Running time: 83 min.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre opens with a voice-over, informing us that some lives are about to get upended, and that the film will expose the most horrific crimes in American history. These words cannot even begin to prepare the viewer for some of the shock and terror that they are about to witness. Indeed, when this movie opened in 1974, it was reported that some viewers left early and complained about the level of violence they had seen. Some movie theatres refused to show it. The MPAA gave The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a rating of R, however there isn't much blood to be found. Oh, there is some, but it's the acts of brutality and torture and how they are presented that earned the movie it's rating and the cries of mercy from the audience. This is one of the greatest horror films of all time because it did what it promised to do: terrify people.
The film opens in blackness, with the sounds of digging and of a person grunting. Then the blackness is broken by quick flashes of light, as if someone was taking pictures. The flashes of light reveal a corpse, so the horror immediately kicks in. A radio news announcer goes into detail about a rash of graverobbings that have been occurring while the light continues to provide the gory glimpses of rotted flesh. In the final cut for this opening scene, a corpse has been arranged into an eerie, ominous pose atop a headstone, with the rising Texas sun behind it, letting the viewer know in the first three minutes of the film that this is just the beginning.
Brother and sister, Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) are riding in a van with three other friends: Jerry (Allen Danziger), Kirk (William Vail) and Pam (Teri McMinn). Sally and Franklin have heard about the graverobbings and want to check on their family plots to ensure they haven't been disturbed. Since they're in the area, they also have the bright idea to check out the old family homestead, long since deserted. They stop for a Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), which ends up being a mistake as he behaves strangely, talking about the old way of killing cattle at slaughterhouses being better, and cutting himself with a knife and taking Franklin's picture (he carries a camera with him) and then burning it right there in the van. The kids kick him out, and rightfully so. They stop at a gas station, but the Old Man (Jim Siedow) running the place tells them that he doesn't have any fuel and that the delivery won't be around for a few more hours. He offers them some barbecue and also warns them to not go poking around the old house because it's dangerous. Warnings from older people to younger people in horror films never go heeded by the younger people.
The viewer gets a glimpse of one of the themes of the film, isolation, when the gang finally finds the old homestead and Franklin is the only one who is unable to explore it and is just having a miserable time due to his handicap: he's a paraplegic. So he makes faces to himself while he mocks the others for having fun. Kirk and Pam run off to find the old swimming hole and come across an isolated farmhouse instead, which contains a running generator. Kirk decides to approach the house, hoping to find some gas, but what he finds instead is where the terror of the film comes in. One by one, people begin to disappear inside the house. The interior of the home is an example of set decoration providing some depth to the characters that inhabit it. Human skulls arranged in intricate ways, furniture made of human body parts. Meanwhile, a clucking chicken provides the narration to the discovery made by one of the young victims.
Director Tobe Hooper also co-wrote the screenplay (with Kim Henkel) and also had a hand in the score (with Wayne Bell). The score is a masterwork of eerie high-pitched whines and clangs which heighten the sense of insanity over the proceedings. It's a perfect fit for the imagery that Hooper has shot. Daniel Pearl's cinematography sheds waxing and waning light over everything, keeping the dark corners dimly lit. The daytime shots are scorchingly hot like that Texas heat, so that there is no comfort even with the sun shining. Hooper set the tone for the film with the opening scene with the digging in pitch black, then enhanced it with an interior scene around a dinner table. This scene could have gone seriously wrong and in an entirely unwanted, almost comedic, direction; however, Hooper closes in on the eyes of one of the young characters and there is true terror there. What this character is going through is indeed tortuous and mind-numbing but the screaming and the terror beheld in those eyes tells the viewer that this is most serious and not funny at all.
The budget for this film was reported to be around $300,000 and Hooper has put every cent into developing a time and place with what little he had to work with. The performances from everyone involved are spot-on. Kudos especially to Marilyn Burns as Sally, as she projected a dread that is not over-the-top, but pitch perfect for the situation her character found herself in. Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface was an inspiring performance that has since been copied in characters such as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees: the hulking, silent murderer. The final shot of the movie is one that sticks with you: Leatherface, with his chainsaw, dancing maniacally while the hot sun rises. He doesn't say anything, but his choice of weapon is an extension of himself that does all the talking.