In August of 1973 a horrific crime was finally uncovered. It was one that had baffled and terrified the authorities for quite some time. People had been reported missing, corpses had been found with pieces removed, but it wasn't until that fateful day in that frightening year that the true horrors of Leatherface and the rest of the Sawyer family was finally uncovered in the case that has come to be known as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre!
We've all heard the stories, we all have heard how it really happened and if you grew up in the South like I did, you were probably haunted by the tales of "that mean old butcher".
But there's just one little puzzle piece to this story I've left out... it's fiction.
That's right... most of you astute readers out there know that The Texas Chain Saw [sic] Massacre never happened in any way, shape or form. Yeah, sure, a ton of us know somebody who knows somebody who knows where it "really happened" and knew someone who lost a relative or friend in these horrific crimes.
Because it happened in Newt, Texas or Poth, Texas or Childress, Texas or some suburb of some rural town off some rural route, etceteras, etceteras, etceteras.
Hell, I even had one reader contact me to confirm that I was totally wrong and that while writer director Tobe Hooper based his little film on the crimes and times of Ed Gein, apparently Hooper didn't really think to actually find out if this story was really true. So... by that logic Tobe Hooper is some kind of Clairvoyant who made up a scary story that... also really happened? Why the hell is he doing making movies then? Shouldn't he be in VEGAS or Washington D.C.?
Rest assured, folks, this tale is indeed partially inspired by Ed Gein, a loner from Wisconsin who is only confirmed to have killed one person and is suspected of having killed another... maybe. Most of his crimes were committed against already dead bodies. And there is no evidence that he ever used a Chainsaw (or "chain saw" for that matter) on his subjects.
In short, no Texas, no Chainsaw... no Massacre.
Yessir, Ed Gein, the partial inspiration for such films as Don't go in the House, Maniac, The Silence of the Lambs and even Psycho! You don't have to take my word for it, though. The cast and crew have been very open about the fact that principal photography on this movie wrapped prior to August 1973 (meaning they would have had to make the movie before it was alleged to have happened) and there are entire websites devoted to this film that show that it's all fiction (see sidebar).
Still, the very suggestion of that fact still induces many to intense anger, the likes of which have been unseen since the original Star Trek was cancelled!
Why? Possibly because of the incredible impact that this small budgeted, independent film has had (and continues to have) since its October, 1974 release! To be sure, this film has more flaws than a stolen diamonoid found in a pawn shop attached to a dilapidated gas station off of Interstate 80, but that doesn't change the fact that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is disturbing, starkly realistic and shocking even to this day. Its documentary feel and camera-take-all style adds to the disgust and terror of this movie and the gritty, brutal portrayal of the film's gleeful villains is the kind of thing that nightmares are made of!!!
Fictional as Fairy Tales though the story is, our plot begins with the low and mournful narration of the one and only John Larroquette who hints at the nauseating crimes of "The Sawyer Family" just before we kick into low gear as we're introduced to our five traveling friends on their way to their destiny.
Somewhere deep in the bloody heart of Texas a series of graves have been robbed and desecrated (Ed Gein style) and that just might include the final resting place of old Grandpa Hardesty (not pictured... because, you know, he's dead). Naturally the Brother/ Sister duo of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and wheelchair bound Franklin Hardesty (Paul A. Partain) want to make sure the grave of Gramps is still in great shape (for a grave, that is). Luckily they bring along their good buddies Jerry (Allen Danziger), Pam (Teri Mcminn) and Kirk (William Vail).
While out there, hell, why not go check out Grandpa's old homestead... you know, to relive some memories and check out where the old man lived... not just where he's laid to rest (by aaron pruitt). Yeah, well, if the title and reputation of this film are any hints to you, it's clear that this trip was most assuredly a bad, bad move. Starting with the creepy-ass Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), this quintet of the Quixotic runs into an inbred clan of locals who have built their lives around the super-smelly slaughterhouse just down the street... but it's not just Barbecue Beef they're munching on. Nope, these bbq limbs are definitely not of the beef sort.
Like I said, we all know the story by now, especially as Leatherface, the villain with a penchant for wearing masks made of cured human flesh, has become a horror icon all his own, up there with some of the most frightening big screen monsters like Freddy, Jason and Michael (all of whom he preceded). As portrayed by Gunnar Hansen, Letherface is a lumbering monster of hunger and horror, less a truly evil psychopath than a mentally challenged simpleton raised by a sick, sick family of cannibals. Yes, part of what makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre so disturbing is that Leatherface isn't alone in his monstrosity. No, folks, it takes a village (or at least a clan) to raise a man-child this dangerous. We've already met the slaughterhouse-employed hitchhiker, but we soon meet Leatherface's Old Man (Jim Siedow) and the only character worse looking than Leatherface himself, the ancient, prune-like Grandpa of the family (played by a heavily made-up John Dugan, who was in his mid-thirties at the time of filming)!
The set-up is there and the story, even when new to the screen, could be somewhat easy to predict. While it's true the plot is lighter than a leather feather, this isn't the kind of movie that requires a deep, rich plot to be exciting or memorable. Much of the film feels very real because it looks so very real and that could well be part of the reason it's so easy for people to still believe that this is a true story.
While no reasonable viewer would believe that this actually is a documentary, the camera work, low budget, convincing effects, film stock and points of view certainly help sell that feeling that the viewer is really there. The Texas Summer Heat alone radiates from the screen when watching this film and the engrossed viewer can almost smell the gross scents that permeate every fifth frame of this fright flick. While it's true that there are some obvious flubs in the directing, writing (by Hooper and Kim Henkel) and occasionally the acting, in general the film feels natural and looks realistic enough to sell the story. The delivery improves the dialogue, the camera angles improve the effects, the subject matter sells the terror.
Of course, a lot of this is due to the fact that the film was made, most assuredly, "on the cheap". The audience isn't shown every inch of every frightening action so the old imagination muscle is flexed to fill in every blank and what we don't see is what truly becomes the real terror tale.
In truth, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn't the most "Scary" picture ever made. The discomposure we feel in this film comes from the disturbing nature of the proceedings, not the overt terror on the screen. The creepy farm house in the back woods with feathers, bones and human leather decorations is enough to cause any sane person a shudder or two, while the frank descriptions of cattle slaughter are most decidedly unpleasant. And that's probably the main core of the disturbance in this movie and its many followers and imitators (of varying quality). It's the idea of human beings, especially innocent kids, being treated the same way (or worse) than slaughterhouse cows on the march to the plate that gets to us. This, coupled with the overall lack of gratuities or even jump scares (though there are a few startles) keep the interested viewer unsettled and uncomfortable until the closing credits strike without warning. It's not the events of the story... it's the FEEL that is so very disturbing. I'll be the first to admit that the very subject matter is distasteful on many levels, but from the opening narration until the final scene we're supposed to be bothered by these things, not so much "cheering on" the bad guys.
At the same time, this is so obviously not a perfect film that I'm almost loathe to nitpick it. There are a lot of flaws in this film from continuity errors to obvious effects work in a few places to the aforementioned rough edges with the acting and directing. That's not to mention the idea that, as influential as this film is, a good bit of its story had been done before... and not in real life. However, somehow this film manages to get better with repeated viewings. I myself laughed it off when I first saw it, but came back more than once to appreciate it for what it is. Sure, it's flawed, but the overall finished piece is more than the sum of its parts, more than it might seem to be on paper and much more than those idiots who tried to remake it really understood.
It's a stark, gritty, uncomfortable and disturbing movie, without polish, gloss or over-production. It succeeds because of what it is, all that it is, no more, no less, and because of so much that it isn't and never tries to be. While this film is (very loosely) based on the same events that inspired a great many other films, this movie did more to influence and shape the Slasher horror genre than most films before it, save, perhaps, its sister inspiree, Psycho! It's safe to say that Leatherface (who actually only offs one character with the chainsaw at all) helped to buzz down the path that led to Freddy, Jason and Michael... for better or for worse.
Taken for all with all, I'm sawing off Three and one half Stars out of Five for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It would be hard for the ME that first watched this, or even the ME that watched it five years ago, to believe I would rate this film so highly. Then again, there are those die-hard fans of this film that would argue that I've rated it much too low. Like I said... the film seems to get better the more it's watched. But it's still a few chains away from a fully complete saw. One way or the other, however, it's not a Saw that has ever been successfully duplicated or imitated. So until someone else comes along and tries to convince me that this whole story is really real and presents evidence that Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel were in fact, SO very prescient that both Eggshells and Doc's Full Service were, serendipitously, true stories that somehow they never bothered to find out really happened, I'll see you maniacs in the NEXT REEL!
CONFLICtS! WHAT A bRAINy IDEA!!!
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