Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Classic Throwback: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

I had never seen the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I had seen scenes from the dire 2003 re-make starring Jessica Biel. I can now happily cross it off my list of films I intended to see by the end of the year. I was actually quite surprised by the evidently low budget. This is a very effective independent B-Grade slasher flick, whose relevance to and influence within the horror genre is unmistakable.

The film follows five young people on a road trip through Texas. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her invalid brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain) travel with three of Sally's friends; Jerry, Kirk and Pam. They are seeking out the graveyard where the body of Sally and Franklin's grandfather is buried, and to investigate some recent reports of corpse removal and defilement in the area. Their intention is to continue to an old Hardesty homestead where the siblings had grown up. On the way they pick up a mentally-challenged hitchhiker, who acts bizarrely and laughs hysterically. He slices both his hand and Frankin's arm with a razor before being bustled out of the van. Shaken up by the confrontation with the man, the group stops at a gas station, only to be informed by the attendant that the station is out of gas. Despite the warnings deterring them from driving up to the old homestead, they decide to make for the shelter, and return for gas when they leave. Once they arrive and split up to explore the surrounding property, you can guess what happens.

The moment we are first revealed to the hulk-like Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) is a truly terrifying sequence. Kirk, after knocking repeatedly, enters a nearby house in search of gas for their van. He is grabbed suddenly by the huge masked figure and beaten. Pam's attempt to find Kirk reveals that the house is littered with human and animal bones, and that the furniture has been constructed out of human remains. Clearly the work of cannibals. Pam is impaled on a meat hook and forced to watch as  Leatherface takes his chainsaw to Kirk. The remaining group is terrorized by the chainsaw-wielding lunatic, but also the return of the Hitchhiker (who happens to be Leatherface's brother) and the gas station proprietor. They are a family of cannibals responsible for the nearby corpse removal.

The character of Leatherface and minor plot details are based on the murders committed by the 1950's Wisconsin murderer, Ed Gein, also the inspiration for other horror films such as Psycho (1960) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a created a huge cultural impact, most notably in the work of Rob Zombie and his film House of 1000 Corpses (2003). Am I one of the few people to have liked this and its sequel The Devil's Rejects (2005)? Often considered amongst the scariest horror films ever made, it is described as being distinctly better than the genre requires it to be. Also labeled as a paradigmatic exploitation film (the women are subjected to sadistic violence) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has drawn controversy, been edited down to a 77-minute version on multiple occasions and even banned in Australia for its high intensity gratuitous violence. The 84 minute directors cut is now available, and certainly the copy to watch. While I doubt I will sit through it again too soon, the horrific elements of this film have certainly become etched in the conscious of cinemagoers. 

My Rating: 4 Stars

A film I was reminded of after watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was Sean Byrne's impressive 2010 Australian horror debut feature, The Loved Ones. I reviewed the film back in November, but few critics saw it. 
"The Loved Ones delivers enough gory shocks to please genre fans, but has a demented sense of humor which differentiates it from other notable 'Torture Porn' films such as the Hostel series." (3/5)

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