Directed by: Tobe Hooper || Produced by: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper, Jay Parsley, Richard Saenz
Screenplay by: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper || Starring: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, Teri McMinn
Music by: Wayne Bell, Tobe Hooper || Cinematography: Daniel Pearl || Editing by: Larry Carroll, Sallye Richardson || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 84 minutes
Before the release of slasher-classics Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and even John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), there was the king of low-budget horror pictures, Tobe Hooper’s own chainsaw nightmare. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is arguably every bit as influential as those later slasher favorites, as it as has been remade, sequeled, and prequeled to death over the decades much like the stories of Jason, Freddy Krueger, and the unkillable Michael Myers, as well as partially inspiring the “slasher-in-space”-masterpiece, Alien (1979).
It goes without saying that Massacre is both incredibly low-budget and also an exploitation feature. The production values and set-design, as well as the running theme of teenage death via power tools, are portrayed in fittingly crude, lowbrow fashion. However, that does not mean Hooper’s chainsaw-adventure is not an effective film. Strictly speaking, Massacre is an immensely effective, trim, toned, and efficient thriller that does its job in scaring and disturbing you — nothing more, nothing less. The project may not be nuanced, but the film serves its purpose. It’s hard to harbor much ill will to Chainsaw Massacre when it’s this much fun.
The film’s creepy opening, which intercuts the introductory credits with shots of decayed, half-eaten human corpses, sets the tone for the rest of the story. The isolated Texas setting is ripe with foreboding, and this uneasy sense of danger never lets up for a moment. Top to bottom, Hooper does a great job establishing the mood of his narrative with efficient, effective cinematography that conveys the impending doom of its cast. The screenplay’s foreshadowing is excellent, ramping up tension until the initial victim is taken by the infamous “Leatherface”-antagonist.
The characters of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are a different story. Although nobody acts weird or annoying, the principle victims of the film are cardboard cutouts. They exist to be systematically killed off, one by one, until we are left with the “final girl”-trope that gets to enjoy extra fun (re: psychological torture). The five teenage characters possess no memorable traits whatsoever, save for one guy being in a wheelchair. All the victimized teenagers in the film serve one purpose and one purpose only: To project the audience onto the screen so we can be scared out of our minds.
Horror doesn’t necessarily function the same way an drama-piece does; we don’t necessarily need to like the expendable characters in a slasher picture like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be frightened. All we need is to be able to relate to the characters on screen on the most superficial level. That’s why most horror movies get a pass if their characters are more forgettable than most other films. Now that’s not to say that distinct, memorable characters are a bad thing or can’t function in a horror movie — that’s even better — but for movies whose sole purpose is to scare its audience, slasher-character personalities don’t need to be held to as high a standard. The lack of memorable characters in Massacre limits its appeal to an extent, but the film still works as is. And while we’re discussing characters in the film, I’d be negligent not to mention the unforgettable villains. Leatherface and his inbred, cannibalistic Texas brethren are about as memorable as they come.
In the end, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a memorable and effective horror film despite its misleading title (only one person gets killed with a power tool). It relies heavily on foreboding camerawork and editing to set a tone it sticks to till the disturbing finale. Its teenage cast of heroes (victims) isn’t much beyond cannon fodder, and its ending is too abrupt to be as enjoyable as the rest of the movie, but overall, the film fulfills its promise. It scares you, and with hardly an ounce of blood or gore to boot. You can’t ask a horror film for more than that.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s technical prowess and irreverent tone are what fuel this low-budget exploitation flick. Both the cinematography and editing combine to produce a tense, creepy ride. Leatherface and his family are twisted in the most lovely way.
— However… the victims of this film massacre are forgettable. They exist only as vessels into which the audiences can project themselves.