“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare.
“The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”
The text crawl that opens The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (voiceover provided by a pre-fame John Larroquette, who would reprise the role of narrator for the 2003 remake) isn’t a lie, per se, but it’s definitely misleading. Let us be clear: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a true story.
As Gunnar Hansen — the actor who portrayed the film’s iconic villain, Leatherface — related in his 2013 book, Chainsaw Confidential: “Tobe [Hooper, the director] said that the bone-and-skin furniture [seen in the film] and Leatherface’s mask had been inspired by Ed Gein….”
Gein, a Wisconsin recluse, became infamous on November 16, 1957, when police visited his lonely farm investigating the disappearance of Bernice Worden. They found Worden’s body, but as Katherine Ramsland writes in Under the Light of the Moon (2014), that wasn’t all: “The search turned up chair seats made of human skin, a box of preserved female genitalia…death masks made from skin, a skin vest with breasts, a female scalp….” The list goes on. And on. Although there were pieces of who knew how many corpses present, Gein would be tried for only one murder. Most of his victims had already been dead when he found them. Late at night, Gein had robbed graves, including that of his own mother, stealing human remains that he used to fashion household items (lampshades out of skin, soup bowls from skulls) and a ghastly kind of “clothing.” He had been at it for years.
Tobe Hooper was not the first creator to hold a mirror to Gein’s madness. Author Robert Bloch discussed how the case informed a novel of his own in an essay entitled “The Shambles of Ed Gein.” That novel is Psycho, which would provide the foundation for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, at least one other movie (which we will not be talking about here), and the TV series “Bates Motel” (2013-17).
Nor would The Texas Chain Saw Massacre be the final artistic word on the subject. Thomas Harris’ 1988 novel, The Silence of the Lambs, would include a serial killer based partially on Gein — Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb, whose portrayal in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film remains controversial to this day. In a 1999 Salon interview, former FBI profiler John Douglas (a confidant of Harris) confirmed that Gein was an inspiration for the character, and added: “Hannibal Lecter [the brilliant cannibal murderer at the heart of Silence] does not really exist. There is no one, thank goodness, like him. I think it’s more scary that there are people like Buffalo Bill.”
Leatherface is a person like Ed Gein, but he is not Gein, and neither are Leatherface’s cohorts. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not a true story. Yet the words spoken at the top of the film serve as an invocation anyway. As we have seen before, and will again, the most effective horror of this era draws its power from a sense of realism. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre does this and more. From its very beginning, the film establishes a tone not merely lifelike, but fatalistic. These are not events that could happen, it says; these events did happen, and you are about to see them happen. They are always happening. The film is destiny.
Horror in 1974
The gothic style of the UK’s Hammer was falling out of fashion, even as the studio took steps to diversify its offerings and rejuvenate its aging franchises. 1974 saw the last of Hammer’s Frankenstein series, the excellent Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, in which the doctor (Peter Cushing) presides over a lunatic asylum, and uses select pieces of his patients’ bodies to build yet another creature. Cushing returned as Van Helsing in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a collaboration between Hammer and Shaw Brothers, a Hong Kong studio that specialized in martial arts films. Legend shows the most crowd-pleasing sides of both partners — bloodletting and naked girls in bondage for the Hammer fans; tons of kung-fu fighting for the Shaw Brothers devotees — but its generic Dracula is a disappointment to anyone expecting Christopher Lee. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter is another stab at hybridizing action-adventure and horror, the tale of an 18th-century swordsman who travels the countryside…um…hunting vampires. It’s an entertaining attempt to launch a new series, one that would probably have been successful a few years earlier. Captain Kronos was never heard from again. (Well, never say never.)
Back in the States, The Exorcist (1973) “inspired” Abby — a shameless rip-off of Friedkin’s film, but a little more than that, too. Aimed at a blaxploitation audience, Abby casts Blacula (1972) star William Marshall as Bishop Garnet Williams, who goes on an archaeological dig in Nigeria, where he accidentally releases the evil spirit, Eshu…and if any of this sounds familiar, well, see above. Eshu reappears in Louisville, KY, where he takes possession of Garnet’s daughter-in-law, Abby (Carol Speed). Garnet and his son, Emmett (Terry Carter), aren’t close, but both are men of God; Emmett is a sensitive modern reverend who counsels young marrieds with Abby’s help. And here’s where Abby diverges from its source material dramatically: Eshu is (per the film) a sex demon, and the Eshu-inhabited Abby is soon trolling bars in search of men to seduce and kill. The threat Eshu poses is neither to Abby’s life nor even her soul, but to her virtue, and to her husband’s masculinity.
It’s hard to know how seriously to take Abby. Much of Abby’s possessed behavior is hilarious, possibly because director William Girdler lacks the control over the material that Friedkin had over his. At times, Abby plays less like a steal from The Exorcist than a parody. And yet Abby’s themes — infidelity, gender, a woman’s place in a marriage — are meaningful, earnestly explored and, interestingly, original to the production. Its sexual politics may be problematic. One could argue, persuasively, that demonic possession is here a metaphor for women’s empowerment. But it’s a film that provides much food for thought, even if one finds its conclusions disagreeable.
Way more woman-friendly is the delightful Sugar Hill, which sets fashion photographer Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) against smooth southern gangster Morgan (Robert Quarry) — a contest that is dangerously one-sided until Sugar turns to the forces of voodoo. Morgan murdered Sugar’s beau and now wants her nightclub, which is provocation enough for our heroine to summon loa Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) and his army of fantastically creepy zombies.
“Put them to evil use!” Baron Samedi beseeches Sugar. “It’s all they know…or want.” Sugar turns the zombie horde loose on Morgan’s hoods, which hardly seems evil — they deserve it — but does make for satisfying viewing.
Director Bob Clark released two films in 1974: the bleak, Vietnam-themed Dead of Night (AKA Deathdream) and Black Christmas. Clark’s career began with 1972’s Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, and would continue with such features as the teen sex comedy Porky’s (1982) and (improbably) A Christmas Story (1983). The Christmas story Clark told in 1974 is known for two things: influencing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), and (probably) originating the line, “The calls are coming from inside the house!” (It is my sad duty to report that the actual dialogue is as follows: “The caller is in the house. The calls are coming from the house.” Bogart never really said, “Play it again, Sam,” either. Life can let you down.)
Black Christmas is a surprisingly good film, considering it’s about a sorority house stalked by a killer, which sounds schlocky as hell. It starts out funny, its focus on foul-mouthed Barb (Margot Kidder), but grows dark as the central role gravitates to Jess (Olivia Hussey), brooding over a pregnancy she plans to abort. The girls are plagued by obscene, threatening phone calls, each of which is a sinister little masterpiece. The caller’s voice is male and lascivious, low and leering, now a shout, now female and angry, now a terrified little boy, now a baby, crying and screaming. Sound conjures a human monster more frightening than could ever be shown. Whatever is on the other end of that line is absolutely insane.
What of the real monsters? Mostly, they were figures of fun. The Andy Warhol-produced Blood for Dracula treated audiences to a sickly, ectomorphic Count (Udo Kier) on a quest for the “wergin” blood that will restore his vitality (spoiler: he can’t find any). Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein starred Gene Wilder as Frederick Frankenstein, descendant of Victor, who — after much resistance — embraces his heritage and reanimates the dead. That’s funnier than it reads, but it’s worth mentioning that Brooks’ film paces the storyline of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) pretty closely, even borrowing dialogue. Young Frankenstein is an affectionate ribbing of Universal’s golden age, one that means no harm. But it shows how much tastes had changed. The scenes that had once evoked fear were now the stuff of comedy. Audiences needed something rawer now.
Our Feature Presentation
There are things we hope, things we feel, and things we know. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is about the last one. We know that if you strike a cow on the head with a sledgehammer, the beast won’t die all at once; it will bray and shudder, and repeated blows will be needed to finish the job. We hope that, as human beings, we are more than cattle. We feel like we are. We paint pictures and build bridges and fly around the world, into space, and a cow can’t do those things. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre acknowledges hope and feeling, but it speaks to what is known. It’s a work of fiction, but it’s about facts. If you hit a man in the head with a hammer, he will — like any other animal — fall to the ground and convulse. Successive impacts further demolish intelligence, ruin motor function, make recovery an increasingly distant dream. The right number of blows will kill.
The opening narration ends, and a title card comes up: AUGUST 18, 1973. Then darkness. And in the darkness, scraping sounds, sounds of movement, mysterious and unsettling. What may be a voice, grunting and muttering, breathing hard, or may be nothing. A pop of flashbulb illumination. A rotting human hand comes into view. This glimpse fades, and then there is another. More decayed hands, the gooey absence of eyes in a dead skull, corpse after corpse, the bone-white smiles of lipless faces, decayed beyond recognition. Grotesque as these images are, we observe them with an air of clinical detachment. The narration has prepared us to expect the reenactment of an atrocity, and the style of this sequence implies we’re watching the police take crime scene photographs. We are still safe, still in the presence of the authorities. On a second screening of the film, however, a darker explanation for this scene suggests itself. It is likelier.
Our first look at anything in full daylight: a close-up on a putrefying head, gleaming and wet beneath the merciless sun, the skin stripped from the skull. Empty eye sockets stare out into forever. Gore oozes from a space where a tooth has been pulled from the jaw. We pull back, and we see that we’re in a graveyard. Atop one old stone, two corpses have been lashed together, rebuilt into a grisly work of art. A distant radio announcer’s monotone hums into existence. Graves have been robbed, the man informs us, his voice respectful but without emotion. In some cases, only parts of the corpses have been removed. The sheriff believes this was the work of elements from outside the state of Texas (he is, of course, quite wrong). The news continues —
And we are plunged into a galaxy of red. The film’s main titles appear against a strange animated background; it may depict the rush of blood through the circulatory system, or jets of fire exploding from the surface of the sun. A clanking, industrial soundtrack crashes over us. The radio drones on, a litany of disasters from across the nation: cholera, suicide, a building collapse, an oil refinery in flames. What we are about to witness does not take place in isolation. It is of a piece with the natural world.
Hooper’s camera loves that world, eats it up with an enthusiasm. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film about sweat and dirt and blood and what humidity does to hair, filmed in a lurid color pallette that ignites the senses. It leaves grease on your skin; you can smell the diesel; taste the secretions on your tongue. It’s a film about heat, oppressive and brutal. Hooper cuts from the main titles to a shot of what we might take to be the moon, but it isn’t the moon. It’s the sun, cloaked in steam. It’s a sun that makes you beg for night.
Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), are traveling in a van with three friends — Jerry (Allen Danziger), Sally’s boyfriend, and another couple, Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail) — and that’s just about all we know about them, or ever will know. We sense a sweetness in Sally. The “idyllic summer afternoon drive” they’re on is actually a trip to the cemetery to check on the grave of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather, which Sally fears may have been violated. And there is a bitterness and frustration obvious in Franklin, whose inability to walk is a constant source of personal inconvenience and injury, often humiliating; when we meet him, he’s trying to urinate discreetly into a coffee can when his wheelchair rolls down a hill and crashes. But that’s as deep as the characterization gets…or anyway, that’s as much as the film reveals. No more is needed. The chemistry between the five actors is so effortless it seems they’ve known each other all their lives. These feel like real people, and we feel comfortable with them. They could be our friends and family. They could be us.
These are ordinary people, but this is an extraordinary day — for some, the last day — and they seem to know it. Pam pages through an ephemeris and an issue of American Astrology (cover-dated April, but never mind), turning up ominous horoscopes for Sally and Franklin, and generally poor retrograde conditions for the universe at large. These auguries, combined with the message at the beginning of the film, create in our minds a looming sense of cosmic doom.
After leaving the cemetery, the group decides to head for a remote house where Sally and Franklin’s family had once lived, many years ago. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), and quickly realize their mistake. He’s disheveled, disturbed, full of repulsive anecdotes about his time as “the killer” at a nearby slaughterhouse. He carries a Polaroid camera, and happily passes photos of hanging slabs of beef around the van. He snatches a pocket knife out of Franklin’s hands and begins to mutilate himself with it; when the others react in disgust, he snaps a picture of them and suggests they buy it for two dollars. They decline. The man sets the photo on fire, slashes Franklin’s arm with a folding razor, and jumps out of the moving vehicle, smearing the blood from his wounded hand along the side of it.
The house is a ruin. Sally adores it anyway, intoxicated by childhood nostalgia. Kirk goes upstairs. The acoustics of the place warp the sound of the girls’ laughter into screams, and the camera zooms in on a ceiling corner where thousands of daddy-long-legs spiders are boiling out of a nest in the plaster.
Downstairs, an anguished Franklin explores another part of the house and finds weird artworks, collections of animal bones, skulls, and feathers. Before anything much can be made of his discoveries, Pam and Kirk depart, set out on foot for a nearby swimming hole. It’s the last time their friends will see them alive.
The swimming hole is dry, but they find another house. In the yard, hanging objects — pots, pans, bones, a clock with a nail pounded through it — turn in the wind, with a gentle chiming sound. Kirk enters, leaving Pam on the porch, and in a moment everything changes. Kirk steps into a room and is immediately greeted by a hulking man in a mask made of human flesh. The man beats Kirk’s head in with a hammer, then slams the door closed.
Things get worse from there. But you knew that in the beginning, didn’t you?
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is about predestination and whether there’s a God, and it’s also about cut-in-half girls who pop up screaming out of the freezer. It’s about crazy people who kill people and chop up their bodies and turn the pieces into art because they want to be God themselves, or maybe they just do it because they’re crazy. Leatherface dances at the end, spins his saw around in the air in the blazing sunlight. Some people say it’s a victory dance. Others say he’s enraged at the one who got away. Maybe he just…does it, though. Maybe Leatherface just loves to dance. Maybe it feels good to be in a body, howling underneath a dead skin mask, swinging a saw, dancing, dancing.
Next Time: Existential horror, am I right? Gives me the creeps. We need to lighten up, baby! Nothing better for it than the original summer blockbuster itself: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Smile, you sonofa–!