Running Time: 83 minutes
Synopsis - Meat IS Murder - Vietnam-Era America as Slaughterhouse
The film begins with a narrative crawl (think Star Wars, only creepy) and a detached-sounding, almost documentarian voice-over by John Larroquette, who was a friend of Hooper's and a popular DJ at the time. The matter-of-fact narrative text is as follows:
The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young, but had lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected, nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history...The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The credits have a threatening feel - the score (by Hooper and Wayne Bell) kicks in hard, consisting primarily of atonal clangs and clanks, which were created by banging on piano wire, pans, sheet metal, and chain-link fences. The oozing red designs are actually close-ups of sunspots, filmed by Daniel Pearl, who was only 23 when he shot The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Editing throughout the film is uniformly and purposefully choppy, with quick cuts from scene to scene. No fades or fancy stuff here - just breakneck cuts. After the credits run, the music stops, and an unsettling series of strobe-lit shots of corpses appear one after the other. Close-ups of blackening fingernails, rotting craniums, and tattered flesh flicker across the screen, each gone just before they can be fully apprehended. The effect is shocking and disorienting. The strobe-lit shots culminate with a steady close-up of a decomposing skull; as the camera pulls back, we see that the corpse has been wired to a gravestone, positioned atop it like grotesque statuary. A crackling "radio broadcast" in the background informs us that a recent series of grave robbings in Newt, Texas have alarmed and mystified police.
Significantly, the movie's action opens on a dead armadillo belly-up alongside a highway that shimmers and simmers in the Texas sun. A van passes the armadillo, and we meet the film's five hapless protagonists/victims. Sally Hardesty and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin are concerned about their grandfather's grave. They've conscripted Jerry, Sally's boyfriend, and another couple, Kirk and Pam, to make the long, hot road trip to Texas to check on the grave for themselves. The van pulls into the small graveyard, and after an odd encounter with some scary locals (one emaciated old man intones, "I seen things..."), the teenagers leave, satisfied that their grandfather's gravesite is undisturbed. They head toward the Hardesty homestead, intending to stay the night after a refreshing swim in the swimming hole nearby. On the way to the gas station, they pass "the old slaughterhouse", which prompts a discussion about the slaughter of cows. Franklin helpfully recalls how "they bash 'em in the head with a sledgehammer. Sometimes the first hit doesn't kill 'em, and they'd have to hit 'em sometimes two, three times and they still wouldn't die. Sometimes they'd skin them before they were even dead." "Oh, Franklin," says Sally disgustedly, "I like meat. Please change the subject." Her statement is intercut with shots of exhausted penned cows, drooling in the heat, waiting for the slaughter.
Just past the slaughterhouse they run across a hitchhiker. Good hippies that they are (bell bottoms and love beads abound in this movie), they stop to pick up the young man, who is apparently near heat exhaustion. The teenagers begin peppering him with questions about the slaughterhouse - How exacly are cows killed? And what exactly is in headcheese? The hitcher is more than happy to oblige, and he excitedly launches into a monologue about how the old way of killing cows was better - how hitting them in the head was much more effective than the modern machine method. Ruefully, he exclaims that the machines have deprived him of the pleasure of bashing the cows to death. The teenagers grow uneasy as he becomes more and more agitated; finally, he grabs a knife from Franklin and gleefully slashes his own palm open. The van erupts in panic, and they push the hitchhiker out, but not before he manages to draw a straight razor and slice Franklin's arm. "I think we just picked up Dracula," says Franklin.
Badly shaken, the teenagers pull into a rundown gas station/barbeque joint to calm down and fill the tank. The old man who owns the station warns them that the swimming hole is a bad place to go - the property owners are unfriendly and don't take kindly to trespassers. "Those girls... those girls don't wanna go messin' round no old house!" Shrugging off the warning (as required by time-honored horror-movie tradition), the kids pile back into the van, Franklin contentedly munching on a barbequed sausage. They head to the swimming hole but are distracted by a ramshackle house. They decide to explore. Inside the house they discover a strange talisman made of bones hanging from a doorframe. Spooked, Franklin calls the others, but Kirk and Pam have already run off in search of the swimming hole.
The couple follows a dry riverbed to a seemingly abandoned campsite, where a tattered tent flaps in the hot breeze. The branches of a nearby dead tree, like a parody of Christmas, are laden with gruesome ornaments of bone, old cutlery, pots and pans, and a pocketwatch impaled by a nail. Undeterred, they continue down the riverbed until they spy the eaves of a house in the distance. They skip toward the house. Behind the house they discover a large number of cars, mostly late-model, covered by a tarp and a loud, buzzing generator. For horror-movie reasons, they decide to approach the house. On the porch, Kirk bangs on the screen door while a bored Pam sits on the steps. No one seems to be home, but Kirk finds an unmistakeably human molar, roots and silver filling intact. In accordance with horror-movie logic, he is not in the least disturbed by this. He tells Pam to hold out her hand and places the tooth in her palm. Disgusted and angry, she stomps into the yard and plops down onto the swing to pout. Kirk decides to take matters into his own hands and tentatively enters the house. "Anyone home? Hello!" he calls. As his eyes adjust to the interior gloom, he sees a red room at the end of the hall that appears to be decorated with animal skulls and bones. He slowly walks into the room, utilizing a small planked ramp similar to the type used in slaughterhouses. Suddenly, shockingly, a massive masked figure in a butcher's apron leaps out and bashes Kirk over the head with a sledgehammer. Remember the earlier conversation in the van about how cattle are killed? Just as Franklin described the "how-to" of cattle slaughter, it takes two or three hits to kill Kirk. As the butcher - the infamous Leatherface - indifferently and methodically dispatches Kirk, a chilling example of non-diegetic sound (that is, sound that isn't directly connected to or coming from anything onscreen) plays on the soundtrack: instead of the score, we hear pigs squealing. It's subtle but excruciatingly effective. Butchering accomplished, Leatherface slams the room's steel (slaughterhouse) door shut.
Pam, growing restless in the late afternoon heat, slowly heads toward the porch, calling out for Kirk. She opens the front door and tiptoes inside. She turns left into a side room and trips, falling into a chamber of horrors - chicken feathers fill the room like rank snowdrifts, and the furniture in the room is made entirely of human bones. In the lovingly crafted furniture is a grotesque but unmistakeable similarity to leather sofas found in homes all across America. The camera lingers on the details and obvious craftsmanship of the furniture before Pam fully comprehends her predicament. She runs toward the door screaming, but it's too late; Leatherface is behind her. (In these shots it's clear that his mask is actually a skinned human face.) She has no more chance of escape than the cattle we saw at the film's beginning. Expressionless and dispassionate, Leatherface hoists and deposits her on a meathook, where she is left to sqirm and witness the chainsaw butchering of Kirk, who's been laid out on the kitchen table like a slab of, well, beef. Though the majority of violence in this scene is implied, people who saw it in the theaters during the first run swore they saw gouts of blood (the effects department used no blood at all in this scene). Many critics have seen a clear analogy, particularly in this scene, to the horrors of Vietnam. Rob Nelson, movie critic for Minnesota's City Pages, puts it well:Nixon's televised comment that 'North Vietnam can not defeat or humiliate the United States—only Americans could do that' is its own punch line, but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre drives it home with (the shot of) Leatherface bringing a sledgehammer to the head of a high school grad who falls limp as fresh beef. Let's face it: the vision of 1970s America as slaughterhouse isn't far off, and could only be rendered faithfully in the form of bludgeoning horror. The cloak of metaphor has always allowed horror to be more daring than documentary—and therefore more true. - (The City Pages, October 11, 2000, vol. 21 #1036)
It quickly becomes apparent that these teenagers are not being killed for kicks but for food. In the same way, Americans kill cows for beef. On a grander scale, politicians send a generation of young men into jungles to die, and America eats dinner and follows the action on the six o'clock news. Upon repeated viewings of the film, it's impossible to miss the social commentary, which by itself sets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre apart from the legions of inferior "slasher" films that limped along in its wake.
After Pam and Kirk are dispatched, Jerry comes looking for them and meets a similar fate. Franklin dies next when he and Sally head up to the house in search of the party's missing members. Sally gets away at first - she flees the butcher Leatherface and heads toward the barbeque joint where the proprietor is waiting for her. At first he seems sympathetic, but it turns out that he's part of the family. His meat is - surprise, surprise! - human flesh. The old man stuffs Sally into a bag for the coming slaughter. As he works to gag her and situate her in the pickup truck, he mutters, "I just can't take no pleasure in killing. There's just some things you gotta do. Don't mean you have to like it." Wild-eyed and foaming at the mouth, she's a visual echo of the earlier shots of penned cattle.
Back at the farmhouse, Leatherface is preparing the evening meal for the family. He has on a new "skin mask" and domestic, grandmotherly attire. Sally arrives in the sack, shrieking (Marilyn Burns must set some sort of record in this film - she screams at top volume for the entire latter half of the film), and is strapped into the "armchair" at the head of the dinner table. The chair, naturally, is made of human hands and radii. In a twisted (and grotesquely funny) parody of family life, the clan sits down to dine on "headcheese", the contents of which go without saying. Her finger is slashed, and the 104-year-old grandfather is given a taste of her blood. During the progressively insane dinner sequence Hooper tightly shoots Sally's bloodshot, rolling, terrified eyes. Horror and shock have reduced her to animalistic dimensions. She narrowly escapes a beheading and runs through a plate glass window. Dawn is breaking, and she continues to run until she reaches the road. She flags down a cattle truck, a tool of the meat industry, and after one final encounter with the enraged Leatherface manages to scramble into a pickup truck. The cattle truck driver flattens the hitchhiker as he drives away, and Sally is the only survivor left to tell her story.
Miscellaneous Tidbits and Pieces
- The film's two working titles were Headcheese and Leatherface.
- It was shot in sequence, and the actors who played the teenagers refused to socialize with Gunnar Hansen (who played Leatherface) until their respective death scenes were shot.
- Tobe Hooper had family who lived a few miles from the notorious Ed Gein murder site in Wisconsin, and as a child he would visit them and hear horrendous stories of the necrophiliac serial killer who lived just down the road. Hooper now says that the film was a subconscious attempt to exorcise the childhood fears those bedtime stories planted.
- Because of budget constraints, Gunnar Hansen had only one Leatherface costume, which included a mask, a heavy canvas butcher's apron, and boots. In the searing August heat, the costume began to "ferment" - by the time the dinner sequence was shot, the crew refused to let him stand in line for dinner with them.
- Art director Robert Burns found a veterinarian who allowed him to scavenge from a pile of animal corpses, rented human bones from medical supply stores, and plundered a local slaughterhouse. Hooper splurged and purchased an actual human skeleton "from India," he recalls, "because for some reason, Indian skeletons were cheaper." Burns crafted all the set's furniture by hand from real human and animal bones.
- The farmhouse was not a set. Hooper rented it from a family who lived there during the entire film shoot. The house has since been sold and relocated and is fittingly in use as a restauraunt. Bon Appetit, y'all!
- The set was plagued by accidents, some of them nearly fatal. No doctor was present for most of the filming, and safety precautions were practically nonexistent. At one point during the nighttime filming of Gunnar Hansen chasing Marylin Burns' Sally, Hansen slipped, live chainsaw (the chainsaw was not a prop) in hand. The saw flipped into the air and landed two inches from Hansen's head. Hooper almost lost an eye when his camera collided with a tree during a tracking shot. Marylin Burns was dropped repeatedly from the farmhouse roof to make a scene more authentic-looking, and all the falls she took were done without the benefit of padding of any kind. When she falls into the "safety" of the barbeque joint, the blood seeping through the knees of her pants is real.
- 18-year-old John Dugan, who played the Grandfather, had to undergo an eight-hour makeup application process. He then announced that he refused to go through that again, and that Hooper would have to shoot all his screen time in one day. This led to arguably the most heinous shooting day in film history: the dinner sequence. Beginning at noon on a Saturday and wrapping at 2PM the following day, it metastasized into a continuous 27-hour-long shoot. Under blackout canvas, temperatures quickly reached an excess of 120 degrees; cast and crew alike were vomiting and fainting from the combination of the heat and the stench emanating from the rotting headcheese strewn about the set. To make matters worse, Hooper had instructed a crew member to get rid of the hundreds of shoddily embalmed animals that had dressed previous scenes, and the guy decided to burn them all in a big pile just outside the farmhouse. The thick, greasy black smoke overwhelmed the set, and a doctor had to be dispatched to pump the cast full of Dramamine so they could get through the filming. Equipment resolutely refused to work; cameras broke, props gave up the ghost. The script called for Marilyn Burns to scream ceaselessly, and the relentless screeching blistered the crew's nerves. Gunnar Hansen, utterly exhausted, grew terminally frustrated with the knife prop meant to "cut" Burns' finger. Evidently, the blood-filled bulb refused to squirt when he drew the taped blade across her finger. Finally he peeled off the protective tape and simply sliced the actress' finger to the bone. The crew was so insane and sleep deprived that no one noticed Burns was really screaming. Ironically, considering the small amount shown onscreen, about half the film's blood is real.
- This just in! One of our very own noders, kurius, says: here's a fun fact for you. I played at a wrap party in hollywood with my band. Gunnar hansen was there with my freind and we made him a hamburger shaped like a chain saw. he was cool. Now we can all play Six Degrees Separation with Leatherface!
Sources: Credits from the Internet Movie Database - http://us.imdb.com/
Miscellaneous facts culled from the excellent The Texas Chainsaw Massacre DVD commentary by Tobe Hooper, Daniel Pearl, and Gunnar Hansen
Essay - "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: American Society on a Spit" by Eric Henderson
Film review - The City Pages, October 11, 2000 - page 43
*all other thoughts and observations directly from my own sick little mind
Frater 219 notes that snuff films are a myth and includes this link: http://www.snopes.com/horrors/madmen/snuff.htm Thanks!
Special thanks to kurius for a lovely tidbit of personal experience!