“Who will survive, and what will be left of them?”
Given the induction into The SAW Canon of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earlier this week (you should check out the piece, and all of the Canon films), I thought I’d dig up an older review of the same film. Particularly as it gives a little more detail on why I couldn’t bring myself to watch it for the longest time. A bit of a Fear Flashback flashback, originally written in 2014. Hope you enjoy.
I still approach viewing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a little trepidation. This is not a safe movie. It’s weird and ugly and violent. Of course it’s also familiar, strangely beautiful and has less gore than your average X-Files episode. It’s a horror movie classic that this horror movie fan could only bring himself to watch once before.
I didn’t even intend to watch TTCM for this installment of Fear Flashback Friday, as it’s not really a movie I think of as enjoyable. But Marilyn Burns passed away this week. As Sally Hardesty she was the only one who escaped Leatherface, the original Final Girl. I wanted to make a joke about the ‘great Leatherface in the sky’ finally catching up to her, but it seems disrespectful (and I see I managed to sneak it in anyway).
Anyway, it seemed like I should revisit Chainsaw, the great bugbear of my horror movie viewing, the one classic horror film that seemed too much for me. If it was grueling and awful to sit through, well that would be my penance for that ‘Leatherface in the sky’ joke.
The reason for my apprehension about Chainsaw is all about childhood and anticipation, a combination of factors that lead to the movie becoming bigger (and more awful) in my mind than it actually was. This will ramble a little, so bear with me.
When I was 8 or 9 years old I went ‘camping’ with one of my many relatives. I think might have been Danny Snowman, if so – thanks for scaring the crap out of me, Danny! When I say camping, what I really mean is that we dragged our sleeping bags out into the backyard and slept under a camper shell. That’s one of those white, aluminum, hard top things that sat on the top of a truck bed. Danny’s folks had put it out on the grass and we climbed in, closed the back and got cozy – if a little claustrophobic.
This was probably late summer, early fall, and it was cold and DARK at night. We were pretty far out from town and there were no streetlights and, if I remember correctly, no outside lights on Danny’s house either. A little moonlight made its way through the cloudy plexiglass to limn our faces, but that’s about it. To pass the time we engaged in that time-honored camping tradition – we told scary stories. I have no recollection what story, if any, I might have told. (Maybe about bigfoot, which was a favorite topic of mine back then, thanks to In Search Of.) I remember – DISTINCTLY – the story Danny told.
There was this family, he said, in Texas. They were all weird and stuff, like mutated or something. And they used to grab people, like hitchhikers and young people walking, or maybe sometimes people would come to their house looking to use the phone or something. Anyway, they would grab those people and hang them up on meathooks. And then they would chop them up with chainsaws and make them into, like, sausages and stuff. And then they would EAT THEM! And they would make furniture out of their bones and skin.
I may have opined how this seemed really gross and not at all likely (though I remember thinking uneasily about how I had no real idea what went into sausages). Danny emphatically shook his head. No, this was REAL! This ACTUALLY HAPPENED. And they made a movie about it and the movie was called THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.
There were a few moments of silence after this declaration. The name sort of echoed in my mind, fraught as it was with horrific possibilities. TEXAS. CHAINSAW. MASSACRE.
And then, in the distance, in the dark, the sound of a chainsaw starting up echoed through the trees.
Now this was northern Maine, and the sound of chainsaws is not exactly an unknown thing, even at night. Coming as it did in the dramatic pause after that story? We may have gone a little mad for a moment. There was a frantic scramble to get out of the camper and into the house. There may or may not have been some (manly) screaming. And I’m fairly sure we slept with the light on (even though that’s what babies did). I never forgot about it, that’s for sure.
Fast forward several years and I’m sitting on a couch at a friend’s house, about to watch some horror movies. I was a fan by then, a veteran of movies good, bad and ugly. I’d seen 10,000 Maniacs and Blood Sucking Freaks. Hell, I’d seen Cannibal Apocalypse, which had a certain nasty reputation of its own. I was well versed in the language of gore, and could compare decapitations and blood splatter with the best of them.
But I had still never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It had grown, somehow, in my mind. It had become some apotheosis of horror, a gruesome and grueling experience only one step removed from a snuff film. It put paid to all my notions of being a hardened connoisseur of horror, because I was afraid of it. Afraid of a movie.
My friends had discovered this egregious gap in my horror movie viewing, and had set about righting this perceived wrong. There was a stack of horror movies on the coffee table and amongst all the gaudy VHS covers was one featuring a man in a leather mask wielding a chainsaw, behind him was a closeup of a woman’s bulging eyes. At the top, yellow text proclaimed “The Most Horrifying Motion Picture I Have Ever Seen” by some guy named Rex Reed. I couldn’t stop staring at it. We watched a few movies before finally getting to Chainsaw, but I don’t remember any of them. I just remember getting more and more worked up, sweating, heart racing. Today we’d probably call it a panic attack, but at the time I thought I was getting sick.
When we finally watched the film I was so worked up that I could barely pay attention. Even now I can only remember flashes of that viewing. The hitchiker cutting his thumb, Leatherface slamming the kitchen door shut, the only really gory bit where Leatherface falls and the chainsaw cuts into his leg. The screaming. It was all vaguely stroboscopic in my mind – flashes only. And then it was over. And I remember thinking, “There. I’ve seen it. Now I never have to see it again.” And I never did.
Until last night.
I had decided on Tuesday, when news of Marylin Burns’ death had broken, that I would finally re-watch Chainsaw. I had assumed that enough time had passed that I would no longer be so uptight about the film, but as the viewing time approached I found myself growing anxious. I was annoyed and astonished to discover that this movie – technically, just the IDEA of the movie – still had so much power over me, but I guess that’s what childhood trauma does to you (again, THANKS Danny). When the time finally arrived I descended into the basement like a man heading to the gallows. “Well, I guess I’ll see you,” I said to my wife. If she heard the nervousness in my voice she didn’t comment on it.
The version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that I have is the two disk Ultimate Edition DVD. Yes, I own a copy even though I haven’t watched it. It just seemed like something a horror movie fan should have in their library, you know? Anyway, for a DVD the picture quality is quite good and the list of extras should please any fan, with two documentaries, two commentary tracks and plenty more. Until the 40th anniversary blu-ray comes out this fall, this is as good as it gets, content wise.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has been studied and critiqued and reviewed over and over. There’s not much that I can add that’ll be in any way a new thing. So this is just a quick overview of my experience watching the film this time.
The opening text crawl explains the film setup quite well and if the voice sounds familiar that’s because it’s John Larroquette. The following opening sequence – a series of strange noises in darkness followed by flash of light illuminating what appears to be a rotting corpse – sets the tone and lets you know that things are going to be pretty awful. That the filmmaker is not going to play nice. After a brief burst of anxiety – like static on the radio – I was able to settle down and enjoy this sequence and the credits as fine bits of horror filmmaking. I particularly like the credit sequence with the shots of sunspots – even the sun is sick, Hooper seems to be saying, so what chance does life on Earth have?
A really quick plot outline: A group of kids, including brother and sister Franklin and Sally Hardesty, are traveling in a van. Ostensibly they’re going to check on their grandfather’s gravesite, as there has been a spate of grave desecrations in the area. Low on gas – and unnerved by a violent hitchhiker – the group stops at the old Hardesty family home, now a rundown ruin. They run afoul of a local family with unique appetites and are killed, one by one, until only Sally remains.
I hadn’t realized how well shot this movie is. The framing and editing is just top notch. The shot where the hitchhiker runs to catch up with the van, framed with a vast stretch of blue sky and empty Texas countryside, is a favorite. It simply oozes isolation.
As the hitchhiker scene progressed I once again experienced a surge in that old anxiety, but it’s just a great sequence, a really unnerving bit that serves to throw the group off their dynamic and, of course, set us up for some of the really disturbing scenes to come. After that I was able to really throw off the old expectations and just enjoy the movie for what it is, which is a fantastic horror movie.
There’s a certain documentary feel to the film, which serves to heighten the fear. It really DOES feel like something that might have happened. The acting is pretty naturalistic and gets even more so as things progress. Marylin Burns, in particular, really sells her horror and desperation in a way that’s almost uncomfortable to watch.
Time and time again watching the movie I found myself just amazed at a shot or a scene – the sequence when Pam goes into the house is fantastic, for instance. That tracking shot under the swing is just a thing of beauty – the house looming in the frame. Later on you remember her exposed back in this shot and shudder at what happens. That living room and the furniture.
Gunnar Hansen is awesome in this as well. Having never really, REALLY watched this before, I was blown away by his performance as Leatherface. With no lines to speak of and a face always covered in a mask, he manages to convey a fully realized character. That moment – after Jerry shows up and is dispatched – where he walks into the living room and almost has a nervous breakdown is tremendous. There’s a whole life behind that moment, and Hansen sells it.
Things crank up to 11 after that, with Franklin and Sally trying to find their friends, a pretty horrific dinner party and lots of chases featuring chainsaws. The final shot, of Leather face almost dancing in the sunset, spinning around with his chainsaw, borders on the poetic. This is a classic film for a reason and I feel a little sad that I’ve neglected it for so long.
The Bottom Line
This was, honestly, a bit of a revelation for me. Once I got past my anxiety and was able to settle in and just watch the film I was transfixed. It’s just a tremendously well-made film. Yes, it’s a bit grimy and raw, but that’s part of what makes it so good. It feels real, and as such you become invested and a little bit scared.
I’ll be watching this again soon, I think. I missed out on having this as part of my horror movie background and feel like I need to catch up. Luckily these DVDs have plenty of background material, so I’ll get some of the history and details I’ve been missing.
And Marilyn Burns, wherever you are, you were pretty great.