With the lack of a good party or spooky activity to do, my girl and I decided to spend Halloween night watching "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Not the new one. The old one. The good one. Though the season is over and a horror movie review seems a bit passe, I just couldn't resist. I'd forgotten how haunting and engaging this film really was, and having seen so many cases of flicks not living up to their hype or legend, I'm happy to report that this one really does.

There's thousands of reviews of TCM available online, though most are pretty straight-shot. My goal isn't so much to tell you why it was such a great film or to go into too much detail about its impact, but rather to show the poor souls who've never seen the movie what it was all about. Course, you should hear at least a little regarding its background. Written and directed by Tobe Hooper on a shoestring budget, the film debuted in 1974 and quickly garnered a buzz (I didn't intend that pun, I swear) for its depraved and graphic themes. Many audiences walked out, many theaters refused to play it, and long before the world decided it was a "classic," most of the reviews said otherwise. The tiny budget mixed with the kind of direction and atmosphere that had to be at least in part unintentional gave TCM a "documentary" feel, only heightening the emotion.

The reason I liked the film isn't because of the graphic scenes, because obviously, there's been plenty of films ten times more graphic since. There isn't much gore in TCM; the dirty bits are left to the imagination of the viewer. What really got me about this movie is its almost complete lack of a coherent arc -- there isn't a story told here, at least not in the conventional sense. It's just a series of terrible events that happened to a bunch of poor teenagers. There are no moments of vindication, no pauses to truly explain the "why" of what's happening. I'm sure this explains why so many of the pre-reputation reviews were so scathing, but ask yourself this: when you hear the term "horror story," which of the two words gets you more excited? That's not to say that TCM doesn't have a story to tell; it does, but it certainly doesn't follow the rules of how to go about it.

Anyways, the film is based -- very loosely -- on the exploits of a man named Ed Gein. Decades ago, Gein gained notoriety after being caught for several macabre acts. He liked to raid cemeteries for dead bodies, which he would decorate his home and himself with, with extra attention paid to women's most womanly features. Use your imagination. Apparently, Gein had some crazy ass overly religious mother who brought him up untrusting and hateful towards women, a fact that goes a long way in explaining why he murdered a few of them. Gein was eventually caught, and died in an institution. He might not deserve to have a legend that lives on forever, but aside from influencing TCM, his story was also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." The latter never purported to be a "true story," and while TCM's only claim was being "based on" one, both films took more than a few creative liberties. What you see in TCM did not happen in real life, though for the ends of making the movie more enjoyable for virgin viewers, you don't have to tell them that.

Before we start the review, some final notes: TCM spun off three sequels. Of the three, only "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" has any redeeming qualities, and is the only one with Tobe Hooper again at the helm. Aside from the sequels, we've seen a "re-imagining" hit theaters this year. This new film is actually the driving reason behind this review. If you thought the original was just a lower budgeted version of that, you're very wrong. They only kept the basic points, and for my money, changed most of the stuff that really sticks with you. The original is the kind of movie that will invade your dreams, popping up in your head at the oddest of times. It might not be "scary" in the way some would expect, but if you're down with 90 minutes of unbridled creepiness, look no further. This is the one.

I refuse to put a "spoiler warning" on a review for a 1974 film that most of the world has already seen. Oh wait, I guess I just did. Here's an in-depth look at "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." Yes...originally "Chain Saw." "Chainsaw" is just an accepted alternative. These are things you should know!



After a minute of scrolling text (narrated by John Larroquette) sets up the forthcoming events, we get to meet the victims. See, there's this big thing down in Texas about graves being desecrated with corpses transformed into works of art, and lead scream teen Sally Hardesty wants to make sure her grandfather's grave is in one piece. She's seconded by her retarded brother, Franklin, who just might be the most annoying piece of slasher fodder in the history of the genre. Within the first five minutes of TCM, the wheelchair-bound idiot establishes himself as "the guy you NEED to see dead" by slipping and having his wheelchair roll down a hill, body flailing in the tumble. The rest of the teens seem to tolerate his incessant whining only for Sally's sake, and that fact isn't lost on Franklin. As annoying as everyone found the fool, they did a good job of illustrating his frustration with being a "freak" in the company of perfectly normal and perfectly happy hot teenage couples.

Also on the trip to Hell is Jerry (Sally's boyfriend), and another couple -- Kirk and Pam. We don't learn much about these three, aside from Pam's interest in astrology and having big boobs. History notes that three of these characters merely there for the slaughter, with Marilyn Burns' "Sally" being the only one frequently remembered by name. The rumors are true, folks -- nobody screams quite like Marilyn Burns. At least not for such extended periods.

There's your peeps. Let's meet the creeps.

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It's an incredibly hot day, and they're in an incredibly underpopulated area, so when the Teen Van spots a distressed hitchhiker waving them down, they can't help but to lend a hand. Yeah, I know...one of the stupid cardinal rules of what not to do in a horror movie, but remember, this horror movie helped to set those very standards. Anyway, the hitchhiker immediately starts doing freaky things -- he's filthy, covered in dirt and cuts, dressed like a loon, the works. Franklin the Invalid sparks a conversation about cow slaughter after the hitchhiker brings up that its his family business, leading to our new pal unveiling a series of photographs depicting cows he smacked with a sledgehammer. Played by Edwin Neal, the hitchhiker manages to creep you out despite every last instinct telling you that he's by no means the one you're going to be the most afraid of in TCM.

After slicing his own hand open with a knife, the hitchhiker takes a Polaroid of the teens, only proceeding to burn it on the spot. Just as the gang begins to doubt the intelligence of this little pickup, the hitchhiker grabs Franklin's arm and slices him open. Finally, they kick him out of the van, but before they can drive off, the lunatic smears his blood in a seemingly deliberate pattern on the side of the van. Franklin ponders the worst, but the rest of the crew just considers the experience a small run of bad luck. Retrospectively, it was probably the best part of their day.



Ah, damn, wouldn't you know it? They're low on gas. They pull up into a Gulf station (though the "Gulf" part seems purely incidental; I doubt Hooper wanted to imply that a large corporation with a large legal team had franchises run by these sorts of people), only to be confronted by owner Drayton Sawyer, who brings some bad news: they're all out of gas. Doh. Instead, they ask for directions to an old house belonging to Sally's family, and Drayton seems less than enthusiastic about their direction. He implores them not to head to the house, citing that the locals 'round these here parts aren't the kind of people you'd want to intrude on. Acting more concerned than he probably should've been, Drayton suggests that they just stay put and wait for a new haul of gas to arrive.

At this point, the audience is unaware of Drayton's intentions, only seeing him as a guy who's kinda kooky. They still won't follow his directions, opting to head off after buying some of his "home cured" barbecue grub. Audiences new to the movie thought nothing of it; the rest of us knew that this was time to say "ewww."

From there, they manage to locate the old family house -- run down beyond repair, but still fun to explore. Sally points out the old zebra wallpaper she used to love, while the rest of the gang makes the most of a strange day by telling jokes and cutting their sexual tension with knives. There's not much of a musical score to TCM, 'cept for small bits at the major points -- a part of the score obviously inspired the "CHH CHH CHH" sound that arrives whenever Jason Voorhees walks into a room. As the background gongs become more apparent, we know that something's about to happen. But what?



Kirk and Pam run off to find a swimming hole that Franklin swears once existed, but it's all dried up now. They hear noises further down the path, and upon following it, notice lots of cars. Thinking that the homeowners might be able to lend them some gas, they make a critical error in judgment by approaching...THE HOUSE.

Yes, "the house." It looks mostly harmless from the outside -- just your standard, beat up old white farmhouse -- but even without knowing what was inside, a sense of dread sweeps over. Maybe it's all those off-screen gongs, I don't know. I've seen so many horror movies that've tried to recreate the tension and mysterious fright attached to what appears to be a regular ol' house, but God, this just worked so much better. Keep in mind, I'm not one of those people who thinks TCM was a "masterpiece." I don't even think it's a "great movie." It's just creepy, and where that point is such a hit-or-miss thing in so many films, TCM succeeds in bringing creepiness to the table every time they try.

In the new TCM, this is one of the things that bugged me so much. They gave it a shot, but the basis of this story is not one that can be pulled off with so much artificiality. It HAS to be raw. Creepy doesn't come from special effects that only leave you guessing how they were pulled off, or cheap scares that are no more effective than someone clapping two cymbals together behind your unsuspecting head. "Creepy" is a dish best served with a realist touch, and for as outlandish as the original TCM's story is about to become, it still feels like someone's home video. I love it.

Despite finding a naked tooth on the porch -- always a warning sign -- Kirk decides to keep knocking on the door. Hey man, they really need some gas. Pam wanders off for a quick minute; I can't remember what she alleged to be doing, but her breasts seem more level when she returned. Meanwhile, Kirk peers through the screen door and notices something odd on the walls of a far off room...


Even for the audience, it's difficult to determine what most of that stuff is. We can clearly make out some skulls, but the rest is kind of obscured. That's what makes it so scary. The camera does a few quick jumps towards the room, heightening the tension to the point where even the audience's first impulse is to get up and run off. Still, it's a movie, and movies make characters do stupid things. In this case, Kirk enters and slowly walks towards the unholy chamber. He does this with caution, adding more tension since it takes him forever to make his way down to...the room.

Of course, "something" pops up and smacks him with a hammer, dragging his lifeless carcass inside and sealing off the room with the slam of a sliding steel door. We only got a second to see what that "something" was, but it was enough to see that this was no ordinary psychopath. We don't know what that "something" is, but we know it's god damned terrible.

And it's only going to get worse from here.



Pam, silly Pam, eventually enters the house herself when her beau doesn't return. She takes a tumble, falling into what would normally be a second bedroom in most houses. Not this time. As she gathers her wits, Pam realizes that she's sitting amongst a pile of thousands of bones and feathers, strewn about either haphazardly or in "decor" fashion hanging from the ceiling. There's a couch lined with bones, a live chicken clucking in a cage, and finally, Pam's confusion turns to terror when she notices that some of the bones -- many of the bones -- are from humans. This was powerful stuff. As a viewer, you know that someone bad is hiding just around the corner...now you know that he has a vast collection of human bones.

When Pam meets the culprit, it's a shocking event. Not just because he popped up in typical "boo!!!" fashion -- that's part of it, but not the big part. After your heart races from the jump/boo/scare tactic, you're forced to interpret the beastly man running around with a mask of skin on his face. It's time to meet Leatherface.


Good God, this was a moment. Gunnar Hansen gets a lot of credit for the work he did here, but to the unknowing, maybe that seems a little undeserved. After all, we've seen Friday the 13th diehards praise Kane Hodder's mannerisms as Jason, but there's always going to be those who'd say that anyone could look menacing given that outfit and a machete. Maybe it's the same for Leatherface, but I don't think so. Hansen creates a lunatic like I've never seen; a creature that terrorizes using a mixture of socially inept quirks and matter-of-fact movements that paints Leatherface as a real monster...not a movie monster.

As a character, he's even better. We understand nothing, absolutely nothing about this beast. At this point, we don't know who or what he is, why he's there, why he does the things he does. Sound familiar? Sure, but most of the Leatherface knockoffs were satisfied enough just by performing a murder. Trust me, "killing people" is probably the least affecting nuance of the guy. The dreadful scene shown above, with Leatherface dragging an almost-escaped Pam back into the house where she'll surely meet a fate worse than death, has probably been reflected in the dreams of thousands. Ever go to an old log cabin, or a country farmhouse for a weekend excursion? You know, some off-track place that's away from society? Could you imagine watching TCM in that kind of setting? This is one fucked up film, and fucked up films often inspire their audience to conjure up alternatives or additions to the stories they've seen unfold. (see: "Jacob's Ladder") TCM wasn't incredibly scary, but it certainly paved way for your mind to think up things that were.

Even worse, those "things" probably starred you. That's a lot scarier than "Pam" or "Retard Frankie." Okay, enough chit chat, I've got something really twisted to show you. Nobody could've predicted what was going to happen next, not that they'd actually want to.



Leatherface carries the screaming Pam into his chamber, fending off her last ditch swats and slaps. Almost casually, he lifts her up and presses her down, impaling her onto a meat hook. Unbelievable in 1974, unbelievable in 2003. The audience doesn't have a chance to catch their breath, as Leatherface immediately revs up his trademark chainsaw -- finally! -- and proceeds to slice away at Pam's fallen boyfriend. She's helpless to do anything but watch in agony, and as the movie's become strangely engaging in the past ten minutes, it's a trait viewers share with her. Leatherface doesn't act like no primadonna killer, either. He's just doing what he does -- not carrying on about it or at all impressed with himself. It makes the scene so much more horrifying. Leatherface just doesn't care. He's not happy or proud, sad or conflicted...he's just doing these terrible things.

The scene ends before we find out Pam's fate, though obviously, it's been more than implied. One of the biggest praises thrust TCM's way is how it could scare you without really showing you all that much. And that's no bullshit thing people say, either -- when I think back about the movies that genuinely frightened me, this has typically been the case. Seeing something disgusting or horrific is nowhere near as effective as being left to wonder how disgusting or horrific it was. That's why "Gigli" is going to keep that "worst movie ever made" moniker for a long, long time. Nobody saw the damn thing -- we can only wonder how bad it was. Your imagination is infinitely more powerful than anything a movie camera could capture.

So, yeah, as far as we know: 2 down, 3 to go. Sally, Jerry and Franklin remain safe for now, and completely oblivious to all that crap we just saw. Jerry, macho Jerry, insists that the siblings stay behind while he goes searching for the rest of the group. Following the very same path as Pam and Kirk, he makes his way up to the house, goes inside, and...



Before Leatherface pops up again, Jerry has time to properly become disgusted with all of the dirty human remains and assorted nastiness. Hearing strange noises coming from an oddly placed freezer, he opens the lid. Pam pops out, convulsing in what would end up being her final death rattle, collapsing one last time just as Leatherface enters and smacks Jerry clean across the forehead with his hammer. Certain "hammer" scenes mute the usual screams in favor of squealing pig sounds, illustrating the light emotional weight Leatherface feels towards his victims. Meat is meat.

After making his third kill of the day (that we know of, at least), Leatherface frantically storms around the house, perhaps worried that there's more intruders on the way. He sits near a window, erratically rocking back and forth -- it's our first good look at his mask, and only here do we become certain that it's made from human skin. "Disturbing" may be the only word to describe what we've just seen, but would you believe that it actually gets much worse from here? Oh, it does. Does it ever!

It's nighttime now, and on that alone, things have become more frightening. Sally and Franklin are still by the van, believing (hoping?) that their pals just got lost in the woods without the aid of a flashlight. This leads to a fairly annoying exchange where Franklin tries to persuade Sally into driving off for help, but it's a moot point -- one of the missing teens has the car keys. Instead, they have no choice but to search for them on foot. It's a task made all the more difficult since Sally has to wheel her idiot brother around. Fortunately, that doesn't last long.



Leatherface, wielding a chainsaw and only vaguely lit, attacks and immediately slices Franklin to bits. We don't see it happen, but rather focus in on Sally's face as she stands by watching her brother die. Leatherface ultimately turns his attention to the only teen left who's still breathing, taking us to a famous chase scene where Sally runs and runs and runs. She doesn't know it, but Sally is only circling the very house she so desperately needs to escape. Rapidly breaking her way through assorted vines and woodsy things, the scene is widely remembered not only for its intensity, but also because poor Marilyn Burns was really getting cut up to all Hell on those vines. I wouldn't say that all of her bloodstains were legit, but yes, some of them were.

Leatherface only plods when using the chainsaw to cut through shit -- when he's not doing that, this mofo is pretty quick. Sally runs into the house, and remember, she's not yet privy to the torments that've already transpired inside. As the monster closes in, she jets up the stairs into a sparsely decorated room, only to find a pair of rotting corpses all dressed up. Or, at least, we think they're two corpses. One of them might not be...stay tuned. To make a long story short, she jumps through a second story window to escape Leatherface, and though only temporarily, Sally finally succeeds in getting away...



Okay, so she makes her way all the way back to that gas station/BBQ joint the gang visited earlier, screaming for Drayton to help her. He assures the poor girl that whatever was chasing her has gone off, and tells her to stay put while he pulls up the truck. Sally, almost incoherent with fear, tries to gather her wits. Everyone she loves was sawed to pieces, but maybe she'll make it out okay. Her eyes are drawn towards Drayton's red oven, and she can't shake the feeling that the meat inside looks a tad off. We don't get enough of a view to properly identify its contents, but there's no way that's a cow's ass inside. Just as she begins putting the puzzle together, Drayton return with a rope and a sack, beating Sally senseless with a broom before tying her up.

He loads her into the car, and during the ride, gleefully pokes his "prize" with a stick while telling her that everything's going to be okay. Jim Siedow is great in the role, taking a character scripted to act sadistic to heights so depraved that the word no longer does it justice. On the drive, he stops the car to chastise the very same hitchhiker from earlier, and as they pull up to the all to familiar farmhouse, we finally understand just how freaky the Texas Chain Saw Massacre really is. That's right -- Drayton, the hitchhiker and Leatherface are all part of the same inbred family: three brothers from Hell raised to kill who know no remorse. Plenty of clues have been dropped about the Sawyer family's meal of choice, but it isn't until the next scene that it's put out there for all to see.



So it begins. The infamous "dinner scene." It's the thing many fans missed the most in the new TCM flick, and with good reason: it's absolutely sick. After the hitchhiker torments Sally, he and Leatherface carry down that old man corpse she earlier encountered upstairs. Only, it's not a corpse. It's alive. Yep, Grandpa Sawyer, as fluid as a brick...but still breathing. The boys make a small incision on Sally's hand to let the old coon taste her blood, which he seems to like. Jesus Christ, this was some movie. For those curious, this scene was copied almost exactly in the half-spoof "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2," only that time, Grandpa's "dead man" makeup was more involved. Course, the scene pictured above gets points for being the first.

I know reading a recap and looking at a few pics isn't going to instill the same sense of dread as actually watching the film, so for those new to TCM, I hope you can see between the lines. Maybe it's not much to hear about, but seeing it is another matter entirely. I think I was desensitized to most of these kinds of movies after seeing #7,503, but this one still gets me every time. Oh, wait...we're not done.



The dinner scene continues! Leatherface, now in full transvestite garb with a wig, dress, heels and make-up smothered over his mask, takes a special interest in Sally's skin. She, appropriately enough, accepts his face-grabbing gestures by screaming bloody murder. The rest of the scene plays out with Sally forced to watch the Sawyers converse and bicker at each other, only taking time out to make light of her situation by cackling at her or insinuating the many terrible things they plan to do to her. We learn that Drayton serves as the chef for the other brothers' catches, and yep, Sally's the latest catch.

Sally's torment is illustrated with some thrifty yet effective camerawork, focusing in on her way-too-wide-open bloodshot eyes. It's one of the reasons TCM was so difficult to watch for some. Usually, in cases where a character is victimized beyond belief, they'll either get killed or make an escape just as they're hitting their personal breaking point. Sally hit her breaking point twenty minutes ago, and they're still torturing her. The movie is in bad taste by design, but this scene really pushed the limits. As a viewer, you've stopped rooting for Sally only in as far as her escape -- now you'd be just as satisfied if they killed her, because at least then the suffering would be over with. Time and innumerable rip-offs have softened the movie's blow, but it's still capable of getting you to feel things. Bad things. Terrible things. Speaking of which, the Sawyers have one last trick up their sleeve. Remember Grandpa? Well, today's his lucky day!



The boys decide to let the old man have one last glory -- a final crack at a human skull. Grandpa is thrilled, but his decaying body precludes him from being able to hold the hammer. Sally is held down, head over a blood bucket, as Grandpa tries and tries again to split her head open. The brothers suggest doing it themselves, but just before they can make good on that, Sally breaks free and jumps through another window. It's now daylight; a stark change that only emphasizes just how long she's been tormented.

Burns is fantastic here -- she looks like she's in real pain, and actually, she was in real pain. Low budget...1970s...a lot of corners were cut, and a lot of Marilyn Burns was cut. (the earlier scene with Grandpa drinking her blood -- that was a real cut, too) She's not out of the woods yet, figuratively and literally, as the younger brothers march out to reclaim their dinner...



After making her way up to the road, Sally waves down a truck for help. The hitchhiker gets run over in the process; a satisfying end for at least one of the bad guys. Leatherface is still on the prowl, chainsaw in hand. The truckers throws a wrench at him, knocking the beast down and causing him to slice some of his own leg up with the chainsaw. It's not enough to keep him at bay, but Sally manages to wave down another hitchhiker, narrowly escaping as Leatherface dances around in the background.

The movie ends right there -- we never find out what happened to that poor trucker, and as we never see the face of Sally's savior, we're not even sure if her terror has really ended. With Leatherface swinging his chainsaw around, the movie ends abruptly and only resolved in part. Not a typical way to end a flick, but it works. Again, I stress the importance of leaving some events up to the audience. Here's a big one -- you don't know what'll become of Leatherface, or really, even Sally. If you always envisioned the second car as being just another road back to the slaughterhouse for our heroine, well, it might as well have happened, because nobody could give you an argument that's any more true. TCM ends with Leatherface still very much in control of his weapon, with the terrible house still standing, and with no cliche triumph of good or evil. Like I said earlier, everything that happens in this movie just happens. It's just there, for whatever it's worth.

Overall: This has been a pretty long review. Okay, I'll be honest: "recap." I'm going to assume that the majority of those who read the entire thing either haven't seen "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," or saw it so long ago that the events are only partly remembered. Do yourself a favor, rent this bitch. It's an experience, that's for sure. I'm not of the same mind as some other fans -- I don't see TCM as being anything more than a screwball thrillride, but if you're into those sort of movies, this is the grand-friggin-daddy. Many films have a reputation, but TCM deserves its hype and delivers on the promises made therein. I mean, come on...a half-dead cannibal grandpa sucking blood from a teen's finger? You have to see that. A+. Maybe that's generous, but what the Hell? I broke 5,000 words on this thing. Gotta give 'em something back, ya know?

- Matt (11/02/03)

Want More Leatherface? Check out the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Atari Game!

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