If Eggshells was Tobe Hooper’s way of showing Texas as a hospitable place where the entrenched past and the progressive future could find an uneasy truce in the name of peace, love, and harmony, then The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, his sophomore effort from 1974, aims to tear all of it down with shocking abandon. From the iconic opening flash shots of graves being desecrated to the tightly-wound, climactic ending, director Tobe Hooper and co-screenwriter Kim Henkel give the audience absolutely no breaks, immersing viewers in a cinematic world far beyond nature where exactly nothing is sacred.

In terms of plot, there may be no simpler film in the horror genre than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Five young people travel to a dilapidated family homestead out in the wilds of rural Texas and fall victim to a neighboring backwoods clan of cannibal ex-slaughterhouse workers.

Gosh, it feels really stupid to reduce the film to just its structural elements because recounting the broad outline of the film is kind of like calling a Jaguar “a car”; you’re not technically lying but you’re vastly underselling the product to a stupid and irresponsible degree. Yeah, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is exactly as described and is more or less what you think you’ll be getting but it also achieves the absolute impossible by transcending the medium, establishing itself as a true nightmare printed on celluloid. It’s not that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a masterpiece of modern horror, it’s also that it’s the greatest horror film ever made and the clear victor in a race that’s not even particularly close. While Jaws did a number on people and shaped their attitudes about going to the beach, in reality there are only so many spots in the U.S. where a practical fear of sharks can really take hold. On the other hand, there are countless miles of country roads and rural highways dotted with the barest signs of civilization and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre roots itself in the mind in a way where each one of those dilapidated or barely functioning dwellings becomes suspect.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre exists in a landscape where things are once close and a great distance; a place where time slips from day to night and back to morning in a sweaty compression. In Texas, the normal Jeffersonian survey grid that covers about 90% of the rest of the United States gives way to the weird, claptrap geometry of surveys and abstracts but this film exists in a land that feels even beyond that nonsense, landing somewhere totally uncharted. Geographically, it is a barren place where there is nowhere to turn when looking for solace or relief and where the characters are trapped between the two poles of a farmhouse and a gas station. There was a swimming hole that could once be found if you took the trail between two old sheds but it now leads to a dried out canyon of rocks and wild sunflowers. The only people who provide comfort and help are passers-through and absolutely are not native to the region. The only things on the radio are news reports about unspeakable horrors across the globe and twangy country music, all seemingly on a constant loop both day and night. Everything operates behind infinite curtains of unforgiving heat waves.

Conventions straight from gothic literature, specifically the examination of folks who untether themselves from society and live in a vacuum out in the middle of nowhere, are updated and amplified and contrasted with modernity in the guise of the post-Eggshells hippies in a van. We are forced to size up the primitive family with their more civilized counterparts and wonder why we get so much glee when Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) digs his chainsaw into the gullet of the whiny, needy, and disgusting Franklin (Paul A. Partain), invalid brother to final girl Sally (Marilyn Burns) who, in a Freudian move pulled off no less than two times, quite literally points three of his peers (Terri McMinn, William Vail, and Allen Danzinger) in the general direction of their doom as if he were being subsidized by Leatherface’s clan to do such a thing.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a film made up of memorable moments both great and small. Pam approaching the house as the camera tracks under the swing as it looms larger and larger like a giant that is about to swallow her whole; the corner of room packed with an animated, spindly nest of granddaddy long legs; the beautiful and darkly comic moment where the Old Man (Jim Siedow) confronts the Hitchhiker (Ed Neal) in the middle of the road, beautifully and macabrely backlit by the headlights of a pickup truck. One of the film’s greatest centerpieces, namely the introduction of Leatherface, is shocking and displays one of Hooper’s most favorite cinematic ideas (and one to which he would return time and time again) which is the unholy center of a world infested and rotten. As the set up is one big layered journey into hell and his initial appearance comes as a cold shock to the audience, Hooper parks it on the outer edge and plays the audience out to an unbearable level of discomfort, finally forcing the audience to simmer in the same paralyzed shock of Pam who sits dumbfounded among the detritus of bones both of animal and human origin after she literally stumbles onto same. Once orientated, Hooper springs the trap from the hell within the hell as Leatherface bursts out from behind the metal door, snatching Pam back into the house as she is trying to escape, her legs akimbo and lungs tearing themselves in half from her screams of terror that turn into screams of excruciating pain upon being unceremoniously hung on a meathook.

Employing a subjective camera that floats along the overgrown brush and looks out from the inside of roadside edifices as if something bigger and unseen is slowly deconstructing the known universe and all the logic and space that holds it together, Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl set the audience on edge by hinting at something omnipresent that’s always observing even if the audience never actually sees it or knows what it is. Additionally, Hooper forces the audience to puzzle out just what exactly going on with the slaughterhouse family. Where every other Chainsaw film wears its cannibalism like a badge of honor bordered in bright neon, Hooper’s original keeps everything opaque with pieces of evidence floating about in a hazy, nightmarish rush that are never explicitly discussed but gel once one’s bearings are brought back center.

On a technical level, there is just nothing like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While every other Chainsaw film has tried to recreate the ghoulish interior of the family house, none have even come anywhere close to achieving the kind of natural sense of a completely functional yet terrifying place as Robert Burns created and dressed it in 1974. In every other Chainsaw film, the house feels like a trapdoor-festooned dark ride developed by professional funhouse workers, completely inorganic and phony. The cinematography is nightmarish which seems pretty upside down given than half of the film takes place in the daytime but the palpable heat and humidity almost mixes with the 16mm color-reversal blowup to create something chemically upsetting to look at yet entirely alluring all at once. Hooper and Wayne Bell’s musique concrète score is jangling and knows how to create a forever disquieting sonic atmosphere and the sound design finds the most upsetting of tones and puts its foot on the gas. While the special effects are all great, John Dugan is under some aging makeup courtesy of W.E. Barnes that’s some of the best stuff I’ve seen this side of Dick Smith and can’t help but impress given the film’s budget.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a perfect film. It holds not one wasted shot, not one bum performance, and not one extraneous minute. Not one seam shows in its disorienting, maddening, uncomfortable, oppressive, and apocalyptic vision. There will never be another film like it nor will it ever find an equal. Tobe Hooper never came anywhere as close to hitting the heights as he does here but it really doesn’t matter as he could have directed nothing but industrial videos on 3/4” videotape for Honeywell for the rest of his life and gotten into director’s heaven and any and all halls of fame for just gestating The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And that’s that.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

Actor’s Spotlight: Nate’s Top Ten R. Lee Ermey Performances

Character actor R. Lee Ermey gained a whole bunch of traction from being casted by Stanley Kubrick and although he played many variations on the drill instructor archetype throughout his career, there’s also a host of varied, layered and always captivating appearances in this man’s work. Built like an all American tough guy and possessing of the badass presence to back it up, he’s embodied many cowboy, mercenary, law enforcement and the occasional regular joe type roles, these ten of which are my favourite!

10. Verne Plummer in DJ Caruso’s The Salton Sea

This is basically a minuscule cameo with one brief line but he’s playing against type and his quick presence in this beautifully dark neo-noir adds to an already eclectic cast. He and Shirley Jones play parents to Val Kilmer’s murdered wife, in a short but effective scene where they try and reconnect. The grief in all three is palpable and casting him was a nice touch.

9. Captain Phillips in JP Simon’s The Rift

This is one of those ‘underwater aliens’ SciFi horror schlock flicks that speckle the 80’s and 90’s like barnacle gemstones. Ermey plays the captain of a submarine that encounters mutant marine life, AI insubordination and deep sea extraterrestrials that wreak havoc in beloved, cheesy FX. His selfless reaction when he gets infected is something way more grounded than the film even deserves, and together with Ray ‘Leland Palmer’ Wise, he steals the show.

8. Conventioneer in Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas

Another cameo, but he always shone no matter the size of the role. Elizabeth Shue’s hooker tries to proposition him in a casino and his reaction is remarkably down to earth for that part of town. Affronted and insulted, he informs her he’s married, expresses disgust and moves on. It’s quick, wholesome and perfectly intoned.

7. Brisco County Sr in The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr

This is a fantastic, forgotten 90’s SciFi western with Bruce Campbell as the legendary gunfighter son of Ermey’s equally notorious but short lived bounty hunter. He doesn’t live past the pilot but his death basically kicks off all the action, plus he gets to display grit and badassery aboard a speeding locomotive.

6. Mr. Martin in Willard

A strange film about a weird dude (Crispin Glover) with an unhealthy affinity to rats, Ermey plays his domineering, asshole boss with that perfectly volcanic relish reserved for his villainous work. He and Glover have this oddly pitched but successful chemistry in an intense game of psychological warfare.

5. Police Captain in David Fincher’s Se7en

Many characters revolve around Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt’s harried detectives in Fincher’s dark horror masterpiece, one of which is Ermey as their stern, well spoken boss. Never given a name beyond the moniker of ‘Police Captain’, he’s a world weary veteran with haunted eyes and a restless, intuitive spirit.

4. Sheriff Buck Olmstead in Jeb Stuart’s Switchback

A salt of the earth small town sheriff, Buck does everything he can to help and befriend Dennis Quaid’s rogue FBI agent whose son is in the hands of a nasty serial killer. The character dynamic between the two carries the film and Ermey shows that when not being intense he can play mellow, compassionate fellows too. Underrated, beautifully photographed thriller as well, with a cool cast.

3. Clyde Percy in Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking

A grieving father full of quiet anguish and restrained outrage, he displays his talent for subtle drama in this examination of one death row inmate (Sean Penn) and the traumatic aftermath of his crimes rippling through a southern community. As he confronts a nun (Susan Sarandon) who is acting as counsel for his son’s killer, the bewildered sorrow and still burning sadness in his eyes, voice and mannerisms are palpable. Fantastic, against type performance from this actor.

2. Sheriff Hoyt/Charlie Hewitt in Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning

This one is all fire and brimstone, illustrating the kind of menace, terror and outright fury he could inject into a performance. Charlie is the deranged patriarch of the homicidal backwoods family who birthed legendary serial killer Leatherface. The first film sees him slyly impersonate a local sheriff until the wheels slowly come loose and an unfortunate group of kids find out that he’s there to do anything but serve and protect. In the second film he goes straight up fucking bonkers though, steals the show in a barnstorming, show-stopping tirade of terrifying behaviour, murderous actions and sadistic, maniacal glee. He’s scarier than Leatherface himself in that one and cements a horror villain for the ages into canon.

1. Gny. Sgt. Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket

This is the one that put him on the map, and the first of many times where he steals the show like a goddamn hurricane. Hartman is essentially a one note presence, but because of Ermey’s real life career as a drill instructor there’s a brash authenticity and jagged realism to his performance that is instantly magnetic.

-Nate Hill



Exeter marks a return to the straight-up horror genre for slice-and-dice specialist Marcus Nispel (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Pathfinder, Conan the Barbarian). This gonzo, surprisingly funny, high-energy, EXTRA-gory horror flick puts a simple and fresh spin on the classic exorcism narrative and throws in some twists along with a supreme sense of style. A bunch of teenagers have decided to turn a run down children’s mental hospital into the makeshift location of a rave, and after doing some excessive partying, a group of friends splinter off and begin to get into some seriously messed up situations with the ghosts of dead children. Possessions ensue, exorcisms are attempted, people can no longer be trusted, the bodies start to hit the floor, and the film goes totally nuts in the final act, featuring one of the nastiest bits of horror movie violence I’ve seen in a while. This isn’t my normal cinematic milieu, and I’m not as well versed in this sort of material as so many others clearly are, but I was drawn to the project by Nispel (long an effective stylist drawn to hardcore material) and the involvement of the great character actor Stephen Lang, who gets the film’s best scenes and lines of dialogue. One of those talents who spruces up any picture that is lucky enough to cast him, Lang clearly had a blast getting down and dirty with this bit of extreme nastiness. Shot on a low budget but never looking anything less than spectacular, Nispel and cinematographer Eric Treml bathe the film in saturated colors, lens flares, and jet blacks with cool blues, employing hand-held cameras with variable shutter speeds, creating a visceral effect that puts you in the middle of all of the limb-lopping, glop-filled fights and kills that Nispel so clearly has a ball in staging. One bit, involving the loss of half of one’s face, is, for the lack of a better word, horrifically memorable. Production designer Guy Roland and set decorator Sarah Hill Richmond had fun with the scuzzy and threatening solo location, and the editing by Blake Maniquis never rests for a moment but never overwhelms the picture with incoherence. For fans of this sort of extra-grisly yet still playful horror madness, Exeter should more than easily hit the mark.