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The Great American Horror Movie

Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

We could be here all day arguing over what else deserves the title. Some would opt for any of the three other Four Horsemen of '70s horror films: Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, or Phantasm. Others might point to Psycho or Night of the Living Dead. Still others might go further back to the classics of Universal horror -- Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy -- the usual suspects. Some neophytes may even point to A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Silence of the Lambs. And all of those obviously merit inclusion in the horror canon. But for this lifelong horror fan, the top spot has to go to Tobe Hooper's 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now, some may laugh at the juxtaposition of "masterpiece" and Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the same sentence. But for me there's no juxtaposition at all, because that's what it is. Compared to Chainsaw, just about everything else is -- to use Joe Bob Briggs' charming phrase -- "indoor bullstuff." If you don't believe me, just ask Stephen King: "Cataclysmic terror...I would happily testify to its redeeming social merit in any court in the country." Or even Rex Reed, in one of the few times in his career he really got it right: "The most terrifying motion picture I have ever seen."

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced an enduring icon of fear in Leatherface (only twice is he referred to as such in the film, though Leatherface was one of the movie's working titles, along with the hilarious Head Cheese). A monstrous figure in his blood-spangled apron and masks fashioned of human faces (he wears three different ones in the film), Leatherface oddly is the closest thing to a sympathetic character in this rather prickly and hostile narrative. At first he seems hulking and powerful, but when we meet his brothers -- the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who at least has the freedom to come and go; the Cook (Jim Siedow), who lords it over his siblings as if he were their surrogate father -- we see that Leatherface is actually the least powerful entity in this particular family dynamic. He seems to fear the Cook's wrath, and he doesn't seem to take much joy in the family's shenanigans; the Cook piously declares that he himself "just can't take much pleasure in killin'," but later shots of him enjoying the pain of captive Sally (Marilyn Burns) put his nobility in question. Leatherface seems simple of mind and heart; he does what he does merely to serve and protect his family.

As played by writer and poet Gunnar Hansen, Leatherface has a strange vulnerability and sensitivity he lacks in the sequels, where the directors just hired big guys who matched the description. Hansen's incoherent babblings (sometimes he makes pig sounds, other times he approximates chicken clucking, as if identifying with those poor animals slaughtered for food) and frantic movements are a far cry from the silent-but-deadly Michael Myers, the bad-ass hockey-masked Jason, or the Borscht-belt prankster Freddy Krueger. Watch Chainsaw enough times and you begin to suspect that Leatherface really would rather not be doing this. If the bones-and-remains gizmos throughout the house (designed by Bob Burns, ingeniously) are his work, then Leatherface has an artistic soul, and if born into another family he might have made paintings and music. But he was born into this family, and must go into the family business.

Chainsaw is the war between one family and another -- the surrogate family of five young people ("hippies," we're tempted to say, except that the wheelchair-bound Franklin isn't really hippie material) taking their van through Texas to look into some local grave desecrations. We meet the aforementioned Franklin (Paul A. Partain), his sister Sally (Burns), Sally's boyfriend Jerry (Allen Danziger), and their friends Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail), also a couple. We spend some time with them in the van and learn nothing especially penetrating about them: Pam is into astrology, Franklin is a bit tough to take (Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel steadfastly refuse to make him better than the rest of us just because he's in a chair -- Franklin's disability has turned him into a whining, disagreeable little fuck, or maybe he would've been one even with the use of his legs), Sally has fond memories of her childhood in her granddaddy's house but not much fondness for her here-and-now family Franklin, and Jerry and Kirk are almost completely interchangeable. (It's amusing that Jerry and Kirk meet exactly the same fate -- death by Leatherface's sledge -- as if God couldn't tell them apart.) This isn't a movie that thrives on character development. That's because there are no formal protagonists. We are introduced to one group of people first, so we are led to identify with them, and when they are placed in danger our instincts as moviegoers lead us to want them to get away from the threat. But really Hooper takes no special steps to endear these five people to us. We're in there in the sweltering van with them, and, due to the much-heralded documentary feel of the film, we feel we're one of them. It's a tactic later used, to far lesser effect, in The Blair Witch Project, which like Chainsaw cast its young protagonists as not unlike the movie's audience.

The first family member we meet is the Hitchhiker, a stammering creep who cuts himself, shows off photos of cattle he slaughtered ("I was the killer!"), sets fire to a picture of Franklin he's just taken, and slashes Franklin's arm -- all in the space of a few minutes. Even before he does anything, though, Edwin Neal's self-disfiguring performance (his involuntary grimaces make it look like his teeth take up half his face) fills the van with a haze of dread. It's as if the humidity and the combined ill feelings of the people in the van had somehow collided and formed this creature of illogic. The Hitchhiker has some sort of mark (burn? scar? birthmark?) on his face, suggesting warpaint; he looks like a scraggly Indian warrior driven mad in battle. He may be taken as a rebuke to the comfortable youths in the van, who have the luxury of poring over astrology books and debating about whether or not to eat meat. The Hitchhiker comes from a world where you either smack cows on the head with the sledge ("The air gun's no good," he scoffs at the more humane method Franklin proposes) or you don't eat.

Then we meet the Cook (or the "Old Man," as he's named in the credits), though at first he just seems to be a harmless gas-station attendant with a small barbecue pit on the side. (He certainly doesn't seem to be making much money from pumping gas, since he doesn't have any to pump -- or so he says.) Have any other Chainsaw fans wondered what the deal is with the other gas-station attendant -- the one who keeps rolling his bucket over to the van and soaping the windshield? Does he just work there? Does he know how his boss really makes a living? Anyway, the Cook appears to supervise the family; there's a Grandpa but no mention of a Pa, so there has been some confusion among viewers as to whether the Cook is one of the brothers, or their father. Hooper, on the audio commentary on the Chainsaw laserdisc and DVD, said "He was meant to be one of the brothers," so that settles that; however, since the Cook is so much older, and given the general dysfunction of the other two, the suspicion arises that the Cook could be their brother and father.

Lastly, of course, we meet Leatherface, about whom I've spoken before. Together the four family men (if you count Grandpa) form a tight unit -- almost, you could say, a metaphorical quartet. And no, this isn't going to be the sort of essay that insists the cannibal family was really Hooper's statement on what we were doing in Vietnam. I'll leave English-major interpretations -- all equally valid, all probably also equally far from what Hooper actually had in mind -- to those who dote on them; besides, such pre-chewing of the material dissuades the viewer from making his or her own connections. I will agree with the commentators who have noticed the strong class-conflict subtext, as well as the tenor of the movie itself that suggests it couldn't have been made at any other time but the early '70s -- not like this, anyway. Yet, oddly, none of the old Southerners berate the youths for being longhaired hippies; the youths, in turn, are not snotty hippies who look down on the hicks. Hooper doesn't need to manufacture conflict; it's there in our gut-level feeling that these kids don't belong here. "You boys don't wanna go messin' around no old house," says the Cook, a sly Southern-style update of the old horror-movie warnings of evil places.

The Cook is the most presentable of the three cannibal brothers; he's the only one who can plausibly get out there and work a real job. In reality, he falls somewhere between the Hitchhiker and Leatherface, between manic glee and remorse; Hooper talks about the Cook's "schizo" nature, and indeed we see him flip-flop between sadism and compassion and back again, sometimes several times in the same scene. Jim Siedow has the voracious grin of a Martin Landau or a Milton Berle, one that can look either reassuring or wolfish, and the more you watch Chainsaw the more you appreciate Siedow's performance -- and the less you understand the Cook. Sometimes he seems like the (relatively) sane center of the vortex of the film's last act; other times he's jumping up and down with joy as the decrepit Grandpa tries to whack Sally with the hammer. You can't pin him down, and you don't really want to; besides, any character with such solid priorities in the midst of a crisis ("Look what your brother did to the door!!" he bellows in one of the movie's most beloved moments) has to be taken on his own terms.

At the time, Hooper did not know the name Ed Gein, though he had heard stories about Gein's exploits from family members in Wisconsin (Ed's headquarters). He decided, essentially, to make a movie about "a family of Ed Geins"; only two years later would he recognize that this was what he had done. So Chainsaw stands shoulder to shoulder with two other horror classics -- Psycho and Silence of the Lambs -- that wouldn't have been possible without Gein's indirect influence. (There was a fourth, 1973's Deranged, which I haven't seen but have been curious about for years; reportedly it stuck closer to the Gein legend than any other film until 2001's Ed Gein, which at this writing has just been released in Los Angeles.) The solemn narration, infamously delivered by a young John Larroquette (whom Hooper told to sound like Orson Welles), tells us that what we're about to see was real. This is playful bunk, just as the "Based on a true story" line at the start of Fargo was. No matter, though; what we're about to see feels real enough. You can just about smell the body odor, the beer, the barbecue, the gasoline of the chainsaw (and of the generator, which we hear in the distance and assume to be a chainsaw). In the delapidated old house that belonged to Sally's grandfather, you get itchy all over looking at the spider-infested walls and dusty floors -- credit once again to Bob Burns, who knew how to rough up a room so that it looked realistically atrocious, not set-designed. Then there are the sounds -- the nagging roar of the chainsaw, of course, but also the assaultive soundtrack (by Hooper and Wayne Bell), composed of discordant power-drill noise, clashing cymbals, freak-out deep-bass thrumming, and other sounds heard nowhere else on Earth. (This soundtrack was industrial before there was industrial music; it also predated Alan Splet's work on Eraserhead by about three years.) Chainsaw engages all your senses like few other films in or out of the horror genre.

Everything leads up to the celebrated dinner scene, which I believe to be the most brilliantly sustained sequence of agony and terror ... well ... in any movie ever. Undoubtedly it gets on your nerves and stomps them flat, exactly as it was designed to do. The scene was filmed in a stifling, stinking house whose temperature hit 125 degrees, over a period of 27 straight hours with occasional breaks for fresh air and vomiting. The hell of shooting the sequence found its way onto the celluloid; the atmosphere of pain and craziness cannot be faked, and was not. Everyone in the cast and crew suffered, but Marilyn Burns should be everyone's hero for what she endured; compared to her exertions, the trials of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween were a cool glass of lemonade. Knees bashed, throat hoarse from shrieking, her finger sliced for real by an out-of-patience Gunnar Hansen (as he sheepishly admits on the DVD's audio commentary), Burns was pushed past her physical and emotional limits; Oscars are routinely handed out for far less. Instead she was rewarded with constant close-ups of her torment, as if the camera were taking surreptitious quick sips of her blood, sweat and tears. Editors Sallye Richardson and Larry Carroll really earned their paychecks here, crafting an expressionist collage of madness out of wide eyes, screaming mouth, leering dinner hosts. The technique is aggressive, but you never question it; it is absolutely organic to the moment.

When Sally finally breaks free and crashes out into the daylight, it's as if she has awakened from a nightmare that still insists on pursuing her. The Hitchhiker and Leatherface give chase; given many chances to catch the slow and hobbling Sally, the Hitchhiker opts to tease her by running just inches behind her. Ironically, it's a truck that sends the Hitchhiker to hell; Leatherface's advances are deflected by a man of equal size -- a black man, which could mean anything or nothing -- and Sally hops aboard a pick-up truck, laughing uncontrollably as the threat of Leatherface recedes into the sunrise. This, we feel, is not happy thank-God-I'm-alive laughter but simply hysteria taking a different form -- she won't ever be the same again.

Leatherface, meanwhile, is left alone with his chainsaw and his frustration. The crazed pirouette he does with the saw never fails to bring a catch to my throat, not because it's particularly saddening but because it is so unaccountably beautiful. Cinematographer Daniel Pearl, all of 23 at the time and fresh out of film school, did his best work in Chainsaw with the mysteries of the sun -- this is mainly a movie of well-lit horrors. Here, with an almost silhouetted Leatherface whirling frantically against a red and angry sky, Pearl locks in what could very well be an image to represent all horror movies -- the beast raging against element and fate, unconsciously creating art with his body and weapon, the dance and music of terror. This shot, I am willing to say for the record, is the greatest parting shot of any film in its genre, and high on the top ten list of final shots in any genre. Not bad for a shoestring flick about a family of cannibal crackers.

By rote and footnote, I should mention the mostly egregious Chainsaw sequels, the first of which was prepared by Hooper's own hands, proving that lightning of this sort rarely strikes twice. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, from 1986, is alternately disgusting and incoherent; the latter isn't entirely Hooper's fault, since he was denied final cut by Cannon, which took whole scenes out (including a bit by Joe Bob Briggs). Tom Savini's chunk-blowing gore effects were trimmed to near-nonexistence; the movie was threatened with an X anyway and had to go out unrated, spelling box-office death. This time around, the happy cannibal family enters a chili cook-off (guess what the secret ingredient is?) and faces off against gutsy DJ Caroline Williams and vengeful uncle Dennis Hopper. Some frightening moments, some funny bits, but still a cloddish, unnecessary sequel lethally unsure of its tone. Hooper seems to be trying way too hard to top himself and every other horror director of the mid-'80s; didn't he understand that part of the genius of his original was what it didn't show? Here we have people's heads sawed in half, people skinned with electric carving knives and still alive, people forced to wear fresh and bleeding human skins -- who wants to look at this? With Jim Siedow returning as the cook, Bill Johnson as Leatherface, Bill Moseley as the new character Chop-Top (apparently in Vietnam during the original), and Ken Evert as Grandpa. Notice how the recent MGM video reissue packaging (at right) makes it look as if Dennis Hopper is the star, suggesting that he's part of the (newly named) "Sawyer family." That's shameless; what kind of Chainsaw video doesn't have Leatherface on the front of the box?

Following in 1990 was Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III -- finally, a Chainsaw movie harking back to Hooper's original title (if the filmmakers had any sense of history or humor, they'd have called it Head Cheese). Considering that it seems to have had a chainsaw taken to it, both at the rewriting stage and during the final editing, it's not terrible. Much of it is well-acted and capably directed (by Jeff Burr). A lot of screenwriter David Schow's good ideas didn't survive the scrutiny of the suits behind the production; with them intact, this might have been a shocker to rival, or at least be worthy of, the original Chainsaw. As it is, enough of Schow's snappy dialogue remains so that we care whether the protagonists (Kate Hodge and William Butler) live or don't. R.A. Mihailoff makes an imposing Leatherface, though his new "family" isn't as memorably loony as the Hitchhiker or the Cook. As Benny, the heavily-armed hero who dukes it out with Leatherface, Ken (Dawn of the Dead) Foree is more than welcome, and Hodge can scream with the best of them. There's almost no gore, but that's not because the director wanted the movie to be merely suggestive (as Hooper did in his original); as with Chainsaw 2, you're painfully aware of the bloody scenes that were cut (thus disrupting the flow of the editing) to secure an R rating. Some important plot points appear to have been snipped, too. One character, a shell-shocked survivor of a Leatherface attack, is briefly introduced at the start and then drops into the movie halfway through with no fanfare. When Foree asks her, "Who are you?" we say, "Good question." (Perhaps the longer cut of the film -- there are bootleg tapes of it floating around -- is a bit more help.) Nothing great, but worth a look; Leatherface's new saw (with the inscription "The Saw Is Family") is cool. Probably the least annoying of the sequels, at any rate.

Then, in 1994, came The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This pathetic fourth entry in the series was shown, probably shamefacedly, at a few festivals and then shelved until 1997, when it got a limited theatrical run to capitalize on the success of its stars, Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey. Until then, die-hard Leatherface fans (like me) had to track down bootleg tapes struck from the Japanese laserdisc. I can't imagine anyone thought it was worth the effort or the wait. Return makes the previous two sequels look like Citizen Kane, and is little more than a pale Xerox of the first movie's plot. The saddest part is that Kim Henkel, co-writer of the original, is fully to blame for this mess. (The pompous trailer, as found on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre DVD, announced the movie as "the real sequel." Right.) It's fitfully amusing because of Zellweger (as the shy heroine Jenny) and McConaughey (as the sadistic, hee-hawing Vilmer, one of the new chainsaw clan) in most undignified pre-stardom roles. (Both stars, trying to be nice upon the film's '97 release, said they had fun doing it.) Their scenes together are the only watchable moments, largely because they're about the only ones who can act; Toni Perenski, as Vilmer's crazy girlfriend Darla, is easy on the eyes and shows some wit before she's reduced to being pushed around. But for the most part you stare at the screen and wonder how anybody involved thought this could possibly have been any good. Henkel throws in some sort of X-Files subplot involving aliens (?!) to explain the exploits of Leatherface and his family; it makes about as much sense as anything else in the movie. Of interest only to Zellweger fans curious to see her in a torn prom dress, waving a shotgun and spitting F-words at her tormentors. With Robert Jacks as Leatherface, re-imagined here as a chainsaw-wielding Divine. The version released in '97 was cut from 94 to 84 minutes (reportedly removing all inferences that Zellweger's character has been sexually abused by her father) and retitled Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (as per the video-box art at right, which is the best thing about the movie; it suggests a female Leatherface -- now that would've been an interesting, if daffy, tangent to go off on).

As for the 2003 remake, the less said, the better.

But I mention these only to acknowledge their existence. To me, Hooper's original Texas Chainsaw Massacre exists in a stratosphere all its own, above and beyond any sequels or attempts to recapture the magic. You can write a script involving Leatherface and a chainsaw, and give him several fresh bodies to tear up; but the original film isn't about that. It's about heat and stench and madness. It's about when it was made, and the conditions in which it was made. You can't duplicate that, nor should you want to. In the summer of 1973, a bunch of crazy Texans got together and went for the throat. Unless you're willing to shoot for 27 hours in a rancid-smelling, 125-degree house, you can't hope to catch the vibe of grubby desperation that makes this movie truly unsettling. For a brief time, cast and crew really entered this world, and really felt this way. David Lynch and David Cronenberg have reported similar experiences on their first films -- becoming immersed in the realities they were creating -- and maybe such subjugation to the material is only possible on a low budget, when the fatcats with the money aren't breathing over your shoulder and you're left alone to occupy the zone between art and exploitation.

Hooper himself has not repeated his brilliance -- not in his Chainsaw sequel, and not in his other films in the 27 years since. He came close in the televised Salem's Lot, using his skill at suggestion and misdirection to craft some genuinely creepy moments; the most memorable bits of Poltergeist (erroneously and harmfully attributed to executive producer Steven Spielberg), such as the bothersome clown doll, came about as close to the irrational terror of Chainsaw as any big-budget summer fantasy could. But mainly it's been a bumpy and dispiriting ride, from the cheeseball self-ripoff of 1976's Eaten Alive to the off-the-radar dreck of the '90s (Spontaneous Combustion, I'm Dangerous Tonight, The Mangler). In 1993, Hooper did do some first-rate work -- a segment of the John Carpenter-supervised anthology Body Bags. Hooper's bit was titled "The Eye," and as a baseball star who receives an eye implant from a serial killer, Mark Hamill (yes, him) gave the performance of his life. "The Eye" throbs with the hunger of two guys, Hooper and Hamill, pulling out all the stops to prove they didn't peak in the '70s; the result is a remarkably upsetting short film wallowing in fear and loathing -- not unlike Chainsaw, come to think of it. So Hooper does still have it in him, and maybe he doesn't even have to sweat in a smelly room for 27 hours to do it. Even if he never fully equals Chainsaw again, though, Hooper can and should rest assured that he shepherded a classic -- a movie that, according to me and some others, is The Great American Horror Movie, and, to others, is at least up there in the top ten. No number of Spontaneous Combustions or The Manglers can undo that.

Most of the images accompanying this article come from the Chainsaw fan site The Saw Is Family.