Story Structure Day 18: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Writer: Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel

Cast: Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Allen Danziger, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, Gunnar Hansen, John Dugan

Plot: The film opens with grisly images and a radio news report of some horrific “sculpture” found by police, made out of bodies stolen from their graves. As the radio continues to talk about the case, we meet a group of young people on their way to visit the grave of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns)’s grandfather. On the way home, they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), who proceeds to cut himself and slashes Sally’s wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) before they throw him out. At a run-down gas station, Franklin asks for directions to his father’s old property, but the manager (Jim Siedow) tries to warn them away. Instead, they decide to check out the old place and return later after the transport refills the station’s gas tanks.

Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn) decide to set out to seek a nearby swimming hole, but instead find a house full of animal skulls, hide, and heads. Kirk enters, only to be confronted by a giant man (Gunnar Hansen) wearing a horrible mask of human skin. When Pam enters to search for him, she finds the house full of skeletons – both animal and human – arranged in bizarre, horrible tableaus. The man with the mask snatches her too, impaling her on a hook and making her watch as he dismembers Kirk with a chainsaw.

Back at the van Jerry (Allen Danizger) sets out to search for Kirk and Pam (breaking the cardinal rule of horror movies – don’t go anywhere alone). With the sun going down arrives at Leatherface’s house and enters, finding Pam barely alive and locked in a freezer chest. Leatherface kills him, because that’s what you do when you’re wearing human skin. It’s after dark now, and Franklin begins to panic over his missing friends and the fact that they have the keys. Sally and Franklin go through the high grass and shrubs, calling for their friends… until Leatherface appears with his chainsaw and hacks up Franklin. Sally runs for her life but, unfortunately, runs right to his house. Instead of help, she finds decaying, partially mummified bodies set up in a terrible sort of diorama. She escapes by leaping from a second-story window, running back into the darkness, screaming. (Hey Sally, pro tip for you: when you’re running from the chainsaw-wielding maniac into the darkness of the night, stop making noises that let him know where you are.)

Sally makes it to the gas station, where the owner knocks her out and ties her up. Driving her back to Leatherface’s house, they encounter the hitchhiker – Leatherface’s little brother. Inside, Leatherface is now wearing a dress and wig, preparing the “family” for supper. The brothers bring down “grandpa” from the attic – the desiccated old man Sally found before. But he’s not a corpse – he’s still alive. The family decides to let grandpa (John Dugan) kill Sally, but he’s too weak to hold the hammer, and she manages to escape, jumping through (another) window to find it’s now morning. She flees into the road, the brother behind her. An 18-wheeler comes around the corner, killing him. Sally leaps into the bed of a passing pickup truck, leaving Leatherface flailing about in the road.

Thoughts: It’s another entry in the “no, really, this actually happened” category of horror films. In truth, the story and characters were a complete fabrication, although Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel were reportedly inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein (also the inspiration for Robert Bloch’s original novel of Psycho – there’s a little trivia for you).

Unlike some of the later horror icons (Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers), Leatherface never really grabbed me. Part of it may be his choice of victims – Pam is an airheaded hippie, Franklin is a self-pitying lout, and Kirk and Jerry come across as rather cold and heartless. Even Sally has moments of cruelty towards her brother, although considering the stress she’s under at that point, it’s a little more forgivable. Still you want to have somebody to root for when the killer is busy hacking people to shreds.

The thing that makes this movie effective, if not to my personal tastes, is how abrupt much of the horror is. The hitchhiker is weird, sure, but you’re still shocked when he grabs Franklin’s knife and cuts into the meat of his own palm. The house Kirk and Pam find is bizarre, but you’re simply not expecting it when Leatherface leaps out and pounds him in the head. When the horror begins, Tobe Hooper avoided the telltales that Something Bad Is Happening – no ominous music, no creepy sound effects, no shadows moving in the background. It just goes from one minute looking at a weird little house to, the next, finding yourself getting attacked by a monster. Again, as Franklin and Sally push through the weeds in the dark, Leatherface appears without warning. Movies aren’t made this way anymore.

This movie does, however, give birth to many of the other slasher film clichés: the “Last Girl,” the girl who can’t outrun the killer despite his enormous size, the victim who runs up the stairs instead of running the hell away and so forth. In truth, most of those clichés are embodied in Sally who – although terrified – really isn’t the smartest horror movie character you’ve ever seen. Think about it, Sal – the killer was right outside the door, then vanishes when the creepy old man opens the door again to get his truck? To her credit, she does figure out that something is wrong, but way too slowly.

As for Leatherface himself – maybe it’s decades of exposure to horror movies, but the horror mask doesn’t really unnerve me all that much. What’s creepy is the face beneath the mask. Gunnar Hansen is wearing enormous, jagged teeth, and his eyes dart about whenever you see him in close-up, as if his brain is flitting about in his head, ready to pop out at any moment.

It’s a fast-paced movie, which is to the good. The running time is short – only 84 minutes – but even taking that into account, things move along at quite a clip. We’re deep into the movie before Leatherface appears, but you don’t actually feel how long it has been. Amazingly, by the time Leatherface disposes of the first four victims and only Sally is left, there’s still a half-hour left in the film.

Hooper also works in a little macabre comedy towards the film’s end. The father’s reaction to how Leatherface chopped up the door could have come from an exasperated TV father. He may as well have said, “We just can’t have nice things!” Leatherface prancing around in the dress, cringing from his angry father, feels like Hooper took Norman Bates and twisted him into an even weirder configuration. The thing is, once Leatherface puts the wig on and allows his father to browbeat him, he ceases to be menacing and becomes an object of ridicule. Well, for me, at least. Sally probably felt different. The horror comes back when “grandpa” makes an appearance, and actually recovers pretty well considering how the rhythm of the piece had been disrupted seconds before.

The film is inconsistent with its characters, too. The father alternately claims he takes no pleasure in killing and there’s no sense in torturing Sally before she has to die, then switches to giggling and mocking her along with his warped sons. He even jumps up and down with glee as grandpa tries to hammer Sally in the head. There’s no real reason for these inexplicable shifts, save perhaps to pad out the film a bit, as it is accompanied by long scenes of Sally screaming, with close-ups of her eyes cut with shots of the laughing family (including dad).

Even the film’s conclusion is terribly abrupt, with Sally’s savior coming out of nowhere and whisking her away as the credits roll. There’s no follow-up here, and this is a film that kind of needs it. Sally must have alerted the police – was the family still there when they arrived? Were they attacked? These are the sort of things I suppose may have been addressed in the sequels, but I’ve never seen any of them and, honestly, I’m not really compelled to.

From terror of the human variety, we’re going to face off with the nastiest predator of the animal kingdom. Tomorrow, you’re going to want to stay out of the water, because we’re watching Jaws.

Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

1 Response to “Story Structure Day 18: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)”

  1. 1 Anonymous
    April 10, 2022 at 7:00 pm

    The Cook, or the father as you referred to him as, shifts because he suffers from some kind of multiple personality disorder. This, in my head, makes him really creepy. As for the ending, I think it’s perfect. We don’t need to drag it out by seeing her with the police or the family being arrested. It’s left unknown, like a lot of the details in the movie. When horror movies are over-explained, they lose that eerie atmosphere that makes them so great.

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