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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The (1974, Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen)

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‘Who will survive – and what will be left of them?’ screamed the poster, which promised ‘America’s most bizarre and brutal crimes.’ The image showed a woman about to be impaled on a meathook by a man in a mask made of human skin. In his hand is the power tool that made this one of the most notorious horror movies of all time…

Apparently inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein, the movie starts in a graveyard where someone has been interfering with the residents. It’s the height of summer, and a group of American teenagers are driving through the backroads of the southern states in crippling heat to visit an old family home. It’s a whimsical, pointless journey, made ominous by its simplicity. The stifling aridity gives these early scenes a telling claustrophobia; even in the wide-open spaces of Texas, there’s something oppressive and foreboding.

The morbid atmosphere is compounded by images of death all round: the sight of roadkill and the predatory flies that cluster round it suggest that this is not going to be a dream vacation. Hearing a news report about the graveyard desecration, they stop off to check that their grandfather’s plot is safe. It is, so they continue onwards, stopping to pick up a leering, inbred hillbilly hitchhiker (Edwin Neal).

When his antisocial antics reach danger point – one of the film’s most effective shock moments – the hitchhiker is kicked off the bus and they continue on their way. The family home has long been abandoned, now rundown and empty, but the party of five decide to explore, unaware that the next-door neighbours are planning a welcome party and that they’re on the menu…

Refused a certificate by the British censor on its original release, TTCM sat in limbo for 25 years, getting an occasional showing when local councils authorised its screening in the provinces. But strangely, the film is by no means as gory as its title or its reputation suggests; apart from a few moments of split-second violence, Tobe Hooper’s film trades largely on the power of suggestion. The film’s black humour is often overlooked too, building up a powerful parody of the nuclear family, headed up the grim, efficient Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), the breadwinner who picks off the touring party to feed his retarded cannibal brood.

The film’s low-budget production values and cast of unknowns give it a verite frisson, particularly during the closing chase scenes, when it becomes clear that the cuts and bruises on star Marilyn Burns’ face are real. And it’s a mark of the film’s eerie plausibility that, ever since his move to Hollywood, Hooper has never matched it, not even with the most state-of-the-art special effects that Spielberg can buy.

production details
USA | 83 minutes | 1974
Director: Tobe Hooper
Script: Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper,

cast
John Larroquette as Narrator (voice)
Marilyn Burns as Sally Hardesty
Allen Danziger as Jerry
Paul A. Partain as Franklin Hardesty
William Vail as Kirk
Teri McMinn as Pam
Edwin Neal as Hitchhiker
Jim Siedow as Old Man
Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface
John Dugan as Grandfather
Robert Courtin as Window Washer
William Creamer as Bearded Man
John Henry Faulk as Storyteller
Jerry Green as Cowboy
Ed Guinn as Cattle Truck Driver
Joe Bill Hogan as Drunk
Perry Lorenz as Pick Up Driver