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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
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.
Leatherface is very loosely based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein.
That's an uncredited John Larroquette doing the opening narration.