The Series Project: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Part 1)
Oh what a beautiful morning it is here in the clear-skied country estates of CraveOnline. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the modest backyard adjuncts of the estate are full of smiling, chipper writers who drink piping glasses of hot vanilla, greet each other from their porches, and take time to meditate on how grand life is. Lavender and chamomile blossoms perfume the estates with a pleasing, almost holy aroma, allowing the genius, sharp-minded authors who live in this Edenic enclave to work to the utmost of their abilities. Piano music wafts gently. Everything is so grand on this estate. That is, except over in the one cottage that houses The Series Project. This week, that cabin is not bathed in sunlight. A foul cloud of acrid smog seems to have descended over it. The windows are all covered with aluminum foil, black smoke belches in heavy roiling sacs from the chimney, and the stench is indescribable. The paint peels. The screen door dangles by a single hinge. The overgrowth of oily, brown, weed-like grasses that permeate from the immediate vicinity seem to openly declare: “Go away! You are not wanted here! This is not a place where joy dwells!”
Yes, friends, this week's foray of The Series Project will be delving bravely into one of the most disgusting and disturbing film series to ever hit mainstream theaters. For the next two weeks, we will be looking closely at the skin-flavored, tallow-encrusted, blood-spattered, bone-constructed series of movies known the world over as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Put on your smocks and goggles. This is gonna be a messy one.
I know little about the real-life serial killer Ed Gein. I know there are many websites online that would allow me to learn a good deal more about the man – Wikipedia even offers a list of well-known serial killers listed by order of number of victims – but I'm not really the type to go delving into such databases; the practice would only depress and disturb me. I will say that Gein was convicted of murdering two people in Wisconsin back in 1957, and was sentenced to life in prison where he died in 1984. The disturbing part of the case was that police discovered a disturbingly large amount of human parts in Gein's house; he had constructed furniture out of human skin and bone, and had a bunch of severed heads just hanging around, all of which he claims to have acquired from late night trips to the cemetery.
Tobe Hooper's 1974 horror film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was famously based, in part, on the Gein case. The details of the murders were not at all similar, but the house full of human-body-based arts and crafts seems to have been lifted wholesale. This kind of sick detail managed to be the premise for not one, but five feature films in a series, and two remakes. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its iconic hero Leatherface are now ubiquitous enough to be counted alongside Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees as horror icons. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or TCM as it is known to its fans, is not quite the same breed of slasher as its '80s peers, and more closely resembled the '00s wave of Torture Porn, which it directly inspired. These are dark and sickly films (the first especially) that focus more on the gleeful madness of its killers and the squirming, shrieking terror of its tortured victims. Each film features someone being tied to a chair or to the floor while guffawing cannibal hillbillies torture them, feed their blood to relatives, and commit vile acts of violence before their very eyes.
The 1970s were a bleak and revolutionary time in American cinema, and horror films became more and more brutal during the decade, most likely sparked by the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This was a horror film so strikingly disturbing, that it actually changed the aesthetic of horror movies. It didn't just spark imitators (although there are plenty; just ask Rob Zombie about that), but it seemed to change the way horror movies were made. Gone were the mannered, well-coiffed serial killers of the 1950s and 1960s (think of Rope or Peeping Tom). Now we were in a fearful, dirty, uncouth outsider realm. Poor people were forced into vastly remote parts of this country, where their only means to survive were cannibalism and insular cult-like togetherness in crime. Don't leave the cities, city folk. There are dangerous hicks living in the woods who would skin you, boil your flesh, and make furniture out of your bones.
The film series is loose in its continuity, and while I doubt severely that there are supposed to be several human-flesh-mask-wearing giants nicknamed Leatherface in this particular mythos, it almost seems as if each Leatherface from each movie is a different character who hangs around with a different backwoods cadre of cannibal hillbillies. Each film begins with a pre-title crawl with accompanying narration, detailing some of the events that we're about to see (or have seen in previous films). There is only one real consistent detail in the crawls: The original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" occurred on August 18, 1973.
Let's get this filth train a-rolling with the 1974 original.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1974)
"The film which you are about to see is an account of the tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It is all the more tragic in that they were young. But, had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."
I'm not sure what I can really saw about the original TCM that hasn't been said already. The film is something of an American horror classic, and many people consider it one of the scariest movies ever made. I tend to agree. TCM is horrific and disturbing in a way that few of its peers or imitators are. Comparing it, briefly, to the long string of '00s-vintage torture porn movies that followed it, TCM is actually shocking and scary, more interested in fear and gut-wrenching pain than mere visceral gore imagery.
Although much of TCM's power comes from its outwardly visceral qualities. Director Tobe Hooper (who would go on to make other genre classics like Poltergeist and Lifeforce) took a low-budget “true crime” approach to the material, half-hinting that the events of the film were actual real-life occurrences, and that the movie we may be seeing could be made partially of homemade snuff film footage stolen from police lockers. A friend of mine put it this way: it's disturbing because it looks like it could have been made by real cannibals. There is a raw and uncompromising quality to the low-budget filmmaking, giving the violence an extra-brutal edge and near-fetishistic appreciation. When we see a group of cackling yokels forcing an attractive young lady into a pail, so that they may bludgeon her to death and eat her, we get the distinct impression that the cameraman is in with the killers, and is filming this for fun. Even the actual film stock of TCM looks grainy and washed-out and amateurish; almost as if the film strips themselves were sitting in a can on a shelf in a grimy, putrid slaughterhouse for months and months. This is not a film you need to see on Blu-ray or in high definition. It may be worth seeking out on a crappy, over-copied, crinkled up VHS. Just don't eat any meaty meals while watching it.
The premise is well-known. A quintet of horny teens and twentysomethings – the same group we'll see in countless slasher movies – is on a road trip through Texas seeking the remote and supposedly desecrated grave of one of their grandfathers. They stop at a gas station and have some meat. The audience already knows there's something wrong with the meat. They also pick up a hitchhiker (prolific voice actor Edwin Neal) who intones some crazy things before freaking out a bit in their van. He is quickly dropped. Nothing bodes well for our heroes. The one character we really follow the most is Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), a pretty blonde. Our heroes are not very distinct, but they don't need to be; we know they're doomed. Eventually they stumble upon a seemingly abandoned Texas country house, and haplessly wander inside where they discover a lair made up of human parts; there are chairs and chandeliers made of bones and skulls. Our heroes wander about independently, so they are pretty much picked off one at a time.
Eventually we discover that the house is home to a family of evil yokels who have made a habit of capturing and killing just about everyone they can for food and for decorating supplies. There are no explicit conversations between the yokels about their criminal habits, but we do seem to know what they're up to. That we never figure out why makes it all the more disturbing. The title comes from the yokels' habit of murdering people with their favorite gardening tool, the chainsaw, which is wielded by the creature known as Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), an enormous mentally handicapped man who likes to wear masks made of human skin. Leatherface, while the only consistent character to appear in all seven TCM films, is never the leader of the yokels. Indeed, Leatherface is more of a bodyguard than anything. He's the big guy you get to do the gruntwork. Leatherface doesn't speak, and cowers like a threatened puppy when his “brothers” yell at him. He's certainly the scariest of the bunch, but he actually doesn't have as much screentime as you'd think.
The scariest scenes in the movies are also the sickest. The first scary scene is when a young lady wanders into a living room, and we see the human-parts-crafts for the first time. The camera lingers for a long time over the dried-out, smelly room, coated in human detritus, and we begin to sense just how long the occupants have been doing their grisly work. This is no longer a choice, this murder. Now it's just a day-to-day lifestyle. The yokels have a system. Then suddenly Leatherface catches the young heroine, bashes her over the head, and stuffs her in a huge freezer, also in the room. Leatherface then sits and frets for a few moments. That one moment seems to speak to the psychology of this film. The murder and pain and torture and cannibalism are all natural to Leatherface. But what if he gets caught with an ancillary victim? Guilt.
The other scariest scene involves a dinner table, with Sally, now the last one standing, tied to a chair. Each of these movies, as I have said, involve tying someone to a chair and torturing them in some way. For Sally, she is shown some horrible things, and then introduced to “Grandfather” (John Dugan), the patriarch of the family. Grandpa is a dead corpse. The cackling yokels prick Sally's finger, and put it in Grandfather's mouth. Grandfather then lurches to half-life and begins drinking the blood, eyes still closed, body still immobile. I still have nightmares about that half-alive, blood-drinking, gray-skinned, eyeless grandfather character. The yokels then place a hammer in grampa's hand, and implore him to kill Sally the same way he used to bash the farm's cattle. That he can't hold the hammer only makes the scene more sickening. It was hard to watch this movie the first time. It gets harder each additional time.
Eventually Sally escapes. The last scene of the movie is Leatherface, watching Sally flee in the back of a flatbed truck, swinging his chainsaw around in impotent rage. Sally cackles wildly at him. She's clearly gone a little mad herself. That's what this film is known for. Pure, raw fear, implacable rage, and unmitigated madness.
There is nothing sunny, hopeful, or optimistic about TCM. It is greasy, dark, and horrible. Usually I come down on movies for being too downbeat, or possessing too many scenes of mere torture, but TCM has the advantage of its originality; it was clearly its own entity, and came first in this particular type of movie. Plus, its low-budget aesthetic works a great deal in its favor; the scumminess of the actual film stock give it an atmosphere of gut-wrenching verisimilitude. This is not material you want to look slick. Making a film like this “slick” and “gorgeous” would actually make the exploitative material feel cynical and cheap. But I'll get to that next week when I write about the 2003 TCM remake.
Many years would pass before someone felt the need to revisit the material. Let's skip ahead 12 years, and take a look at…
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1986)
On the afternoon of August 18, 1973, five young people in a Volkswagen van ran out of gas on a farm road in south Texas. Four of them were never seen again. The next morning the one survivor, Sally Hardesty-Enright, was picked up on a roadside. Blood-caked and screaming murder.
Sally said she had broken out of a window in Hell.
The girl babbled a mad tale: a cannibal family in an isolated farmhouse… chainsawed fingers and bones… her brother, her friends hacked up for barbecue… chairs made of human skeletons… then she sank into catatonia.
The Texas lawmen mounted a month-long manhunt, but could not locate the macabre farmhouse. They could find no killers and no victims. No facts; no crime.
Officially, on the record, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre never happened.
But during the last 13 years, over and over again reports of bizarre, grisly chainsaw mass-murders have persisted all across the state of Texas. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has no stopped. It haunts Texas.
It seems to have no end.
“Could not locate the macabre farmhouse?” Good job, Texas PD.
So the myth is now a little different, as it would have to be for most sequels. Evidently the yokels in that remote farmhouse from the first film are now mobile, and are not so much cannibals who have been ruined by a bad economy and generations of murderous flesh-eating habits, but gleeful serial killers who tool around the state of Texas chainsawing people for fun. The chainsaw is now an indispensable part of this family; indeed, one of the characters, late in the film, proudly declares that “The saw is family.” Thanks to the 1974 TCM, chainsaws moved from the realm of mere garden & lumber tools square into the realm of horror movies. Chainsaws were not known for their felling any longer. They were known for their ability to cut through flesh and bone. TCM2, coming so late after the original, kind of plays to that. The chainsaw itself is a badass weapon.
Indeed, one of the main characters, Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper) is on a mission to find and kill the people who drove poor Sally mad all those years ago, and his only recourse is to fight chainsaws with chainsaws; early in the film, Lefty goes into a tool shop, lays down a few hundred dollars in cash, and wraps his body with several chainsaws as if they were swords. When he tests one out, he screams and flails and chops at a log like a madman. Dude, you don't have to chop with a chainsaw. That's why they were built that way.
As you can probably already tell, the tone is decidedly different for TCM2. It's a much more colorful, convivial horror movie about charismatic villains, unusual locations, and the two coolest heroes I've seen in just about any movie. Tobe Hooper made both the original and this sequel, but the films couldn't be more different. Gone are the oily, nightmarish qualities, replaced by a bright, smart, genuine coolness. Despite this radical tonal shift, many fans of the series tend to like TCM2 almost as much as they like the original. Indeed, I watched this film for the first time just a few nights ago, and I was astonished at how much I liked it. It's gross and horrific to be sure, and while I did just decry the notion of slickness in a series like this, I was drawn in by the awesome slick '80s style that this film presents. There's a wild New Wave rock 'n' roll tone to the film that was like catnip to me. That the soundtrack included a lot of outsider New Wave bands certainly didn't hurt; I admire any film that has the temerity to include The Cramps on their soundtrack. That Kinky Friedman and Chris Douridas have cameos in this film should speak to its musical cred.
The heroes of this film are, as I have said, some of the coolest to have appeared on screen. In addition to a vengeful Dennis Hopper in a cowboy hat, decked out with several chainsaws, we're also treated to “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), a DJ who operates out of a small low-watt station on the Texas/Oklahoma border. Stretch is a tall, spunky Texan lady in cute short-shorts, and a strength of resolve that most horror movie heroines lack. She also has awesome taste in music, as she's always playing '80s New Wave bands on her show. In the film's first ten minutes, she jams out to Oingo Boingo. But it's not "Dead Man's Party," as you'd expect. It's actually "No One Lives Forever." Stretch is brought into the circle of the chainsaw yokels when a pair of yuppie douchebags call into the request show, and are murdered over the phone, live on the air, by a chainsaw.
Stretch is cool, laidback, and very resolved. She runs the radio station with her partner LG (Lou Perry), a sweethearted bumpkin who likes her. She doesn't want to be involved in this, but realizes that she has now brushed up against the now-notorious traveling Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and wants to help crack the case. She agrees to replay the on-air murder in the hopes of attracting the bad guys to the radio station where Lefty will be waiting to chainsaw them to death. Stretch is so awesome. She's almost as cool as Catherine Mary Stewart's character from Night of the Comet. Stewart is a motorcycle-riding badass kung-fu chick who has sex with her boyfriend on the floor of a movie theater projection booth with a film is running. Stretch is a badass, long-legged New Wave DJ who has great taste in music, and is equal to the task of facing down evil chainsaw yokels. I kind of want to see a series of movies that feature just Stretch and LG solving a wide variety of crimes.
Anyway, Stretch, LG, and Lefty eventually make their ways, independently of one another, to an abandoned amusement park where our villains have been hiding out. The villains are Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow), the steel-skulled Chop-Top (Bill Moseley), and, of course, Leatherface (Bill Johnson), referred to as Bubba. These are also a set of giggling yokels, but they don't possess the unsettling bestial qualities of the yokels from the first TCM. These are more fun-loving types. Sure, there are plenty of horrible things they do. Drayton wins chili cook-offs by using human meat in his chili. Chop-Top is a gleeful murderer. And Leatherface spends a good long time peeling skin off of one of his victims in the movie's most disgusting scene. But there is a happiness to the bad guys that matches to the more upbeat tone of the overall film. These guys are not so much dangerous cannibals as they are comic book supervillains. In the context of the film, that works. That they live in an underground maze of carnival tunnels only speaks to their supervillain-hood. The film is broad, but appealing. Bloody, but stomach-able. It's more reminiscent of Return of the Living Dead than it is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Have you noticed that, in cannibal movies, human flesh is always purported to be really, really delicious? Are we tasty? If you've eaten human chili, write your review of it in the comments field below.
The film's final 30 or 40 minutes consist of Stretch trying to avoid capture in the bad guys' underground carnival, while Lefty destroys the place with one of his chainsaws on an upper level. This underground lair is, by the way, a triumph of design. It's so rare in the digital era to have such a large and exciting set for the actors to work with, and the twisted hipster-bar-meets-blood-caked-rabbit-warren look of the underground lair is unique within the genre. There is a scene where a beloved character is skinned alive (ick), and Stretch is forced to wear his face skin as a mask (double ick). There's also a throwback to the first film, when the requisite half-dead grandpa (Ken Evert) is wheeled out in order to display his slaughterhouse skills and hammer Stretch (tied to a human bone chair, natch). The scene is still pretty disturbing, but it plays more wicked fun than outright evil. There's another callback to the original too in that Stretch eventually goes a little nutty; she ends up shrieking in delight as she chainsaws Chop-Top to death. The final shot of the film is Stretch standing on top of a Matterhorn-like structure, holding a chainsaw above her head. That Matterhorn structure houses the chainsaw-grasping corpse of the clan's “mama.”
TCM2 is '80s action/horror at its finest, really. It's right up there with Return of the Living Dead, Fright Night, Vamp, and other New Wave-flavored movies of that ilk. I hesitate to call it a classic, especially given that it is most readily to be compared to the ghastliness of 1974 TCM, and is, in comparison, kind of goofy and near-comedic. But that doesn't mean that it's not a pretty rollicking good time. Awesome heroine. Skinless grossness. Plenty of weirdness. Dennis Hopper wielding multiple chainsaws. New Wave soundtrack. I really need to track down that soundtrack. IRS put it out on vinyl and cassette.
I've talked enough about TCM2. Let's move on. The next film, however, I have little to say about…
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (dir. Jeff Burr, 1990)
On August 18th, 1973, Sally Hardesty, her invalid brother Franklin, and their friends fell afoul of a bizarre, cannibalistic clan of serial predators. Ms. Hardesty was the sole survivor of that night of terror. She dies in a private health care facility in 1977.
A single member of the murderous “family” lived to see trial. The prosecution recorded his name as W.E. Sawyer. He died in the gas chamber in 1981.
The jurors concluded that “Leatherface,” presumed to be an unapprehended killer, was in fact an alternate personality of Sawyer's, activated whenever he donned a crude mask made of human flesh.
If there was no Leatherface in reality, the Sally Hardesty may at last rest in peace… If there actually was a Leatherface, he remains at large, as the so-called “Texas Chainsaw Massacre…”
…Was only the beginning.
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was the last major studio release to be given an MPAA-approved “X” rating. Yes, the phrase “X-Rated” does indeed come from the MPAA themselves. After 1990, however, the official X rating was abandoned, as it was shamelessly co-opted by the porn industry. Films with more adult content were thereafter rated NC-17. The More You Know…
So, like I said, I have little to say about TCM3 (L:TCMIII?). Despite all the violence and blood and horrors that occur briskly and plentifully over the course of the film's brief 80 minutes, despite the presence of Viggo Mortensen, despite the appearance of a super-long gold-plated chainsaw, TCM3 is surprisingly dull. The story is so very familiar to us at this point, that it barely registers as drama. It's been 16 years already since the first TCM, and an entire generation has grown up now watching slasher flicks that are the children of TCM. Imitators have overpopulated the horror market. The notion of an innocent city couple encountering murderous hillbilly shenanigans in the small American town they happen to be driving through… well, by 1990 it had been done to death. So in TCM3, when our innocent city heroine (Kate Hodge) is nailed to a chair (yes, a woman is tied to a chair again, only this time her hands are nailed to the armrests), we can't help but check our watches. Yes, filmmakers, this is gory, but I wish you had brought a little more crazy. Well, maybe not. Next week I'll be writing about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, which dumps large fetid buckets of crazy all over your lap, and that one will prove to be – no hyperbole – one of the worst movies I have ever seen.
The story follows, as I indicated, a city couple (Hodge and William Butler) as they are driving from Florida to L.A., I think. They stop at a gas station, and Viggo Mortensen is there as a creepy Texas hillbilly whom they refuse to give a ride to. If these movies have taught us anything, it's that refusing to help out a drooling, unshaven, filthy, toothless, backwoods cannibal hillbilly – even in the slightest way – is the most offensive affront to common human decency imaginable, and will grant said hillbilly every license to abuse, torture, and eat you to their heart's content. It's the same principle that allows Harpo Marx to abuse a bully, or Bugs Bunny to torture an opera singer. You break Bugs' banjo, Bugs breaks your skull. In this case, the dangerous hick is a handsome bloke (he is Viggo Mortensen, after all), but that's about it.
Yeah, Viggo will end up capturing and torturing our your heroine. Her boyfriend gets the bulk of abuse and will be the one to die by spring-loaded hammer (!). The hillbillies in this film are a completely new lot, although they still live in a remote cabin, and they still make a common sport of capturing and killing and eating passers-by. The cadres consists of Viggo, a wheelchair-bound Mama who speaks with an electric voicebox, a creepy little blonde girl who looks almost identical to Patty McCormick, and, of course, Leatherface (R.A. Mihailoff), who is referred to as “Junior.” Again I ask: is this the same Leatherface? The opening narration in each of these implies that these are indeed the same murderous hicks, and that the Chainsaw Massacre is ongoing, but the dynamic is so different in each, it's hard to tell.
About that gold chainsaw. By TCM2, chainsaws had transformed into badass weapons intended for human flesh. By TCM3, the central chainsaw used by Leatherface was turned into a downright fetish object. Near the end of the film, Leatherface's family presented him with a new chainsaw that is very long, and decked out with golden spikes and and inscription that reads, in boldly Gothic script, “The Saw Is Family.” It's like the slaughter tool equivalent of a pimpmobile. Pimp that saw! The reveal of the super-chainsaw is, I think, supposed to be a badass moment (the yokels whip a sheet off of it), but it's ultimately pretty dumb. Where did the murderous hillbillies get all the gold to make that? Is one of them a metallurgist of some kind? Do they know a guy in town who does custom chainsaws?
And while we're asking questions, how is it the killer yokels have killed so many people, and still eluded capture? In each of these films, the central yokel mansion is littered with human bodies; living rooms are literally lousy with skulls. In TCM3, we see a bedroom that contains no less than 50 human skulls. If they're going by the Ed Gein mold, it's possible that everyone has been exhuming local corpses and collecting their bones in random floor piles, but we know they've been killing for years. The yokels have probably killed hundreds. At least. Using the same house. For 14 years. Are there NO police in the area? No evidence? If they've been switching houses from time to time, have they been moving their human bone furniture? Wouldn't a rocking chair made of ribs and femurs stand out on a state highway? Also, the yokels in this film seem to have access to nice clothes and furniture. Is that little girl hugging her doll and pressing her impeccable dresses and brushing off the furniture while Leatherface is sawing up her human meals not five feet from her?
This film has a really low budget, but has none of the low-fi charm of the original TCM; it's shooting for professional. Here's my theory on the TCM films as a whole: The higher you shoot, the greater you fall. These films are better the more they stick to a simple template and simple low-budget antics.
What else? Nothing really. There's a lot of obnoxious, sh*tty thrash metal music on the soundtrack (by a band called Lääz Rockit). Ken Foree shows up as the heroic dude who will help save our heroine. Our heroine runs a guy over with a truck. Leatherface drowns, I think. That spring-loaded hammer thing that killed our hero was pretty cool. I guess… And that's it.
TCM has become an imitation of itself by 1990. There's no shock or creativity, despite the X rating and blinged-out chainsaw. I'll have to leave off my coverage of TCM3 here, as there's really nothing more to say. Other than to point out that we're not even close to the bottom of the fetid entrails barrel. We've got some big piles of suck to suffer through, so be sure to hang tight for next week's installation wherein I'll be talking about the loathsome straight-to-video The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, the 2003 TCM remake, the prequel to the 2003 remake (argh), and the recent Texas Chainsaw 3D, which came out just this year.
Now go eat something meaty.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.