Texas Chainsaw Week: 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' (1974)
In past years, I've looked back at horror franchises that more or less follow a single continuity thread, but this year for Halloween I decided to tackle the severely disjointed Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, which has been rebooted and debooted (a term I just coined for a series returning to a previous continuity) multiple times. And it all started with the late Tobe Hooper's 1974 low-budget The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a production that no one could have envisioned would launch a franchise that was still going more than 40 years later. Although it introduces an iconic horror villain in Leatherface (played here by Gunnar Hansen), the movie isn't designed to set up a long-running series to showcase its deranged hillbilly killer. It's a lean, self-contained story of death and terror, built on sustained intensity more than suspense, and less gory and explicit than its reputation suggests.
Hooper establishes the unsettling atmosphere right from the beginning, with the stern narration from John Larroquette describing the horrors about to come, along with flashes of police photographs of a horrific crime scene. The voice of news on the radio is omnipresent in the background during the first part of the movie, reporting not only the graveyard desecration perpetrated by the cannibal family, but also other unpleasant things happening in the area and around the country. This is a world on edge, even as the main characters seem to be enjoying a carefree road trip in their groovy van. There's tension among this group of ostensible hippie types, though, especially thanks to the whining of wheelchair-bound Franklin (Paul A. Partain), whose disability doesn't prevent him from being inconsiderate and annoying.
The group is hot, sweaty and irritable even before they encounter a deranged hitchhiker who slashes Franklin with a razor blade and laughs maniacally as they throw him back out on the side of the road. Hooper makes rural Texas feel like another world, a corner of the old, weird America (as Greil Marcus called it) where time has stopped and the modern world of protests and the war in Vietnam is distant and irrelevant. It's never clear where the main characters came from (although Franklin and his sister Sally, played by Marilyn Burns, have a family home in the area) or what their destination is, but once they stumble into the movie's realm, it's clear they'll never leave.
Although Massacre is often cited as the prototype for slasher movies, the characters don't spend any time formulating a plan to escape or learning about the danger that's targeting them. Each character aside from Sally is killed almost instantly upon discovering the home of Leatherface and his demented family, without prolonged stalking or build-up. It's the sudden, jarring nature of the violence that makes Massacre so unsettling, and the tension and terror basically never let up in the movie's second half. Sally exhibits more resourcefulness than the typical horror-movie heroine as she struggles to escape the grips of her would-be killers, but the iconic ending makes it clear that even if she's escaped with her life, she's completely lost her sanity. Many viewers felt the same way upon seeing this movie when it first came out, and the power of Hooper's vision is that it can still have the same effect.