Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Dir. Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow 

It’s Halloween and so it is time for a horror movie! Except I don’t really have any horror movies in the house so a slasher flick will have to do. And it is the granddaddy of all slashers: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Even before The Evil Dead this was one of the earliest ‘video nasties’. The British Board of Film Classification only cleared it for release in 1999, 25 years after it first came out. 
“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell 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 not 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.” 

My first reaction upon watching this much vaunted shocker was ‘What was all the fuss about?’ Okay, it’s grisly and it’s gory – but I’ve seen worse. The violence is sudden and any, shall we say, forensic activity is hidden from view. It hardly counts as ‘torture porn’ in the same breath as Saw, Hostel or The Human Centipede. Rather than flesh being shredded The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is more likely to focus upon a screaming mouth or a frantically-rolling eye. 

The action takes place in Muerto County, Texas. Graves have been defiled and a regular Mystery Machine of kids head out to ensure that their grandparents’ graves are intact. Upon leaving they have a run-in with a lunatic hitchhiker. While the wait the fuel delivery to an isolated petrol station they decide to visit the abandoned home of their grandparents. They then discover that the neighbours ain’t friendly… 

Writer and director Tobe Hooper creates a very threatening environment. The scene is set from the opening voiceover. The very first images we see are of a memorial fashioned from corpses. This is an America that is going to the dogs: defilement, crime, natural disasters and war fill the news. In Texas an unforgiving sun bakes the land. There is a constant white noise, either provided by the soundtrack or from humming generators, clucking chickens, chirping chickens. Everyone is on a knife’s edge. Literally in the case of the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal). It was all enough to make me feel rather unsettled before we had even caught sight of the monstrous Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). 

And Leatherface is monstrous. He is barely human, a hulking idiotic brute, raw strength and power. Apart from swinish squeals he is silent and his face is unseen behind hand-stitched masks (prefiguring Jason Vorhees’ hockey masks from the Friday the 13th franchise). He seemingly keeps the corpses of his grandparents upstairs like Norman Bates in Psycho. He does use more modern technology – not just a lump hammer but also the chain saw of the title (and that is a ‘chain saw’ rather than a ‘chainsaw’ – the technology was not yet in common parlance). The lipstick on his second mask is even more frightening as it implies some form of sexual deviance. The hitchhiker obviously attracts some sort of thrill from drawing blood and interfering with corpses. Cannibalism is the least of this family’s deviancies. To them all flesh is grass. Franklin Hardesty (Paul A. Partain) repulses his friends early on in the film by talking about cattle-slaughtering processes. To Leatherface and Co humans are just one more source of meat. Their house is littered with bone and flesh from cow, horse, bird and man. As the Hitchhiker explains, “My family’s always been in meat.” 

Leatherface made short work of the cloud
Is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre exploitative? Well, yes – but less so than many films today. In horror movies and particularly slasher flicks it is always the pretty young girls that suffer most. I guess this can be put down to residual misogyny on the part of directors and horror fans – who are, after all, mostly male. In The Evil Dead Cheryl gets raped by a tree. In Slither Starla wanders around in a negligee. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the three boys die suddenly and quickly; the two girls suffer worse fates. Contrary to the voiceover talking about the indignities heaped mostly upon Sally and Franklin Hardesty it is really Pam (Teri McMinn) and Sally (Marilyn Burns) that suffer the most. 

Despite this the film is watchable. To be honest I think tastes have moved on (of maybe ‘degraded’) since 1974; this means that there is little that is profoundly shocking about the film to a modern eye – except actually how little gore there is.  

What have I learnt about Texas?
Despite the film’s claims that this is a true story, it isn’t. There was never a genuine massacre with a chain saw in Texas. But there are elements of Texan life that can be discerned from the movie. There is the Spanish influence. This can be seen in Spanish names of the county (Muerto – ‘death’) and the sheriff (Jesus Maldonado). There is the terrain – baking hot plains under a dazzling sun, dried up waterholes and fields of sunflowers. There is the beef – cows and slaughterhouses. And there is the food – barbecue. Best not enquire too much about what meat is under all that sauce however… 

Can we go there?
The locations are fictitious. There is no town in Texas called Newt and there is no county called Muerto.

Filming actually took place north of Austin in Round Rock. A development called La Frontera now occupies the site. You can, however, still visit the home of the inbred cannibals – hell, you can even have a meal there! The building was disassembled and relocated to Kingsland in Llano County. In the grounds of the Antlers Hotel and Historic Railroad District can be found the Junction House Restaurant. This is the ‘Texas Chainsaw House’.

Other locations include Bagdad Cemetery in Leander and Bilbo’s Texas Landmark on State Highway 304 in Bastrop which was the gas station without any gas. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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