in for a low certificate.  In peeling back from the presentable Hooper has made the trauma, the horror, the fear intensely psychological.  The opening sequence with the fatty corpses is a reminder, if needed, not to watch the film while eating (a rule that I had forgotten about recently).  Hooper’s lingering camera is uncomfortable in a way that has means you only have yourself to blame.  Hooper, at least in Chainsaw Massacre, is a counter intuitive director and this aspect is fascinating.  There are moments in the film were you expect him to draw the audiences eye in, to present them with a close up.  You expect it when the gang kick the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) out of the camper van, you expect it when Pam is placed on the hanging meat hook and is forced to watch Kirk’s fate but rather than present the audience with an obvious horror, one of instant gratification and fear, Hooper’s camera keeps it’s distance and in doing so not only forces the audience to capture the close up in their minds eye but also highlights just how alone, distant and helpless they truly are.  His use of framing and light is exemplary and is never showcased better than Leatherface’s pursuit of Sally from the house through the surrounding woods and to the gas station.  It’s the use of controlled lighting that leaves the audience scanning for details, in the way you would if you were in fact in the dark.

The script is tired, it leaves little room for surprise and when Hooper says he came up with the idea for the film when he was in a hardware store looking at chainsaws in the sale that he probably came up with the entire script as it’s simple.  It’s simple but still beautiful.

The cast are, as you would expect in a low budget horror, William Vail (as Kirk), Allen Danzinger (Jerry) and Teri McMinn (Pam) are all solid performers but aren’t given a great deal to operate with as their character development is minimal as we’re not to get too attached to them.  Paul A. Partain (Franklin) is probably the most interesting character of the five, he comes across as awkward, slightly autistic perhaps, childish and resentful.  He’s also more than a little annoying a whiny.  It’s an interesting portrayal of someone with a physical disability, it speaks of the period in which the film was shot (pre disability charter) but most interesting and perhaps depressingly it's a depiction that hasn’t changed a great deal in four decades with regards to helplessness and asexualisation.  Marilyn Burns (as Sally) gives a realistic and heart felt performance, though if she could keep the screaming down she might have stood a chance of out running Leatherface.  Of all those involved in the film she is the one that the audience develops a connection with, it’s instantaneous and lasting.  Gunnar Hansen is sadly the biggest casualty of the film.  As Leatherface he is mesmerising, frightening and subdued.  Remarkably his level of untheatricality makes the character even more memorable and like Anthony Perkins this good work is probably the reason that Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Brutal Massacre : A Comedy and most recently Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre are the cliff notes of his acting career.  The true star of the film is Hooper, he is remembered for several horror films but for my money this is his one true masterpiece.

Subscribers of the Cahiers du Cinema’s Auteur theory will be familiar with the idea of Auteur and of a directors signature, equally as important is Cahiers classification of a Mettre un Cine.  One of the most famous Mettre un Cine’s is Michael Curtiz who, for the most part, made enjoyable but un-unique cinematic offerings with the exception of one masterpiece.  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is Hooper’s Casablanca, a terrifying and brutally psychological Casablanca that almost forty years later is still as fresh and fantastic as it was when it was released.  Truly terrific, truly terrifying.


Judka said...

Great review! I guess I'll have to watch it again haha :D

John Baxter said...

Thanks Judka, I take it you didn't like it. Sometimes I over think movies, I give them more thought time than I do most people.

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