I think this is probably the greatest horror picture of all time (amongst the ones I've seen of course). If any of you fuckers chime in with "the remake was better" or "this is overrated" I will proceed to write off all your future opinions completely (now stepping off soap box). I'm kidding about that last part. I realize there is a certain audience that this film might not work for, the type of audience that requires excessive gore, pretty actors, and maybe an absurd twist or something. That's fine. You have no taste, but that's fine. This is the first bonafide classic of the month and, hopefully, it won't be the last. I've been resisting a write up because, frankly, it's just so good. Also, there's probably been more written about this picture than anything I've covered here. What can I possibly add that hasn't already been said. The answer? Pretty much not a god damned thing. Here goes.
This picture will disturb the shit out of you. You'll feel dirty afterwards, maybe find yourself taking a shower. The opening crawl (read by John Laroquette) and the credits are a mastework in their own right. The credits occur over the sound of digging, ripping (i'm guessing sinew), and breaking (bone) as the now-famous flash bulb illuminates the hellish visions of decayed bodies and their various parts. It's a hot as hell summer day in Texas (August 18, 1973) and a news broadcast tells us of a series of grave robberies, where the corpses-skeletons have been propped up in grisly fashion, art of the macabre. Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her friends are traveling through Texas to visit the rural vacant home of her now deceased grandparents. Along for the ride are her wheelchair bound brother Franklin, Her boyfriend Jerry, Kirk, and Pam. As Laroquette's opening narration reveals, "what started out for them as an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare".
I'm guessing you've all seen this, right? Part of the brilliance of this picture is just in how un-stylized the entire thing is. Unlike the remake which removed the horror element the second the camera entered the recently blown out hole of that girl's head in the film's first five minutes, an admittedly cool shot that, unfortunately, doesn't do much except tell you it's just a movie. Everything about this picture seems natural. The look is stark and strangely beautiful (that's Texas for you I guess). The score is incredibly spare (with the occassional metal clanging sounds happening during the creepy parts). This is a magnificently directed picture by Tobe Hooper (his first) who would unfortunately never reach these heights again.
I dug the performances from the kids. They didn't seem like actors at all. Of course, it doesn't take long before Franklin (Paul Partain) begins to grate on the ol' nerves but that's to be expected. The guy was dragged on this trip by his sister into a part of the country that isn't exactly wheel chair accessible. Actually, much of the early parts of the film are told from his perspective. There's a funny moment when they reach their grandparents home and Franklin is stuck downstairs by himself. He begins to mock their laughter and pucker his lips, stick out his tongue, and spit while imitating his sister: "come on Franklin! It's gonna be a fun trip." Franklin is the only one that feels any kind of fear at the beginning which is a product of his general helplessness. He exhibits caution when they pick up Edwin Neil's insane hitchhiker ("I think we just picked up Dracula.") and then wonders why the guy cut his hand and burned the photo of them in an apparently ritualistic moment ("you think I said somethin to make him mad?").
I remember watching Casablanca for the first time in a class and absolutely falling in love with it. Afterwards, I was dismayed to hear several classmates ripping on it for what they deemed a cheesy, cliche-ridden picture. Well guess what fuck nuts? That picture started the cliches! If you can't view a picture through the scope of the era when it was made then I feel sorry for you. There is no greater movie watching experience then to lose yourself in a different time. Same thing here. This is the first picture, I think, that had a creepy gas station attendant that ended up being a part of the nightmare. This guy is played by Jim Siedow and is billed simply as "old man". He seems a bit too nice at first and he ain't got no gas ta boot. What he does have though is plenty of barbecue. Remember that picture Nothing But Trouble? There's not a doubt in my mind that Dan Akroyd ripped off Siedow for his performance. He's also the only guy that reprised his role for the sequel where he was billed as "the cook" I believe. Quick note on the sequel. I'm glad Hooper went in a different direction for that one. It's brilliant in it's own way. One of the most underrated pictures from the eighties. Someday I'll get to writing about it. Anyway, Siedow is the kinda guy that can poke you with a broom handle while telling you to "calm down and everything will be just fine." He's hilarious, at times creepy, and never likes to be undermined by his own family (do not tell him he's "just a cook").
That family includes the man-child in need of no introduction, Leatherface (played by Gunnar Hanson). Leatherface's entrance in this picture is one of the greatest moments in horrordom. As Kirk wanders into that house, looking to purchase some gasoline for their van, he stumbles and, in that instant, sees a big hulking man with a giant hammer. It happens so fast and is absolutely shocking. Kirk is dragged into a room and a sliding metal door is slammed shut. Leatherface is a genuine character in this thing. We're of the impression that he's more scared than anything. He flails about like a child that doesn't know his own strength, stalks around the house looking for more intruders even when there are none. This is the aspect I missed most from those fucking soulless remakes. Also, there's minimal gore in this thing. The horror comes from what we imagine happens to Kirk behind that metal door. What happens to Pam after she is slapped, still very much alive, on that meathook. Flashing back to the hitchiker for a moment, we might remember his little story about how to make "head cheese". That's just one option for dinner that night I guess. Maybe there will be some leftovers for Taco night.
There are a few shots that exhibit some style, I'm not gonna lie. As Pam, walks towards the house (and her demise) the camera looks up at her from behind, a shot that has been mimiced in several films (notably Cabin Fever and Doomsday). There's a simple matter-of-fact scene when Pam and Kirk discover a camoflauged area, presumably containing the cars of past victims. The scene is not lingered on like it would be today. It's more along the lines of "huh, how about that. Ya know what? I'm hungry." The kids do things that kids would do when they're not aware of any danger. Wander off by themselves until just Sally and Franklin are left behind by the van. This leads to a terrifying scene where Sally is forced to push Franklin's chair through the pitch black woods as they call out for their friends. Not a good idea I guess but, then again, they don't know they're in a horror movie.
The last 20-30 minutes basically feature poor Marilyn Burns screaming as she runs for her life. There's a brief intermission when they all sit down to have dinner and then the chase resumes. The infamous dinner scene. How'd that go in the remake? Oh wait, they forgot about it. Fuck man, this thing introduces us to granpa, "the best killer there ever was" (with a cattle hammer anyway). Unfortunately, he's lost it in his old age and i couldn't help but laugh as he attempted to de-brain Sally, now covered in blood. The dinner scene is all about the family and their (our?) warped values. These guys (where have the women gone?) eat together, slay together (except for Siedow, he "never much had the stomach for it"), I'd prefer to not know if they lay together. I think my favorite moment of the entire picture was when Siedow enters the house, takes one look at the recently chainsawed front door and bellows to the hitchiker "Look what your brother did to the door! Has he no pride in his home!?" Love that guy.
It's a classic alright. I've written more than I intended. The last image is an iconic one with Leatherface swinging his saw in the air like some crazy kid. Soon, he'll learn to appreciate women more. He'll realize that they're not just good for chasing and sawing up. Check out the sequel if you want to see him reach puberty and acquire a girlfriend. Now that I've seen the first one again, let me just say that I don't feel that dirty.