The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not a movie. It is a force of nature. Where Night of the Living Dead took 1960’s horror past giant monsters and gothic monsters into modern concerns within the conceit of zombies. This film doesn’t need to exist within the supernatural. In fact, it’s so outside the realm of the unreal that so many people think it’s based on a real story. Or even is a real film, years before movies like The Blair Witch Project tried to pull stunts like that.
The real stunt of this movie is that it was made in the first place. Filmed in an early 1900s farmhouse in Round Rock, Texas on a small budget, the crew shot the film seven days a week, 16 hours a day, with temperatures that reached 110° F. Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, was really a poet. A poet wearing a dead skin mask for 16 hours a day for over twenty-five days straight.
The house was filled with real animal remains, animal blood from a local slaughterhouse and furniture made from animal bones. As you can imagine, keeping all these dead things trapped within a poorly ventilated house led to conditions which were anything but fair to the actors.
Director Tobe Hooper envisioned this film as a PG related film, so he made each cut work so that you never see any of the actual carnage. But it backfired — as a result, the film’s entire feel is one of brutality. It’s actually hard to watch unless you properly prepare yourself for it.
“The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular, Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin.” That opening dialogue, by future sitcom actor John Larroquette for the price of a joint, suggests that the film you are about to watch is true. While it has some basis in the stories of Ed Gein and Elmer Wayne Henley, there never really was a Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was invented by Hooper and writer Kim Henkel. Yet there’s always someone willing to convince you that there was.
It’s actually a pretty simple film. A vanful of hippies comes face to face with a cannibal clan who are being forced out of their way of life by industrialized improvements to the meat processing industry. Despite their astrology, peace and love, they are utterly annihilated and even the strongest of them is driven insane by the end.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film that ignores the rules of the hero’s journey and characters needing to undergo some personal growth. Everyone is lucky if they survive and even the villains and heroes that do won’t make it for long. Modern highways will push their way into the backwoods. Police procedures will improve. And the only work this clan will have is just trying to keep their way of life alive.
You can see the bloody influence of this film on nearly every horror film that came in its wake. Hell, Rob Zombie has made an entire career out of trying to remake something a tenth this good. This is a film that oozes malevolence and ill will from the very moment it begins to play.
I’m always struck by the fact that hardly anyone involved ever made their money back. The film’s original distributor was Bryanston Distribution Company, which turned out to be a Mafia front operated by Louis “Butchie” Peraino, who used Chainsaw to launder money that he had made from Deep Throat. The investors did make their money back, but the crew only made $405 each, scant pay for the hell on Earth they went through (Edwin Neal, the Hitchhiker, claimed that this film was more miserable than being in Vietnam and he’d wanted to kill Hooper for some time). After an arrest for obscenity, the cast and crew filed suit against Peraino and were awarded $25,000 each, which came from new owners New Line Cinema.
There’s a sequel to this film which exists in its own universe. I love that it’s everything that this movie isn’t. It’s a middle finger to expectations and ends with a final shot that is at least the equal of this film.