For all its repugnance (and it is a repugnant film, really, when you come right down to it)- or rather, maybe because of it- there's no denying that the raw power of Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre makes it one of the best horror movies ever produced, if not the best.
Five teens cruising around Texas byways on one fateful summer afternoon fall victim to a family of maniacs.
Yeah, that's about it.
Watching TCM tonight, I was surprised to see how much it had in common thematically with another film I watched earlier, Don't Look Now. While the two movies couldn't be more opposite in execution, both deal heavily with fate and the randomness of the universe- everyone's got their role to play in this game, and life is ultimately arbitrary and virtually meaningless in the face of the grand scheme of things. Madmen roam the earth, and there's not a damn thing you can do to avoid them if they've got your number.
Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his crazy grave-robbing, hitchhiking brother (Edwin Neal) come from a long line of slaughterhouse workers. For whatever reason, human life has become no more valuable to the clan than cattle: everyone is just meat. It's a terrifying concept, being de-humanized in the eyes of anyone, never mind in the eyes of a chainsaw-wielding maniac. Hooper emphasizes this by dispatching Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn), and Jerry (Allen Danziger) not only in rapid-fire succession, but also each in the same fashion. Each character wanders into the farmhouse and is quickly and brutally slaughtered by Leatherface. He doesn't toy with them, he doesn't taunt them...he clubs them and prepares them for a meal. It's simply business, and there's no room for bargaining.
I say the kids are "brutally" slaughtered, and it's absolutely true- and yet Hooper shows us far, far less than we think he does. Watch carefully- there's virtually zero explicit violence or gore in this film. The fact that it's wheedled itself into everyone's brains as one of the most explicit horror flicks simply draws attention to Tobe Hooper's deft filmmaking.
This is exactly where the Texas remake goes wrong- well, one of the places, anyway. How the newer film manages to be more explicit and more sanitary simultaneously baffles me. There seems to be a need to make everything bigger in the remake- more gore, more outrageous characters...what's lacking, though, is an understanding that it's precisely the smallness of the first film that makes it so terrifying. The clan doesn't live in fucking Stately Leatherface Manor, they live in a simple, small, ordinary white farmhouse. The fact that such an innocuous little house can hold such horrors within chills me to the core, because isn't that always the way it is? The serial killer lives next door in a house that looks just like yours. Here, Leatherface and Co. don't reside far removed from society- they're right there where Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin (Paul Partain) hung out as kids, right on the other side of the swimming hole. Leatherface is a monster, but he's also terrifyingly real.
There are so many quiet, still, and absolutely horrifying shots and sequences in TCM that it's impossible to list them all. The speed with which Leatherface kills his victims, the room full of feathers and bones, the hitchhiker carving up his own palm, the slamming metal door of Leatherface's butcher room, the extreme close-ups of boiling sunspots and Sally's bloodshot, panicked eyes, Pam's vulnerable, exposed back headed for the meathook, and perhaps the most terrifying, Leatherface emerging from the shadows into the beam of a flashlight as his chainsaw roars.
I distinctly remember the first time I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. My friend Elena and I managed to rent a copy from the video store, despite the fact that we were underage. The film had a reputation of being notorious, and watching it, it absolutely lived up to its reputation- far surpassed it, even. Something about the movie just feels wrong...maybe it's Marilyn Burns's relentless screaming, or Leatherface squealing like a pig. Maybe it's something less noticeable, something simpler beneath all the action, like the film grain or the discordant soundtrack, I don't know. Whatever it is, TCM has a snuff film-vibe to it. It all feels a little too real and far too illicit. I still feel naughty watching it, like I shouldn't be allowed- there's really no other movie that's done that for me. Tobe Hooper's incredible achievement simply doesn't lose any of its power over time.
Speaking of time...my god, it's 4 in the morning. You're all asleep, aren't you? My whole house is asleep, and here I am trying to type coherent thoughts about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That's...cool, right?