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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Before Halloween.... Before Friday The 13th.... Before Scream.... There Was The Saw.

Directed by:

Tobe Hooper

Rating: 10/10

Running Time: 83 minutes

UK Certificate: 18

On DVD

Country: United States

Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ has acquired something of a mythical status. Stories have circulated for years about how its first audiences fainted or threw up in the aisles. It is believed by many (especially by those who have not actually seen it) to be one of the most unpleasantly graphic gorefests ever shown on screen. And it is the ‘video nasty’ par excellence, regularly accused of obscenity, immorality or worse , and often banned.

It seems high time to sort the facts from the myth.

First of all, although it has a plausible geographical setting (backwoods Texas) and although its narrator (an uncredited John Laroquette) declares it to be a true story, it is in fact no truer than Fargo (which uses similar tricks to authenticate itself). Claims that it is based on the real-life exploits of serial killer Ed Gein stretch our normal understanding of what ‘based on’ means.

Secondly, it is remarkably ungraphic. Far more terror is generated from the sound of a chainsaw, or the sound of screaming, than from the sight of flesh being chopped. And even when occasionally acts of violence are shown, they are astonishingly quick, and almost entirely blood free. Hooper is so skilled a director, with so firm a grip on atmosphere and tension, that you leave this film convinced that you have seen far more than he ever actually reveals.

Thirdly, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is a horror film which does not really scare its viewers, but rather, like ‘Audition’ and My Little Eye, traumatises them, bludgeoning them with scenes of psychological, as much as physical, torment. If you’re looking for cheap frights, see a more conventional horror; but if you want to feel as though you’ve actually been battered by an agonising, visceral experience, this is the film for you.

Fourthly, if you can manage to catch your breath, you may be surprised to find yourself laughing. There is something absurdly recognisable about the cannibalistic family at the centre of this film, despite its inbred backwardness. The grandfather (John Dugan) whose words are uttered for him by everyone else. The son (played by the extraordinary Edwin Neal) who just wants to be an artist (albeit with corpses as his medium) while his brother (Gunnar Hansen) stays at home and does all the work (slaughtering AND cooking). It is shocking, but also darkly funny, to see in this crew of sickos something like a model family unit – respecting their elders, watching out for one another, and, most importantly, eating a shared meal. In this film, the family that slays together, stays together.

‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ is a low-budget triumph, still every bit as powerful in its impact today, and never outdone by any of its many slash-and-dash successors. This is cutting-edge horror, and while it may not be to everyone’s tastes, it should find its way at some time onto every film-lover’s plate.”

It's Got: An effective faux-documentary style, an eerie musique concrète soundtrack, moodily baroque sets, an unnervingly cruel streak, a harrowing final half-hour of psychological torture – as well as some good ol fashioned southern hospitality and nice n chewy home-cooked finger-lickin barbecue.

It Needs: To be seen both on the big and small screen. On the big screen it has the impact of an hour-and-a-half long hammer-blow to the head, whereas the humour is better appreciated with the images and sound reduced in size.

DVD Extras The extra material (on the Universal DVD) is pretty exhaustive, but somewhat repetitive, as there is a limit to how much can be said about the film. Best of all is the full-length audio commentary from director and writer Tobe Hooper, cinematographer Daniel Pearl, and actor Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface). There are also 22 minutes of interview with Tobe Hopper and co-writer Kim Henkel, 28 minutes of deleted scenes, alternate footage and bloopers (all accompanied by brief explanatory notes, and of unsurprisingly shoddy quality), and a 73-minute documentary (The Shocking Truth) which includes interviews with most of the major participants, and covers the films inception, production, release and influence, and its after-life in the sequels. Here we learn that for all the carnivorous activities that it depicts, life on this films set was no picnic for cast and crew, none of whom saw very much of the millions that it made in the end. The documentary also investigates the films now absurd-seeming 25-year ban in the UK – although undeniably disturbing, and with a visceral impact that has rarely been equalled, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is no more graphic than, say, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and it is ridiculous that so bloodless a film should ever have been banned. In trying to protect the public from the supposedly malign influence of this film, it was the BBFC who – ironically enough - ended up doing all the cutting, slicing and slashing. For real completists, there are original trailer and sequel trailers (including a trailer for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation which is mysteriously in rough-cut form), and galleries of stills and posters. DVD Extras Rating: 7/10

Alternatives:

Deathtrap, Deranged, Ed Gein, House of 1000 Corpses, Motel Hell, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Wrong Turn

Summary

Downsized abbatoir workers, weird hitch-hikers, vandalised graveyards, abandoned cars, a macabre house, a hapless quintet of young lambs for the slaughter, and the gentle hum of a chainsaw. With these basic elements and next to no money, Tobe Hooper has spun an unapologetically mean-spirited tale of skewed family values and Southern discomfort, where all sanity is finished off with a skull-crushing hammer-blow. An absolute classic of horror, with many imitators but few rivals.

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