In this remote area of Texas, there are news reports coming in over the radio that a graveyard has been vandalised and corpses looted and desecrated. Not that this information makes much of an impression on the five young people travelling through the countryside in their van, searching for the resting place of the grandfather of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her disabled brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain). They do track down the grave, but are keen to find the old house where he used to stay as well, so head off in the direction they believe it to be. On the way, they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) to rescue him from the heat - their first mistake...
Or was their first mistake undertaking the journey at all? Still one of the most controversial films ever made, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre rivalled Night of the Living Dead six years before for groundbreaking horror, and its sustained assault on the audience, never mind the characters, has passed into legend. It was a film that truly was hell to make, with everyone suffering in desperate conditions, but nevertheless their hardship was worth it as the film was a big hit across the world - well, in the places it was not banned anyway, and still has a fearsome reputation to this day. Tobe Hooper and his co-writer and producer Kim Henkel spent the rest of their careers trying to live up to this; or live it down, for that matter.
Some will tell you that the Mario Bava giallos starting in the previous decade were the inception of the slasher movie as we know it today, others that Alfred Hitchcock got in there first with Psycho, but this film was its own beast entirely. Indeed, it treats the characters as beasts, with Hooper on record as saying the ones who are most abused in this are subjected to the kind of treatment that cattle do in a slaughterhouse, as if the whole story was a "how would you like it?" diatribe against those who prefer not to entertain thoughts of where their burgers come from. So the five hapless young folks are essentially "meat" as the director put it, they just don't know it yet although they will get the point as the film progresses.
It's popular to say that the shocks here were produced without gore, and it's true that the whole experience works with a heightened atmosphere of dread even before the hitchhiker has taken a knife to his own hand for his own amusement. But its not true to say there's no blood, it's just that Hooper doesn't paint the walls red; after all, the first shot of the movie is of a mouldering corpse and there are blood splatters when the violence begins. What it is accurate to say is that the film did not rely solely on special effects in the way a horror movie of the next decade would, probably because this was so low budget it could not afford them, but this led it to be more creative in other methods.
Look at how tribal the art design is, as if the twisted family of cannibals Sally and the rest encounter are so isolated from civilisation that they have become like some bloodthirsty group of savages with their own death-worshipping religion, complete with talismans and idols fashioned from bones. The script plays up the family aspect once the villains are assembled in one place, with the unforgettably obscene Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), he of the chainsaw, the doting mother: once you notice this macabre parody of traditional values put across, the film reaches a new level of pitch black comedy. It's as if the plot has attained such a level of the fantastically horrible that the only sane - or insane, as Sally finds out - reaction is to laugh.
This can be seen as the natural progression from the old dark house movies of the twenties and thirties, most obviously, well, The Old Dark House as with that too, travellers seek refuge in the middle of nowhere only to be terrorised. Yet with the climate of the state sanctioned violence in the United States of the time, the most they can hope for here is reflected in the ending, surviving the onslaught with body bloodied but intact and allowing the psychological scars to heal in their own time - if they ever do. The style with which Hooper pushes the buttons familiar from your worst nightmares has rarely been bettered, some would say it never really has, but the overriding tone of revulsion, even down to details like the nest of spiders or the dirty rag pushed into Sally's mouth, means that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is unlikely to reach mainstream acceptance as the raw and classic work that it is. But in a good way. Music by Hooper and Wayne Bell.
[Second Sight's Blu-ray is the best this grotty-looking film has ever appeared, and with its billion or so special features this is truly the definitive way to enjoy it, especially if you've never seen it before.]