The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
|The Texas Chain Saw Massacre|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Tobe Hooper|
|Produced by||Kim Henkel
|Written by||Kim Henkel
Paul A. Partain
|Narrated by||John Larroquette|
|Music by||Wayne Bell
|Edited by||Larry Carroll
|Distributed by||Bryanston Pictures|
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre[note 1] is a 1974 American slasher film, directed and produced by Tobe Hooper, who cowrote it with Kim Henkel. It stars Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow and Gunnar Hansen, who respectively portray Sally Hardesty, Franklin Hardesty, the hitchhiker, the proprietor, and Leatherface, the main antagonist. The film follows a group of friends who fall victim to a family of cannibals while on their way to visit an old homestead. Although it was marketed as a true story to attract a wider audience and as a subtle commentary on the era's political climate, its plot is entirely fictional; however, the character of Leatherface and minor plot details were inspired by the crimes of real-life murderer Ed Gein.
Hooper produced the film for less than $300,000 and used a cast of relatively unknown actors drawn mainly from central Texas, where the film was shot. The limited budget forced Hooper to film for long hours seven days a week, so that he could finish as quickly as possible and reduce equipment rental costs. Due to the film's violent content, Hooper struggled to find a distributor. Louis Perano of Bryanston Pictures eventually purchased the distribution rights. Hooper limited the quantity of onscreen gore in hopes of securing a 'PG' rating, but the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rated it 'R'. The film faced similar difficulties internationally.
Upon its October 1974 release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was banned outright in several countries, and numerous theaters later stopped showing the film in response to complaints about its violence. While it initially drew a mixed reception from critics, it was enormously profitable, grossing over $30 million at the domestic box office. It has since gained a reputation as one of the best horror films in cinema history. It is credited with originating several elements common in the slasher genre, including the use of power tools as murder weapons and the characterization of the killer as a large, hulking, faceless figure. The popularity of the film led to a franchise that continued the story of Leatherface and his family through sequels, remakes, one prequel, comic books and video games.
Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her paraplegic brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain), travel with three friends, Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail), and Pam (Teri McMinn), to visit the grave of the Hardestys' grandfather to investigate reports of vandalism and grave robbing. Afterwards they decide to visit the old Hardesty family homestead. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who talks about his family who worked at the old slaughterhouse. He borrows Franklin's pocket-knife and cuts himself, then takes a Polaroid picture of the others and demands money for it. When they refuse to pay, he burns the photo and slashes Franklin's arm with a straight razor. The group forces him out of the van and drive on. They stop at a gas station to refuel, but the proprietor (Jim Siedow) tells them that the pumps are empty.
They continue towards the homestead, intending to return to the gas station once it has received a fuel delivery. When they arrive, Franklin tells Kirk and Pam about a local swimming-hole and the couple head off to find it. They find the swimming-hole dried up but hear a generator running in the distance. They stumble upon a nearby house. Kirk calls out, asking for gas, while Pam waits on a swing in the yard. After Kirk receives no answer, he enters through the unlocked door, whereupon Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) appears and kills him with a mallet. Pam enters soon after and trips into a room filled with furniture made from human bones. She attempts to flee, but Leatherface catches her and impales her on a meathook, making her watch as he butchers Kirk with a chainsaw. Jerry heads out to look for Pam and Kirk at sunset. He finds the couple's blanket outside the nearby house. He investigates and finds Pam, still alive, inside a freezer. Before he can react, Leatherface kills him and stuffs Pam back into the freezer.
With darkness falling, Sally and Franklin set out to find their friends. As they near the neighboring house and call out, Leatherface lunges from the darkness and kills Franklin with a chainsaw. Sally runs toward the house and finds the desiccated remains of an elderly couple in an upstairs room. She escapes from Leatherface by jumping through a second-floor window and flees to the gas station. Leatherface disappears into the night. The proprietor calms her with offers of help, but then ties her up, gags her and forces her into his truck. He drives to the house, arriving at the same time as the hitchhiker, now revealed as Leatherface's brother. When the pair bring Sally inside, the hitchhiker recognizes her and taunts her.
The men torment the bound and gagged Sally while Leatherface, now dressed as a woman, serves dinner. Leatherface and the hitchhiker bring an old man, Grandpa (John Dugan), from upstairs to share the meal. During the night they decide that Grandpa (the best killer in the old slaughterhouse) should kill Sally. He tries to hit her with a hammer, but is too weak. In the ensuing confusion, she breaks free, leaps through a window, and escapes to the road. Leatherface and the hitchhiker give chase, but the latter is run down and killed by a passing semi-trailer truck. Armed with his chainsaw, Leatherface attacks the truck when the driver stops to help. The driver hits him in the face with a large wrench. Sally escapes in the back of a passing pickup truck as Leatherface waves the chainsaw above his head in frustration.
The concept for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre arose in the early 1970s while Tobe Hooper was working as an assistant film director at the University of Texas at Austin and as a documentary cameraman. He had already developed a story involving the elements of isolation, the woods, and darkness. He credited the graphic coverage of violence by San Antonio news outlets as one inspiration for the film and based elements of the plot on serial killer Ed Gein in 1950s Wisconsin; Gein inspired other horror films such as Psycho (1960) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). During development, Hooper used the working titles of Headcheese and Leatherface.
Hooper has cited changes in the cultural and political landscape as central influences on the film. His intentional misinformation, that the "film you are about to see is true", was a response to being "lied to by the government about things that were going on all over the world", including Watergate, the 1973 oil crisis, and "the massacres and atrocities in the Vietnam War". The "lack of sentimentality and the brutality of things" that Hooper noticed while watching the local news, whose graphic coverage was epitomized by "showing brains spilled all over the road", led to his belief that "man was the real monster here, just wearing a different face, so I put a literal mask on the monster in my film". The idea of using a chainsaw as the murder weapon came to Hooper while he was in the hardware section of a busy store, contemplating how to speed his way through the crowd.
Hooper and Kim Henkel cowrote the screenplay and formed Vortex, Inc. with Henkel as president and Hooper as vice president. They asked Bill Parsley, a friend of Hooper, to provide funding. Parsley formed a company named MAB, Inc. through which he invested $60,000 in the production. In return, MAB owned 50 percent of the film and its profits. Production manager Ron Bozman told most of the cast and crew that he would have to defer part of their salaries until after it was sold to a distributor. Vortex made the idea more attractive by awarding them a share of its potential profits, ranging from 0.25 to 6 percent, similar to mortgage points. The cast and crew were not informed that Vortex owned only 50 percent, which meant their points were worth half of the assumed value.
Many of the cast members at the time were relatively unknown actors—Texans who had played roles in commercials, television, and stage shows, as well as performers whom Hooper knew personally, such as Allen Danziger and Jim Siedow. Involvement in the film propelled some of them into the motion picture industry. The lead role of Sally was given to Marilyn Burns, who had appeared previously on stage and served on the film commission board at UT Austin while studying there. Teri McMinn was a student who worked with local theater companies, including the Dallas Theater Center. Henkel called McMinn to come in for a reading after he spotted her picture in the Austin American-Statesman. For her last call-back he requested that she wear short shorts, which proved to be the most comfortable of all the cast members' costumes.
Icelandic-American actor Gunnar Hansen was selected for the role of Leatherface. He regarded Leatherface as being mentally retarded and having never learned to speak properly. To research his character in preparation for his role, Hansen visited a special needs school and watched how the students moved and spoke. John Larroquette briefly served as narrator in the opening credits.
The primary filming location was an early 1900s farmhouse located on Quick Hill Road near Round Rock, Texas, where the La Frontera development is now located. The small budget and concerns over high-cost equipment rentals meant the crew filmed seven days a week, up to 16 hours a day. The environment was humid and the cast and crew found conditions tough; temperatures peaked at 110 °F (43 °C) on July 26. Hansen later recalled, "It was 95, 100 degrees every day during filming. They wouldn't wash my costume because they were worried that the laundry might lose it, or that it would change color. They didn't have enough money for a second costume. So I wore that [mask] 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for a month."
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was mainly shot using an Eclair NPR 16 mm camera with fine-grain, low-speed film that required four times more light than modern digital cameras. Most of the filming took place in the farmhouse, which was filled with furniture constructed from animal bones and a latex material used as upholstery to give the appearance of human skin. The house was not cooled, and there was little ventilation. The crew covered its walls with drops of animal blood obtained from a local slaughterhouse. Art director Robert Burns drove around the countryside and collected the remains of cattle and other animals in various stages of decomposition, with which he littered the floors of the house.
The special effects were simple and limited by the budget. The on-screen blood was real in some cases, such as the scene in which Leatherface feeds "Grandpa". The crew had difficulty getting the stage blood to come out of its tube, so instead Burns's index finger was cut with a razor. Burns's costume was so drenched with stage blood that it was "virtually solid" by the last day of shooting. The scene in which Leatherface decapitates Kirk with a chainsaw worried actor William Vail (Kirk). After telling Vail to stay still lest he really be killed, Hansen brought the running chainsaw to within 3 inches (8 cm) of Vail's face.
The production exceeded its original $60,000 budget during editing. Sources differ on the film's final cost, offering figures between $93,000 and $300,000. A film production group, Pie in the Sky, provided $23,532 in exchange for 19 percent of Vortex. This left Henkel, Hooper and the rest of the cast and crew with a 40.5 percent stake. Warren Skaaren, then head of the Texas Film Commission, helped secure the distribution deal with Bryanston Pictures. David Foster, producer of the 1982 horror film The Thing, arranged for a private screening for some of Bryanston Pictures' West Coast executives, and received 1.5 percent of Vortex's profits and a deferred fee of $500.
On August 28, 1974, Louis Peraino of Bryanston agreed to distribute the film worldwide, from which Bozman and Skaaren would receive $225,000 and 35 percent of the profits. Years later Bozman stated, "We made a deal with the devil, [sigh], and I guess that, in a way, we got what we deserved." They signed the contract with Bryanston and after the investors recouped their money (with interest)—and after Skaaren, the lawyers, and the accountants were paid—only $8,100 was left to be divided among the 20 cast and crew members. Eventually the producers sued Bryanston for failing to pay them their full percentage of the box office profits. A court judgment instructed Bryanston to pay the filmmakers $500,000, but by then the company had declared bankruptcy. In 1983 New Line Cinema acquired the distribution rights from Bryanston and gave the producers a larger share of the profits.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre premiered on October 1, 1974, in Austin, Texas, almost a year after filming concluded. It screened nationally in the United States as a Saturday afternoon matinée and its false marketing as a "true story" helped it attract a broad audience. For eight years after 1976, it was annually reissued to first-run theaters, promoted by full-page ads. The film eventually grossed more than $30 million in the United States and Canada ($14.4 million in rentals), making it the 12th highest grossing film initially released in 1974, despite its minuscule budget. Among independent films, it was overtaken in 1978 by John Carpenter's Halloween, which grossed $47 million.
Hooper reportedly hoped that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) would give the complete, uncut release print a "PG" rating due to its minimal amount of visible gore. Instead, it was originally rated "X". After several minutes were cut, it was resubmitted to the MPAA and received an "R" rating. A distributor apparently restored the offending material, and at least one theater presented the full version under an "R". In San Francisco, cinema-goers walked out of theaters in disgust and, in February 1976, two theaters in Ottawa, Canada were advised by local police to withdraw the film lest they face morality charges.
After its initial British release, including a one-year theatrical run in London, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was initially banned on the advice of British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) Secretary Stephen Murphy, and subsequently by his successor, James Ferman. While the British ban was in force the word "chainsaw" itself was barred from movie titles, forcing imitators to rename their films. In 1998, despite the BBFC ban, Camden London Borough Council granted the film a license. The following year the BBFC passed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for release with an 18 certificate (indicating that it should not be seen or purchased by a person under 18), and it was broadcast a year later on Channel 4.
The Australian Classification Board refused to classify the 83-minute version of the film in June 1975; the board similarly refused classification of a 77-minute print in December that year. In 1981, an 83-minute version submitted by Greater Union Organization Film Distributors was again refused registration. It was later submitted by Filmways Australia and approved for an "R" rating in 1984. It was banned for periods in many other countries, including Brazil, Chile, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Singapore, Sweden and West Germany.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre received a mixed reaction upon its initial release. Linda Gross of the Los Angeles Times called it "despicable" and described Henkel and Hooper as more concerned with creating a realistic atmosphere than with its "plastic script". Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said it was "as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises", yet praised its acting and technical execution. Patrick Taggart of the Austin American-Statesman hailed it as the most important horror film since George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). Variety found the picture to be well-made, despite what it called the "heavy doses of gore". John McCarty of Cinefantastique stated that the house featured in the film made the Bates motel "look positively pleasant by comparison". Revisiting the film in his 1976 article "Fashions in Pornography" for Harper's Magazine, Stephen Koch found its sadistic violence to be extreme and unimaginative.
Critics later frequently praised both the film's aesthetic quality and its power. Observing that it managed to be "horrifying without being a bloodbath (you'll see more gore in a Steven Seagal film)", Bruce Westbrook of the Houston Chronicle called it "a backwoods masterpiece of fear and loathing". TV Guide thought it was "intelligent" in its "bloodless depiction of violence", while Anton Bitel felt the fact that it was banned in the United Kingdom was a tribute to its artistry. He pointed out how the quiet sense of foreboding at the beginning of the film grows, until the viewer experiences "a punishing assault on the senses". In Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema, Scott Von Doviak commended its effective use of daylight shots, unusual among horror films, such as the sight of a corpse draped over a tombstone in the opening sequence. Mike Emery of The Austin Chronicle praised the film's "subtle touches"—such as radio broadcasts heard in the background describing grisly murders around Texas—and said that what made it so dreadful was that it never strayed too far from potential reality.
It has often been described as one of the scariest films of all time. Rex Reed called it the most terrifying film he had ever seen. Empire described it as "the most purely horrifying horror movie ever made" and called it "never less than totally committed to scaring you witless". Reminiscing about his first viewing of the film, horror director Wes Craven recalled wondering "what kind of Mansonite crazoid" could have created such a thing. It is a work of "cataclysmic terror", in the words of horror novelist Stephen King, who declared, "I would happily testify to its redeeming social merit in any court in the country." Critic Robin Wood found it one of the few horror films to possess "the authentic quality of nightmare". Based on 74 reviews published since 2000, the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 91% of critics gave it a positive review, with an average score of 7.9 out of 10.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is considered one of the greatest—and most controversial—of horror films, and a major influence on the genre. In 1999 Richard Zoglin of Time commented that it had "set a new standard for slasher films". The Times listed it as one of the 50 most controversial films of all time. Tony Magistrale believes the film paved the way for horror to be used as a vehicle for social commentary. Describing it as "cheap, grubby and out of control", Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times declared that it "both defines and entirely supersedes the very notion of the exploitation picture". In his book Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film, David Hogan called it "the most affecting gore thriller of all and, in a broader view, among the most effective horror films ever made ... the driving force of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is something far more horrible than aberrant sexuality: total insanity." According to Bill Nichols, it "achieves the force of authentic art, profoundly disturbing, intensely personal, yet at the same time far more than personal". Leonard Wolf praised the film as "...an exquisite work of art" and compared it to a Greek tragedy, noting the lack of onscreen violence.
Leatherface has gained a reputation as a significant character in the horror genre, responsible for establishing the use of conventional tools as murder weapons and the image of a large, silent killer devoid of personality. Christopher Null of Filmcritic.com said, "In our collective consciousness, Leatherface and his chainsaw have become as iconic as Freddy and his razors or Jason and his hockey mask." Don Sumner called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a classic that not only introduced a new villain to the horror pantheon but also influenced an entire generation of filmmakers. According to Rebecca Ascher-Walsh of Entertainment Weekly, it laid the foundations for future horror franchises such as Halloween, The Evil Dead, and The Blair Witch Project. Ridley Scott cited it as an inspiration for his 1979 film Alien. French director Alexandre Aja credited it as an early influence on his career. Horror filmmaker and heavy metal musician Rob Zombie sees it as a major influence on his art, most notably his 2003 film House of 1000 Corpses.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was selected for the 1975 Cannes Film Festival Directors' Fortnight and London Film Festival. In 1976, it won the Special Jury Prize at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival in France. Entertainment Weekly ranked the film sixth on its 2003 list of "The Top 50 Cult Films". In a 2005 Total Film poll, it was selected as the greatest horror film of all time. It was named among Time magazine's top 25 horror films in 2007. In 2008 the film ranked number 199 on Empire magazine's list of "The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time". Empire also ranked it 46th in its list of the 50 greatest independent films. In a 2010 Total Film poll, it was again selected as the greatest horror film; the judging panel included veteran horror directors such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and George A. Romero. In 2010, as well, The Guardian ranked it number 14 on its list of the top 25 horror films. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was inducted into the Horror Hall of Fame in 1990, with director Hooper accepting the award, and it is part of the permanent collection of New York City's Museum of Modern Art. In 2012, the film was named by critics in the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine as one of the 250 greatest films.
Themes and analysis
The underlying themes of the film have been the subject of extensive critical discussion; critics and scholars have interpreted it as a paradigmatic exploitation film in which female protagonists are subjected to brutal, sadistic violence. Stephen Prince comments that the horror is "born of the torment of the young woman subjected to imprisonment and abuse amid decaying arms ... and mobiles made of human bones and teeth." As with many horror films, it focuses on the "final girl" trope—the heroine and inevitable lone survivor who somehow escapes the horror that befalls the other characters: Sally Hardesty is wounded and tortured, yet manages to survive with the help of a male truck driver. Critics argue that even in exploitation films in which the ratio of male and female deaths is roughly equal, the images that linger will be of the violence committed against the female characters. The specific case of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre provides support for this argument: three men are killed in quick fashion, but one woman is brutally slaughtered—hung on a meathook—and the surviving woman endures physical and mental torture. In 1977, critic Mary Mackey described the meathook scene as probably the most brutal onscreen female death in any commercially distributed film. She placed it in a lineage of violent films that depict women as weak and incapable of protecting themselves.
In one study, a group of men were shown five films depicting differing levels of violence against women. On first viewing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre they experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety; however, upon subsequent viewing they found the violence against women less offensive and more enjoyable. Another study, investigating gender-specific perceptions of slasher films, involved 30 male and 30 female university students. One male participant described the screaming, especially Sally's, as the "most freaky thing" in the film.
According to Jesse Stommel of Bright Lights Film Journal, the lack of explicit violence in the film forces viewers to question their own fascination with violence that they play a central role in imagining. Nonetheless—citing its feverish camera moves, repeated bursts of light, and auditory pandemonium—Stommel asserts that it involves the audience primarily on a sensory rather than an intellectual level.
Critic Christopher Sharrett argues that since Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), the American horror film has been defined by the questions it poses "about the fundamental validity of the American civilizing process", concerns amplified during the 1970s by the "delegitimation of authority in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate". "If Psycho began an exploration of a new sense of absurdity in contemporary life, of the collapse of causality and the diseased underbelly of American Gothic", he writes, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre "carries this exploration to a logical conclusion, addressing many of the issues of Hitchcock's film while refusing comforting closure".
Robin Wood characterizes Leatherface and his family as victims of industrial capitalism, their jobs as slaughterhouse workers having been rendered obsolete by technological advances. He states that the picture "brings to focus a spirit of negativity ... that seems to lie not far below the surface of the modern collective consciousness". Naomi Merritt explores the film's representation of "cannibalistic capitalism" in relation to Georges Bataille's theory of taboo and transgression. She elaborates on Wood's analysis, stating that the Sawyer family's values "reflect, or correspond to, established and interdependent American institutions ... but their embodiment of these social units is perverted and transgressive."
In Kim Newman's view, Hooper's presentation of the Sawyer family during the dinner scene parodies a typical American sitcom family: the gas station owner is the bread-winning father figure; the killer Leatherface is depicted as a bourgeois housewife; the hitchhiker acts as the rebellious teenager. Isabel Cristina Pinedo, author of Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing, states, "The horror genre must keep terror and comedy in tension if it is to successfully tread the thin line that separates it from terrorism and parody ... this delicate balance is struck in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in which the decaying corpse of Grandpa not only incorporates horrific and humorous effects, but actually uses one to exacerbate the other."
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has also been described as "the ultimate pro-vegetarian film" due to its animal rights themes. In a video essay, film critic Rob Ager describes the irony in humans being slaughtered for meat, putting humans in the position of being slaughtered like farm animals. Director Tobe Hooper gave up meat while making the film, and said "In a way I thought the heart of the film was about meat; it’s about the chain of life and killing sentient beings."
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has appeared on various home video formats. It was first released on videotape and CED in the 1980s by Wizard Video and Vestron Video. Just as the British Board of Film Classification had already banned the theatrical version, the BBFC banned the home version in 1984, amid a moral panic surrounding "video nasties". After the retirement of BBFC chief Ferman in 1999, the board passed the film uncut on video (as well as film) with an 18 certificate, almost 25 years after the original release. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released on DVD in October 1998 in the United States, and in May 2000 in the United Kingdom. An initial Australian DVD release in 2001 was followed by a revised version six years later. Dark Sky Films released a two-disc "ultimate" edition, featuring several interviews, restored audio and picture quality, and other extras including deleted scenes. Dark Sky Films released a Blu-ray version on September 30, 2008. In March 2014, Dark Sky announced the film had received a 4k restoration, and will be re-released in June 2014 to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary. The 4k restoration version is scheduled to be screened in the Directors' Fortnight section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
Shortly after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre established itself as a success on home video in 1982, Wizard Video released a mass-market video game adaptation for the Atari 2600. In the game, the player assumes the role of Leatherface and attempts to murder trespassers while avoiding obstacles such as fences and cow skulls. As one of the first horror-themed video games, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre caused controversy when it was first released due to its violent nature; it sold poorly as a result, because many game stores refused to stock it.
The film was followed by two sequels, a remake, a film that straddles both those categories, and a prequel. The first sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), was considerably more graphic and violent than the original and was banned in Australia for 20 years before it was released on DVD in a revised special edition in October 2006. Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990) was the second sequel to appear, though Hooper did not return to direct due to scheduling conflicts with another film, Spontaneous Combustion. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, starring Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, was released in 1995. While briefly acknowledging the events of the preceding two sequels, its plot makes it a virtual remake of the 1974 original. A straight remake, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was released by Platinum Dunes and New Line Cinema in 2003. It was followed by a prequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, in 2006. A seventh film, Texas Chainsaw 3D, was released on January 4, 2013. It is a direct sequel to the original 1974 film, with no relation to the 2003 or 2006 films.
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