Scott Hollifield: When a chain saw ruled the silver screen

Tobe Hooper didn’t invent the chain saw, of course, but he helped make it one of the most iconic movie props of all time.

Hooper, 74, director of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” died Aug. 26 in Sherman Oaks, California of natural, non-chain saw-related causes.

He directed plenty of additional projects, including “Poltergeist” (though some film buffs insist Steven Spielberg, who wrote the story, is mostly responsible for the end result), but for a child of the ‘70s, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is the “Citizen Kane” of power-tool fueled mayhem, a hard-to-find – at the time -- movie elevated to disgusting heights by word of mouth and my own imagination.

For those who haven’t seen the movie or for those who last watched it after consuming a six-pack of Busch Ice tallboys, I will recap the plot: Five friends, including our heroine Sally and her brother Franklin, one of the most annoyingly whiney characters in celluloid history, take a van trip to the cemetery where Sally and Franklin’s grandpa is buried to check out reports of vandalism and grave robbing, two things generally frowned upon in Texas.

They eventually encounter a none-too-friendly local family, including one member who lugs around the titular chain saw, and things pretty much go south from there -- not south to Mexico for a nice vacation in Cancun but south as in trapped in a house of horrors by homicidal, cannibalistic maniacs, sort of like a bed-and-breakfast where Sally just may end up as breakfast and Franklin is definitely toast.

Hooper’s film was released in 1974 when I was 10 years old, still happily consuming Disney tripe like buttery handfuls of stale popcorn. If it played at the one-screen theater in town or the slightly sleazy drive-in on the outskirts around that time, I don’t recall and would not have been interested.

A few years later though, the horror bug bit (the 1975 mutant cockroach movie “Bug,” by the way, lacks bite, but I digress). I developed a keen interest in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” perhaps because of its evocative title. What all American teenage boy could resist a movie about a massacre perpetrated with a chain saw?

But it was the stuff of legend, myth. The video age was coming but it had not arrived and no network or local TV station would dare show “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” while Lawrence Welk was alive and shaking his stick on Saturdays.

Then came the fateful day I learned that TCSM would play at a drive-in just over the mountain in nearby Asheville, then a faded Southern city and a few decades away from its hipster revival.

Someone had a license, someone had a car, I had a plan and it all came together. Whether any of us snuck in by hiding in the trunk is a memory that has faded with time, since I am not sure about the statute of limitations on trespassing or theft of services.

We sat in lawn chairs and watched the movie, the holy grail of power tool fueled-mayhem, and at some point, someone near the concession stand, whether it was a manager with a wicked sense of humor or a maintenance guy with a snoot full of airplane glue from a paper sack, cranked a weed trimmer and revved it up for 30 seconds or so to add to the ambience.

It was awesome.

Many among today’s horror movie audience likely find the film quaint and lacking in gore, but for me it retains its’70s charm upon multiple viewings thanks to a gritty, documentary-like look, fairly decent acting and the fact that Franklin gets killed with a chain saw.

RIP, Tobe Hooper. The next time I wield a chain saw – for landscaping purposes only – I will salute you with a rev or two.

 Scott Hollifield is editor/GM of The McDowell News in Marion, N.C. and a humor columnist. Contact him at rhollifield@mcdowellnews.com.