Thirty years of horror: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Tom: This artless trash has paved the way for hundreds, maybe thousands, of copycat movies about the slaughter and occasional torture of vapid teenagers. There’s no one to care about, no one to root for, no one even remotely interesting. It’s not funny, it’s not effective, and it’s certainly not scary. It’s like the clown at a birthday party that no one wants. Smell his flower. Go ahead. Smell it.

Chris: I was prepared, I thought. From the goofy title card that starts this movie to the opening half hour, I am buying into what I think this movie is selling. It’s grindhouse that wants to be arthouse, and I get it and I dig it because perhaps it has authentic 1974 ambitions to be what a guy like Quentin Tarantino’s been doing for 20 years. There are pieces here that feel as if they may have influenced Quentin, too. Abstract, odd dialogue. Some weirdness for weirdness sake with those gross, articulated carcass sculptures in the cemetery, for instance. A beautiful long shot of the van pulling over to pick up a hitchhiker. There are things to like here, perhaps.

After the jump, hacked to pieces

Chris: Things don’t go to seed right away, either. When Leatherface takes down his first two victims it happens so quickly I was rather taken by surprise, perhaps even shocked. This house? Right now? Here we go? I suppose. The meat hook scene was uncomfortable to watch, if not nearly as gory as I expected it to be. Perhaps I was more confused than anything. This crazed, lunatic killer lives inside a perfectly appointed farmhouse with fresh paint, a swing, and a manicured lawn? The hell? Gradually as inconsistencies like that cropped up, so did my doubts.

Tom: That first kill is a classic because it’s so shockingly unexpected. There’s an unmistakable cadence to it, with the hammer impact and then door slamming shut. Wham, slam. And that door closes so decisively. Who has a door like that in his house? I would argue that first kill, that hammer-then-door rat-a-tat, is the only effective moment in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Chris: Then the dude with the glasses gets it. And then David Berkowitz in a wheelchair gets his. I know I’m supposed to feel scared now. The chainsaw sound effect is persistent and pervasive here. That sound effect alone is causing me some unease. There’s a problem though, too. I didn’t really feel anything when the dude with the glasses got killed. When the brother in the wheelchair is killed, I’m relieved I don’t have to listen to him anymore. I suspect that as Sally runs through the forest trying to escape ol’ Leatherface, she’s probably relieved to be rid of her disabled brother as well; she sure didn’t seem to care much about him that I could tell.

This isn’t Peeping Tom by a longshot, then. I felt awful and moved when the poor movie girl was killed in that film. I was scared to death for the girl from downstairs that whole movie. I even felt empathy for the murdering psychotic killer who was causing all that death and sadness. Here though? Nothing. Not yet. C’mon here, give me something to work with.

It’s not that there aren’t opportunities to make it better, either. What if Sally and her brother Franklin had moments together on screen that established a familial, protective bond? There’s a scene at the gas station where the girls head off to freshen up. Why can’t we have some dialogue with Sally — who I guess is our heroine here — to set her character up? When they go to the cemetery, why can’t we get something there when she goes to check on the family plot?

Tom: You’re hoping for something Tobe Hooper was incapable of delivering, or at least uninterested in delivering. Texas Chainsaw Massacre fetishizes suffering without making any sort of point. It has no insight into depravity or fear or perseverance. There is no character arc for anyone beyond whoever survives. The actors just wail and gnash their teeth and growl and mince and yell and cry and wear a creepy mask. Tobe Hooper carefully applies blood to Marilyn Burns’ face. He moves his camera in close. So close. You see the veins in her eyeball. He cuts unceremoniously from one thing to the next. Burns screams and screams.

Chris: You remind me of another opportunity missed here. Marilyn Burns scored a pretty high profile role shortly after this, as Linda Kasabian in the TV miniseries Helter Skelter. I’ve recently watched that, and she’s quite good in that latter production. She could act, in other words, but she’s given very little opportunity to do so here by the script or her director.

I was trying here. I really was. The final straw for me was the sequence with Sally at the end of “supper”, when they try to have Grandpa (in the worst makeup ever…I at first thought he was supposed to be wearing a skin mask, too) sledgehammer her. The screams, the dropped hammer, the fact that it was wounding her. It was all too gratuitous. Unnecessary. Stupid. Pointless. It didn’t make me hate or fear the “family”. It made me hate the movie and the person who wrote and filmed it all instead.

Tom: I also hate the legacy of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I hate that Eli Roth probably loved this movie and therefore went on to fetishize the suffering of more vapid teenagers, leading to the invention of the term torture porn, which would then be used to dismiss movies that actually have a point (such as Martyrs, Human Centipede, A Serbian Film). I hate that I can’t even enjoy the cool production design of the creepy house. And I hate that I remembered the final scene of Leatherface spinning his chainsaw wildly in the Texas dawn as if it had some sort of existential significance. Because as I rewatched this dreck for the first time in many years, I was sort of holding out hope for that last scene. When it finally arrived about 80 minutes after the idiotic opening crawl (Hey, Tobe, your narrator doesn’t know how to pronounce “idyllic”), all I could think was that this burly dude in his ridiculous mask has nothing on Jedi kid Ghyslain Raza. Put some more heart into it, Gunnar. This is your big moment.

Chris: The obvious attempts Tobe Hooper makes to try to elevate this mess are like stairways to nowhere. There are some very nicely filmed pieces of movie that come swimming into view for a minute or so, then fall far away. They don’t serve the film, though, and the final sequence — which is fairly famous — just seems like the ridiculous work of a hamhanded film school student who doesn’t know how to make a good movie and has never seen one, but has had good movies described to him.

Tom: It could have been worse. If you want to see someone who doesn’t know how to make a good movie trying to do an homage to a great movie, you can’t sink any lower than Wes Craven’s irredeemably trashy interpretation of The Virgin Spring. I can think of few movies I loathe more than Last House of the Left, which is from this same period. I guess I should be thankful that we only watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

For some reason, doesn’t sell any iteration of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, you can still support Qt3 by admiring Jessica Biel’s midriff in this reboot:

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)