The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Remove the gruesome, in-your-face murders and mutilations and notice that “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” remains to be a thoroughly effective horror film. Inferior slasher films forget that violence does not define horror even though it is or can be a part of it. Director Tobe Hooper (who co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Henkel) commands a complete understanding of this simple but often overlooked idea. What results is a horror film for the ages: violent—yes—but also loud, uncomfortable, atmospheric, and filled to brim with unusual and downright chilling images. (A hammer being dropped on the ground repeatedly, for instance, allows us to appreciate its mass. And so we buy it when that hammer is used to bash in someone’s skull.) One does not walk away from this picture without a strong impression. It demands that you have an opinion.
Images outside of what we consider to be “typical horror” are seared into my brain. A terrified woman slides accidentally into a living room full of feathers. The camera observes with great patience; it allows us to appreciate what she finds to be frightening in that room. There are bones all around—most appear to be from animals but it is clear a few are human. But the bones are not randomly strewn about. They are used as decorations—a nudge to the real-life murders that Ed Gein committed. We notice the panic building in the woman’s body and eyes… yet she does not scream. At least not yet. Instead, we hear the manic clucking of a chicken in a cage from a few feet away, as if to communicate that this human is invading its space.
Another standout moment involves a second woman being driven from location to another. Her mouth is gagged, her hands are tied, and her head is covered with a sack. She lays on the floor of the passenger’s seat… which is important because it further underscores that she and her kidnapper are not on equal footing. Her assailant, the driver, holds a stick with his right hand and continues to hit her—and then laughing to himself—until they reach their destination, as if to remind her who’s in charge, who has the power. This is a work that does not rely on dialogue for meaning; it assumes we are intelligent enough to recognize what’s terrifying about a situation outside of the usual slicing and stabbing. It wants us to undergo an experience rather than simply sitting through one. There is a world of difference. And the answer lies in craft.
The plot revolves around Sally (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother named Franklin (Paul A. Partain) who go on a trip, along with Sally’s boyfriend (Allen Danziger) and two friends (William Vail, Teri McMinn), to visit their grandfather’s grave. Word has gone around that a person, or persons, has been robbing graves and mutilating corpses. They did not plan to stop by grandfather’s abandoned house but one thing leads to another and they end up going there, unaware that right next door is a family of cannibals (Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, John Dugan). One of them wears human skin as a mask (Gunnar Hansen). We learn his name is Leatherface.
There is a rawness to this picture that I found to be beautiful and transporting. In its opening minutes, we can actually feel the heat of the sun by how sticky and sweaty the characters look inside their van. Their clothes are stained with sweat and grime. Perhaps they have not taken a shower for over a day. When they step outside, the photography highlights the dryness of the land. We see and hear heavy breathing when a person’s face captures the sun’s rays. We feel like one of the travelers and we already know it’s a very bad idea to pick up a hitchhiker.
Notice its use of sound. It assaults the eardrums. An obvious but important one is the revving of a chainsaw, Leatherface’s weapon of choice. When it roars, you feel it in your gut the whole time. Combine this sound when the masked killer chases after his victim. They run and run and run—in the dark, amongst dead trees, inside houses. Notice, too, how the distance between predator and prey tends to decrease over time. You are compelled to pull your limbs closer to your torso. And then the screaming begins. We stare into the victim’s desperate eyes in quiet surrender and wonder how the hell she can possibly get out of the house of horrors and live to tell the tale.