I plan to write a review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, an (I think) unfairly maligned black comedy, but in the meantime, here’s a (slightly edited and expanded on) review of the original, which I first published on Amazon.co.uk a couple of years ago.
The title of Tobe Hooper’s classic might make it seem like torture porn to some modern viewers, and it was certainly part of a 70s horror renaissance which, in the 80s, decayed into sleazy, low-budget, morally dubious slasher films. (Or “Dead Teenager Movies”, as Roger Ebert called them.) It is, however, utterly anemic when compared to torture porn, like Eli Roth’s Hostel or even its own remakes and prequels. It depends, instead, ruthlessly and almost entirely, on atmosphere.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has the raw and immediate impact of a great short story. Below its simple linear narrative is a wealth of implications. For instance, early in the film the heroes discuss slaughterhouses and methods for killing cattle. Their eventual fate will echo this conversation.
Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) goes on a road trip with her friends and crippled brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) to see if their grandfather’s grave is among those recently robbed in Texas. After completing this task they visit a gas station, eat some barbecue then explore an abandoned house which once belonged to Sally and Franklin’s family. They also, one by one, discover a nearby farm, which houses psychotic man child Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his cannibalistic clan.
Burns’ role as heroine (or “final girl”) only really requires a good scream and convincing run, both of which she has. Some actresses could mess up even such a simple character, but Burns manages authenticity. Her face is very expressive, and I loved a close-up of her when she leaps through a window and scans her surroundings. She looks completely manic, which under the circumstances she should.
Leatherface and his family are gleefully grotesque. I liked their lack of back story. Often a horror film of this nature (teenagers, imposing weapons etc.) will kill any suspense with misunderstood Freudian babble about abusive childhoods and transvestitism (take a bow, Cherry Falls). But TCM wisely lets us view these people just through the heroine’s immediate experience of them. What she sees and hears while being chased or held captive is all we do as well. This means that, unlike some final girls, she connects with us on a primal level. We find ourselves in her shoes. She’s not a character so much as an audience surrogate.
There’s some beautiful shots inside the farmhouse, when one character literally stumbles across a living room with furniture made of bones, some animal, some maybe human, and a live chicken in a cage suspended from the roof.
Though this film does have hardly any blood it is, naturally, terrifying and gruesome. A scene with a meat hook is appalling to the eye even without gore. There’s also a harrowing sequence which involves a decrepit old man, a hammer and a bucket. And so on. TCM is not for those who don’t like any kind of horror story.
P.S: Early posters for and the intro of this film claim it really happened, or is at least based on true events. It isn’t, and nothing here has much correspondence with reality, though the story was inspired by a real-life killer and graverobber, Ed Gein, who killed two women and used their bodies, as well as the bodies he stole from graveyards, to upholster furniture. He also inspired Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, which was made into the famous Alfred Hitchcock film.