The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
by Tobe Hooper
Having had more than enough excitement for one day, they decide to make a pit-stop at Sally and Franklin's granddad's place to swim and carry-on for a bit to defuse the tension. They stop for gas and directions but only find one of those things, half-unwillingly, from the guy who runs a barbecue stand. He warns the kids to just drive home but only succeeds in selling them some barbecue (Hooper maintains that this movie is really just about a bad day). They're at grandpa's house a few minutes later. It's at this point that the film starts fucking with your sense of pathos. I guess I should point out that on top of being girlfriendless, Franklin is also in a wheel chair and feels incredibly left out when the others start exploring the house. Hooper's sense of the character and Paul Partain's performance is so fucking spot-on, you hate and pity him in equal measure. But I digress. Pam and Kirk decide to go for a dip but the swimming hole's gone and dried up in the years since Sally and Franklin were kids. Walking further along the path, they hear the sound of what turns out to be a generator in front of a house teeming with old cars and shit tucked away under tarps and behind fences. When Kirk goes inside to find the master of the house hoping to buy some gas from him, he instead finds a tall, stocky man in an apron whose face is hidden behind a mask of human skin. In a heartbeat the man lifts a giant fucking hammer and beats Kirk to death with it. When Pam comes in after him, we get a good look at how this man lives. The room she stumbles into is full of furniture made of human bones and skin, feathers litter the floor and bones hang from strings like mobiles. The man in the mask gets her soon enough, too. Jerry goes looking for the pair of them and doesn't come back by nightfall, leaving Sally and Franklin to go looking for them. They don't get very far between Franklin's wheelchair preventing them from getting through the thick brush and the fact that it's now pitch-dark, but the man in the mask knows the area well enough that he stalks them in the dark and gets the jump on them, sticking Franklin full in the chest with a chainsaw and then chasing after Sally through the woods, through his house and back out to the barbecue stand. Strangely he seems to stop chasing her immediately after she gets there. He promises to get help but when he comes back, it's clear the night has only just started for poor Sally.
Texas Chainsaw was Hooper's second film but from the masterful tracking shots to the truly stunning production design, Hooper's hand is steady throughout, a professional through and through. Which is amazing considering how truly off the rails the film goes, especially in the last third when Sally is at the mercy of the cannibals. Paying attention to mechanics pays off in a big way when you watch the climactic dinner scene. The things Hooper does with editing and particularly sound is so assaultive and disorienting that you wind up feeling like something a lot worse than three maniacs laughing is happening. I guess it's fitting that Texas Chainsaw is as recognizable a name as Psycho because there are plays taken right from Hitchcock's book. There are shades of Marion Crane's shower in the way Jerry, Pam and Kirk are yanked from the narrative (their deaths are also far less gruesome than people remember). Both films lift liberally from the story of Ed Gein - though neither gets the details right - but only Hooper's film manages to recreate the nauseating environs that such a character would live in. The lengths the production designers went to to make every inch of the house look not only creepy as shit but also lived in are remarkable.
Naturalistic to the point of vérité and still terrifying, Texas Chainsaw has outgrown its humble origins and become a cultural phenomenon. Two sequels, two remakes and a prequel later and Leatherface is now one of the most recognizable boogeyman in the annals of horror history, but no one (not even Hooper) has managed to make a better film using its most iconic creation. Leatherface is an action figure these days, so I could see some people assuming he can't be scary anymore (the fucking remakes and sequels sure did their best to neuter him) but when I watched this last, my dad (who's seen it at least as many times as I have) jumped when Leatherface comes running out of the darkness for the first time. So much of the success of the film rests on Gunnar Hansen's Leatherface. The costume design is killer, for sure, but Hansen plays him like a child, something the other films completely ignore. He appears to be running the show until the man from the barbecue joint shows up, then its abundantly clear that he's just a child afraid of his older brother(? The man could be his dad, but that's never quite straightened out). But his treatment of the dead bodies of his victims reminds me a lot of King Kong working the mouth of the dead Tyrannosaurus. And just look at him! What I've long loved about this movie is all you have to do is hear its name or see the man with the saw and you've crated a whole movie around them. Before I'd seen Texas Chainsaw I'd come up with what I thought Leatherface's voice would sound like in my head. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the film has more nuance than it ever gets credit for.