The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

(USA 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.”

— Narrator


“Look what your brother did to the door! Ain’t he got no pride in his home?”

— Old Man

I didn’t expect much when I sat down for the low budget slasher classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a movie that somehow escaped me all these years. I’ve got to admit, it’s not bad.

The premise is simple: five friends in their 20s, three guys and two girls, are driving a van on a road trip through rural Texas in the summer. The purpose of the trip is to check on a few dearly departed relatives of Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her disabled brother, Franklin (Paul Alan Partain), after a gruesome grave robbery in the town where they grew up. It’s very Scooby Doo.

They pick up a crazy hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) outside a slaughterhouse who grosses them all out talking about killing cattle with a sledgehammer. He passes around a few photos of some he finished off himself. He’s dirty, scabby, and jittery. He snaps a photo no one asked him to, then has the nerve to charge them two bucks for it. He invites them over for dinner (head cheese) with his family before he cuts his hand with a pocketknife. Freaked, they pull over and throw his nasty ass out.

That’s not the worst of it — it’s just the beginning. Working from a screenplay he wrote with Kim Henkel, director Tobe Hooper taps into something pretty fucked up here. Mixing hicks with chainsaws is unsettling enough, but “Leatherface” (Gunnar Hansen), the masked executioner behind that sliding freezer door, is truly frightening. So is decomposing “grandfather” (John Dugan). When you stop to think about it, so is a gas station barbeque.

All the essential elements of horror are here: characters stranded in the middle of nowhere, empty houses, no phones or gas, bugs, bones, rotting corpses, chases in the dark, falling down, power tools as weapons, kidnapping, a faceless menace, and a bunch of blood.

Cinematographer Daniel Pearl creates some surprisingly artful shots, particularly on the highway, in a sunflower patch, and a scene with feathers. They look great. The artful moments, however, are far and few between. The pacing is strange: the first four victims are picked off in quick succession, leaving just Burns, who has nothing to do but run around and scream for nearly the entire second half. Even after all she goes through, no one needs that. Still, for all its flaws, I winced, I snickered, I looked away in disgust. But I saw the whole thing through to the end — no pun intended.

I hate to spoil the ending, but contrary to the movie poster…none of this is true.

With Allen Danziger, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Jim Siedow, John Larroquette

Production: Vortex

Distribution: Bryanston Pictures (USA), Astral Films (Canada), New Gold Entertainment (Italy), Succéfilm AB (Sweden), Jugendfilm-Verleih (West Germany), Bac Films (France), New Line Cinema (USA), René Chateau Productions (France), Filmways Australasian Distributors (Australia)

84 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) B-

Drugstore Cowboy

(USA 1989)

“You won’t fuck me and I always have to drive.”

— Dianne Hughes

“If I ever see a hat on a bed in this house, man, like you’ll never see me again. I’m gone.”

“Show time!”

“Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to ’em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get ahold of something. Maybe it’s not dope. Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline. Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.”

— Bob Hughes

“Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized. The idea that anyone can use drugs and escape a horrible fate is anathema to these idiots. I predict in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus.”

— Fr. Murphy

I love everything about Drugstore Cowboy, the first film I ever saw by director Gus Van Sant. It’s the one that I view as his gold standard even after nearly 30 years. Funny, touching, and insightful in ways that have to be seen, it speaks to me. It probably always will. It’s a rare film that has it all: flawlessly executed from start to finish, it’s totally absorbing and entertaining yet still makes its points in a way that hits hard even after seeing it dozens of times.

Bad Bobby Hughes (Matt Dillon) — or just “Bob” — is the first one to tell you he’s a junkie. He and his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), lead a small nomadic “crew” that consists of Rick (James LeGros) and his young girlfriend, Nadine (Heather Graham). The four of them spend their days getting high and devising elaborate — and amusing — schemes to rob drugs from pharmacies and hospitals. Then they go out and execute their mission.

Once they’ve made a score, they do the drugs they like, sell the ones they don’t, hang out doing little more than watching TV, and move onto another neighborhood somewhere else in Portland, Oregon, when they’ve either run out or overstayed their welcome, whichever comes first.

They’ve repeated the cycle so many times that cocky Detective Gentry (James Remar) and his men are on their trail. Bob manages to stay a step ahead, but it’s getting tougher. He sees that his luck is running out — and it’s not just because of the hex that Nadine inadvertently put on them by mentioning a dog (one thing about Bob: he’s a bit superstitious).

To outrun one such hex — and more realistically, because Bob runs out of ideas and doesn’t know what to do next — they hit the road, stuffing their drug stash in suitcases, shipping them on Greyhound buses, and following them by car. A string of bad luck and bad outcomes presents Bob with an epiphany — and a choice.

With both humor and compassion, Van Sant — and for his part, Dillon — tells a moving and curiously relatable story about people who aren’t necessarily bad, but they’ve allowed their lives to drift away from them. Here, it’s for drugs. They don’t always do the right thing, and often the members of this little family of outcasts are each other’s worst enemies. But they’re realistic. Dillon makes Bob so likable that I find myself rooting for him even when he’s making bad choices; despite his flaws, I like him enough that I can see myself having fun with him.

Drugstore Cowboy easily could’ve been a very different movie. It works because it’s not preachy or judgmental or hyperbolic. Based on a novel by real-life criminal and addict James Fogle (, Van Sant and Daniel Yost’s screenplay eschews melodrama for a decidedly objective and almost clinical approach, showing the joys of drugs in some visually well constructed sequences as well as the cost of addiction. The film does an excellent job showing how much work it is to maintain a habit. Throughout the movie, Dillon’s narration keeps the story grounded. Van Sant never sells out his characters’ humanity.

It doesn’t hurt that this film is loaded with spectacular performances all around, including those of Grace Zabriskie as Bob’s battleworn mother and William S. Burroughs as disgraced priest and fellow addict Fr. Tom Murphy. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography gives Drugstore Cowboy a drab, threadbare look that works well with Elliot Goldenthal’s moody score. Every element comes together to make this a truly remarkable film, definitely one of my favorites.

With Max Perlich, George Catalano, Janet Baumhover, Stephen Rutledge, Beah Richards, Robert Lee Pitchlynn, Ray Monge, Woody

Production: Avenue Pictures

Distribution: Avenue Pictures Productions (USA), Astral Films (Canada), Forum Distribution (France), Sandrew Film & Teater (Sweden), GAGA Communications (Japan)

102 minutes
Rated R

(MoviePlex) A+

Kill, Baby…Kill! [Operation Fear] [Operazione paura]

(Italy 1966)

“Something in this town is supernatural. Tell me, why did they abandon the church? I’m scared. I almost think the devil’s here.”

— Monica

The second offering of a Mario Bava weekend double feature, Kill, Baby…Kill! is one of the director’s more commercially successful films. Many commentators have pointed out its influence on the horror genre and praised Bava’s gothic sensibilities, visuals, and use of irony. All good, I agree. Still, none of these things means Kill, Baby…Kill! is a great — or even a good — film.

In the early 20th Century, a coroner, Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), is en route to a remote village in Transylvania to perform an autopsy on a woman who died under mysterious circumstances. In a church — an abandoned one, no less, no doubt to provide a metaphor. The carriage driver, warning that this place is messed up, will only go to the edge of the village, not inside it.

Dr. Eswai finds the police inspector (Piero Lulli) at a local inn, where he is given instructions. When none of the superstitious and rather wan locals volunteer to help him with the autopsy, Monica Shuftan (Erika Blanc), a nurse of some sort who grew up there and just happens to be visiting the graves of her parents, steps up to assist.

During the autopsy, Dr. Eswai is puzzled to find a silver coin stuck in the woman’s heart. It’s a practice to thwart a local ghost that visits villagers in their sleep and puts a hex on them, making them commit suicide in ghastly ways — like jumping from heights and impaling themselves on iron posts.

Dr. Eswai runs into a creepy young thing in a white dress. He soon learns she’s the ghost of seven-year-old Melissa Graps (Valerio Valeri), who died 20 years before. She’s the little bugger who’s been freaking out everyone in the village for the last two decades. The doctor and Monica sense a spark, but first they must deal with this Melissa situation.

Romano Migliorini, Roberto Natale, and Bava all contributed to the screenplay. The story is unoriginal and silly, complete with cringeworthy dialogue and an actual sorceress (Fabienne Dalì). There’s an odd dub thing going on, too.

This being a Bava picture, though, Kill, Baby…Kill! works on primal instinct, here fear. Plus, it has its share of arresting visuals. The colors are vivid, though the palette is heavy on brown and green. The sets have a grimy, dilapidated medieval appearance to them, giving the look of a ghost story. There’s a cool scene where Dr. Eswai chases after Monica through a series of doors that keep taking him back to the same rooms — it’s delightfully dizzying.

Overall, Kill, Baby…Kill! is okay. It’s got Bava’s unique fingerprint all over it, and it’s fun to watch. It’s just not spectacular. Blood and Black Lace grabbed me; this did not, at least not for long. I hate the title — they should’ve kept Operation Fear.

With Luciano Catenacci (Max Lawrence), Micaela Esdra, Franca Dominici, Giuseppe Addobbati, Mirella Pamphili, Giana Vivaldi

Production: F.U.L. Films

Distribution: Internazionale Nembo, Distribuzione Importazione, Esportazione Film, Alpha (Germany), Europix Consolidated Corp. (USA), Astral Films (Canada), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

85 minutes
Rated PG

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C