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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Review

Author
Date
10-30-2010
Comments
Texas Chain Saw Massacre poster
Runtime
83 minutes
MPAA Rating
R
Countries
Cast and Crew
Director
Production Company

I was a late bloomer in my appreciation of horror cinema. Aside from sporadic outings to see mass-market horror films, I did not discover the true joys of the genre until I was in college. As I journeyed through classics like Alien, Halloween, and Rosemary's Baby, I was occasionally frightened or unsettled in various ways, but it was all enjoyable horror, the kind that can be intense but that ultimately leaves the psyche unscarred. Then I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As I watched this film, a deep-seated, almost unidentifiable anxiety began to build within me from the opening scenes - scenes which contain very little horror. Then, as I watched the characters experience physical and psychological torment later in the film, that building anxiety exploded into outright dismay. I was so disturbed by this movie that it would be six years before I watched it again, and even then it retained a potent effect. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is not so much creative in its approach to instilling horror as it is merciless, breaking down viewers' defenses before hitting them on all sides with unimaginable terror. This is one of the most horrifying films ever made.

Reading a plot summary of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one is likely to pass it off as a generic slasher film. Five teenagers go on a trip to a family homestead in a middle-of-nowhere town in which someone has recently been digging up graves and forming the bones into demented art pieces. Despite a warning or two from the locals upon entering the town, they continue on to the house for a short vacation. Upon arriving, however, they run out of gas. When they find a nearby home at which they hope to find someone with enough fuel to send them on their way, the teenagers fall one-by-one into the hands of an in-bred family of backwoods cannibals that kill them in some of the most brutal ways possible.

The film's horror, however, lies not so much in the brutality of the killings as in the traumatizing nature of the events surrounding those killings. At one point, a character goes searching for his friends in the house in which, unbeknownst to him, they have been butchered. While wandering through the house, he unsuspectingly opens a freezer unit, only to find one of his companions gaining a last glimpse of consciousness at the sight of him, reaching out, and going into spasms. We don't blame him when he slams the door shut and runs off.

One of the heights the film reaches in its horror is the feeding of the blood of a character's finger to a man so old he appears to be dead. When main character Sally Hardesty, who has been tied to a chair at the cannibal family's dinner table, is forced to stick her cut and bleeding finger into the mouth of their "Grandpa" while the latter sucks weakly, the viewer experiences a unique sense of anxiety. One's very understanding of humanity may be shaken by the image of a man who is so near death that he is unlikely to be fully conscious yet so deeply demented that he retains the desire to feed on a teenage girl's blood. The antagonists' evil in this film is incomprehensible.

As if the horror is not effective enough already, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre also boasts, as its lead monster, one of the most visually terrifying killers in the genre: the man known as Leatherface. Leatherface, with his skin masks, brutish demeanor, enormous stature, and animalistic squealing, is so inherently frightening that his presence nearly eclipses that of the rest of the cannibal in-breds. The fact that this abomination of nature is given decidedly human characteristics - the desire to demonstrate some degree of dignity by wearing a tie, and the full assumption of a motherly role in the family, denoted by a secondary, makeup-covered flesh mask and wig - instills a feeling of despair not only at the character's massive mental instability but at the idea that such a being could come into existence. Whether we choose to classify him as a monster or a slasher - and perhaps because it's difficult to classify him at all - Leatherface remains one of horror cinema's most dismaying creations.

To disarm us in preparation for the film's brutality, Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl (in his first and best job on a feature film) create an atmosphere that fills the viewer with dread. As opposed to standard horror practice, the atmosphere these two create is not, for the most part, dark and confined. It is sunny and open. The frequent wide shots of open fields and uninhabited terrain avoid attempting to invoke fear at our inability to see what may be lurking in shadows and instead utilize the fact that there is nowhere for our characters to find refuge. The sense of heat created by the use of red and yellow hues coupled with blinding shots of the sun discomforts us. We are made to feel the characters' sweltering environment and therefore to long for a place of respite, which cannot be found. We are in a place in which there is the chance neither to hide nor to escape. It is not but for a portion of the film's final act that a dark, blue nighttime setting comes into play. When it is used, it is not to hide Leatherface in the woods for him to pop out. We always know he is right behind us. Instead, it is used for its oppressive gloomy effect, further suppressing any hope that there can be a positive outcome. The film is just as interested in creating general distress as it is in evoking horror.

If, after being exposed to the cinematographic techniques of Hooper and Pearl, viewers retain any layers of defense against the horror on screen, the sounds of the film will strip those remaining defenses away. From its opening scene, in which we hear the sick whining of a camera flash repeat itself, the film uses sound to perpetuate unease. During the first act, in which the characters remain generally care-free, the occasional shots of the sun are accompanied by a high-pitched, searing sound. When the killing begins, we are subject to the near constant growl of Leatherface's chainsaw and the screams of the characters. The effect is grating, and the auditory discomfort is so prolonged that it becomes psychologically exhausting. One could simply listen to this film in its entirety and still come out unsettled.

And yet, though the film's primary goal is to instill horror as deeply and effectively as possible, that is not its only goal. Beneath the screaming and murder of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a story of willfully ignorant optimists being bludgeoned by reality. As hippies, the film's main characters see the world as a peaceful, orderly place. Everything works according to the clockwork of the cosmos, they believe, as evidenced by their faith in astrology. They refuse to acknowledge that ugliness and evil exist beneath the world's semblance of order and peace. They pick up hitchhikers and enter strange houses freely, as if the world has no dangers to offer them. Franklin, a character who lives his life in a wheelchair, is the only one of them prepared to accept such realities. An early exchange illustrates the characters' respective acceptance and denial of truth. When Franklin and another character talk gleefully about the process of slaughtering cattle and of making headcheese, a third character interjects, "I like meat. Please change the subject." Save for Franklin, the main characters' viewpoints are based on convincing themselves that the world conforms to a certain ideal rather than accepting the fact that it is imperfect and, in some cases, appalling.

Following the meat theme, the characters themselves become cattle to the backwoods family. Throughout the second half of the film, they are plunged into the ugliness of the world, forced to experience the reality that they once denied. Two of the characters are killed by being bludgeoned in the head with a sledgehammer, just as Franklin discussed slaughterhouses used to do to cows, and one character is hung on a meat hook to await her doom while another is butchered. Furthermore, they enter this process by obliviously leading each other to death, like cattle to a slaughterhouse. When one fails to return, another goes after, lacking the sense to turn away. This pattern repeats itself until only one is left. There is but one character that at any point escapes the metaphorical slaughterhouse. When the father of the cannibal family repeatedly jabs her with a broom handle during their drive back to his house, then, it is more than abuse. It is the prodding of an animal toward its doom. Fittingly, the only character who dies in a style unlike slaughterhouse cattle is Franklin, who had accepted the truth of such things. He is killed and sliced non-systematically with a chainsaw and never retrieved for food. The main characters in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have removed themselves so far from reality that the only way to convince them of it is to force them to experience that truth themselves. For that reason, the events are all the more horrifying.

Back during my first viewing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, when the final scene hit and the credits rolled, it was (and still is), the only time I had ever watched a movie and been left literally agape, staring helplessly at a screen that had assaulted me with horror for eighty minutes and provided no more consolation at the conclusion than an end to the pandemonium. The poster for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre reads, in emotionless black-on-white letters, "Who will survive and what will be left of them?" I'm sure whoever came up with that tagline was counting on its double-meaning, referring to both the body and the mind, in the latter half of that question. But it takes on a third meaning, too, as it is applicable to those who watch it. This is an experience that may change you. It is horror cinema at its purest.

Trivia: 

Leatherface is very loosely based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein.

That's an uncredited John Larroquette doing the opening narration.

Comments

Robert, I honestly think this

Robert,

I honestly think this is the best review I have ever read for this film... and I've read hundreds. Excellent work!

Wow, Bruce. Thanks a lot! I

Wow, Bruce. Thanks a lot! I greatly appreciate the compliment.  I devoted a lot of time to this one: TCSM deserves it.

Robert,            Great,

Robert,

           Great, observant, review. I had the same experience of having to wait a few years before watching the film for a second time. It was just as powerful then. Tobe Hooper evokes a waking nightmare that has never been matched. Great finish to TCSM month!

Rich Dishman

 

Thanks, Rich. I agree. It has

Thanks, Rich. I agree. It has never been matched.

Fantastic review Robert!  You

Fantastic review Robert!  You pointed out some aspects that I had nevet thought of, and I must have seen TCSM at least 10 times :-)!  Excellent work.

To awaken thrilling horror!

Thanks, Eric!

Thanks, Eric!

I really prefer to watch this

I really prefer to watch this classic version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre than the recent version. This is an awesome review!avert

Maybe there's something wrong

Maybe there's something wrong with me but this film never bothered me.  I saw it in a theatre back when it was reshown in the early 1980s.  With the exception of when Leatherface first appears out of nowhere and gets the two kids I was never scared.  I had trouble figuring out what was going on. Some of the acting was so terrible that you're hoping the killers will get them--when the guy in the wheelchair got it my audience cheered:).  Only Marilyn Burns gave out an excellent performance. Also the nonstop sound of the chainsaw on the sountrack gave me a headache. I've seen it on TV a few times (uncut) since the 1980s and each time it's left me kind of cold (and not in a good way).  Your review is excellent though--well-written and interesting.  It's made me think maybe it's time to revisit the film.  So--I can't say I agree with your opinion but it's made me want to see the film again keeping your review and points in mind.      

I have heard from people who

I have heard from people who say the movie didn't bother them. I never understood how, but I know you guys are out there.  Thanks for the compliment.  I do think that, regardless of whether one considers it actually frightening, TCSM is still a very good film.  Of course, not everyone's going to agree with that, either.

Hi, good review...seen the

Hi, good review...seen the movie many times.  It's a great film but even as Tobe Hooper says there are funny bits in it as well.  Like when the one guy says "look what your brother did to the door".  I always laugh at that part.  FYI, it's really TCM, chainsaw is one word.

@Pete - Chainsaw can be one

@Pete - Chainsaw can be one or two words. In this case, the title card on the film reads The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. All the sequels and the remake use the one word spelling, however.

"He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!"

Thanks, Pete.  Yes, I agree

Thanks, Pete.  Yes, I agree with you.  There is definitely humor to be found here, as macabre as it may frequently be.  And as Nate mentioned, "chainsaw" is commonly spelled as a single word today; however, the title for the film does actually spell it as two words, "chain saw."

OK, I stand corrected.  The

OK, I stand corrected.  The original cover does use two words-chain saw.  Various re-releases use the single word as well as the remakes.  As far as being scared by the picture, well I first saw it on VHS as a teenager years ago.  I wouldn't say I was scared as much as riveted to the screen.  The opening sequence I always thought was great with the creepy radio announcement in the background.  The movie was shot in 16 mm and that gave the picture a gritty, documentary feel to it.  Check out the dolly camera that goes under the bench to follow the girl as she approaches the house.  It's one of the great horror film shots.

 

Pete

As far as being riveted goes,

As far as being riveted goes, I can't argue with you at all.  The film's effect, I'd say, is equally hypnotizing as it is horrifying.

HI! Texas Chainsaw Massacre

HI! Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Black poster does anyone know where I can buy it? Please email web address to me at:
robbanberntsson@gmail.com

all the best / Robbo

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