Synopsis: The film that redefined horror tells the story of a group of friends who take a road trip and find themselves at the mercy of a depraved Texas clan, among them one of the icons of horror, the chain saw wielding ‘Leatherface’. An idyllic afternoon drive becomes a macabre nightmare.
On its 1974 release Tobe Hooper’s terrifying classic shocked audiences, caused outrage and was widely banned. To this day The Texas Chain Saw Massacre remains one of the most terrifying and disturbing films ever made.
eyelights: Marilyn Burns. its harrowing presentation. its setting. its heavy creep factor.
eyesores: its frequently over-the-top performances. its minimal plot.
“That’s the last goddamn hitchhiker I ever pick up.”
As a kid, ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ was one of those notorious horror films that I kept hearing about. Inevitably, VHS copies of the movie littered the selves of corner stores and posters were adorned on the walls of video stores; it seemed ubiquitous at the time.
However, I was very young then, and it took years for me to be interested in horror films. By the time that I was old enough to see the original, the franchise had gotten really stale, and the thought of watching a movie starring “Leatherface” just didn’t any sort of pull on me.
I eventually gave in when it was released on DVD in 2003.
I was deep into DVD at the time, and my paycheques were often just signed away to my local CD/DVD stores. I wasn’t exactly indiscriminate, but I loved a good deal or a rare item (I still do!). In 2003, ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ was released in a limited edition package.
So I bought it.
I would never have guessed that it would have the impact that it did. Though it was slow to start and it initially felt like a crummy B-movie, ultimately it was a jarring experience. Despite its structural simplicity, it was brutal in its delivery; it shook me up and left an imprint.
Let me be clear: ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ is not a good film. It is a harrowing film. It is a terrifying film.
But it is not a good film.
Shot in 1974, it’s an extremely low-budget motion picture; it could only afford a no-name cast and a limited technical crew. So, naturally, it can be sloppy at times, especially where the performances are concerned: Paul A. Partain is particularly dreadful as Franklin, an invalid.
But where the production’s technical limitations might have felled another motion picture, it actually serves as a quality here: Tobe Hooper shot and cut his gritty horror film in such a way that all the weird shots and jagged editing choices echo the film’s disturbed headspace.
Once it truly gets going, one gets the feeling of having been sucked into an Earth-bound nightmare, in the filth and dirt and blood and guts of humanity’s most depraved, most vile minds. We’re shown an alternate reality, one far removed from our neat and orderly everyday lives.
And it feels real. It could happen.
Though you wouldn’t want it to.
And that’s why ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ works so well: it feels likely. Hooper doesn’t even indulge in the usual theatrics of the genre, goring his characters to satisfy his audience’s bloodlust: he just takes his characters out one by one, quickly, brutally – as it would be.
That’s what shocked me the most about this picture when I first saw it: a character investigates a seemingly empty country home, a typical scenario, except that he doesn’t get chased and gutted. Instead, a brute pops out of nowhere, brains him and he falls to the ground, twitching.
Next! Calling victim #2!
I didn’t expect such callous finality or seeing the pain of human suffering. In these movies, characters may gurgle blood, but they either die or keep running despite their wounds. Here the victims spasm, they’re traumatized by agony, or they crumble. Their fragility is displayed.
The worst of it all was the capture of one girl, who is basically picked up by the brute, dragged to the kitchen, and impaled on a meat hook. Watching her suffering, hanging there, unable to get herself unhooked, while the brute took a chainsaw to her boyfriend, was extremely disturbing.
Also shocking was the scene in which, after an extremely tense near-escape, Sally is captured, strapped to a chair and forced to watch a demented family of four men have dinner. Her incessant screams, muffled by a gag, the tears pouring out of her eyes, and her straining face stun.
Even worse, Hooper transformed it into a near-psychedelic experience, with über-close up shots of Sally’s face, of her terrified eyes, all in quick cuts, projecting her torment. It’s as though we were drawn inside her mind, into her terror, as she became the prey of these sick !@#$.
It’s the scene I recall the most when I think of this picture; those close-ups of her face etched with mortal terror eclipse everything else in it. Still, despite this, that whole final act with Sally trying to escape these horrid country bumpkin cannibals remains a total white-knuckler.
Marilyn Burns is absolutely brilliant as Sally, affecting both the naiveté of the pretty girl next door and the horror of being a prey and trauma victim. Unlike the rest of the cast, who were either passable or useless, she was rather believable; she actually felt like a real person.
Thankfully, being the so-called final girl, she’s the one we remember.
What makes the movie especially disturbing, surprisingly enough, is the soundtrack. Though, unlike many iconic horror films, no one ever discusses ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s score, it’s remarkable, a jarring, discordant aural experience filled with clashing instruments.
It’s like hearing madness.
‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ is not a good film. But it’s a harrowing one. And it’s a terrifying one. Its ability to shock and get under its audience’s skin transcends all of its flaws. If one can get past its cheesy first moments, it’s an unforgettable -if not remarkable- experience.
It rightly deserves its place amongst the horror greats.
Date of viewing: August 26, 2017