It’s been less than two months since the passing of the legendary George Romero, and the horror world has been struck by another huge loss; celebrated director Tobe Hooper died last weekend at the age of 74. Although Hooper’s biggest box office success was the Steven Spielberg-produced (and some say directed) Poltergeist, his claim to fame is much more influential. In 1974, he made the most infamous of all American horror movies: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
For the unfamiliar, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is about a young woman named Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns from Helter Skelter) and her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin (Race with the Devil’s Paul A. Partain), who, along with a few of their friends, travel to a Texas cemetery to visit the grave of their grandfather. On the way, they pick up a weird hitchhiker (Future-Kill’s Edwin Neal) – who almost sets fire to their van and slices Franklin’s arm before being thrown out. While gassing up the van, the kids wander off and end up at an old spooky house where, one by one, they encounter a hulking, skin mask-wearing butcher named Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen, who would also appear in Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers) with a chainsaw and a hammer who wants to slaughter them and feed their remains to his cannibalistic family.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the epitome of independent filmmaking. The script, written by Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel, is not actually a true story as the film’s narrated prologue leads viewers to believe, but it is based loosely on the exploits of notorious serial killer Ed Gein (the same scoundrel who inspired both Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs). Hooper, who was a college professor at the time, took a cast and crew that was comprised of mostly his friends and film students, headed off into the scorching Texas countryside, and shot one of the most influential movies ever made, horror or otherwise. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a true monument to “just do it” artistry.
The budgetary constraints of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre became an asset to the production. To save money, Hooper, who was a documentary filmmaker up to this point, chose to shoot the film on 16mm film, giving it a gritty, grimy, grindhouse look that only helped add to the mystique of the whole “based on a true story” angle – in short, the movie looks like a newsreel documentary, and the realism is scary as hell. Shooting on location was an advantage as well, as cinematographer Daniel Pearl (who would go on to shoot everything from Mariah Carey videos to the reboot of Friday the 13th) was able to perfectly capture both the Texas heat and the slaughterhouse smells that plague the characters (and also plagued the actors, as any behind-the-scenes accounts will verify). And, although it may seem cliché by today’s standards, in 1974, a chainsaw was a uniquely terrifying weapon, more exploitative than schlocky, but unimaginably brutal. And this movie predates other chainsaw movies like Pieces, Motel Hell, and even the original Evil Dead trilogy by at least a half dozen years.
Although it’s called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the most memorable kill scene in the film does not involve the chainsaw at all. It occurs when one of the teens, a studly fellow named Kirk (William Vail), enters the unlocked spooky house looking for the owners, and Leatherface storms out from a back room and whacks him on the head with his mallet. Kirk kicks and convulses on the ground a bit until Leatherface finishes him off with a few more hits. Leatherface then drags him into the back room and slams a heavy metal door behind them, sealing the young man’s horrible fate. The scene is over almost as quickly as it begins, but the images – the hulking killer, the twitching victim, the finality of the slamming door – are burned into the collective mind of the audience.
Which brings us to Leatherface. With The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper masterfully created one of the biggest horror icons in history, a figure that transcends the movies and has found its way into the pop culture vernacular. Actor Gunnar Hansen, a hulking Icelandic specimen who was made even more hulking for the movie by the platform boots of his costume, plays the menacing maniac with a perfect combination of childlike innocence and murderous rage. The character of Leatherface is every bit as important to horror history as Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger – he’s just not quite as loud and proud about it. The antagonists of The Texas Chan Saw Massacre are, in fact, the entire wicked cannibalistic family (which also includes the hitchhiker, an old man, and their grandpa), but Leatherface was (and still is) colorful enough to have emerged as the breakout star. He is the (leather) face of the franchise.
The soundtrack to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre adds another level of terror to the movie. The “score” is credited to Hooper and sound designer Wayne Bell (The Initiation, Boyhood), and with good reason; what Hooper and Bell sonically construct is much more like sound design than actual music. Aside from a bit of diegetic music, the soundtrack is filled with an atonal cacophony that lies somewhere between booming machinery and squealing livestock. It’s not music at all, unless one considers the sounds of a slaughterhouse or a meat processing plant to be music. And the back half of the movie is virtually all chaos, with Sally’s screams competing with Leatherface’s chainsaw for most of the third act. The soundscape of the film is incredibly effective, with the “music” ratcheting up the audience’s anxiety level exponentially.
Essentially, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre served as a calling card into the horror world for Tobe Hooper. And it worked, as the director had a pretty good cinematic run well into the eighties, making genre classics like Eaten Alive, Lifeforce, and The Funhouse. He also got to do the first adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and a remake of the fifties sci-fi flick Invaders from Mars. Television-wise, he helmed episodes of “Tales from the Crypt,” “Masters of Horror,” and “Amazing Stories,” and even got to do the pilot episode of “Freddy’s Nightmares.” He was also unceremoniously fired from The Dark and legendarily ghost-directed Poltergeist alongside Spielberg. And that’s not even mentioning his groundbreaking music video for Billy Idol’s first single “Dancing With Myself.” Not bad for a college professor from Texas.
It’s been a couple of years since Wes Craven died, and a couple of months since George Romero left us. With Hooper’s death, that leaves John Carpenter as the sole surviving face on the Mount Rushmore of modern horror. Let’s all hope Carpenter takes his vitamins, listens to his doctors, and buckles his seatbelt. And while we’re at it, someone remind David Cronenberg to look both ways while crossing the street, too.