The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – 1974

Director Tobe Hooper
Screenplay Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Starring Gunnar Hansen, Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Teri McMinn, Allen Danziger, William Vail

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those films whose legend outstrips the talent that went into making the film. Taking the true story of a killer (or family of them) living in a remote area of Texas, Hooper and Kim Henkel created a work that has been imitated and improved upon over time. There can only be one first, and that’s what keeps this film near the top of the list for many fans of horror.

Rumors of desecration of a cemetery leads a group of dippy teenagers who are travelling to the gravesite of the grandfather of Sally and Franklin Hardesty. After, they decide to visit the old Hardesty homestead. They stop at a gas station near the property and the proprietor informs them they are out of gas. While they wait for the next delivery, they decide to wait at the homestead. Next to the home is another home, where terror awaits.

Compared to films of its time, Tobe Hooper’s film is actually not bad. It takes time to build up the tension and once unleashed, it doesn’t let up. The reveal of the film’s primary antagonist, Leatherface, is shocking as any moment in film, right up to the point where he slams the sliding metal door.

The main problem with the film is what one might expect from a lower budget film of the early 70’s: the acting, the sound and more often than not, the camera work.The grainy quality of the latter actually plays to the film’s benefit most of the time. It makes the film feel like the victims, isolated, disoriented and nauseous.

I have a hard time with this film, though, particularly with the teenagers. Franklin (Partain), who is wheelchair bound, is obnoxiously whiny and if he’s not mentally deficient, he is poorly directed and acted. Others in the group have little in the way of personality. We know they are not going to be around long from the moment we see them.

The thing that keeps Sally (Burns) from dying before anyone else is more random chance than anything. She spends the last act of the film hysterically crying, screaming and moaning to the point where one just wants to lower the volume for a moment to rest the ears.

The scenes in the last act, while somewhat revolting, are too slow and awkwardly filmed to have any real effect outside of annoyance. This truly feels like a bunch of kids making it up as they go along.

The story is actually a decent one, however. The twist behind the roadside stand bbq is a trope by now, but for its time it is groundbreakingly revolting. If they had more focus and better cinematic shots to go with it, this film would be a bonafide classic.

As it stands, there is no one that can take it’s cult status away. This will forever be a history making cinematic effort, even if it is almost as annoying as it is scary.

(*** out of *****)

From Roger Ebert’s original review:

“Horror and exploitation films almost always turn a profit if they’re brought in at the right price. So they provide a good starting place for ambitious would-be filmmakers who can’t get more conventional projects off the ground. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” belongs in a select company (with “Night of the Living Dead” and “Last House on the Left”) of films that are really a lot better than the genre requires. Not, however, that you’d necessarily enjoy seeing it.”
(**)

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