The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was first released in 1974 to horrified audiences across the world. This was a fresh approach for the genre; a gritty and gruelling tale with plenty of scares and thrills which was based, however loosely, in reality. Tobe Hooper made a much admired and criticised movie which rightfully claims a place amongst the most infamous horror films of all time.
The movie opens with five teenagers on a road trip. Background radio reports tell of a macabre find at the local cemetery but they pay no attention. It is hot, they don´t know the area and they make the mistake of picking up a hitchhiker while passing a slaughterhouse in an isolated part of Texas. Unfortunately for them the hitcher is decidedly inbred and violent and after a frightening exchange they kick him out of the van and push on up the highway.
This opening is very nicely shot and acted. It creates a serious undertone of threat right from the start of the film, an undertone which doesn´t let up until the credits roll.
The kids soon run out of gas and the only station around is waiting for a delivery. They make the mistake of going off the main road in an effort to find an old abandoned house. Upon arrival they split up and things begin to go badly wrong in a very gory way. Two of them set off to find a creek to swim in but instead they spot a house and decide to ask for some gas. Mental note - never approach creepy looking houses in backwoods Texas.
The movie creates a huge amount of tension, the intense heat of Texas can be felt through the screen and as the mishaps and attacks are ladled on it becomes almost unbearable. The direction is excellent, there are some fantastically creepy shots and scares that make you jump out of your seat and the overall effect is really unsettling.
The music and sound effects are also very good. The screeching fiddle noise was so good that the remake used it over and over again but here it is just right. The sound effects are frighteningly real sounding, especially the dull thump of the sledgehammer as it collides with an unfortunate teenager.
The story is pretty ridiculous but it works and however bizarre it may seem this film drew heavily from the real life case of Ed Gein - a serial killer who made lampshades from human skin. Hooper takes it one step further with Leatherface, a chainsaw wielding madman with a grotesque mask sewn together from the faces of past victims. He places this freak in the loving arms of an entire family of cannibalistic killers, a male household dominated by the now near dead Grandfather who used to be the best killer at the slaughterhouse.
The five teenagers are just your usual maniac fodder, although one of them is wheelchair bound and wimpy and the fact he is the most vulnerable victim imaginable increases the tension even further. The acting is decent but not great, some of the mad family play their parts well but they struggle to keep them believable for the duration. Indeed the entire premise descends into something of a farce towards the end as the tension which has been building and building finally cracks with a crescendo of violence.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has definitely been a hugely influential film and you can see echoes of it in the work of many great directors. Considering Hooper thought of the idea, co-wrote it in three weeks and went into production with virtually amateur actors and very little money it is an impressive achievement. There is a deliberate feeling of reality throughout the film; something which pushed horror in a new direction, away from monsters and mythical creatures towards what warped and twisted minds might be lurking down a road near you.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a hint of urban legend about it, it is very loosely based on actual events and it has been banned in various places at various times - this helps build its status as a contender for best horror film. I had heard of the film long before I got to see it and inevitably I was slightly disappointed. The last quarter of the film just didn´t work very well in my opinion, it depended more on the meagre acting skills of those involved and pushed the bounds of believability beyond breaking point. The earlier part of the film is fantastic though and features some unforgettable shots and scenes which are extremely effective and for this reason alone any horror fan worthy of the name must see this movie.