Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper
Starring: Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, Gunnar Hansen, Edwin Neal, William Vail
Happy Halloween. Having recently seen the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with fresh eyes it’s hard to believe that film was made 34 years ago. Its visceral cinematic power is as strong today as it was then. I’d even argue it to be still the most intense and freaky horror film ever made.
A familiar horror film set-up introduces the film’s heroes/victims. A foursome of college students are on a roadtrip in a van. Events are foreshadowed when they pick up a shifty hitchhiker who demonstrates his skills in cutting himself with a knife. The van eventually runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere and while they wait for the gas station to refill they takeover a derelict house.
Gradually, one by one, each person wanders over to the neighbours' house, where they discover the most frightening sight to behold. A portly inbred hillbilly wearing a mask of human flesh (thus credited as 'Leatherface') brandishing a chainsaw captures and kills the first three victims with ease. The lovely brunette Sally (Marilyn Burns) is the last one left. For the entire evening she’s chased around the house and through the woods by Leatherface until she’s eventually caught. An entire family of freaky murderous cannibals are revealed and host Sally to a dinner of the chopped up and cooked remains of their friends.
Filmed for ultra low budget in the 70's, it belongs in the company of "Night of the Living Dead" as one of the few truly independent film successes of the late 60's/early 70's. The minimalist aesthetic, combined with the sun-bleached 16mm look adds creepy, backwater hillbilly authenticity of the time and place. And even more impressive is that much of the action and suspense takes place in the bright Texas sunshine and vast exterior.
The finale which has poor Sally alone in captivity of Leatherface and his family is one of the most intense and frightening sequences in any horror film. Director Hooper manages about 15mins or more of sustained screaming from actress Marilyn Burns. Sally’s ordeal, the famous dinner sequence, is capped with an oddball scene. It’s time for Sally to die, and Leatherface and his Father (Jim Siedow) want the half-comatose grandfather to do the killing. The poor old man’s futile attempts to bludgeon Sally is as humourous as it is frightening.
The final chase scene out of the house and into the dirt road is a great cathartic moment for the characters and us. The audience thinks it's still night, and so when Sally jumps through the window into daylight its a surprise to Sally and us. The final moments are both humourous and terrifying. Despite all the nastiness Hooper submits his characters to, he does leave Sally alive, a brief moment of optimism amid so much depravity.
As one of the great low budget indie horror films, "Chainsaw" grabs the torch passed by George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" (1968). John Carpenter would then take it from Hooper with "Halloween" (1978). The three films represent a unique trilogy of minimalist horror, but maximized terror - and the most influential low budget horror movies.