They could not have expected - nor would they have wished to see - as much as the mad and the macabre as they were to see that day. For them, an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare.Has there ever been a movie with a more terrifying grindhouse title than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? While those four words alone still send chills up your spine, the relatively ungory 1974 classic is an entity unto itself.
Tobe Hooper directed this story, based in part on the 1957 real-life story of Ed Gein. Gein was a momma's boy and a sexual psychopath who dabbled in cannibalism, necrophilia and murder.
He was finally caught when police discovered the headless corpse of one of his victims hanging on a hook in his farmhouse. When they searched the house, they also found bones and body parts of other victims.
The same story inspired Hitchcock's PSYCHO, as well as The Silence of the Lambs and 1974's Deranged. (The latter is the film which most closely depicts the actual events.)
During a particularly grueling August summer, a rash of grave robbings has been occuring across Texas. Just outside the town of Newt, authorities have discovered a grim sight in one of the cemeteries - a badly decomposed body has been wired to a large monument. A second body has been found in a nearby ditch.
All in all, there are about a dozen empty crypts. According to a radio report, deputies say that in some instances...only parts of the corpses have been removed.
Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her invalid brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) are traveling through the backroads of the state to visit an old family home. They're being driven in a van by their friend Jerry (Allen Danziger) and are accompanied by Pam (Terri McMinn) and her boyfriend Kirk (William Vail).
The heat is unbearable. On the way, they stop by a local cemetery after hearing about the vandalism on the radio. Sally and Franklin's grandfather is buried there and they fear his grave has been desecrated. They're relieved to find out his final resting place has not been touched.
The group drive on and they notice the stench coming from a slaughterhouse off the road. The smell is so bad, they have to open all the windows in the van. Franklin says his grandfather used to sell his cattle there. Seeing that the whole subject bothers the others, he goes into great detail about the methods that are used to kill the animals.
They see an odd looking hitchhiker (played by Edwin Neal) along the road. Despite Pam's objection (she says he looks "weird"), they pick him up. Taking a close look at the guy...Franklin says, "I think we just picked up Dracula."
In reponse to a question about how he got stuck out there, the hitchhiker tells them he was at the slaughterhouse...where he says his brother and grandfather work. He seems to get a kick out of telling the group that the animals die better when they're bludgeoned by sledges. He also pulls out graphic pictures that were taken inside and "endears" himself to them by talking about all the uses for the dead cattle.
Pam is disgusted and wants to change the topic. The hitchhiker then takes out a pocketknife and cuts his hand with it. He gives the weapon to Franklin, who is stunned by what just happened.
Laughing the entire time, the stranger takes a picture of the group with his instamatic. He wants to know if they can take him to his house, which is just off the road. But Kirk tells him they're in a hurry. An invitation to dinner is turned down unanimously by everyone.
The hitchhiker tries unsuccessfully to sell the photo he just took for two bucks. Then for no apparent reason, he sets the picture on fire. The friends are startled and the guy proceeds to cut Franklin's arm with his knife. They stop the van and throw him out...but he runs alongside it, kicking the vehicle and wiping his blood on it.
Pam is into astrology and reads Franklin's horoscope. It contains an eerily accurate warning about a "disturbing and unpredictable day." Sally the Capricorn's reading is no better. It says "there are moments when we cannot believe that what is happening is really true...pinch yourself and you may find out that it is."
After calming down, they stop at a gas station/barbecue pit stop. Oddly, the place doesn't have any gas to sell. Franklin, Kirk and Jerry do manage to get directions from an older man (Jim Siedow).
When the guy tells them they shouldn't go messing around on other people's property, Franklin responds that his father owns the house they're looking for. Before boarding the van again, Sally notices the hitchiker's blood smeared on the side of it.
They soon arrive at the house and the others take a look at the blood. The whole thing creeps them out and Franklin wonders if the hitchhiker might try and follow them.
Inside, Sally gives a tour of the home she grew up in. The place is abandoned and run down - and Kirk notices a nest of spiders in a corner. They're having a great time and quickly forget about Franklin, leaving him lagging behind.
Pam and Kirk decide to try and find a swimming pool they had heard about. Franklin tells them there used to be one by a trail near two old sheds. He's left alone and finds a couple of bones and feathers in the house.
While looking for the pool, Pam and Kirk come across a farmhouse...where they hope to find fuel for the van. There's no one there and the two find a human tooth on the porch. Pam is hesitant about going in but Kirk decides to check the place out.
As his girlfriend waits on a swing outside, he enters the house. He can hear the sound of a pig squealing in a room near the back. As he goes towards it, someone wearing a mask made of human flesh (played by Gunnar Hansen) attacks him with a sledgehammer.
Kirk is bludgeoned repeatedly as his body convulses violently. The killer then quickly closes a metal sliding door.
Pam becomes worried when Kirk doesn't return. She goes in and stumbles upon a gruesome sight. One of the rooms is filled with bones, skulls and other human remains.
Horrified, she wretches and tries to run out of the house. The killer (called "Leatherface" in the credits) grabs her and pulls her back in. He takes her into the room with Kirk's body and impales the poor girl on a hook. Screaming in agony as she's dying, Pam is forced to watch Leatherface cut Kirk up with a chainsaw.
Franklin is still concerned that the hitchhiker is coming after him. He tries to find his knife but it's missing. Jerry teases him by saying the nutcase knows where he lives and is going to kill him.
As time goes by, Jerry becomes worried about the whereabouts of his friends and decides search for them by himself. He finds the farmhouse and in the room where the bodies are, he hears sounds coming from a refrigerator. When he opens it, Pam's body pops up and starts flailing. At that moment, Leatherface wacks Jerry on the head with the sledgehammer.
Night falls and Sally and Franklin are worried as they wait at the van, wondering where the rest of the group is. Sally refuses to leave without Jerry and they call out his name. There's no response so the two decide to conduct their own search with a flashlight...as Sally pushes her brother in his wheelchair.
Out of the darkness, they are suddenly attacked by Leatherface who brings his chainsaw down on Franklin. Sally runs away screaming but the killer is in pursuit with the buzzing tool.
Sally unwittingly tries to get refuge in the farmhouse but finds what appears to be mummifed bodies. With Leatherface almost on top of her, she jumps out a second story window.
With Leatherface still in pursuit, Sally makes it to the gas station where her group had stopped by earlier in the day and cries out for help from the owner. He goes to get his car and returns with a sack.
Realizing the guy is up to no good, she tries to get away. The owner beats her with a broom and then wraps her in the sack and takes her to his car. On way to his house, Sally struggles and the old man pokes her with a stick.
He sees the hitchhiker on the way and beats him. It turns out the house belongs to the two men (who are brothers), Leatherface (another sibling) - and their grandfather.
Sally is bound, gagged and tied down to an armchair which is literally made of human limbs. The boys bring their grandfather (John Dugan) down to the dining room,. Sally's finger is cut and stuck into the nearly mummified man's mouth. As he sucks her blood, she screams and passes out.
Sally awakens to find the brothers taunting her at the table. The older brother says, "Grandpa is the greatest killer there ever was." During this harrowing experience, the brothers kneel Sally down on the floor with her head over a bucket. They place a hammer in Grandpa's hand...which he uses to strike Sally over the head. Finally, she has had enough.
She breaks free and jumps out of a window...again! It's now dawn outside - and the hitchhiker and Leatherface both go after her.
The hitchhiker gets run over by a passing cattle truck on the road. Sally tries to hitch a ride but the driver (played by Ed Guinn) is frightened by the madness and he too makes a run for it. Leatherface goes after them and the driver knocks him down and causes the chainsaw to cut Leatherface's leg.
Sally manages to get on the back of a pick-up truck, leaving her tormentor buzzing his chainsaw in the middle of the road. She can only laugh maniacally at her horrendous and unspeakable experience.
Filmed on a small budget and on a grueling schedule, this classic relies on suspense and an unrelenting claustrophobia that doesn't let up. Much has been said of the documentary feel. When the sole survivor ends up on the truck laughing as she escapes, you might wonder if you've lost your sanity as well!
Texas Chainsaw was shot in both Round Rock and Austin, Texas. The excellent cast was discovered in the drama department at the University of Texas, where Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface) was an English teacher.
Despite all the attention this film has received over the years, it appears the actors were not well compensated for their outstanding work. In fact, with the exception of Marilyn Burns, who had roles in Hooper's Eaten Alive and the acclaimed TV movie Helter Skelter, none of them went on to do anything particularly noteworthy.
This was Tobe Hooper's first major feature and he was quite the hands-on filmmaker. Besides directing it, he produced, co-wrote (with Kim Henkel) and composed the chilling score with Wayne Bell. He also handled some of the photography.
We should not underestimate the work of Robert A. Burns, who was responsible for the production design and art direction. The look of the farmhouse, with its bone sculptures, furniture made of human flesh and other horrors - is integral to the movie's success.
And like The Exorcist, one of the scariest elements is sound. In addition to the buzzing of the chainsaw, there is the mad, unending laughter of the crazy family, the screams of Sally, the sounds of backwood Texas, a chicken, etc.
Critics were not kind during the initial release of Chainsaw. There were even reports that people walked out of some previews. In time, that would all change and it's interesting to note that the Museum of Modern Art inducted the film into its permanent collection over a decade and a half later.
It took Tobe Hooper twelve years to direct a sequel to this influential film. When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II was released in 1986, it turned out to be a disappointment. Featuring all the gore that the first one only hinted at, Part II proved (among other things) that more is not necessarily better.