It’s kind of funny, 40 years later, to look back and say that the most successful alum from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was its unseen narrator, John Larroquette — and that includes its director, Tobe Hooper. Hooper, of course, went on to direct Poltergeist, but he, like Christian Nyby before him when he worked with Howard Hawks on The Thing (From Another World), was overshadowed by the uncredited influence of the man with the real talent, who in Hooper’s case was Steven Spielberg.
Yet, as narrator, Larroquette gets the movie’s goofiest line. “For them,” he says, referring to the five kids whose lives take a dramatic turn for the worse on August 20, 1973, “an idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare.” Part of the reason Chainsaw is so good is that the closest any of these kids get to “idyllic” is a romp to a dried-up swimming hole.
The movie opens with shots of decaying corpses and a radio news report of the dismemberment and theft of corpses at a Texas cemetery. The kids, in fact, are on their way to the cemetery because two of them, Sally and Franklin Hardesty, have a grandfather buried there: they want to know if his grave was disturbed. On the way, a friend reads from a book of astrology, noting that Saturn is in retrograde — not a good sign. They are nearly out of gas. A rest stop for Franklin, who is in a wheelchair, ends with him at the bottom of a ravine. And then, of course, they pick up a hitchhiker.
But this cat is no ordinary hitchhiker. He’s twitchy and weird and sports a large red welt on his face. His greatest pride, it seems, is connected to the nearby slaughterhouse. “I used to work there. My brother did too. My grandfather too. My family’s always been in meat!” His greatest disappointment? That the business upgraded to a bolt-gun for use in killing the animals; he liked it better when they used a sledge.
These early moments are incredibly awkward, partly because of the situation and partly because the actors are all young and inexperienced. But unlike many similar scenes in other movies, they aren’t, for the viewer, embarrassing. They have a genuineness that lifts them somewhere between comedy and horror. The kids are all hippies, without being self-conscious about it. It’s a nice moment when they “naturally” decide to pick up the hitchhiker. The driver slows, giving them a better look at him. One of the girls then notices how strange he looks and urges them not to stop. But by then they are committed. And in the end, it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
This is a bad day from the get-go, and the movie uses that in an almost fatalistic way. The first murder is so matter-of-fact, so quick, that’s it’s almost as if it is just one more thing gone wrong, like driving into a gas station and finding that the pumps are empty. It establishes a sense of helplessness (and hopelessness) that makes everything that happens that much more horrific.
The film’s masterstroke, however, is its use of comedy. Hooper weaves in a surprising amount of comic material, often dark, sometimes gruesome, but always beautifully timed to bank the boiler and keep the film from getting ahead of itself or blowing up too soon. One scene has one of the crazies telling Sally not to worry while he pokes her with a broom handle. It’s flat-out torture, but it’s funny, too, and like the early scenes with the hitchhiker, it’s all too plausible.
This makes Hooper sound like a genius and I started this review by suggesting that he is not. For that conclusion, I refer you to his subsequent work. But for a few months in 1974, he acted like one.